On Protest and Reporting

Today, Poynter ran a piece titled "Should journalists protest in Trump's America?" This is a question I've been wrestling with as a freelancer. It was mostly focused on newsroom journalists. I posted to Facebook and tweeted, wondering how it applies to freelancers like myself. The piece's author, Katie Hawkins-Gaar, asked me to elaborate. At first I responded in tweets, but then realized I had more to say. Here's what I ended up writing.

Why is it important that I be on top of current affairs? Partially, so as I reach out to editors I can be prepared to jump into my reporting and do it well. I need to have a clear idea of what current issues are to make an effective contribution. On a more selfish level, I need to have a clearer idea of what kind of stories will more easily get an editor’s attention, not to mention that of the public.

In the meantime, I also need to report potential stories, pitch them, and wait on editors understandably harried by current circumstances to reply. How do I survive doing so with such uncertainty? How do I make a living doing that? And how do I do that if the world is changing very rapidly. If a crisis emerges, how does my more evergreen work matter?

That’s reporting. What about protest and politics? Do I let the world go by when people I care about are affected, concerned, scared, etc.? What about when I am affected? Am I affected? Probably not as much, because I’m white, straight, cis-male, college- and graduate school- educated and born in the United States. I am Jewish, but not practicing, and that’s still not (yet) as much a target. My best strength is my dedication to the craft, my skepticism, and my courage to tell stories even if people don’t want to hear them. But, again, I have to be able to survive telling them. It, sadly, often comes to economics, which are often made shakier by political uncertainty. So do I then work on more anodyne material while watching the world go by? Isn’t that just shutting my ears? Wouldn’t that just be isolationism in a different form?

After all, my first book is all about reporters who risked their lives and livelihoods in a troubled time to bring stories to the public that were being inadequately covered. My central subject — Melville Jacoby — was writing about devastating, daily air raids in China that were killing thousands. He was writing about brutal conditions in Shanghai and about the march toward war in what was then French Indochina. His master’s thesis was all about how the U.S. public wasn’t paying attention the war between China and Japan and what that portended for them. He knew what happened there mattered here, and vice versa, so he was driven to tell such stories. Then he reported on the totally under-resourced defense of the Philippines, and sent home the first photos the U.S. saw of the absolutely savage conditions U.S. and Filipino troops endured in Bataan.

I mention all this not because I want to raise heads about my book. I mention it because journalists are still doing this kind of work, still not being listened to, and still often dying because of their work. Seventy-five years later, journalists are telling us about civilians dying in military strikes, about coming conflicts and uncertainty, about corruption, about tone-deaf foreign policy. As a journalist, my form of protest, if I have one, is, in part, amplifying these reporters, and in part, joining them. Not letting the line go quiet.

And I do wonder, in this time, how do I do justice to the subject I spent so much time with? Mel, Annalee, and their friends and colleagues were people who had marks on their heads for their reporting, who fled besieged islands in the dead of night to get the story out. Me? I’m at home reading Twitter, trying to figure out where and how to jump in and contribute when my portfolio is, well, not stale, but, about such specific subjects it seems disconnected from what’s happening. What editor wants to take the risk on that at a time when they need to be very careful about the professionalism of their contributors, to know that they can trust the credibility of their reporting? 

I guess this doesn’t answer the question of what and how I protest as a freelancer, but the thing is, I can’t afford to not think them. I don’t know any other way to operate. How do I contribute now? Lately I’ve thought the ideal is joining a news organization, becoming a stringer for a few publications, or becoming a regular contributor to a few outlets, but with freelancing, even in a time of protest, it still comes back to how do I survive while doing so? I always think I can best help society by reporting well, but where do I turn to be able to do that? Normally, I’d say my community, but if some of my community — those who aren’t reporters — are out in the streets protesting or at home making calls to representatives, and the rest — those who are reporters — are pushed to the max doing their own reporting, what’s left as a backstop or a network for me?