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

Goodbye to The Moscow News: on riding off into the sunset yet again

“Again the well-worn saddle creaks,
And the wind chills an old wound;
Monsieur, where in the name of hell have you wound up?
Can it be you can’t afford a bit of calm?”

After nearly four years, I am leaving The Moscow News. Now that our owner, the RIA Novosti agency, has been liquidated, the paper has been put on hiatus, all of our social media channels are frozen, and the audience we have worked very hard to build has been left wondering what’s going to happen next. I will not be with TMN in the next chapter, so I will not be the one answering that question.

I do sincerely hope that the paper will be reopened – and that it will thrive.

I also have words of advice for everyone interested both in the media and in Russia.

To say that the future is uncertain is to say that the celestial void is somewhat daunting to behold. What’s especially hard to accept is that with regard to Ukraine, nothing may ever be the same again. It’s a scary, painful time. And it’s almost bizarre to observe how the stuff of headlines and news reports also has to do with your family and fate.

Personally speaking, I have been asking myself whether or not I would change anything if given the chance to go back. The answer is “no.”

I’ve also been asking myself how I really feel about everything – and in the end, all I can think about is how grateful I am for every single day I spent in the company of amazing people, doing something I loved. 

So here’s to love. And to the past. And to the future.

the musketeers agree

Darkness on the Edge of Moscow: excerpt 2

Previous excerpt here.

“Do your friends actually call you La?” He tried and failed to stifle a laugh.

“Close friends.” The label on the beer bottle would not come off no matter how hard she scraped at it. “So you, for example, would have to refer to me as Nelly.”

“Where did Nelly come from?”

“Full name’s Leonella.”

“Wow.”

He began to say something else. La’s gaze wandered downward. On the street below, a garbage truck was trying to turn around. Its path was blocked by a flashy sports car with its hazards on. She saw the truck’s driver jump out from the cabin and shake his fist in the direction of the sports car. The driver of the sports car leaned on the horn.

From up high, it was hard to tell whom to side with.

Continue reading

Darkness on the Edge of Moscow: an excerpt

This is an excerpt of a bigger work of fiction. 

The train paused briefly in the tunnel between the stations – a rare occurrence for the circle line. La leaned against the door, pressed right up against the place where it said “No Leaning,” and thought about disaster. Images from the trailer of a movie she had failed to see in the theaters – something about the river dramatically rushing into the metro tunnels – shimmered briefly in her mind.

She wasn’t sure how she would like to die in the event of a real metro disaster. Quickly? Or in some equally horrific and heroic fashion? Either way, Slava would probably be sad, at least for some brief and crucial moment.

He would have to hide it, of course. His sadness could not go beyond the boundaries of propriety. She imagined him drinking forlornly in some Soviet-like establishment with no seating spaces and lots of kitschy posters, surrounded by nostalgia-driven hipsters. She remembered that he no longer drank. She imagined him sitting in his car, his big hands gripping the wheel, as his knuckles turned white. He had told her that this happened sometimes.

Then what? Then he would drive home, pick up some groceries on the way, exchange gruff pleasantries with a neighbor in the parking lot, kiss his wife at the door as she urged him to take off his snow-caked boots, and park himself in front of the TV with a Playstation and the kids for company. It would snow lightly outside – she imagined delicate, ghostly snowflakes soundlessly hitting the glass. The kids would fight over the second Playstation controller. The neighbors would laugh and murmur on a nearby balcony. And La would still be dead.

She was angrily thinking about how Slava would never even notice the beauty and futility of the evening snowflakes bashing themselves against the glass when she realized the train was in motion.

Resigned to living for the time being, she focused on being angry. Why couldn’t he just break things off with her like the normal sort of cheating bastard who inevitably gets tired of a mistress? Why couldn’t he make her into a proper mistress while he was at it? Why was he talking about “confusion” and making plans that meant nothing?

The soldier profiles ensconced in marble at Taganskaya station side-eyed her as she got off the train. “The real problem here is that you spend too much time thinking about him,” one of them said. “He doesn’t think nearly as much about you.”

“Unless it’s to ruminate very briefly on the way your tits tasted in his mouth that one time,” another one piped up. 

“Trust us. We’re men. We would know,” a third one laughed mirthlessly.

Continue reading

A non-statement on what is happening to RIA Novosti

In case you haven’t heard, RIA Novosti, the owner of The Moscow News, the paper that was the original reason for my move to Russia – the paper I currently run, that is – is being liquidated by presidential decree. And RIA, in my totally biased opinion, is not just the biggest Russian news agency – it is also the best.

I’ve been tweeting about what’s happening, but I am not currently ready or able to write anything profound on the matter.

The only thing I can say, or want to say, is that I have been really lucky these few years, because I had the best damn colleagues in the entire world. Whenever I think about them, the theme music from “American Beauty” starts playing in my head. Then I get the urge to start prattling on about how grateful I am “for every single moment.”

This has made me realize that the time for analysis will come later. You can’t do much analysis while still technically in shock, while the gears of the very process you are set to analyze are grinding you down.

On the plus side, I finally know why it is I identify with Captain Mal Reynolds (captain of a perpetually endangered spaceship) so much.

You may think I’m joking right now, or making a pop culture reference because it’s cool to make pop culture references in the age that we live in – but understanding your inner Mal Reynolds is a special kind of privilege. Almost as special as working at RIA, come to think of it.

weve done the impossible