Tuesday, June 10, 2014

A journalist's moment of truth in a Nairobi slum

Posted By on 06.10.14 at 12:25 PM

Debra Picketts book Reporting Lives
  • Debra Pickett's book Reporting Lives
Journalists who turn to fiction know better than to make their alter egos paragons. What journalists do—or at least the way we do it—is morally sketchy even to ourselves, and the finest thing about us is that we do it anyway. After all, liberty dies when ignorance reigns, and if it's up to raffish reporters to hold ignorance at bay, well, someone has to. Then again, journalists also think of themselves as the finest people alive. We're complicated.

You might remember Debra Pickett from the Sun-Times. When she got a column there in 2002, I proclaimed that "she trembles on the cusp of stardom." And there she trembled a few years, until in 2007 I did a second column about her, this one explaining why she resigned after it was suggested she nurse her new baby in public and write about it.

Pickett now lives outside Madison with her husband and three kids and is in business for herself as a media consultant. Recently she finished the novel she'd been working on forever, the one that lets her sort out some of her thoughts about journalism. Reporting Lives is available now as an e-book, and a print edition will be out later this year. The tale Pickett tells offers the adventures of a TV reporter who doesn't like herself much. Sara Simone isn't standard-issue TV-news-shop awful—a dragon lady producer or preening anchor. She's smart, ambitious, and talented. It's just that she's awfully self-absorbed and her soul is a little bit dead. Reporting Lives, Pickett tells me, is her "exercise in working through my very complicated feelings about walking away from journalism—a profession I both loved deeply and sometimes also really hated."

"I'm a journalist," she replied cautiously, waiting to measure Susannah's response before she continued. There were, in Sara's experience, generally two possible responses to that statement: there were the people who leaned in closer, fancying themselves an irresistible potential subject and those who tensed up, immediately guarding against the invasion of their privacy. Sara knew how to talk to both kinds of people—how to flatter the first and align herself with the second.

This knack made Sara a good interviewer. And on camera, writes Pickett, "she seemed somehow to glow, as if lit from behind. There was a liveliness to her when she was broadcasting," a lilt to her voice that made her seem "as warm and friendly as a fictional next-door neighbor." Sara's problems came with the conversations people don't do for work but simply because they're living in the world; she'd "never mastered the easy banter of the newsroom and was known for a particular stinginess with compliments." When colleagues told her they liked a story she did she had a lot of trouble returning the compliment; her mind drew "a complete blank, totally unable to think of a single thing they had ever done, let alone something she'd actually liked."

There's a confessional ring to Pickett's characterization of Sara, and I asked Pickett about it. "Absolutely," she replied. "I'm a bit of an introvert and small talk has never really been my thing. But, for some reason, when I was interviewing people, I was 'on.'" She told me a story. Years ago she interviewed Dale Earnhardt Jr. as her boyfriend looked on. "Afterwards," she went on, "he told me it was incredibly uncomfortable for him to watch me working in that way because, just by how I was looking at and leaning in toward my interview subject, it looked like I was falling in love with someone else on the spot. But that was just who I was when I was in 'interviewer' mode."

A lot of people become actors because they’re extroverts but plenty of others because they're reclusive. Journalists are the same. Reporting lets them talk their way through life or it drags them into it. When I was getting dragged my girlfriend complained that every conversation I had with anybody sounded like an interview. By now my interviews sound like conversations and that's progress, though as Sara Simone understands all too well, it's still inauthenticity.

Sara is assigned a tremendous story. A school bus collided with a tractor trailer on the Kennedy and the children on the bus—exchange students from Kenya—burned to death. Her station sends her to Nairobi to find and interview the parents. These were all poor families, living in the dreadful Mathare slum, and their kids' unbelievable good fortune has ended in unbelievable tragedy. The parents don't even know it yet: Sara and her cameraman will be there as they find out. The story will write itself, and Sara knows it could be her ticket to New York.

What happens next to Sarah is biography, Pickett's, dialed up to fiction. Early this century Pickett got involved with Global Alliance for Africa, a Chicago not-for-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of AIDS orphans and other needy children. First she wrote about a group of "fiftysomething" women who were planning to raise money and publicity by climbing Kilimanjaro, and when she got drawn in she made the climb with them and visited Good Samaritan Home, the orphanage Global Alliance partnered with in Mathare. And there at Good Samaritan, Pickett had either "a total failure of nerve or a crisis of conscience. I did not take any pictures. I went back to the two largest slum areas of Nairobi several times, and I have three or four photographs. I could not bring myself to physically take out a camera and take pictures of the conditions there." Back at the Sun-Times, "I was endlessly droning on about conditions and I'm sure you can imagine the conversations I had with the editors when I had no pictures."

But she turned in a story anyway. Part of it described her quandary.

A hundred times, I reach for my tape recorder and camera. And a hundred times I decided to let them sit, unused, in my bag. I know I should be clicking away, taking snapshots of the most appealingly shabby children, but I can't make myself do it.

What would be the point? To make you feel bad? Convince you to send a check? Show you what a saint I am for spending a few hours of my life here?

While I am here, sitting on the ground, talking and laughing and folling around, the kids of Good Samaritan are not AIDS orphans, not symbols of the dozens of desperate crises in Africa. They are just kids.

And I know the minute I take my camera out, they won't be. Somewhere between the lens and this page, they'll go back to being abstractions, participants in what is, essentially, orphan porn.

Despite the lack of pictures, the Sun-Times ran the story. "ORPHAN PORN" was the headline.

"To this day," says Pickett, "I intellectually understand the necessity of showing people who won't go there what exists in this world, and at the same time I have chills thinking about being part of that."

Sara and her cameraman and Simon, the man from the education ministry, enter the lean-to in Mathare where one of the mothers lives. Sara catches one word in the message Simon blurts out--mfu, dead. "Mama Mwiti let out a wailing moan that sounded like starving and killing and dying all at once." She slumped onto her knees on the dirt floor. About to throw up, Sara flees the lean-to, retches into an open sewer outside, and from inside hears the wailing turn to shouting.

It's the big moment on which the story that writes itself will turn. Grief turns to anger as a grieving mother demands answers. That'll be followed by a tight shot of Mama Mwiti sitting alone, and then we'll hear Sara again: But, for a mother who has lost her son, there is no such thing as an answer, no explanation that can ever satisfy. Which will lead to a few words about scholarships and lost potential, and a segue to the other boys and other mothers.

But Sara doesn't go back into the lean-to for the big moment. She walks away. She keeps walking until she's all the way back at her hotel in a much nicer part of Nairobi. Her desk in Chicago is uncomprehending. And because she now has no job to return to, or anything else for that matter, Sara stays in Kenya. She falls in with some expats who still think of her as a journalist, which is OK by Sarah because—well, if she isn't that, what is she?

Sara knew that she was supposed to have reformed, to have found some new respect for humanity on her walk through the slums. That was the story Trisha was telling everyone. It was the reason they all wanted to be close to her. They thought she'd found some kind of purpose, some meaning to it all. And they were hoping they might breathe it in, as easy as catching a cold. But, really, she thought as she took a long drink of her coffee, it was all a lie. The truth of it was that she had simply lost her nerve.

I scrolled through the latter chapters of Pickett's novel much too rapidly to say much about them other than that the story ends back in Chicago. I cannot say how well the author's other characters are drawn. But Sara Simone is someone I think I know almost as well as Pickett does.

At her core, she felt a certain indifference to tragedy, an acceptance of it. She did not find grief particularly interesting and was, therefore, perfectly non-judgmental and ultimately trust-worthy on the subject.

What Pickett can't tell us about Sara is why she walked away. "She goes back and forth over whether this is the weakest sort of hypocrisy, or whether this is some kind of moral epiphany on her part. I'm not sure she knows and I'm not sure I know either," says Pickett.

Try it out for yourself. Take an inconvenient stand on a principle you never bothered with before. Someone will call you a hero and someone else will call you a hypocrite. They can both be right.

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