Pirates, Poachers and Palm Oil

With just under two weeks to go, I need your support to bring “Pirates, Poachers and Palm Oil” to life!

As many of you might know, I recently launched a new editorial project with the help of Beacon. “Pirates, Poachers and Palm Oil” is an investigative project that will take me to Nigeria and Cameroon this spring reporting on three issues I believe are both critical and importantly inter-related in the region.

The support I’ve received over the last six days has been incredible —not to mention humbling. In my project pitch I stressed that these types of projects cannot be completed alone, and that (freelance) international reporting is perhaps the hardest gig in the journalism world right now. The many kind donations and messages of support demonstrate that there is still an interested readership for some of today’s most complicated and compelling stories.

Unlike Kickstarter, which fixes a numerical goal for crowdsourced projects, Beacon focuses on the number of “Backers”. For a project to secure funding, 50 “Backers” have to pledge their support before the project deadline. To date, I’ve been honored to accept pledges from 20 different sources, but remain eager to add to this tally with just 13 days remaining.

For those who haven’t visited the project page, please do so here. For the cost of two coffees (in NYC, of course) you can add your name to the list. For those who might know friends and family members interested in these topics, feel free to pass the information along. And finally, check back here for updates as the project progresses.

One journalist’s take on another’s folly: The Jonah Lehrer Conundrum

A writer’s integrity serves as both flak jacket and silver bullet. Without it, what’s left?

It can sometimes be a fine line. Bob Dylan has this great line when someone asked him where his songs come from, he said they begin with “acts of love.” You fall in love, and then you steal it … you make it your own, you reinvent it. You, in a sense, misremember it, and that’s an important part of creativity. Which is why it’s so important to create a culture where people can liberally borrow from the ideas of others.  – Jonah Lehrer on The Colbert Show (April 17, 2012)

I’ve read them all. Every one. Forbes. Poytner. The New York Times. Global Post. I’ve even read the personal statement issued by Lehrer’s publishing house, Houton Mifflin Harcourt. The die is cast. Lehrer is done.

Ok. Perhaps not finished, but certainly scarred. After all, a writer’s integrity serves as both flak jacket and silver bullet in this industry. Even the suggestion of falsity in journalist circles can undo a personality, upset a career and upend a reputation.

At 31-years-old, the recently anointed New Yorker staff writer had already published three books, penned innumerable long-form articles published everywhere from Wired to the Washington Post, The New York Times Magazine to The New Yorker. He was, at such a young age, a literary treat: weaving the most rigid of facts into the smoothest of manuscripts. Lehrer, to many —and for lack of a better comparison—  the Michael Lewis of science writers, extolling the wonders unseen to an audience unread. And he was, in the end, too good to be true.

One has to wonder why such a talented writer would opt for convenience over conscience —risk a career over a few re-constructed, misconstrued or fabricated quotes. In part, I have to believe that it was driven by the aesthetic —the desire to hammer home one’s point most eloquent and with impact: the want to, as he argues in his own book, streamline and recombine the ideas of old to make something new again.

But his miscarriage of trust can’t be overlooked, not if his audience demands both the authentic and the intelligent. If a journalist is a painter responsible to facts un-glossed, then the aesthetic provides no respite. And neither should his readers.

Most unfortunate for us, his audience, is the mere introduction of suspicion: the soon-rotten seed of doubt which will (and should) lead many to cast critical eyes on Lehrer’s body of work. For those who value the trade, we can only hopeful that —as his parting words suggest— “the lies are now over.” But even a sinking ship, patched and repaired, might still rot if the water is not bailed out.

Lehrer would certainly be wise to come forward now if additional professional ulcers exist Confessions, before the accusations, are usually preferable to the scrutiny of public opinion when that public feels duped. But Lehrer might also chime in on what forces (internal or external) led him to make such compromises in an otherwise charmed early career.

Certainly (as a writer and journalist myself) I recognize the strains created by a professional life reliant on the witty or alluring combination of 26 letters, but the nature of his responsibility (mostly for long form, ostensibly original magazine material) was not subject to the same break-neck, second-counting pace of daily news, even though that, too, would be little excuse.

In a fitting coincidence, an article (by David Carr) on the necessity for journalists to take stock of their work (to hold themselves to account more thoroughly) was inked the same day  —prior to the announcement. In that piece, Carr notes that “the reason the public has lost confidence in our product [journalism] is that it sometimes does not merit it.”

While Lehrer’s revelation will only diminish the public’s trust, the saddest coda to this story is that Lehrer could have avoided his mistake if he’d only read his now-tarnished book:

When stuck, out of ideas, or when the answer appears far from reachable, Lehrer argues that time to reflect calmly —the antithesis of stubborn or panicked folly [or in this case, the use of inappropriate and damaging shortcuts]— can be the creative type’s greatest asset. A moment of respite refreshes the brain, provides space to think, and the solution —creative at its core— is more apt to reveal itself.

Perhaps Lehrer should have re-read that section one more time. His readers —current and former— expected it of him.

War from the Front Row

In a world awash with images, even the most powerful can fail to draw attention. Even if that image is iconic, even if that image means or meant something more than pixels, more than a mere captured frame and a simple moment snapped in time.

No, an image that can be replaced may not be memorable, and it will neither raise the ire of society, nor silence the drone of apathy that threatens to lay waste to the emotions that photographs were once thought to retain.

But what about a string of images, knit together in time, captured in high definition from the middle of herculean feats of resilience (on both sides) in a bloody war with no end in sight and no peace in hand?

It is the power of the moving image – saved for our, and future, generation’s eyes on the memory cards of a Danfung Dennis’s Canon 5D – on display in Dennis’s Hell and Back Again.

This documentary, similar in theme to the Oscar-nominated Restrepo, places the viewer in the way of bullets, palpably close to anxious armed forces, and deep within enemy territory in a documentary merited – rightly – for its portrayal of life, focusing on one US Marine, Nathan Harris, in and out of the war in Afghanistan.

Hell and Back Again accomplishes two important tasks. First, it casts off the protective lens often fastened between subject matter and viewer – particularly the bulletproof layer that separates the public from the sharp edges of war. Second, it demonstrates the human costs – not merely in lost limbs or lives (though it shows those, too) – that come with the soldier’s culture of conditioning; a conditioning which makes life without the threat of sudden death unbearably complex – where trips to collect groceries or ordering fast food can inspire fury without reservation.

No, Hell and Back Again won’t solve America’s war problem. That problem is as much political as it is strategic, and ideology is not part of this film, according to Danfung Dennis. Instead, Hell and Back Again contributes to a truth project destined to preserve for past, present and future veterans a document of battle, sacrifice and experience.

In Afghanistan in particular, where the war has drained the blood of too many groups, and where the effects – in final body count, wounded and long-term mental illness – won’t fully be appreciated for years to come, the fact that this project shows the stark realities of war makes it even more powerful.

“Taking the death and the injury out of war, is to take that emotional part out of the conversation.” said Ashley Gilbertson, an award winning photojournalist, about the policies that limit today’s war photojournalists.

Without historical documents to capture war as it is, Gilbertson, who was embedded with the marines in Iraq, believes that today’s veterans will feel robbed in 10 to 15 years.

“What they experienced in war, what they complained about experiencing at war, and what is so hard for them to manage,” he said, is that the public at home “can’t understand. It’s because we can never see how bad it actually gets.”

Yet, the rawness of experience, so wickedly conveyed through the short lens of the DSLR, shows us the depth of war, the reach of its trauma, and the human reaction to coping – and helping someone cope – with the damage war exerts on its subjects. This elevates Hell and Back Again to a plane far higher and more honest than projects of similar type.

It also captures an important universal truth.

“The act of combat is something which takes place between two defined moments,” said Gilbertson, “but war lives with families for generations.”

Thus, it is hard not to be shocked by the artistic beauty and careful attention to the crafts of photography and cinematography on display in Hell and Back Again. Yet it is the film’s careful translation of war’s lived experience that will leave most viewers wide-eyed.

Watch it: