Processing My Weird Week In #Ferguson

Moments before SWAT officers swarmed our car, fixing their rifles on us.

Moments before SWAT officers swarmed our car, fixing their rifles on us.

I was as far as once can be from a conflict zone — Aspen — the nights Ferguson, Mo., first erupted over the fatal police shooting of a young black man, Michael Brown. Busy meeting about the future of the internet, the details of why the QuikTrip in a St. Louis inner suburb burned were hazy to me.

When I got home on Wednesday night, August 13, a fast-moving flood of tweets indicated police were moving in on protesters — and journalists — in a siege that seemed like something out of a wartorn nation.

I was born in St. Louis and lived there until age 13. I even moved back to Missouri for college. Ferguson is not the community I called home, but greater St. Louis certainly is, so I sent an email saying I’d be happy to help in any way. The next day my editor called. “You ready to go to Ferguson?,” he said. And, he said, buy a one-way ticket.

I got there on early Saturday morning to looted businesses. After a night of calm on Thursday, the chaos returned Friday. On my first day on the ground I found myself sitting uncomfortably on the floor of a church, surrounded by already work-weary journalists, listening to Gov. Jay Nixon announce he was imposing a curfew on the town at midnight. The curfew would be indefinite.

The curfew didn’t work. Both nights it was in place (it only lasted two nights), a curfew seemed to only increase the tensions that many young black men said had been simmering all their lives. Before I left, my next door neighbor Miss Essie, asked if I could just stay home, instead. Miss Essie, who is black, has a 24 year old son. She said she saw what happened to Brown as something that could easily happen to her own 24-year-old son, Nate.

Monday, the National Guard moved in. I never did get used to the weird juxtaposition of heavily armed military staging in a suburban shopping center full of big box stores. And Monday is when I got caught between a line of protesters and police, flames flying across the windshield of a local girl’s car I’d ducked into for safety. A series of pops — fireworks — were followed by the launching of smoke grenades. Then I saw a flame flying at the police line, which they later said was a Molotov cocktail. Then the loudest blasts I’d ever heard at close range went off. Tear gas and gunshots, fired almost simultaneously.

I was still ducking there, stunned, when suddenly an armored vehicle blasted its lights at the car where I hid. The rest of the press had gotten pushed back before the tear gassing began. But because I’d sought cover in the car wash, and then a stranger’s backseat, I got separated from my media brethren and was stuck in a dangerous zone. In a matter of seconds, the masked tactical unit — at least a dozen men — raised their rifles and pointed them at the car. The girls in the front seat had their hands up as soon as the lights blasted us. I dropped my phone and rolled down the window. “I’m press! I’m press!” I screamed. One of the armed men gestured to let us drive out of the melee, while the rest kept their guns trained on us.

But rolling down the window meant getting the worst of the gas wafting. It burns your eyes. It burns your nose. It burns your throat. It wasn’t until we were out of the most dangerous zone that other strangers could help us, handing us water and warning us not to rub or touch our eyes, or it would make it worse.

“My life just flashed before my eyes,” said Orrie, the driver who so generously gave me cover and navigated numerous police barricades to get me back to the command center, aka Target parking lot, safely.

I composed myself to file a report for our overnight newscast. Then I drove home to wash my eyes out some more and start reporting again on Tuesday. And again on Wednesday. And Thursday. Today, after a relative calm held for a few nights in a row, I got to come home. Being safely home has never felt so good.

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Heartbreak Tally

Awarding of arbitrary points for things that happened today:

My emergency #NED jersey didn't help, I guess.

My emergency #NED jersey didn’t help, I guess.

+ 15 Got into Uber and the driver asks me if I’m headed to watch the game. I say yes. He offers to sell me his last remaining Team Netherlands jersey from his trunk. It’s Van Persie and it’s $40. The kismet drove me to make the purchase.

- 100 After 120 minutes of soccer without a score, the match ends in a penalty kick shootout, in which the Dutch lose after our first kicker gets his shot blocked. Gonna take a while to recover. Still no world championship trophy for the Dutch team, a longtime European football stalwart.

+ 10 Having my old friend and Denver Post sports columnist Ben Hochman to watch the game with me.

- 75 Ryan Gosling is apparently having a baby with Eva Mendes, which links them together for life. Crest. Fallen.

+ 90 All Things Considered aired my five-minute+ rumination on whether a burrito is a sandwich, an idea inspired by Noah Veltman’s five minute lightning talk on a side-passion of his, at the Knight/MIT Civic Media conference last month.

TOTAL: -70

Had I not lost Ryan Gosling, the chance to go through sandwich taxonomy on national air and get myself a Netherlands jersey in the nick of time would have ended this day on the positive side of the ledger.

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Goodbye to Emily, One of My Fave (and Best) Interns

I have a long and storied history with journalism interns. Back when I started as a beat reporter at age 21, sometimes sources would confuse me for the intern, and the intern for the reporter.

During the Texas Tribune early days, “Dan the Intern” became a real team member, so much so that I worked him into my The Office parody video to introduce the TT.

But then, Dan The Intern got back at me by calling me out in the very first HuTube vlog.

So, I tend to have a fun time with prodigious and puckish interns. Which brings me to Emily. Emily Siner started as an NPR intern last fall, but graduated to editorial assistant (a much better hourly rate) when we couldn’t afford to lose her when the semester ended. She’s become indispensable in short order, explaining Bitcoin better than I ever could, being a true partner for our online and on-air work and most importantly, always always asking interesting questions about the world. Curiosity — and follow through — are basically the whole game, in journalism. Emily also has a boyfriend named Matt, and y’all know I basically love all Matt’s.

Emily at her final digital news editors meeting.

Emily at her final digital news editors meeting.

Emily is headed to Nashville Public Radio, which means she’s staying in the family and going to eat delicious food. Wishing you many fun and educational adventures, Emily.

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Teaching Storytelling With The Help Of A Well-Written Breaking News Piece

The details students recalled from Wade Goodwyn's Moore, OK tornado story.

The details students recalled from Wade Goodwyn’s Moore, OK tornado story.

This quarter, Matty and I are team-teaching a digital journalism lab for Northwestern’s Medill Journalism School, which runs a DC program. During Monday’s class, I walked through some broadcast storytelling tricks that I’ve learned over the years, and most recently at NPR.

One of my favorite broadcast voices and writers is Wade Goodwyn, our Dallas-based national correspondent.  He’s not just someone I look up to — I’m also really lucky to count Wade among my sometimes-drinking buddies.

Wade was sent to Moore, Oklahoma just after a 1.5 mile wide tornado destroyed the town last spring. The feature he filed for the next morning’s Morning Edition program was so simple, and yet so brilliantly executed a piece of broadcast storytelling that Poynter spent time and space unpacking it line by line.

So I played it for the class one time and once the story ended, I had the students write on Post-its the individual details, scenes, characters or lines they remembered. The repeats — like a description of pink insulation dust glistening on a victim — got stuck on top of one another.

All this to say Wade’s writing was so powerful and well told that the students filled up an entire window with details they remembered from a four-minute piece. I hope Wade gets to see how his words lingered in the minds of his young listeners, and taught them some valuable lessons about great writing.

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“The best thing about the kind of job I have is that I’m always partially doing what I enjoy, even when I’m working, and the worst thing is that I’m always partially working, even when I’m doing what I enjoy … As long as you’re happy and you’re not burning yourself out, you’d be a fool not to realize that it’s a very fortunate way to live.” -my NPR colleague Linda Holmes, who writes about pop culture

“In an era when rents are spiking, book advances shrinking and magazines shuttering, New York may no longer be a necessary destination for the young writer, she acknowledged. It may not even be a feasible one.” – on writers breaking up with New York, in today’s New York Times

Weekend At Harvard With The Nieman Fellows

Just got back from the tremendous pleasure of spending the weekend wandering the campus of Harvard and the streets around Cambridge with some of my favorite people and colleagues. It was all part of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard’s 75 year anniversary, for which they invited back the decades of former fellows whose careers and lives were transformed by their 10-month experiences as fellows at Harvard.

Nieman alumni include the indefatigable Lincoln biographer Robert Caro, more than 100 Pulitzer Prize winners and altogether amazing, globe-trotting, muckraking journalists around the world. It was just preposterous to even get to meet some of these people in such a relaxed setting. They are ALL SO INTERESTING.

My friend Kara Oehler (co-founder of storytelling tool Zeega) and I both got invited to speak about innovations in storytelling before about 400 Niemans, with New Yorker Editor Dorothy Wickenden as our moderator. AGAIN — PREPOSTEROUS. But we just ate it up and had a great time. And god, the weather was just perfect and the whole scene — tents out on the lawn of Harvard’s Lippman House and outdoor bluegrass concerts in the park near Harvard Square and little babies of Nieman fellows taking tentative steps in the grass — it felt like a vortex.

NPR represents itself well in the Nieman family. So many of my colleagues are former and current Niemans that it was a special treat to spend time with them outside of work and meet some of my colleagues for the first time, in some cases. Here’s a shot of me with some of the NPR Nieman fellows, but it’s missing ATC producer Alison MacAdam, my radio editor Uri Berliner and a few others, who we couldn’t wrangle into one photo.

At the Walter Lippman House at Harvard, hanging with the NPR Nieman fellows past and present: Clockwise from left: Howard Berkes, Marilyn Geewax, Sylvia Poggoli, David Welna, Margot Adler, Dina Temple Raston, Jonathan Blakely and me.

At the Walter Lippman House at Harvard, hanging with the NPR Nieman fellows past and present: Clockwise from left: Howard Berkes, Marilyn Geewax, Sylvia Poggoli, David Welna, Margot Adler, Dina Temple Raston, Jonathan Blakely and me.

A huge thank you to the curators at Nieman who put on a memorable weekend and were so generous to invite me to be among this special group. I’ll remember this for many years to come.

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Footnotes From Our Time In West Virginia

No cell phone service, no problem.

For me, the best parts of the job are a.) being out in the field, discovering people/places that are new to you, and b.) doing that discovery as part of a team. It’s pretty sweet that they pay me to go random places, but it’s even better with a photographer partner-in-crime. Luckily for me, NPR photojournalist John Poole was game to go out into the country to explore the National Radio Quiet Zone in West Virginia.

We booked themed hotel rooms at the remote Mountain Quest Inn, which is part of a 350-acre farm run by a nuclear physicist and his spiritualist wife. Their hobbies include taking photos of mist formations, or myst, as they call it, since their “myst” shows up as a result of human energy brewing with the dew.

Theme room options include: The Nautical Room (waterbed and regular bed), Universe Space (where you can “Take a trip to the far reaches of space,”) Safari Room (Serengeti mural and mosquito-netted beds) and so many more.

We got lost twice trying to find the place since the quiet zone is cell service and wifi free.

The trip, by the numbers:

Miles driven: 711
Stoplights in town: Zero
Number of times lost: 3
Deer spotted: 7, one dead
Roadkill counted: 4
“Groundhog/woodchuck-looking” animals: 2
Llamas: 2
Goats: 2
Cross-eyed cats: 1
Conversations with people suffering from electromagnetic sensitivity: 3
Yard sales: 1
Dollar General Stores: Two
Roadside Phone Booths: One
Total hours without service: 27 long ones
Trips down the new zip line at Snoeshoe Ski Resort: One (I went, John decided to hang back and take a picture)

Books referenced while talking in the car: Unknown, but a lot, including The Third Chimpanzee, by Jared Diamond

Films referenced: 5
Sherman’s March
Vernon, Florida
Ace Ventura Pet Detective
Winnebago Man
The Sheriff of Gay Washington

International places discussed: 10
Libya, Mongolia, Poland, Russia, Eastern Europe (generally), Holland (because of the tall people), China, South Africa, New Zealand, Hawaii

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AAJA 2013: Baby in the Big Apple

Eva and Momma time in the hotel room.

Eva and Momma time in the hotel room.

Just back from a really fun and satisfying time in New York for this year’s Asian American Journalists Association annual convention. I’ve been part of AAJA since I was in 10th grade, thanks to a reporter for The Dallas Morning News who called to interview me about a student council project, I think. Whatever it was, I mentioned after the interview I wanted to be a journalist one day and she immediately encouraged me to join the organization. Since then, AAJA has been responsible for making connections that have shaped my life.

In 2002, AAJA hosted its national convention in Dallas, and that’s where I met Sudeep, who became my best friend and is responsible for introducing me to my husband Stiles. Stiles is not Asian-American by blood but often identifies with my peeps, so he joined AAJA in 2008 and has since been a much more involved member than me. He consistently reminds me to renew my membership, he has attended more AAJA conventions than I have in recent years, and he speaks on more AAJA panels than I do. He trumped me in New York, speaking on three panels to my one. I’m so proud of him!

This year, the programming really kicked things up a notch with fab workshops and thoughtful panelists. I loved seeing writer (and Twitter user) Jay Caspian Kang totally go anti-Twitter at a conference where social media networking was predictably de rigeur. Kang called Twitter a “circle jerk” and said he thinks less of people who tweet all day, saying it undermines your seriousness as a writer. That argument is for a whole different post — bottom line, exposure to unexpected points of view makes these confabs more interesting.

I regret not getting to spend more time with old friends, since that’s what is always so great about attending the annual AAJA confab. It feels like family. But I was a little time and resource constrained because of my actual family. The traveling baby, Eva, came with us (she’s a journalism convention pro now). She got to try some halal truck food, visit FAO Schwarz, have lunch with my old friend Tim, get overwhelmed by the lights and the tourists in Times Square, go shopping on Fifth Ave and take lots of her usual naps. She also enjoyed exploring the hotel room and goofing off, as you can see.

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Notes from Eden

Somewhere above 9.200 elevation on Powder Mountain. See if you can spot my crew — the tiny dudes in the photo.

Somewhere above 9.200 elevation on Powder Mountain. See if you can spot my crew — the tiny dudes in the photo.

Just got back from rural Utah. More specifically, a place called Eden. Wandered high up in the clouds. After riding a rock crawler to nearly 9,000 feet elevation, I followed Summit Series leaders Jeff and Thayer to a point so high I panicked about how I’d “hike” (in my running shoes) back down.

“Hand eye coordination is not my thing,” I kept telling the guys.

But hey, it was for an interesting story about how Team Summit recently closed the purchase of said mountain, the largest skiiable mountain in North America. Note to self: If you get to hang out on a peak overlooking four states for your job, don’t complain.

Tune in for the piece later this month. For the purposes of this personal blog, some notes from the road:

- I drove a Ford Expedition for the first time, because Avis apparently ran out of smaller vehicles. It felt like driving a bus. I was white knuckling it for most of the ride north into the mountains, but eventually I loved it and stopped being scared that I’d accidentally maul an elk.

- Speaking of rental cars, while standing in the garage awaiting my oversized vehicle, I looked across the way and saw a familiar-looking attractive man. I thought to myself, that guy looks like a Romney! Just as I was running through the names of the five Romney boys in my head, a car attendant popped out and said to him, “First name?” and he responded, “Tagg.” TAGG! He’s it.

- Last time I was in Utah was in 2011, when I covered the National Governors Association meeting in Salt Lake and became buddies with the legendary Washington Post scribe Dan Balz. We had some beers with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, I taught Dan how to tweet a photo and we’ve been friends ever since. The mountains brought back memories of that random weekend.

- On the mountain, the Summit folks live and work in what feels like a dream summer camp for grownups. They have a cook that makes only gluten-free, Paleo diet approved foods at meals they all share and eat together. They also have an ashram, fresh juice each morning, a trainer, and all the skiing and snowboarding they want while it’s in season. Basically I was wondering why I still live in a sometimes soul-depleting urban environment and not on a mountain, instead.

- Almost missed my flight home due to unanticipated traffic, an evil GPS and the slowest possible milk scanning device ever. I’m still nursing Baby Eva and pumping while I’m away, which means when I go through security, each bottle must be scanned with a special device individually. I was the last person to be let on board before takeoff.

- How about that Delta Airlines? I love their cookie snacks, but I also really enjoyed their quietly subversive in-flight safety video. I watched it all the way through because I realized they were hiding little visual gags in there throughout.

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