Ta-Nehisi Coates – The Beautiful Struggle: A Memoir Review

I have had many professors, peers and even online top reading lists endorse this book. I just unfortunately never had the time to read it. Well it was more like I got distracted by other books; books that appealed to my own personality better. Yet, there is no doubt that Coates’ is a gifted journalist who endured and experienced painful yet beautifully written life experiences. It is hard to pin down Coates’ exact writing style in this memoir due to how it alternates constantly between the somewhat impetuous recollection and the hard hitting historical background. It is a great source for historical yet personal commentary about Baltimore in the 80s. Especially as a young, african-american whose options for a better life seemed limited. I enjoyed reading his struggle when it came to education, especially since he is a infamous journalist and writer in this day and age. But it was also the complicated and disarrayed way he yearned for education; my favorite passage was when Coates’ explains the deep yet soft pain the young boys felt towards education but it was hidden through a much harder, tougher exterior.

“Our folks understood that there was a war upon us and that school was a weapon that outdid any Glock. Yet the whole process–with it’s equally spaced desks, precisely timed periods and lectures, with its standardized pencils and tests–felt unnatural to me. But as much as I hated their terms, having been impressed into them, I hated more the failing….None of us ever want to fail. None of us want to be unworthy, to not measure up”

The part I enjoyed the most was the relationship between him and his father, Paul Coates. Paul was a Vietnam Veteran who used his discipline from the army to keep his sons from straying off to the typical route. He became the leader of the Blank Panther Party which is why Coates’ puts some much historical background in his memoir. Paul passed the teachings to his son and now he passed it along to all of us.  I enjoyed how Coates was unabashed when recounting stories of how his father raised him. It made the relationship between his father and him more relatable as true family relationships are messy and filled with a mixture of love and hate. His father was struggling to make sure his sons knew where they came from but also where they were meant to go.

However, even though Coates’ writes so eloquently, it doesn’t mean that it appealed to me as embarrassed as I am to admit that. I had to read passages over and over again to understand the underlying meaning. I felt as though I just entered a foreign country where I had spent many months beforehand learning the language and perfecting, only to get there and find that everyone spoke with heavy dialect. I could understand the gist of Coates’ passages but only when I strained my ears and listened to his enunciations.

It was a stream of poetic reflections that are undoubtedly beautiful yet it frustrated me how there were many questions that Coates’ left unanswered. Coates’ mentions his love for music several times within the memoir and how he was an African drumming enthusiast. The passion he felt for music mirrored in his writing from the tempo and beat of his sentences. To some that is lyrical and engaging but to me, I felt breathless but in a where-is-my-inhaler manner. Furthermore, even though I am aware that there is a difference between writing a fiction and a authentic memoir, I struggled to keep my focus to a novel where I found myself asking Coates’ questions and never being able to find an inkling of that answer.

I’ve thought for many hours on the perfect analogy to explain my feelings towards this book because I don’t dislike it. Instead, it is as though there were a new style of pants that suddenly became the ‘it’ clothing to have. So I went to the store, tried it on but it looked horrendous on me. Yet everyone loved those pair of pants so much that I simply wanted to fit in which led me to buy them. I went home, put them on and even though they were a little tight and I just didn’t understand design, I did feel some respect towards the designer.

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What would I have done?

Today we had Melissa Bailey, a journalist who used to work for the New Haven Independent, come into our Ethics and Issues class. During that hour period, she brought up several of her past articles and with each one we discussed the issues she faced and whether it was ethical or not. I had minor issues with a few of the stories but that was due to my own personal approach when it comes to interviewing people; it wasn’t much of an ethical issue.

The story that made me feel the need to voice my opinion (even though I didn’t due to respect for Bailey) was when it came to the “Yale Workers OK New Contracts.” The story was published on June 27, 2012 when Yale University was renegotiating its contract with the two unions on campus. Both the unions and the university came out with a happy agreement as one can see in the pictures and quotes that Bailey posted.

However, she disclosed to us that the way she obtained the information was very unethical. She didn’t get the permission of the union members nor the university; it was a private event where people thought they were able to speak freely without having it posted in an article. So of course when that happens, people sometimes say ludicrous stuff but at the end of the day, it was their right to say those things. I personally would have taken notes but not published the article citing those quotes. I would have waited till they officially stated what the decision was and then perhaps went to interview specific members of the union about some of the things they didn’t state at the press conference. If this was a huge story, such as the Mitt Romney incident then I would have done so but this was about Union leaders trying to agree on a matter that will help their healthcare and pay. It creates some sort of sensationalism to the story that needn’t be there. Furthermore, reading the comments that were said for the article, it just made the people think of the union in a negative light. And as I mentioned earlier, they are just people trying to make a decent living.

Final Project

For my final project I have decided to focus on an ethical issue that I have encountered many times whilst writing a weekly column for a newspaper at U.A.E. The reason for this topic is due to the highly publicized and horrific story of journalist and blogger, Riaf Badawi. He was arrested in 2012 for ‘apostasy’ (the straying of your religion- in this case, Islam.) Now he is serving up to ten years in prison and 1,000 lashes. In this day and age where people are  more focused to funding Pornhub to film a sex scene in space instead of paying attention to such a horrific crime. And why should they? It is too barbaric and ridiculous that in the 21st Century people are still being tortured for mere words.

My paper will be focusing on the censorship of online and print journalism in the United Arab Emirates (My own country) and comparing it to Saudi Arabia’s censorship. The reason I picked those two countries is because Saudi Arabia is the least liberal Arab country and U.A.E is considered the most liberal from all the G.C.C countries.

The U.A.E is currently going through a culture battle with trying to rely on tourism instead of oil for their wealth. Relying on tourism means that they have to allow events and items such as alcohol, clubs etc but at the same time, still trying to hold onto the culture and traditions. Those two don’t go side by side, it is a large awkward grey area; one that I too am having difficulty balancing. So when it comes to journalism, does U.A.E’s government keep a strict hold onto the media or show the world that they are nothing like Saudi Arabia? That’s the question I’ll be trying to answer.

Best Practices of Aggregation

According to Tony Rogers, Journalism Expert,

An aggregator is a website that collects headlines and snippets of news stories from other websites. Examples include Google News and the Huffington Post.

The Journalist’s Resource article about aggregation does a great, well-informed job of showing all the devices a journalist can use to make sure the information is verified, with examples of each. I will definitely be using majority of these websites to factcheck information, pictures and even videos that citizen journalists have sent to me.

I really enjoyed the part where they discussed the 2012 TED talk from Markham Nolan called “How to Separate Fact and Fiction Online.” It showed us how quickly and easily you can verify a Youtube video all from the comfort of your desk. What’s interesting is that even an average citizen can go through these steps to see if the video is fake or not. If the journalist had a serious deadline or didn’t take the correct steps, someone, especially in this day with all the technology we are equipped with, will definitely verify it.

However, I feel as though, from personal experiences, that websites who use aggregation don’t add much to the articles. Ezra Klien wrote an article on how Vox aggregates and in it, he states:

Our policy, to our staff, is simple: any time we use work created by someone else, we need clear attribution to the original author and a link back to the source. When appropriate, we should do more than that: we should add to the conversation with new facts, ideas, or reporting.

However a lot of websites that are aggregators, usually write stories that are only a short paragraph or two with the rest of the space filled with pointless ads. It’s frustrating, time-consuming yet constantly shared on social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter.

I am scrolling through my own Facebook page and within two seconds, I’ve stumbled upon the perfect example. It is an article about how Pornhub is trying to film in space from a website that I had never heard of. To get to the actual article, I have to scroll down quite a bit, past all the adverts. Once I get there, there is only about two small sentences that is ‘real journalistic’ writing and the rest is just unverified jargon. The frustrating thing about aggregators is that even though the information could be true, they get more publicity than the actual news media outlets that put the work into writing and verifying those stories.

Photojournalism

I personally would love to be a photojournalist. I feel nothing but absolute respect towards the photographers who stand in the middle of a crisis or war and take beautiful yet saddening pictures. It’s cliche but a photo is worth a thousand words. Especially when it is a photo of a child standing in the ruins of his home due to a pointless war than the coverage of it. It spreads faster, easier and for people who don’t pay attention to the news, it quickly catches their eye and provokes an emotion.

In NPPA code of ethics, one of the rules is:

Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images’ content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects.

I personally am in favour of no editing. Journalists in their writing are supposed to tell the facts in the most objective way. So the same should be applied to photojournalists, even though I do agree that it is harder from them to be objective in a photo. They have a small frame where they have to pick a portion of the situation to portray whereas when it comes to articles, you have a variety of paragraphs, words etc. The only editing that I agree is acceptable to use is if the picture is too dark or too light.

Another important code is:

Treat all subjects with respect and dignity. Give special consideration to vulnerable subjects and compassion to victims of crime or tragedy.

There’s always the question of whether showing the brutal death of a victim on the newspaper or online is ethical or not. Especially since you are sensationalizing such a horrible event and for the grieving family, this will be even harder to deal with. However, in some situations I feel as though it is appropriate. As I have stated above about the group of people who don’t read the news, this will propel a serious situation to the attention it deserves. An example that comes to mind is the #blacklivesmatter incidents that have been occurring throughout the country. The videos show the horrific treatment of innocent victims yet the photographs that photojournalists take show the side of the police that the public don’t see. And with that photo, it gives the police force the equality in the story that it needs.

Rolling Stones’ laziness

If I was ever to write a book about how to not be impetuous when it comes to journalism, the first person who would receive a signed copy is Sabrina Rubin Erderly.

On Nov. 19, 2014, Rolling Stone Magazine published an article about a gang rape survivor who attended University of Virginia written by acclaimed freelance journalist, Erderly. It was titled: “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA.” The main subject, ‘Jackie’ claimed that it was the members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity who had done this unjustly deed. However, quickly after it was published and sensationalized did they find out that a lot of the story could not be proved. Till this day, even Erderly herself doesn’t know the name of the real ‘attacker.’

Now, I am not blaming ‘Jackie’ as I have no met her personally, nor do I know what she has suffered in her life. Perhaps everything that she told Erderly was true but she got the fraternity wrong? Or perhaps she was suppressing a real traumatic attack and this is how she dealt with it. The real person who is to be blamed is Erderly. How can she call herself a journalist when she can’t even do the fundamentals, first year journalism students are taught, to researching a story?

In the Columbia Journalism Review, they point out several mistakes that Erderly committed. Mistakes such as interviewing the three friends Jackie mentioned; who would have raised some alarm from the start. Or even researching to see if the student who assaulted Jackie was a member of the frat or even went to UVA.

Erderly claims that the reason she wasn’t so tough on researching was because she wanted to respect Jackie’s situation. However, thanks to Erderly’s ‘kind approach’ she did more damage then good. She helped the group who often said that women ‘cry fake rape’ grow an even larger case against rape victims. I feel no remorse for Erderly because as an established journalist, she should have known better.

‘The Journalist & the Murderer’ Review

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.

Janet Malcolm’s bold and unapologetic opening in her novel, ‘The Journalist and the Murderer,’ immediately gives the reader both the tone for the rest of the book and her feelings towards journalist and writer, Joe McGinniss. She continues on to describe how McGinniss is viewed in her eyes, as a terrible journalist who is ‘preying on people’s vanity, ignorance…’ And I have to agree with her, McGinniss not only broke and caused several journalistic ethical issues but also as a decent human being who should have had a little more integrity.

Before even given the reader a basic introduction about McGinnis’s background, Malcolm starts the book by describing her first encounter with him during an interview after his lawsuit. She loosely described him as a conniving journalist who was trying to sell his image as a ‘defensive, self-righteous, scared man…’ to as many journalists who would listen to him. It was this part of the story, even though I was only a few pages in when I began to question Malcolm’s own integrity. Immediately she presents herself as the upstanding journalist who is morally correct and is a ‘truth teller.’ However, I feel as though an upstanding journalist isa person who presents all the facts and lets the reader decide the final verdict. But we’re not even one chapter in and already I feel as though I have to find Joe McGinniss as guilty as possible (even though I do agree).

Even though I expressed my disdain for Malcolm, there is no doubt that she does have more journalistic integrity than McGinniss. He wrote a book and gave his own verdict that MacDonald is a psychopathic killer. McGinniss wrote his opinion as a fact about something he is not qualified to do. It is true that he has spent a few years with the ‘killer’ himself and allowed access to all the legal papers. However, even then, he should present his findings as an opinion. He managed to make his narrative against MacDonald,

So powerful is the narrative created by McGinniss that even Morris- a celebrated filmmaker whose 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line led to the exoneration and release of a convicted murderer- was unable to obtain funding for a film about the MacDonald case, and thus chose to write a book instead. I find that utterly shocking and horrifying. In the Washington Post article by Gene Weingarten about the reopening of the MacDonald’s case, he discusses and uses several examples that

“An abyss lies between the journalist’s experience of being out in the world talking to people and his experience of being alone in a room writing.”

McGinniss tried to use the argument that he signed a legal contract saying that he had final say on his views on MacDonald’s trial. And legally, McGinniss hasn’t breached any aspect of that contract. What he has breached was the trust the public has for journalist. And after reading Malcolm’s investigation to how much McGinniss tricked MacDonald, I am still confused and surprised to why MacDonald continued to trust journalists and oblige them with all sorts of requests. I don’t understand how McGinniss could think that ethically he has done the correct thing, especially after reading his letters to MacDonald whilst he was in prison. Especially when he writes to him as a close companion, not as a writer who believes that he brutally murdered his wife and two children.

“I’ll write again in a couple of days. Jeff, it’s all so f&*$ing awful I can’t believe it yet … It’s a hell of a thing – spend the summer making a new friend and then the bastards come along and lock him up.”

When I read those letters, I was absolutely shocked but the confused. How can McGinniss claim that he was ethically correct when those letters are the best evidence against that point. You tricked a man who was rotting in jail for a crime he did or did not commit. Of course MacDonald will comply and do anything to get out of prison. But to take advantage of that, it not only questions McGinnis’ journalistic integrity but his moral integrity.