Monday, August 14, 2006

Taking Your Life In Your Hands

When I was reading the first installment of the Jill Carroll story today, I just couldn't get a rid of scary little persistent voice at the back of my head. She could be one of us - albeit it with a hell of a lot more nerve:

"Not that my life in Baghdad was easy. Freelance journalism is a tough business everywhere. But I didn't want to sit in a cubicle in the US and write, as I had, about the Department of Agriculture food pyramid. Here I was living my dream of being a foreign correspondent - even if that meant sometimes living in a hotel so seedy it was best to buy your own sheets."

A lot of us that left the country to report at some point did it for the sense of adventure and did it secure in the knowledge that somebody (and somebody with power) was there to lend a helping hand if and when something truly atrocious happened. Once the safety net was gone, we chose the cubicles for the time being, telling ourselves we'll make it there eventually. With the exception of our friend in Cairo and the other one headed back to Nairobi, we headed home rather than strike out on our own, without the support of a major organization behind us.

Lord knows plenty of aspiring foreign correspondents have always been willing to pay their dues. Michael Kelly did it on the proverbial shoestring in Iraq in the early 90s and kicked off a brilliant career that way. Although, tragically, even the resources he had behind him in Iraq weren't enough to keep him from paying the ultimate price this time around.

If any of my fellow globalites can remember all way back to September, we had a veteran foreign correspondent come speak to us in Paris. This woman had been to pretty much every major conflict over the past 20 years -- from Baghdad to Mogadishu and beyond. The thing she makes sure to take because it is the most useful in keeping her safe and getting things done?She said at least $10-20K in $100 bills (I think). That certainly presents a challenge for the likes of us, who had trouble paying for the shots and pills that are supposed to keep you from catching diseases that will make you hallucinate while there -- never mind even minimal security precautions. We'd probably have to leave with the change from the pack of gum we bought at the airport in our pockets and whatever meager cash advance we could strip from nearly full credit cards.

So, the Christian Science Monitor stepped up and did the right thing. They poured resources into finding the girl. Whether or not that made the difference in her making it home to take the staff position they gave her while she was missing (And, what the hell? If this is what it takes to get "staff" under your name now...), we'll probably never know. Will the next Jill Carroll be so lucky? How invested are those who sign the checks (and even those who assign the stories) really going to be in people they have never met? As more bureaus close and young freelancers trying to make a name for themselves go into danger zones for smaller and smaller outlets that pay less and less, the issue isn't going to disappear.

As the Monitor editor who penned the story with Carroll wrote:

"Jill herself, isolated by Islamist insurgents, did not envision such rallies to her cause. In the weeks to come she sometimes would avoid thinking about her family, because it made her sad; when she did, she imagined them apprehensive, waiting for some sort of word from the U.S. government. As for the Monitor, well, she was just a freelancer, and it wasn't a rich paper. She figured that following her kidnapping and the murder of her interpreter, its rotating Baghdad staff would have fled Iraq.
She was wrong."

How long before she's right?


At 5:36 PM, Anonymous Max said...

AG, thanks for posting this, I really enjoyed reading it this morning and I'm looking forward to the next 10(!) parts in the series. I hadn't thought about the freelancer vs. staffer issue in this context. It's a scary world if everyone's freelancing.

On a separate note, I'm pretty impressed by the online package the CSM has put together for this story. It's a great idea since the print product doesn't have much reach.

At 6:08 PM, Blogger AG said...

Yeah, I guess it was a while in coming but the whole thing is really one hell of a job.

I also think it shows a lot of chutzpah that she isn't gonna go cry on tv with any BW or Diane Sawyer. The pressure to give in to that stuff must've been ENORMOUS.

But with a story this compelling, there's probably vicious bloodletting over the book and screenplay rights as it is. No hype needed.

At 11:13 AM, Blogger Dickie said...

Yeah, I started into the first installment yesterday and "I didn't want to sit in a cubicle ... and write about the Department of Agriculture food pyramid." immediately hit just a little too close to home. Even if I'm not covering food pyramids.

"Damn," I thought, "Maybe I shoulda stayed in South America." But then I gotta remember I woulda had NULL support behind me, once my stint with the AP was up. It's really just a vicious case of sour grapes.

At 11:23 AM, Blogger Frosty said...

You're all much more noble (or crazy) than I.

I'm happy ripping the lid off corruption inside the US borders, to be truthful, living in my happy little predictable life.

I think the CSM package is infinitely interesting.

At 5:41 AM, Blogger Sara said...

What an amazing story. AG thanks for posting about this - it kind of forced me to sit down and really read the stories.

I didn't know what to expect, and I think part of me was a little apprehensive about reading it. But now I can't imagine her not writing this essay. It seems cathartic for her - and unbelievably necessary for the rest of us - journalists and otherwise - to have some glimps of what she and others go through.

There were some parts that really struck me that I had to go back and re-read. Like the watching Oprah scene and how she remembered the show's topic. But then other scenes were more blurry - like the shooting of her friend. Her account is pretty incredible. (And agreed, it's quite an online package.)

And I also agree that the freelancer v staffer issue is so important. Unlike Dickie, I am a total wimp and would never consider going out on my own to an unfamiliar part of the world to freelance, just because I have a hard time doing anything knowing there is no monetary or safety net there. And if I were to travel and freelance, I can't say it would be to war zones. That's just me.

And for those that do it, I think they are balls-out and awesome, but it's true - it's scary if we are relying on freelancers and not properly supporting our foreign correspondents. It ain't right and perhaps this will shed some light on it.


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