Planes, People and Another Piece of My Heart

I used to get flashbacks every August.

The aching sadness would start to swallow me on the anniversary of the Aug. 2, 1985 crash of Delta Airlines Flight 191 in Dallas, followed by another collective sob on the anniversary of the Aug. 16, 1987 crash of Phoenix-bound Northwest Airlines Flight 255 in Detroit.

As a young reporter, I covered those crashes with both sides of my brain and 110 percent of my heart.

In the months after the Delta crash in Dallas, I and a team of two dozen reporters and editors at the late, great Dallas Times Herald produced a series on aviation safety that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Public Service Journalism.

Two months later, I quit my job in Dallas and moved to Phoenix to marry an editor, the love of my life, Bill Waldrop.

Bill directed breaking news coverage as Criminal Justice Editor at the Arizona Republic, a big, metro daily paper that wasn’t particularly interested in hiring me. So I went to work for Max Jennings at the Mesa Tribune, a paper that was still small enough to be nimble and scrappy.

Bill and I were watching the television news shortly after 5 p.m. Sunday Aug. 16, 1987 when the crawl went across the bottom of the television screen: “A Phoenix-bound jet has crashed on takeoff in Detroit.”

Back then, we only had one land-line telephone in the house, so there was a bit of an arm-wrestle about which of us would call their news desk first and say, “I’m on my way in to cover it.”

He won, and was out the door in a flash, speeding downtown in his Datsun 260 Z.

Not long after, I was off to Phoenix’ Sky Harbor Airport to interview people who were waiting for friends and family to arrive from Detroit.

My dear photojournalist collaborator and friend, Gary O’Brien, still has a photo in his portfolio from inside the airport that night. I’m squatting down with other people, trying to comfort a woman who collapsed, overcome to learn her family member had missed the flight. He lived.

Photo by Gary O’Brien

Of the 157 people who boarded the plane, only one survived, a 4-year-old child named Cecilia Chichan.

I filed a story for the Mesa Tribune that evening, and also filed something for my friends at papers in Dallas and Detroit to include in their stories for the morning.

Then, after I cajoled him on the phone for a long while that night, Mesa Trib Managing Editor Sandy Schwartz relented, and Gary and I boarded a 2 a.m. flight from Phoenix to Detroit. The Mesa Trib had never done anything like quite like that before, and it certainly wasn’t in the budget.

When Gary and I landed after daylight, Andy Hall, a reporter working for my husband, was already on the ground in Detroit.

Gary and I went straight to the crash scene.

The aviation safety series in Dallas taught me more than I ever wanted to know about the fragile mechanics of JT8D Pratt & Whitney jet engines and the deadly vagaries of weather and wind shear.

As a 10-year-old kid, I learned the basics of aerodynamics by flying radio control planes with my Dad. I was his mechanic.

But the human factor arches over all.

For the “first responders” — EMS, Fire Department, local police and sheriff’s deputies — there is nothing more horrifying and debilitating than doing absolutely everything right – by the book – and not being able to change the outcome.

When big planes crash, people die. You can’t save them, no matter how hard you try.

When I met Wayne County Sheriff’s Lt. Norm Colstrand at the perimeter of the crash scene, I asked how he was holding up. I wanted the real answer, not just a polite response.

Colstrand was a burly, veteran cop. But he was overwhelmed with a primal pain.

We agreed that I would come back, long after dark, to see what he was guarding. He needed to share his pain with the world.

Having entered the game, the Mesa Trib doubled down and sent a gifted young writer, Doug MacEachern, to join the ground team in Detroit.

Doug mercifully agreed to connect with my husband and pick up my sneakers before leaving Phoenix. I’d been in heels since Sunday evening.

When he delivered them, I found a note from my husband tucked inside one sneak: “I love you – now kick ass!”

I wore those sneaks that night on a tour of the still smoldering crash scene.

Very fortunately for me, Gary and Doug were there. Doug tells the story here, better than I ever could.

I remember picking up the page, thinking deeply about the person who owned the book it came from, and tucking it away. It lives in my home in a file labelled, “Detroit Page.” It has seen daylight fewer than six times in 25 years.

From the start, I knew the plane did not crash itself. Even back then, passenger jets were designed to take off and fly with just one engine.

Sort of like in “rock, paper, scissors,” the human factor can overrule mechanics.

And so it had in Detroit, I learned through whispered hallway conversations with pilots and investigators.

Humans in the cockpit failed to extend the flaps on takeoff. Without that lift, the plane crashed.

To the relief of the reporters working for my husband, I finally left Detroit and flew home to Phoenix. He let them come home too.

The amazing experience in Dallas provided a template for the components that needed to be in the Sunday story.

The People.

The Plane.

The Crash.

Dave Becker, Scott Bordow, Ric Clarke, Jeffrey Crane, David Downey, Chris Feola, Earl Golz. Andrea Han, Eileen Myers, Robert Perez, Bill Roberts, Jeremy Stockfisch, Ed Taylor, Ben Winton, Rick Wiley, Dough MacEachern, Gary O’Brien and I provided the facts.

Then Doug wove the words together in just the right way, describing the purple bow her grandma tied around Cecelia’s waist that morning and the yellow blankets we saw that dark night tucked around victims on the ground.

After a long time, the ghosts went into remission.

But this August, they came out to mark 25 years.

And Norm Colstrand’s words echo in my brain:

 “You hear about the plane crashing into Mt. Fuji and that 520 people got blown across the side of a mountain, and you say to yourself, ‘Boy, that’s a shame,’ and then you go about your business.

Or your hear about a plane crash in the Canary Islands and that 582 people were killed. You shake your head, and you go on with your life.

“But this time, we can’t just go about our business.

“This time, death in its massiveness came to roost here.”

It’s my birthday, I’ll count if I want to

I’ve never been afraid to go places few women have gone before, and to take names and kick butt.
Thanks to my father, I learned to rebuild the engine in a 1964 Dodge Dart so I had a car to drive in 1974. (I named it Rocinante and aimed it at windmills.)
I won’t reiterate the litany of “firsts” I punched through as a woman in the journalism bidness. Let’s just say I spent a lot of time busting through the “first” wall: The first woman photographer, the first woman investigative reporter, the first woman business editor, the first woman editor, the first … well, you get the drift.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the company of a lot of white guys trying to do twice as well as they did so I could earn a place at the table.
Today, my 54th birthday present was to not be the lone woman at a tech conference.
We were a crowd and a tribe! A flock and a pod! A gaggle and a group!
We were not alone.
About 22 percent of the people registered for Drupal Camp Austin 2009 were women.
I know. I counted.
That’s extraordinary in a world where six percent of people in Open Source software are women. In Drupal, the numbers are more like 12 percent, but that’s still a dreadful minority.
Thanks to @laurenroth, @shana_e and @equintanilla @vitorious @chanaustin this was not a “lone woman” conference.
Women came for many reasons, including that there were people at this conference who look like them. Anglo, Asian American, African American – we were there.

In every session there were from 13 percent to 29 percent women.
I chronicled the ratio in every session I was in, to the dismay of one South Austin cretin (please click to see what an idiot he is.)
It’s my birthday, I’ll count if I want to!!
The tally tells me how far we have come. Thank you for such a meaningful birthday present!

Fair pay and fair play

Fair PayToday is fair pay day. Here’s my part:

I got into the journalism racket back in 1975, when the newbies were relegated to the manual typewriters and when it was considered too demeaning for a male reporter to be assigned to the “Womens” section of the newspaper.

Although I’d completed one meager semester of journalism in college, my gender was enough to qualify me to fill in for the Womens Editor at the Vineland Times Journal. I learned on the job how to describe the design, fabric and lace on the wedding dresses of the prominent daughters in town. I selected recipes, and crossed my fingers that the kind people in the back shop would save me from my non-existent headline and layout skills.

I couldn’t change it, but I never forgot.

When the women’s editor returned from leave, the paper assigned me to fill in for one of the two staff photographers who was out for surgery for a month. My qualifications? I owned my own Cannon FTB and a lens or two, and I could develop film and make black and white prints (thank you Dad!).

I was pretty proud to be in the elite crew until I walked into the darkroom and saw the pinup calenders with half nekkid women on every vertical surface of the room. No, I was told, I could not take them down during my month in that job. That just wouldn’t be respectful of the men photographers, now would it?

I couldn’t change it, but I never forgot.

Fast forward about ten years to the Dallas Times Herald newsroom, where my editor, Ernie Makovy,  was giving me my annual review. Makovy was a friend and teacher every day, so there wasn’t much for him to add. He told me to stop splitting infinitives, and said I wasn’t doing bad otherwise.

Well, OK, I’d been on a team of reporters who were named finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Public Service Journalism, so I guess I wasn’t screwing up too bad.

Makovy reached in his pocket and pulled out a little folded piece of paper. He opened it, looked down at the scribbled number on it and said, “You’re getting a raise to $35,000 a year.”

Holy cow! That was more than $5,000 a year more than I was making at the time. But it wasn’t for prize-winning journalism.

“That’s to bring you to parity with the guys,” Ernie said, still looking down at the paper. Seems there had been a class action lawsuit, and the paper had either lost or settled, I still don’t know.

I couldn’t change it, but I never forgot.

Fast forward to 2004, when I was hired to be Content Director of MySanAntonio.com. I looked at the roster of people working for me. I looked at their qualifications. Their experience. Their gender. And their pay.

The gender gap glared up at me from the page.

I hadn’t forgotten. And finally, I could change it.

So I did.

The Twitters tell the story

I was asked to be the wrap-up Rapporteur for the 10th International Symposium on Online Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin last week.

The conference had the Twitter hashtag #isoj, and, partly because it is Webcast live, people were watching and Twittering about it in real time on at least four continents. (Here is a link to the #isoj Twitter stream). By the afternoon of the conference’s second and final day, April 18, there were about 1,500 Tweets with the hashtag #isoj.

Thanks to some extraordinary panelists: NowPublic News Director Rachel Nixon, Paul Brannan of the BBC, chron.com Interactive Editor Dwight Silverman and statesman.com Internet Editor Robert Quigley, the “audience-as-storyteller” muse took flight.

For my wrap-up, I went with the muse and tried something different: I let the audience tell the story through their Twitters.

This slideshow is not particularly linear, although I did “group” the Twitters around ideas: First, the back channel conversation, then the collaborative layers being added by the audience around the world, then the discussion of business models for news, then the discussion of non-linear multimedia storytelling. Last, I grouped together comments around the main theme of collaborating the news and news as a conversation.

Besides telling and interpreting and adding to the conference story, the Twitters told their own stories, including a matter-of-fact, but reverberating comment on the lack of diversity on the panels.

I’m sure I didn’t do this perfectly, but considering that I created this 80-slide package in real-time – and added the last slide just minutes before presenting it at about 5:15 p.m. that day – I think it is an interesting rough draft.

Please check out the slideshow and tell me what you think! I know that the audience (read: you!) often has far wiser things to say than the perpetrator of this blog ;~)

Newspapers don’t own journalism

I always thought it was odd to hear flat out declarations that there can be no life on other planets in the absence of water. How egocentric! So you’re saying that life can only exist if it’s precisely like us?

Really?

That’s the feeling I’m getting right now in the woe-is-us, hand-wringing sob-fest about whether life and our democracy can survive the death of some newspapers.

With all due respect to some great newspapers where I’ve worked, I don’t give a damn about the paper they’re printed on.

What I care about is journalism.

And you don’t need special 3-D glasses to see that completely fabulous, raise the rafters, award-winning, democracy-preserving journalism is being committed and published many times a day in life forms other than newspapers.

Guess what else?

Some online news operations, including two where I was a top manager, have been profitable for years, while upholding the highest standards of journalism.

Here’s a bit of what I saw from an editor’s perch:

Were we perfect? No.

Was it journalism. You betcha.

For more examples of the kind of journalism that’s been committed outside the world of paper, check out the Online News Association’s awards gallery, whose members range from the BBC News and Frontline to Slate and NewWest.

Fast forward to 2007, when the San Diego public radio station, KPBS, performed an amazing public service by using Twitter and a Google maps mashup on its Website to broadcast alerts and illustrate the danger during the deadly wildfires that swept Southern California.

Then in 2008, there was Josh Marshall’s unflinching journalism at Talking Points Memo, which prompted the resignation of the Attorney General of the United States.

Don’t get hung up on the life form: TPM is published with blog technology, and I get updates thrown on my browser’s front lawn by Twitter via RSS, (thank you Dave W!).

Update: And anyone who didn’t see Marcy Wheeler’s breathtakingly good journalism from the blog Emptywheel quoted on the front page of the New York Times, well check out the story right here.

That’s the kind of journalism that helps me sleep well at night.

I spent the first 20 years of my career inside print newsrooms, and I have nothing but admiration for the print folks whose journalism has made the world a better place. (Check out the winners and finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Public Service Journalism. I’m proud to be on that list, in the company of a team of reporters from the late, great, Dallas Times Herald.)

It is precisely out of respect for those journalistic achievements that I will not lament the demise of newspapers that ignore the public good. David Simon details such a case in this chilling piece in the Washington Post. I’ve also written about instances where having a monopoly on the newspaper market turned watchdogs into sycophantic, naval-gazing, paper tigers. Those newspapers – and the corporations that own them – deserve to decompose with the fish.

But those forces no longer control the conversation – if they ever did. This is spring again, a time for celebration.

Centuries ago, the discovery of movable type meant that Martin Luther no longer needed permission from the Pope to publish his work.

And today, our ideas, conversations and questions won’t be stifled when the newspaper owners run out of cash and ink and stop their giant presses.

We control our own free presses with funny names, like Drupal and Joomla and WordPress, YouTube and Blip and Twitter, Flickr and Utterli and Ning.

And yes, Virginia, there really is a healthy and irrepressible thing called journalism.

Update: Please forgive my unintentional sins of omission and add the following to the list of great un-paper journalism: Politico, The Huffington Post, MarketWatch, Pegasus News and Voice of San Diego.
I will gladly add more as folks knock the cobwebs from my brain!

Sex, texting, secrets and media lapdogs

I’m shocked (shocked, I tell ya!) at the high percentage of prudes and fraidy cat nannies in the Nevada press corps.

It’s Nevada, for crying out loud, home to Reno, divorce capitol of the world in the north, Vegas Sin City in the south, and legal brothels in between. It’s a place where even the taxicabs sport cleavage (trust me, that’s true) and everything including the nose on the faux sphinx has been “enhanced.”

In Vegas, Mayor Oscar Goodman, a former mob lawyer, hires two svelte, semi-clad woman — one for each arm — to pretend to be showgirls and enhance his image.

It’s all about sex and the economy.

Up the road in the capital of Carson City, there’s Gov. Jim Gibbons, 63, a former flyboy and back-bench congressman who’s embroiled in a messy divorce. Come to find out he sent hundreds of late-night text messages to someone else’s wife and then held a news conference to say they were not love notes — the other woman was just advising him on taxation.

So in his case, it’s not sex — the texts were about taxes!

Jimbo could use some advice in that arena, because right now, Nevada is about $1 billion short of a full tax coffer.

But such is Gibbons’ grasp of math (and reality) that he claims he had no idea that it cost extra to send 867 text messages to his alleged paramour from his taxpayer-funded phone.

For this insight into the governor’s character, we must thank Anjeanette Damon of the Reno Gazette Journal, who had the journalistic good sense to ask questions and demand public records. Here’s her story and here’s the timeline of the calls.

The RGJ’s Damon was also the first mainstream journalist to write about the Gibbons’ marital problems, when she reported online Feb. 28 that the governor’s office issued a public statement confirming a general lack of happy home and hearth. (I would link, but the article is no longer available.) That came a day after Las Vegas Gleaner blogger Hugh Jackson first wrote that the governor would be filing for divorce.

But it gets even odder: Gibbons took the unusual mid-term action of filing for divorce, then his spokesperson went on the record to talk about it and now he’s filed to keep everything secret. Does that make anyone else go hmmmm? (He didn’t seal the records the last time he divorced, when she got the kids and the Oldsmobile, and he got the Porche 911.)

Don’t forget this governor was sworn in during a semi-secret midnight meeting at his home with only an AP photographer present. He’s kept his cell phone number a secret from the Chancellor of Higher Education (and refused to return his calls with advice on taxes). And to the best of my knowledge, Gibbons’ reason for wanting to be governor is still a secret.

Gibbons tried to move the message from texting to taxes, calling a special session of the Nevada Legislature to take on the budget crisis. One proposal would have state workers and teachers take a pay cut by eliminating their 4 percent pay raises at a time when consumer prices are up 4.5 percent. (Full disclosure: My teaching position at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas was among those cut by a dean in response to the budget crisis.)

Outside of Nevada, the sheer number of cliches and outlandish details in this story are a non-fiction writer’s dream, as the Times Online in the United Kingdom proved in this piece. The nearby Los Angles Times called the situation a Gossip Jackpot. Even the New York Times, once known as the Gray Lady, couldn’t resist publishing the story under the headline “Nevada’s Texter-in-Chief.

Among the Nevada media, however, there’s a whole lot of mumbling and whispering, not to mention very prudie, wimpie behavior.

For the longest time, reporters were too timid to write something known to every fourth-grader in Northern Nevada who’d taken a class trip to tour the capital: That Dawn Gibbons was living in the governor’s mansion in Carson City and she’d relegated Jimbo to their home in Reno.

The governor’s personal life is a public matter and an important story, and here’s why:

  • He is a public official, whose salary (and cell phone) are paid by the taxpayers who have a right to know what he is doing.
  • Gibbons is under federal investigation for matters outlined here by TalkingPointsMemo. Up until now, his wife, Dawn, has been his defender-in-chief on those issues. If her attitude or her story changes, that could affect the investigation in a very newsworthy way.
  • Gibbons ran for office on a platform of family values. When he is accused by his wife of womanizing in office, after being accused during the campaign of drunkenly groping a woman in a Vegas parking garage, well, let’s just say, it’s a story.

From the start, some bloggers in Nevada seemed intent on protecting Gibbons, even apologizing for the fact that any story was published. Take this from conservative blogger Chuck Muth’s Muth’s Truths in February:

And the fact is many reporters, columnists and responsible bloggers in the mainstream media knew about the rumors of a possible Gibbons divorce at least a WEEK ago. So did I.

But not one of them reported on the rumors until a Gibbons-hating liberal, Las Vegas blogger wrote about it yesterday afternoon. And even then, not one mainstream newspaper that I’m aware of ran with the story this morning, despite the proverbial cat being out of the bag. That’s responsible, professional journalism – and it showed an admirable level of restraint over a story I’m sure all of them were dying to break.

Two more apologies for the story’s publication, this time from mainstream media writers, Las Vegas Sun’s Jon Ralston and Las Vegas CityLife’s Steve Sebelius, were enough to prompt this from the Las Vegas Gleaner:

All hail the magnanimous restraint of a caring media

… Both journalists, in something of a departure from their profession’s custom, seem to wish that a high-ranking official in the governor’s administration would have said “no comment.”

Both also signaled their wholehearted agreement with a Gibbons-loving professional political activist in Reno, who wrote on his website that marital strife in the governor’s mansion would not even be a story if not for the utterances of the Gibbons staffer.

Having formed a triumvirate of hyper-sensitivity, all three writers took time out from burying [Gibbons Chief Operating Officer Diane] Cornwall in opprobrium to heap varying degrees of praise on the media and themselves for showing such magnanimous responsible restraint in these difficult times.

After all, the governor’s marriage has nothing to do with how the state is governed. Well, except for the strain divorce could have on the governor’s ability (such as it is) to do his job. And the impact it could have on his political effectiveness and prospects for reelection or even his capacity to last through the remainder of his term. And how divorce proceedings might intersect with various allegations of wrongdoing lodged against both Gibbonses.

On Feb. 29, I was on Ralston’s Face to Face television show and on KNPR’s State of Nevada with host Dave Berns, emphatically saying the governor’s marital woes warrant journalistic exploration. Simply put: It’s a story!

But even as the national and international media — and the Reno Gazette Journal and KNPR’s Dave Berns — try to set an example for how to cover a story, the locals keep floundering.

In early June, KLAS-TV’s investigative reporter, George Knapp, contributed to the ongoing static by pulling another embarrassing “Don’t-ask-don’t-tell” moment in his Knappster blog in Las Vegas CityLife:

I’m all but certain that the governor has accumulated dirt of his own and could obliterate his wife’s reputation if he chose to do so. (In fact, the nature of this damaging information is already circulating in political circles. We’re talking about some salacious stuff.)

The job of a journalist is to UN-secret things, not to keep secrets!

Then on Friday the 13th, I got a call from a reporter at the Las Vegas Review Journal asking if I, in my role as professor and journalist, could please explain to him why the story about the governor’s divorce is getting traction all the way to the United Kingdom.

Dudes, stop apologizing, stop tiptoeing, and go ask some smart questions!

For instance, why in the world hasn’t a Nevada news organization challenged the divorce secrecy? What could Gibbons possibly want to hide from the people who elected (and pay) him? What made the alleged paramour’s texted tax advice better than the Chancellor of Higher Education’s? Is Gibbons going to take a pay cut, pay raise, or get paid for not showing up as he did when he was in Congress?

Reporters are being laid off in newsrooms across the country, and what is the Nevada press corps doing? Trying to ensure a second career on the governor’s protective detail?

There’s a story here and you are required as a journalist to be curious, ask questions and write stories that put things into context.

Go do your jobs.

And that means you, too, bloggers!

Correction: As originally published, this article erroneously characterized CityLife as a mainstream media publication. Its owner, Stephens Media, characterizes it as a weekly newspaper. We regret the error.

Raising hell and having fun

So keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it.

Lord, let your laughter ring forth.

Molly Ivins

I am one lucky journo.

So many times in the past 30 years I paused, looked up to the heavens, and thanked the stars that someone was actually paying me to do this fabulous journalism thing.

But as my friend Amy Gahran lamented today in her E-Media Tidbits column, that spirit is long gone from newspaper newsrooms today.

As I know from up-close and personal experience, many newsrooms have been poisoned by a hateful blend of slash, blame and holier-than-thou attitude.

May they all be encased in amber. Soon.

As my friend Molly Ivins once wrote, “I don’t so much mind that newspapers are dying – it’s watching them commit suicide that pisses me off.”

That’s not the culture that lured me into this business, but it is what drove me away.

Once again, though, I got lucky.

My students at UNLV are wonderfully enthusiastic about committing solid, ethical, world-changing and interesting journalism.

They are curious sponges, soaking up every “how-to” and “why” as fast as I can dish it out. They’re excited about experimenting with cell phones and useful tools with wacky names like Twitter and Netvibes and Utterz and Drupal. (Lookout guys, Ning‘s next!)

In this faux town, they chose grounded and interesting beats, including poverty, health and nutrition, women’s health, feminism, the diverse neighborhood near the university, celebrity philanthropy, animals, parking, podcasting, social networking, UNLV basketball, Rebel sports, street racing in Vegas, (update) a local’s guide to Vegas entertainment, a critical look at cosmetic surgery, the NFL Draft and the environment.

They understand that there may be no “man” to go work for, and that they are responsible for establishing their credibility, their brand.

Their stories are relevant, engaging, full of facts, context and staying power.

They are the future.

And ya’ know what, Molly?

We’re having fun!