Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Libeling "The Hobbit" - A Former AP Reporter's Take

I don't pursue stories about movies or celebrities, because it's too close to my personal interests and quite frankly would be a conflict of interest for me to cover.

But this week when a story broke about animals being mistreated on the film set of "The Hobbit," I raised an eyebrow and put my coffee cup down on the table, a little stunned.

The first part of the problem was that the source for the information was the animal rights group PETA. The second part of the problem was that the news organization that broke the story was where I used to work in the mid- to late-'90s: The Associated Press.

Understand this.

When I was with the Associated Press covering politics in the statehouse of Pennsylvania, these folks would sometimes drop in for a visit. We'd take their press releases with straight faces, but the minute they were gone, the paper was crumpled into a ball and used for hoop shooting practice with the nearest trash can.

I tell you this, because it took a lot for us to take PETA seriously.  In fact, I once was sent out on an investigation to discover whether horses that were being auctioned were being mistreated. The editor sat on my story for a full four months and didn't run it. I went on vacation, and while I was gone, a state legislator held a committee hearing on the issue. So another reporter took my work, added updated information, slapped her byline on my copy and made it her story.

This is how we treated the stories that PETA brought to us. They were afterthoughts. We did not give them credence, and we held at arm's length every ounce of information and disdainfully looked at it with the greatest amount of skepticism you can imagine. Think of a 5-year-old Shirley Temple in a pink tutu holding a dead rat by the tail. There ya go.

And here this week ... is a story going world-wide, with an Associated Press byline no less ... about PETA allegations and a film I have anticipated for months.

I'm on the fence about this whole thing. Knowing what I know about how we tiptoed around PETA as if it was a biological weapon placed on a Manhattan subway, for AP to run this story gave it instant credibility with me.

And then I read what filmmaker Peter Jackson put out on Facebook ... and I read the accounts of the owners of the animals in question, who emphatically stated that in no way were their pets mistreated. Add to this the weighing in of some of the film actors on Twitter about this, and my doubt reached new heights.

I see a few problems with the AP account. They buried the Jackson response to the allegations deep in the copy. They also quoted people who had been fired and who had chosen to speak up on the cusp of the film opening and who had an obvious axe to grind. They didn't interview the owners of the animals, either.

As a fellow journalist who worked for AP for 4 1/2 years, my initial reaction is always to go to the defense of the journalist who reported the story. I know what it's like to be the "eyes on the ground," to interview those with the concerns, to ferret out the liars and those with secret agendas, to thoroughly question and provoke with questions in order to ascertain the truth. I know how to push buttons and read body language, anger and evasiveness. And I know that when I worked for AP, we never would have run that story if we thought there was any doubt to its veracity.

But that was then.

I have seen a cavalier attitude that has been brought about by the Internet and bloggers and people who fashion themselves as "journalists" because they put pen to paper but have no training or experience other than spouting their opinions for a wide audience.

I can't vouch anymore for the strength of the journalistic integrity of an organization like the AP like I once could. And having read the statements from the Jackson camp, I am chagrined at what seems to be a rush to be the first with the story rather than a careful vetting of the facts.

Maybe there's more to this than meets the eye, and the AP hasn't yet written it. But their silence on story followup is deafening and speaks for itself.

Either way, this is a disturbing type of story: It either shines a light on mistreatment of animals during one of the most highly anticipated films of the year ... or it shines a light on egregious reporting that borders on libel.

We have entered a new era of journalism.




Thursday, November 15, 2012

Making it Sizzle

Is your keyboard sizzling?

Straight up, and no joke -- if you want to make it in this business, you need to be turning copy so fast that your fingers hurt typing.

If an editor says, "I have a story for you, but I need it Monday ..." and it's a Tuesday .... can you turn it around in six days?

Most magazine writers might sigh and complain and say it's absolutely not a possibility.

And that's what separates those of us who can from those of us who can't.

When I was in my 20s, I heard this anecdote about a journalist who learned to write sizzling leads in the back seat of a taxi. He was in a huge metropolitan area, and on his way back to the paper after every assignment, he'd jump into the nearest cab and furiously start scribbling. By the time he reached his desk, he'd just pound out the prose.

I practiced writing as fast as I could, and I would speak out loud to myself the leads of the stories I was covering, right on the spot. I hit my stride when I joined The Associated Press in Philadelphia ... and guess what ... I started writing my leads in the back seats of taxis. I grabbed on to that anecdote, and I became that person.

If you can't craft a lead in five minutes or less, then practice doing it. Listen. Your lead is the hardest part of the story that you'll ever have to write. Once you're done with that lead, IT FLOWS. It just rattles off your brain like a stream of consciousness.

OK ... now for those of you who are still dubious, I'll give you a little exercise that my J School prof taught me back in the day:

Every day, she gave us a story to research. We were not allowed to write it. We were to collect our facts. The next day, we came in with our information and sat down at our desks. She'd set a timer. For five minutes, we had to scribble out our stories, long-hand. If we lost a train of thought, we were to write, "Don't stop, don't stop, don't stop, don't stop ...." over and over and over again ... until the story thread picked up in our minds.

If she saw the pencil stop -- immediate five point dock.

Let me tell you, that I did this for four years with this J School prof. I really believe she's the reason I can do this ... but it takes practice.

So the next time an editor says, "I have a last minute assignment, but it's due in 2 days ...." TAKE IT.

And practice writing your leads in five minutes so that you won't be intimidated by such an offer.

Pretty soon, your keyboard will be sizzling so much that you won't be able to stand the heat on your fingertips.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Doing Away with Vampire Clients

It might surprise you that money isn't the top priority for me when vetting potential clients.

I do have clients who pay upwards of $1 per word ... and I have others who pay no more than 30 cents per word.

Why the mix?

My first priority is always the client's interpersonal skills when dealing with writers.

In short, I don't work for vampires.

As writers, we are a sensitive lot. We're like the proverbial pound puppies that wag our tails enthusiastically and bark, "Pick me! Pick me!" to any editor that will glance our way. We're gluttons for bylines, gluttons for ego, gluttons for pats on the back, gluttons for praise. We easily cast aside self respect in favor of acknowledgement that what we cobbled together is a poetic masterpiece.

And as a result, we are a vulnerable lot.

I can't tell you how many times during my career span I have encountered really emotionally abusive editors. I'm not sure what it is about our industry that attracts this type of individual. But I have observed over and over again how writers are continually bludgeoned. And unfortunately, those who wield the power to accept or disapprove of a person's work can take an unhealthily gleeful approach to beating someone down. This has a couple of psychological effects: 1) It throws someone off balance psychologically so that they are unsure of the quality of their work and 2) It keeps someone from demanding fair compensation.

There have been a lot of times when I've recognized this happening to me personally. But I haven't always been very good at pinpointing that the issue lies with the person dispensing criticism or praise, and less to do with my personal standards of excellence and conscientious hard work.

My personal conclusion is that to survive as a freelancer in this economic climate, I can and should only work for nice people and shun the vampires.

If someone pays less money, but they're kind, that goes a lot farther with me than someone who pays $2 a word and belittles me. I have more energy to create. I have more confidence. I have more enthusiasm. I have more stick-to-it-iveness. I have more drive. I have more imagination.

And I'm more productive.

In the short term, something as little as 30 cents a word may seem less profitable. But if I'm writing for someone who thanks me, praises me, encourages me ... my productivity heightens. Suddenly, I'm churning out copy at such a rate that my typing fingers can't keep up with my racing thoughts.

I sat down and calculated whether a story at a higher pay rate would net me more financially than doing several stories paying much less. If the editor with the higher rate is, for lack of a better word, a psychopath, is it ultimately worth it to do more work for them and less for the person who is generous with appreciation and quick to pay me?


I do more work for the individual who is generous with kindness, and I'm motivated to give them a better product.

This comes down to a quality of life issue.

If you're struggling with working for someone who is treating you more like a slave than a colleague, do yourself a favor. Evaluate the relationship. If they're sucking you dry like a vampire, cut them off and move towards the people who will always greet you with a smile and a kindness.

Kindness goes a long way, and in my case, that's both in terms of emotional well being and financial common sense.