Tag Archives: journalism

What do these two photos have in common? My closet!

27 Jun

Lysistrata-LannyVietnam execution

On a Sunday when the grass had been cut and there were no great demands on my time, I organized the treasures and junk in my archive closet. There were depths to plunge, but I mostly skimmed. Still, the experience was like reliving an almost forgotten life.

There I was, in costume, in an old college photo. It was taken back stage after a performance of the bawdy Greek comedy “Lysistrata.” The play by Aristophanes is set during the Peloponnesian war. It has the women of all the city-states withholding sex from all the men until they make peace. In the photo I wore a tunic. My skin was bronzed with theatrical makeup called Texas Mud.

I had only a small part but on the last night of the run I got the biggest laugh of my life. Without meaning to or even knowing it, I had successfully improvised. And it worked.

In the scene, a group of horny Greek solders (me included) were on the ground as teasing women danced around them. As per our director’s order, we were to cover the lower portions of our body with our shields. In the center of those shields, facing outward, were tubular objects that resembled what was under the shield and under the tunic.

When one of the actresses danced over me, my recumbent body began to vibrate feverishly. I wasn’t aware of what was going on but when the auditorium erupted in laughter I knew I had done something very convincing and very funny.

Later, someone in the audience said it looked as if I had experienced an orgasm.

On this high note, I ended my show business career and never played again.

Back in the archive closet, in one of many boxes, was an orange folder containing yellow pages of text that had come from a dot matrix printer. It was a novel I started years ago and recently took up again (after devising what I hope is a slightly better plot.)

I began reading and realized the opening of the old version was much better than the opening of the new version. How disappointing! I thought time had made me better. I won’t share the new opening but just for fun here is the old:

“The hall was dirty, as was her dress. And it was dim, like her future.”

The problem is that after that, there wasn’t much worth reading.

So I went to another box.

My attention went to a curling letter from the Detroit News dated Nov. 10, 1989. It appeared to be an answer to an inquiry I had made about a women named Jeanne, a journalist from Detroit whom I met when we both worked in China. That was during the mid-80s, and Jeanne had returned later during the Tiananmen Massacre. At the time of the letter, she was sort of missing.

The letter reminded me how exciting things could be in my former profession, and how we never quite recognized danger. Danger was for the people we covered, not for us.

The letter said:

“Pat talked to Jeanne and her husband (a Chinese national) the other day. The good news is that neither of them has been arrested, although Jeanne was in some trouble for the stories she filed for the Free Press and her husband, as I told you, was in trouble for helping ABC’s news crew. The bad news is that officials won’t let them leave China. Her husband, who got a master’s at Harvard, has been accepted into a doctoral program there with a full scholarship. Someone said officials won’t make a decision because they fear that whatever they do will be perceived to be the wrong thing by the higher ups.”

Jeanne was one of the most interesting people I have ever known. She was, and I’m sure still is, a great storyteller. Her life, on its own, was a great story. It even started out interesting.

Her father was a diplomat and she was raised in Vietnam during the early stages of the war. Her family was especially good friends with Ngo Dinh Diem, then the president of South Vietnam. Jeanne’s family often had him over for dinner.

Naturally, she was shocked and horrified when Deim, on the order of President Kennedy, was assassinated. Can you image how a little girl, unschooled in politics, might feel knowing the leader of her own country had killed a family friend?

The date was Nov. 2, 1963.

Three weeks later, when JFK himself was assassinated, young Jeanne felt justice had been served and a fair punishment issued.

That’s one of her best stories. But it doesn’t top her account of the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. She was on the front lines with the protesting students when soldiers started firing. The only thing that protected her from the bullets were the dead bodies that had fallen on top of her.

When I finally got in touch with her and she told me this, I should have felt sympathy, sorrow and concern. Instead, I was jealous. Jeanne, damn her, would have yet another good story to tell.

How great to be part of history. I’m thankful that at least a small part of it is in my closet.

There is even more history in that closet. When I took an editor’s job at the Florida Times Union in 1986, I opened the draw of my desk and found an assortment of Associated Press Photos – actual photos, not newspaper clips – from a number of world events.

Columbia take over

And there they were now in my closet:

  • A captured member of the Viet Cong being executed with a bullet to the head.
  • Heavily armed black students proudly leaving the president’s office at Columbia University.
  • Reporters standing around watching men on the ground being run through with bayonets. (This might have been Indonesia)
  • President Kennedy walking idyllically at Camp David with former President Eisenhower.

. . . and more

Bayonet killingsAll of it in my closet.

There were some newer things in there as well, like the canvas bag filled with personal files dating to 2008.

They were from my last newspaper job as an executive editor, which I lost during the Great Recession when that paper combined with two others. I had left the files behind but a colleague brought them to me.

For almost seven years, there was no need or inclination to look inside the bag.

Now, I dumped out the contents to inspect them. Nothing too interesting. A few memories. Certificates of completion from a score of ridiculous management seminars. A letter from a reader who complained, “There is no excuse for bad English in a newspaper,” citing an article with the headline, “Imagine there’s no secrets.” It was about John Lennon and his battle with the FBI. The writer noted that it should have been “there are” no secrets.

Shuffling through the files, I noticed an unopened greeting card in a bright yellow envelope. I opened it. It was from the colleague who had brought me the files. There was a cute card with Snoopy on it wishing me good luck and happiness. There also was a letter. Seeing it, and being touched by it without having even read it, I felt great regret at never having acknowledged it. Once I read it, I felt that perhaps my years as an editor may have been worth something.

A person who leads never really knows if he’s a bastard, a prick, a woefully unfair tyrant, an anti-visionary who lacks talent and relevance. One can only hope he or she is respected and followed and right for the time. People can let you believe the latter even when it is not true.

Without going into detail, I will say that from the single perspective of the letter writer, I received confirmation that I had performed my job properly.

I will continue to keep and treasure this letter.

But there was something else about this letter that woke me to a situation I may have naively overlooked: discrimination against women in journalism.

Nothing in the letter directly spoke to this. It was the tone and sincerity of the “thanks” that suggested it.

While in newspapers, I always focused on the job of producing good stories. And it was always my belief that men and women were equally capable of doing this. In some cases, a woman would be better than a man. In others, a man might be better than a woman. The essence of it was that good was good and it could come from anywhere. The only thing I looked for was good.

The letter writer, a woman, had moved up through the ranks during my tenure. She began as a temp reporter and ended up being metro editor. There was one point where our managing editor – a woman – retired and I made this person acting managing editor while I searched for a replacement.

I had forgotten this; had forgotten why I did it. But in the letter it was explained back to me:

“Thank you for giving me a chance to be an acting managing editor. I wasn’t ready to be managing editor, but I put my name forth anyway. What a classy, clever suggestion that I be acting managing editor to help bridge the gap. Thank you for the experience.”

In the letter, she thanked me for every promotion.

“No Dale Carnegie course could have ever shown me better how important it is for managers to set a tone of inclusiveness and optimism,” she wrote.

It dawned on me then that the more natural course could have been a slower ascent (or no ascent) because she is a woman. It had never crossed my mind before, but knowing it now carries value.

In just a short time, I learned a lot from that overstuffed closet, with all it frozen chunks of life. I’ll have to go back again later and learn more.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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Murder under my nose: How I made an innocent man look guilty

26 Feb

Justice

One afternoon last week a coworker sat down next to me and I focused on his shirt.

“Were you wearing that this morning?” I asked.

“I was,” he said.

This innocuous exchange revived in me a memory of murder. It brought back a decades-old crime and thoughts of an innocent man I wanted to put behind bars because someone said he changed his pants at lunch.

Circumstance, no matter how incriminating, should never be mistaken for truth. This I have learned.

The incident occurred at a newspaper where I was an editor. Our building was adjacent a large parking lot. At the far end of the lot, away from the building, was a patch of grass and some picnic tables.

No one but Janice used them.

Janice was a 26-year-old secretary who would sunbathe at lunch, lying on one of the tables.  Her meal would be a salad from the Burger King across the street. She’d drive over there, get the salad, then come back and park her car near the picnic tables.  The keys were left in the car and the sound system was turned up so she could hear it while taking in the sun.

A guy she was dating worked in the advertising department of the newspaper, but word was their relationship was coming undone. Janice planned to head north that weekend to visit a Canadian football player friend. But on Friday, before she left, she planned to talk with the old boyfriend and explain things.

She never did because she went missing. After a few days her body was found in the woods near a river. She had been stabbed about 40 times. Bloodstains were found on the parking lot near the picnic tables.

When word got out, everyone at work huddle together to cry, grieve, commiserate and ask why. I was the editor on the story and had to put aside personal feelings. I informed my coworkers that reporters would be interviewing them to find out if they had witnessed anything odd in the past few days and to learn what they knew about Janice.

The boyfriend was there. He looked terrible. He hadn’t slept or shaved for days. He seemed a wreck. Normally, his hair was perfectly coiffed in what could be called “disco” style. Now it was all mussed.

He took me aside and said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t talk to you about Janice. I just can’t.” He shook as he spoke.

I told him it was his decision to talk or not talk, but I asked him what he meant by “can’t talk.”

He was quiet for a moment then said, “Let’s go into an office.”

We did, and he shut the door.

“The thing is,” he said nervously. “The thing is . . . if I talk about Janice, if I tell you the story of Janice … the real story … she’ll come off looking like” – and he paused – “the devil.”

At that exact moment I decided I was alone in a locked room with a murderer.

Over the next few days, the reporters and editors worked feverishly to find Janice’s killer. The boyfriend is always a suspect and much of our findings were pushing us toward him.

The jealousy motive was clearly present. But there was more. A colleague told us that on the day of the murder the boyfriend had been wearing a pair of brown pants in the morning and in the afternoon had change to black.

Witnesses from outside the paper were coming forward. One was a hairdresser who said she had been driving past our building around the time of the murder and saw a man and a woman at the end of the parking lot. The man was raising and lowering his arm in the direction of the woman, she said. Being a hairdresser, she said she couldn’t help notice the man’s hair. She said it was neat and styled, like the hair of men who frequented discos.

When we spoke to the police, they suggested we could be onto something. It was odd, however, that they never wrote down anything we said.

Meanwhile, the boyfriend found it difficult to come to work. Janice had been well liked. This was not true of him. Now, popularity was a moot issue. He was being looked upon as the most horrid of creatures.

That did not change, although it should have.

Everyone at the paper, me more than anyone, was stunned when police arrested a 16-year-old high school dropout and charged him with the murder.

The boy, who hung out at the Burger King, recently got his driver’s license and wanted his parents to buy him a car. They refused. He liked Janice’s car, a hot black number that he’d see when she drove in to buy her salads. He decided he wanted it and followed her on foot to the newspaper parking lot across the street.

While she was on the table sunning, he got in the open car and was preparing to take it. She challenged him. He pulled the knife and stabbed her repeatedly. He put the body in the trunk and drove away with his prize.

All this happened in broad daylight, on a heavily traveled road, outside a building that employed hundreds of people, including journalists trained to observe and photograph news.

I don’t think any of us ever apologized to the boyfriend. In the face of rock solid evidence to the contrary, a few continued to believe he committed the crime.

Not long after the arrest, the largest fire in the area’s history broke out. A Kmart warehouse the size of several football fields was fully engulfed in flames and smoke. It was massive. The scene looked like World War II. The newspaper sent someone up in an airplane to shoot the fire, and the dramatic photo ran across six columns in the paper.

A copy of that day’s paper with the huge fire picture was on my desk when I arrived at work. There was a note attached. It was note I’ll never forget; a very short note that was very long on black humor; a note full of hurt.  Somewhere I must have it in my archives, but I’m not sure where. It was from the boyfriend, and this is what it said:

“Honest to God. I didn’t do this.”

The boyfriend eventually resigned from the newspaper. Years later, on Valentine’s Day, the murderer hanged himself in prison.

The whole episode is something I think about from time to time, especially when a colleague has innocently and maybe for no good reason changed an article of clothing in the middle of the day, or at least I or someone else thought he did.

 By Lanny Morgnanesi

When Truman Capote seduced Marlon Brando

28 Dec

brando-1

One of the great classics of entertainment journalism is a 1957 piece called, “The Duke in His Domain.” It appeared in the New Yorker and was written by Truman Capote. The subject was actor Marlon Brando.

I read the article for the first time this week. It made me realize that, although I have been in journalism for many years, I’ve been doing it all wrong. Little Truman, God bless him, had been doing it all right. This is not a testament to his skill as a writer but rather the way he approached his craft.

Capote laid Brando bare.

In the portrayal, the normally reticent and reclusive actor was not a shimmering Hollywood star but a flawed man who could be seen from all sides and angles; a man who revealed much of his soul. In the 50s, entertainment journalism was not done this way. This piece was revolutionary; a precursor to something called The New Journalism.

Brando hated the article and wanted to kill Capote. Yet it was Brando who voluntarily revealed all … talking endlessly into the night, canceling meetings so he could continue the gabfest, not wanting to stop.

All the while, for almost six hours, Capote never took a note. Therein, I believe, lies the secret to great journalism.

It doesn’t take a reporter long to learn that the best material often comes at the end of an interview, when the notebook is put away and you are walking toward the door. I call it the Columbo Effect.  The person being interviewed relaxes and opens up, trying to build on the uneasy rapport established while the notebook was out.TrumanCapoteA_800_0

In a way, gathering information without taking notes is something of a con. In the Brando interview, the actor indeed felt that Capote was not working. Capote thought this was absurd. The interview was conducted in a hotel in Kyoto, Japan, while Brando was making the film “Sayonara.” Why would Capote make such a journey if his intention were just to socialize?

Long ago, when I was a student, I met a tough reporter who toiled in the pre-computer era. He was aware that people would talk casually and unguarded and then insist the conversation was off the record. That’s why he firmly and emphatically told all his sources, “When you talk to me you’re talking into a typewriter.”

Capote didn’t say this to Brando. It would have been fairer to do so.

The story behind the “Duke in his Domain” is an intriguing one.  It is documented in the Nov/Dec issue of the Columbia Journalism Review by writer Douglas McCollam. He does a fantastic job explaining the events of more than a half-century ago.

Over the years there has been much speculation about how Capote got his story, but two key elements seem to be alcohol – Truman got Marlon drunk – and the fact that Capote baited Brando by sharing his story of an alcoholic mother, a story very similar to Brando’s.

“I didn’t trick him,” Capote later said. “We simply swapped stories.”

But I’m convinced that the results were only achieved because Capote carried not a pen, not a notebook, not a tape recorder. He claims to have had what some call a photographic memory.

Capote, who broke literary ground with the so-called nonfiction novel, “In Cold Blood,” is said to have taken no notes while researching this book on the brutal murder of a Kansans family in 1959. After interviews, however, he would type up his mental notes.

There was a time when I was working in a situation where those around me would have objected to note taking, so I tried to train my mind like Capote said he trained his. I had no special skill for it. If there were a good quote that I wanted to preserve, I would have to say it over and over again in my head. When I had the chance, I’d use a scrap of paper to write down one or two words to help me remember it.  The one-or-two-word method also was used to record the facets of the story as it unfolded.

It was difficult work, but as time went on I got better at it.

Even so, my technique was totally incapable of producing anything like the detailed, full picture in “The Duke in His Domain.” The story has long quotes and conversations and captures incredible moments. Here is one, as Brando talks about his mother moving in with him.

“I thought if she loved me enough, trusted me enough, I thought then we can be together, in New York; we’ll live together and I’ll take care of her …. I tried so hard. But my love wasn’t enough …. And one day, I didn’t care anymore. She was there. In a room. Holding onto me. And I let her fall. Because I couldn’t take it anymore – watch her breaking apart, in front of me, like a piece of porcelain. I stepped right over her. I walked right out. I was indifferent.”

I can see where a reporter could reconstruct sentences like these, keeping the sense of the message while taking license over the choice of words. That’s how I view Capote’s technique.

Brando, however, said this: “That little bastard’s got total recall. Every goddamn word, he remembered.”

For all journalists and journalism students, I recommend reading “The Duke in His Domain.” For myself, I’ll be thinking a lot about the huge gap between notebook and non-notebook journalism. I’ve become convinced that the latter, even without precise quotes, might render the truer story.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

A Super disappointment for journalism — or a new beginning?

25 Nov

He was unhappy at his newspaper so he quit. Superman did. Clark Kent no longer works at the Daily Planet.

Instead, he may blog.

According to the comics, Superman now believes that news has become entertainment and reporters are nothing more than stenographers. So he moved on.

Connie Schultz, writing for Parade Magazine, warned Superman to be careful of the Social Media trap that awaits him. She called it the “new Kryptonite” and worried that the great and noble Man of Steel could end up tweeting X-ray pictures of sexy woman to gain followers.

Superman’s decision was a jolt to traditional journalism. In my mind, a second jolt came when it was revealed that seven members of Navy SEAL Team 6 leaked classified information. They didn’t leak to a newspaper. They leaked to a video game maker.

While newspapers are only a wisp of what they once were, people still get the information they need. They just get it in different ways. And it’s everywhere, in unlimited quantities and styles.

Traditional journalists won’t admit it, but journalism is flourishing. Because of technology and the accessible, enticing new methods of communication, more people may be practicing journalism that ever before. Talented, intelligent reporters who would never have gone to journalism school or applied to a newspaper have become experts and opinion leaders through blogs and social media. Some make good money; many don’t.

In spite of the poor success rate, media and media-related startups abound. What works is a mystery, but uncertainty hasn’t stopped people from bringing forth an endless variety of information concoctions.

In the September / October issue of the Columbia Journalism Review there is a package of stories labeled: “The future of media (this minute, at least).” Numerous topics are discussed. Prominently mentioned are the web sites and apps that aid reporters in their work. They represent small miracles.

I got dizzy reading about the likes of:

Cir.ca

News.me

Paper.li

Storyful

Storify

Upworthy

#waywireSync.in

Timeline JS

Many Eyes

visual.ly

Sync.in

Etherpad

Evernote

Vyclone

Is that enough for you?

It’s too much for me, but I’m certain there are people using all of these and more.

Rumor has it that in the next Superman comic Clark Kent will use Vyclone to cover a cyclone. He’ll get help from Lois via Evernote while hoping Jimmy can come up with something good and graphic using visual.ly.

As this team operates from some cheap little apartment, Perry White, the once great and powerful editor, will stomp around his vast but unfilled newsroom screaming and cursing – his strongest editorial qualities – and wondering how he can compete with all that.

–By Lanny Morgnanesi

Google wounds the New York Times

28 Jul

It has been said that Freedom of the Press is restricted to those who own one.

With presses being of small importance today, that dictum has lost its punch. Today, he who controls transmissions in the digital world decides who goes on stage to shout.

Case in point: The New York Times, which ironically owns a press or two, lost more than $143 million in the last quarter mainly because a digital powerhouse – Google – changed an algorithm.

Google algorithms decide what pops up when a search is done. About.com, owned by the New York Times, once had a clear channel through the Google transmission line. When it clogged, favoring others and not About, the website lost traffic and revenue and its parent, the great media giant of the past, was laid low.

Fortunes have been made and lost trying to game the all-powerful Google algorithms. The algorithms are raging rivers of commerce, with gold at the end for those who can safely and consistently navigate them.

While it is frightening to think how quickly Google can change the information landscape, it must be said that About was a low-quality content farm (yet another irony) that was trashing up Google searches. Google acted to protect itself and better serve its customers.

Free speech was at a premium when it took an expensive press to get out a message. Now this, a big change … but not a change at all.

 

 

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