Why it sucks to be a journalist (and why people do it anyway)

In the West, the news is a commodity, a product. And the customer is always right. If you’re not giving the customer what they want – you’re usually screwed.

In places like Russia, the news is more like a government-owned resource. And the government gets to set the agenda on how said resource will be exploited. If you’re not giving the government what it wants (or getting a little too uppity or bothersome) – you’re usually screwed.

I’ve worked for both English-language Russian state media and Western independent media. I’ve been lucky so far. Lucky for having intelligent editors who set good standards, for being able to speak my mind, for being able to walk away when facing censorship. Lucky that I’m still, at this stage in the game, able to feed my family (on a diminishing income). Lucky that I’m not an exploited freelancer in a conflict zone (for now, anyway).

Im-not-anybodys ygritte says

But the more online harassment I experience, the more threats I receive, the more insults (many of them gender-based, others aimed at my complicated cultural and ethnic heritage) I hear, the more I have to wonder if I’m tough enough.

When I was writing about the fateful 2010 winter election in Kiev, there was an incident I’ve been loath to talk about. Perhaps a couple of my friends know. It made me feel vulnerable and unprofessional at the time. I certainly didn’t want to complain and make it seem as though I was afraid of anything.

I had argued with a security guard near a polling station. He insisted I couldn’t be on the sidewalk, talking to people. He thumped me on my chest and pushed me hard. I went flying on the black ice that seemed to encrust every surface that winter, landing on my back, hitting my head in the process. After the immediate shock and pain wore off, I let a woman who had just voted help me up. The guard had scampered off. I went back to doing my job.

The incident stayed with me, because the pain stayed. I had problems with my back before, but that one bad fall caused chronic pain that lasted for over a year. After I got pregnant, I had to seek out specialists capable of helping pregnant women with severe back pain. The pain sapped my strength and bank account. It still flares up every once in a while. X-rays so far have been inconclusive, and I am convinced that a part of it starts in the mind. Chronic pain is complicated, but it has its roots. Some are abstract.

People don’t like journalists – for reasons are both abstract and concrete. People take, ah, liberties with journalists, especially in countries with brittle regimes and a high tolerance for violence. People don’t like it when journalists tell them what they don’t want to hear. People don’t like it that journalists take money from either governments or corporations or NGOs – i.e., people don’t like it that journalists have a powerful need to eat every once in a while.

I’ve been both a reporter and a pundit – a reporter takes risks in the field, only to be shouted at for bias. A pundit feels like Cassandra with tongue in place, but no one listening anyway. Everyone is down in the comments section, bitching about how you’re the wrong ethnicity to have an opinion on some matter, while others are busy e-mailing you detailed odes on how awesome it would be when you’re finally gang-raped.

“You go out there and do your job!” People shout at me on the internet, from the comfort of their homes. I’m remembering the first story I did for The Moscow News – on a neo-Nazi stabbing in southwest Moscow. I visited the scene of the crime, talked to the neighbors of the victim, talked to the crying wife on the phone outside. On my way back, I had to walk through an apple orchard at dusk. Two guys began following me. They weren’t neo-Nazis, they were thugs, enraged at seeing a reporter asking questions “without permission” on their territory. Didn’t I know I could be “punished”? There was no one else around. We were in the middle of a major city at peacetime, but in a second it was brought home to me – how unsafe I was. I let them catch up with me, joked with them, bummed a cigarette off of one of them, discussed my story. I smiled at them. They eventually began smiling back.

Female journalists are lectured on “using our looks” and following “the principles of feminism.” We’re still seen as women first and journalists second – hello, “mother of three” headline! – but we must pretend as though this isn’t really so in our work.

In the company of bad men, however, there are no illusions. You appeal directly to their strength. A strong man wouldn’t need to prove his strength by hurting a girl-reporter, would he? Except sometimes, he would.

Our readers hate us. We hate each other. When I joke about dick-measuring contests on Twitter, I’m not really joking. Professional solidarity usually only appears when someone gets their head cut off – to be quickly forgotten.

Everyone knows that you don’t get ahead by being the best. You get ahead by proving that the others are worthless.

If you’re a young woman, prepare for the possibility of getting harassed, raped, or simply used by colleagues you look up to. And then, of course, they’ll tell their friends that you only got that one gig because [insert body part, outfit, etc]. Hoity toity male journalists will punish you for admiring them as surely as they will punish you for not admiring them.

girls see more blood ygritte says

(And if you’re ever, say, attacked while doing your job – men will write hit-pieces about it, minimizing your suffering while making your entire job about your looks. And when you start getting older, people will begin getting mad at you about it – and asking why the hell are you still on TV, you fat cow)

In times of conflict and tension, you will be seen as a tool first and a person second – by everyone from the security services to Jim-Bob who’s never frozen his ass off at a demo that swiftly erupts into violence when the boys with the batons move in, but will still write your bosses and demand you be fired for your “pro-[insert whatever it is that Jim-Bob doesn’t like at that moment] coverage.”

In a conflict zone, you will be accused of propaganda if any particular side appears to trust you – though trust is how you get people talking, how you get them to let you in, and how you get them to not kill you.

The late Andrei Stenin got the pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine to trust him – so now I’m constantly being told that he deserved his death. Meanwhile a friend has reported extensively on the right-wing Azov battalion on the Ukraine side – only to be accused of being a “Nazi sympathizer” in the process.

When you acknowledge the pressure you are under, you’re weak and hysterical. When you don’t acknowledge it, it begins to do your head in.

I was in a bar in Kiev with a cousin last month, when your typical Douchebag Expat Stereotype who’d only been in the country for a couple of weeks but had oodles of opinions he was dying to share sidled up to us. In the course of trying not to talk to him, I found out that he follows the work of a friend of mine who has been reporting on the armed conflict in the Donbass. “He’s just so biased! And so cocky!” Douchebag Expat Stereotype ranted.

“So why don’t you go out there and show him how it’s done,” I replied – then instantly regretted my words.

The last thing you want to do is give a self-assured blowhard the idea that he can do this kind of job.

Meanwhile, one of the defining characteristics of the human race is our need to tell stories, to bear witness – and to pass the information on. I think that people tend to get into journalism because they’re human. And a little crazy. It’s a calling – in the sense that a pied piper is playing a tune somewhere. You stumble off the safer path and follow the song. You live to regret it and you live to love it – sometimes in equal measure.

but first well live ygritte says

James Foley’s critics are the real cowards

James Foley. Image via marquette.edu

James Foley. Image via marquette.edu

And when I talk about his critics, I don’t just mean Charles C. Johnson (although, seriously, screw that guy).

Since news of Foley’s beheading by ISIS first broke, I’ve seen enough depressing Facebook “debate” that basically argues that gee, isn’t it sad that this journalist was slaughtered – but couldn’t he have been a little bit more “Braveheart” about the whole thing?

Where was the resounding cry of “FREEEDUUUUUM”? And how DARE he read an anti-American text before he was slashed to death?

OK, so, here’s the deal, you miserable idiots:

Heroism is going into a war zone to cover the kind of stuff that would make *most* people piss their pants before scampering off to cover the designer cupcake beat for Better Homes and Gardens for the rest of their lives.

Heroism is NOT telling everyone about how YOU personally would morph into Aragorn, son of Arathorn, and deliver a gorgeously backlit “Men of the West” speech while facing certain doom at the hands of an extremist maniac.

Death in conflict zones is often messy, horrific, banal and humiliating.

Death in conflict zones is NOT like the movies you watch on Netflix in the relative comfort of your safe home while jacking off to visions of yourself as a fearless commando and handsome battlemage.

Also, there are other captives there besides Foley. Who knows what would have happened to them had Foley tried to spoil ISIS’ gruesome PR stunt.

Also, you people know nothing. You don’t know what it’s like to deal with constant violence. You sure as hell don’t know what it’s like to be a hostage. Only the people who have gone through that know. Patronizing such people with your own bullshit version of what it means to be a “hero” exposes both your ignorance and childish desire to appear tougher than you are. And in the case of Foley, you’re playing a game of big dick willy with a dead person. Congratulations!

Isn’t it bad enough that Foley’s family has lost their son? Isn’t it bad enough that Foley is now being used both in nihilist jihadist PR, as well as death porn-style “journalism” popularized by the NY Post? Isn’t it bad enough that someone who was this brave, and this talented – and I really must stress the BRAVE part for all of you who have never known war and lawlessness and horror – is lost?

I’m not even going to get into the assertion that Foley basically deserved his fate because he wasn’t into guns and Mitt Romney. Whoever wrote that can go to hell.

Please read Max Fisher’s tribute to James Foley instead.

In which I spend entirely too much time responding to the same damn argument creepy Ukraine crisis trolls ALWAYS make around here

Recent articles on paid troll organizations in Russia haven’t surprised me – ’cause they’re not that recent a phenomenon (though lately, it seems, they are going after Western publications with a vengeance). The thing about a paid troll is that you can rationalize their actions. When I get messages that are apparently sincere in their utter hatred – I don’t know what to do. Well, aside from responding with gifs, I guess. The guy below is one of the “regulars” here. My latest appearance on a HuffPost Live panel has upset him. 

For a Russian state media hack, you are remarkably good at crying crocodile tears about what’s happening in Ukraine, the homeland you have egregiously betrayed.

Russian trolls are also fond of blathering about “traitors” among us. At least they usually do it in a more entertaining way.

Lest your readers forget, you worked at RIA Novosti before moving on to Russia Beyond The Headlines. YOU’RE A HACK.

A grateful hack, too. Grateful to have worked at The Moscow News/RIA Novosti, grateful to have stayed there all the way until the bitter end, grateful to have excellent Russian colleagues at Russia Beyond and in general.

johnny depp says deal with it

And the fact that you appear to be taken seriously at decent media just makes this reader want to dig around and see who it is you’re doing favors for and the nature of these favors. The public at large knows that Russia is very good at using supple young women to promote its agenda abroad.

See this accusation keeps coming up AGAIN and AGAIN, and it’s really interesting, because what it basically comes down to is that, “All Russians are barbaric neanderthals. All of the editors at the Western media outlets you work with are also barbaric neanderthals. Sexism is not cool when the Russians engage in it, but it’s perfectly OK for me to be a sexist dick, ’cause my name is not Vladimir. I’d never accuse a man of what I’m accusing you of, but I’m still an enlightened member of a clearly superior society.”

Right.

you don't say david tennant

It is not a fucking compliment, Natty. Whores engage in more honest business.

ACCUSING A WOMAN OF SLEEPING WITH HER EDITORS IN ORDER TO GET PUBLISHED IS NOT A FUCKING COMPLIMENT?!?!?!?!?!?!?!

Your Twitter attacks on Timothy Snyder have been duly noted. Who’s paying you for that huh? And is the money really that good?

EGAD. Someone has discovered my secret gig! I get paid to disagree with historians on social media! Now this has totally RUINED things for me, of course, because now everyone is going to want to sign up.

Honestly what makes you think as if you are even worthy to speak on the subject of Snyder’s work? You are barely educated.

It’s true. As we all know, people who disagree with Timothy Snyder on the internet have all graduated from the Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good and Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too.

mugatu says youre right

In conclusion, go ahead and be a ‘comfort woman’ for the Russians if they pay you so well. Just don’t imagine it will save you from the Gulagg. Whores are especially expendable at time of war.

Because I was somewhat trained in literary criticism (my professors will probably disagree on how well I responded to the training), I am actually amazed that it takes this guy so long to just come out and call me a whore. You can kind of see him building up to it, then abandoning that track, then coming back to it, for reasons that would probably be fascinating if I was into serious criticism of batshit comments on the Internet.

Also, “the Gulagg.”

And quit your crying about how “bad” you feel about what is happening to Ukraine. Collaborationist pigs don’t get to have have a voice. In any just society they’d cute off the pretty hair of yours and march you through the streets. Bitch.

You know, I’m not going to pretend that crap like this doesn’t get to me. It’s really low, obviously deranged, and it comes from what appears to be a very tiny group of people on the Internet, but it still gets to me sometimes. Especially now, when things are so hard, on various fronts. When they are too hard to even talk about.

arya is tired

PS you looked like a whore at HUFFPOLIVE today. But this is what you people do isn’t it – show skin when you have nothing interesting to say except for the usual “rah rah Russia” dung.

Good to know that me wearing a damn sundress in the middle of a heatwave in Moscow can now also be used against me.

Just in case anyone is wondering, this is what I looked like on HuffPost Live today:

Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 22.54.47

I know I shouldn’t be responding to any of this. I know I shouldn’t be justifying anything – or, for that matter, producing actual screenshots of what I looked like on a political panel in order to counter a stupid troll – but it’s the kind of week when merely ignoring it, deleting, and forgetting doesn’t help.

It especially doesn’t help that one of the people who writes me these things is very much a “real” person, someone whom I have a friend in common with back in the States, someone who has been to Russia – so not the kind of person you can stick into the “anonymous crazies” folder you will then demonstrably burn.

And it’s especially hard, because things in Ukraine are not getting better. The east of the country is descending into full-blown civil war. These aren’t just headlines from far away – this is personal, and it is terrifying, and dealing with trolls in the midst of it is profoundly ugly, and I can only cope with it by ridiculing it publicly, I guess.

And breaking out the ice cream after that. And the mint juleps, which go well with this heat, and make everything that much more tolerable.

am i the only one

 

No, idiots, Belle Knox is not an “embarrassment” to Duke

Ever since the so-called “Duke porn star scandal” hit the headlines, random people have repeatedly asked me if I am “embarrassed” by it as a Duke alumna.

Tony-Stark-Eyeroll

The short answer is: “No.”

The somewhat-longer answer is: “No, are you freaking kidding me/what the hell is wrong with you/are you for real?”

Here are some things, meanwhile, that I AM embarrassed by:  Continue reading

More EuroMaidan stupidity: concerned helicopter mom doesn’t like my tone

Ever since writing that post about stupid things people have been saying about the EuroMaidan protests in Ukraine, I felt like moving on from discussing stupidity – at least for a while. It’s not good for your blood pressure, for one thing.

But then the post started getting passed around – and some friends have e-mailed it to their friends – and as a byproduct of that, I ended up being very humbled. You see, I had arrogantly assumed that my anger at some people’s cluelessness wrt the situation in Ukraine would warn anyone off from trying to push more cluelessness on me.

Ha ha. Ha ha ha.

Dear Natalia, [name withheld to protect the guilty] gave me your e-mail address. I hope you don’t mind.

Well, I didn’t at first, but then…

I wanted to respond to you about the tone in which your post on Stupid Things Said About Euromaidan was written. I’m sure by now you are wondering “What does this strange woman have to tell me that I don’t already know?” And that’s fine. I completely understand that this is where you might be coming from. But the truth is, we don’t always know how our thoughts and writings can impact other human beings, do we?

Actually, when strange people write me in order to discuss my “tone,” my initial thoughts tend to be way less polite, but whatever.

Because he is her older brother’s best friend, my daughter really looks up to [redacted]. He on the other hand looks up to you. In fact, this isn’t the first time [redacted] recommends your writing to us. We have always found it inspirational, until you lashed out against some of the misconceptions people have about the Ukraine.

simon cowell blinks at you

Also: “the Ukraine.”

I understand that misconceptions can be frustrating. But not everyone who is not completely informed is acting in bad faith. My daughter, for example, has been thinking about volunteering in the Ukraine. for a while Thankfully, your post did not deter her.

THANK GOD.

Also: “the Ukraine.”

But you may want to think about others your post might have affected. There are a lot of idealistic kids out there who may not get every single nuance of the situation in Ukraine. But they are enthusiastic and want to help. Would you really want to discourage them?

Why yes, I do think that people coming to an unstable country with a bunch of dangerous assumptions should be discouraged. Vigorously so. Sometimes, with yelling and screaming – and unladylike language and tone.

But at least she didn’t use “the Ukraine” in this paragraph.

From what I have read in the news, the Ukraine needs all the help it can get.

Nope, here it is again! “The Ukraine”!

And since you clearly happen to be a good writer, you may want to think about the impact your particular side of the story may have on others.

“I don’t think you bow and scrape enough in your posts. Think about that.”

I’m sure that should you ever become a mother…

You mean like that time in 2011 when I gave birth to my son?

…you will understand the importance of inspiring others first, rather than discouraging them right away.

YES. In fact, when my son wants to overturn a fruit stand at the supermarket, I don’t stop him or anything. Sure, what he’s doing may be dangerous to himself and to all of the people who will probably take a tumble after stepping in some slippery mango or whatever – BUT DISCOURAGING CHILDREN IS BAD.

That’s really all I wanted to say. Best of luck to you and to the Ukraine.

But seriously, with friends like there, why would “the Ukraine” require any luck?

… OK, you guys will have to give me some credit – I DID think this was a parody at first. I was convinced that someone read my original post and decided to REALLY make steam come out of my ears. But then I forwarded this to [redacted], and it turns out this lady is for real.

After everything that has happened in my neck of the woods lately (if you scroll down, you’ll know what I mean), my initial desire was to immediately reach for a beer. Then I thought better of it. Why let the idiots win? And so, with a smile on my face, I demanded the vintage cognac instead.