Our nonfiction editor, Brett Sigurdson, recently spoke with Tim Kenny, author of Issue #3’s “A Month In a Far Country: Azerbaijan, November 2013.” Here’s what he had to say about his writing, his travels through lands often overlooked, and the evolving nature of journalism around the world.
You’ve spent several years writing and traveling throughout Central and Eastern Europe. What are the circumstances that led to your time in Azerbaijan?
In early October 2013 I was notified by the Fulbright Specialist program that I had been awarded a short-term Fulbright to teach journalism in Azerbaijan. I was listed on a directory of former Fulbrighters but had not specifically applied for this grant, so I was somewhat surprised but pleased to hear the news. I’d previously taught as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Bucharest in Romania in 1991-92 and again in the summer of 2005.
My four weeks teaching journalism in Baku was part of a joint graduate program with the School of Journalism and Mass Media in Baku and the Caucasus School of Journalism and Media Management in Tbilisi, Georgia.
I left Connecticut in the middle of November and stayed in Baku until the middle of December 2013. I loved it. My students were great; my enormous apartment, comfortable and close to where I taught. The people I met were kind and generous. It was an excellent experience that I would do again in a heartbeat.
In a study on the state of the media in Central Asia, co-written with Peter Gross and published in the International Journal of Press/Politics, you write, “Perhaps the one way to effect … change is to educate a new generation of journalists who are steeped in the values of press freedom, investigative journalism, and journalistic responsibility solely directed to the citizenry.” Did your experience in Azerbaijan—as well as Romania and later Afghanistan—convince you effecting such change is possible? Why or why not?
In places I’ve been that are not democracies—Afghanistan and Azerbaijan, for instance—real journalism is extraordinarily difficult to produce. Without rule of law, journalism founders, unable to stand on its own. Self-censorship is typically how most reporters and editors remain employed, but the price they pay is high, both personally and professionally. The work they produce is largely circumscribed public relations that adheres to a set of rigid if unwritten rules.
Azerbaijan is an oil-rich nation that wants to be seen as a democracy but is, in reality, a family-run entity, in which the rule of law is enacted according to whim. Afghanistan is worse—more a collection of tribal fiefdoms than a nation.
I believe that good journalism—fact-based, fair and accurate—is difficult to produce in open societies, let alone in countries that struggle to overcome poverty, corruption and a lack of personal freedom. My Azeri students, who are all smart, capable people, know what needs to be done to establish a journalism that works in their country. The question is, should they undertake that work at significant personal risk or wait until conditions improve?
I think it’s useful to show journalists who live in unfree places how their profession is supposed to work. Change is always possible, but it can take a considerable amount of time.
Are you still in contact with any of the students who appeared in “In a Far Country”? Have they communicated any specific instances when they put into practice the skills you taught, or were unable to, given Azerbaijan’s political and social climate?
I have kept in email touch with all of my students but one, and he has recently sent me a message that I will respond to. Last month in Amherst, Mass., I met with one of my students who was in the United States on a short-term fellowship. I got along well with these students, but I am not certain how long we’ll remain in touch.
Four of my Azeri students emailed me with questions shortly after they began studying in Tbilisi. Apparently, they’d told their new teacher that I had already taught them what she was saying. What that likely meant was that their new instructor was reiterating basic information about journalism, which is not the same thing as their being able to apply the concepts in real life.
But they were like that, an attitude I had heard from other international students on other occasions, believing that because they had heard something they had mastered the material.
I think my Azeri students might be embarrassed to keep in touch with me much longer. I doubt they will seek employment as journalists in Azerbaijan, knowing that they will be unable to put the skills they are learning into practice. I’m afraid they might be embarrassed to tell me when they turn to other professions.
I hope that’s not true, because I understand their predicament. I also believe they will all put their Western journalism skills to good use.
You stated in another interview that you fell into journalism, that you chose a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Oregon over a Ph.D. in Anglo-Irish literature at University of New Hampshire. Were you interested in literature and fiction writing when you were younger? Have you written anything besides nonfiction?
I graduated from the University of Michigan in 1969 as an English major. I tried writing short stories, but they were terrible and none were published, although I’m not sure how hard I tried. Like all English majors in their early 20s, I was a hopeless romantic. I wanted to apply to a two-year diploma program in Anglo-Irish literature at either Trinity College in Dublin or University College, Dublin, but was talked out of it by a visiting Irish professor who told me to avoid a diploma because it wasn’t what serious academics did. I was never a serious academic, but I was inexperienced. I took his advice and did not apply for a diploma course in Ireland.
That’s a long way to say that I am tinkering with short fiction at the moment; I am pretty sure my stories still stink. However, I now know that with practice people often improve, so perhaps I’ll keep at it for a while and see what happens.
One thing more. While I did sort of fall into journalism, my father was a newspaper reporter, photographer and editor for many years. He co-authored a book about a place called Beaver Island in Lake Michigan, where we vacationed when I was a child. I think in the back of my mind I was following his lead.
I also knew I wanted to write. I liked the idea of seeing my name in print. Perhaps I always knew that journalism suited my skills and personality better than trying to write serious fiction.
You appear as a young reporter for United Press International in Oregon in a book called Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes by Helen Benedict. In the book, your reporting is knocked for not challenging the principal players in a 1979 marital rape trial, known as the Rideout trial. In the book, you’re quoted as saying, “I didn’t do a very good job, frankly. I did the best I could, but in retrospect I can see the sort of job I could do now with more experience.” What would you have done differently? How did this experience translate to skills you teach your journalism students?
I had five or six years of reporting experience when I took the job with UPI, which is a wire service still operating today, although the current version is not the version I worked for in the late 1970s. In those days the wires were kings of the newspaper world, where the daily news agenda was set by big city dailies like the New York Times, The Washington Post and the two wire services, UPI and the Associated Press.
I struggled with that story in Helen Benedict’s book because of the nature of being a wire service reporter. For the Rideout trial—which was the first time in the country a man was accused of raping his wife—I would write an “overnighter,” a story that newspapers would put in their first edition that explained what was likely to happen that day in court. When something actually occurred at the trial—usually compelling testimony—I would write a new “top” to the “overnighter,” which acted as a place-holder for a more current story.
Let me point out that in the 1970s computers and cell phones did not exist. I would have to track down a pay telephone, dictate a new lede and two or three other paragraphs from notes, then run back into court and hope I hadn’t missed anything. As the trial wore on, my competitor with the Associated Press, a wily veteran reporter named Linda Kramer, had a guy keep one of the pay phones open to her bureau and not allow anyone else to use it, which provided her access to file whenever she wanted.
During the day I would file “a writethru,” which was a new story that updated and replaced the overnighter for afternoon editions. If something important happened I had to update that story as well by “subbing” the top of what I had done earlier.
These stories were all going out on the national wire via the New York office, UPI’s headquarters. Editors there were not shy about calling my office in Salem, Oregon, where the trial was being held, and demanding that I freshen up what I had filed.
The AP’s Kramer was killing me in the tearsheets from newspapers that showed which papers ran which stories and in what part of the newspaper. Front-page stuff was, of course, what we all lusted after. I was happy to have made no mistakes and occasionally beaten my competition with a story that news editors liked more than hers. It was a trying, exacting experience that made me a better reporter. I learned the value of accuracy and filing on time, and came to understand the importance of fairness in journalism.
I have told students about my UPI days, admitting that my individual stories from the Rideout trial were perhaps not always as even-handed as they might have been and that good journalism is not just about being first and being accurate but also about being fair.
I thought Helen Benedict wrote an excellent book, by the way.
You worked for USA Today as a foreign editor from 1989-1993. The paper is published by Gannett, which owns Vermont’s largest daily, the Burlington Free Press. The Free Press, and Gannett, have been criticized for putting profits above news, sometimes reducing stories to clickbait. Some point to these kinds of editorial decisions as symptomatic of the downfall of journalism. What are your thoughts on the future of the profession?
It is surely a cliché to dust off Dickens’ “best of times, worst of times” opening to A Tale of Two Cities, but that’s what I’m going to do. And what occurs to me first is this: the profession of journalism was not built on careful, thoughtful consideration. It has always lurched, from one awful story to another, one crisis to the next. Lurching, lurid and just flat wrong stories are hard-wired into journalism’s being, a part of its makeup that cannot be avoided, only endured.
Today’s journalistic lurching via the Internet provides wider swings of inaccuracy, leavened perhaps with the dark undercurrent of mindless conspiracy and fact-less opinion; alas, journalism has always been thus. Despite its errors and omissions the profession continues with examples of wrongs righted, little guys winning out over giant corporations and dangerous things brought to the public’s attention, perhaps even fixed.
Our society and its journalism has surely changed from when I reported for UPI in the 1970s and early 1980s. Journalism’s many modern woes—speed over accuracy and fairness, fable over fact—are thrust continuously on an unknowing public. Somehow Twitter’s tips and pithy observations have replaced legwork; easier can be better, but not because it’s easier.
Journalism remains a valuable commodity, however, because people need to know things. Western journalism finds itself trapped in the middle of profound change, prodded by ever-expanding technology and a culture—at least in our country—that apparently sees no problem conflating news, entertainment, opinion and analysis into what we now imprecisely label “content.”
I worry about our ability to discern the important from the merely odd, the dramatic from the significant. Journalism’s rampant pandering to celebrity gossip and “clickbait” lists reflects the influence of social media, but also the profession’s blue-collar roots.
I find that social media certainly has its uses in today’s journalism, but much of what I find there just seems to be people showing off in public. It can be a good starting point for reporting; it is rarely journalism, however.
Finally, this is what I believe about journalism and its future: the news business today provides the possibility of giving more people more information than ever before. This is a very good thing.
What gives me pause is the possibility that America’s consumption of information may simply break down the way our distribution of wealth has, leaving haves and have-nots: Those who know—because they understand how to sift through the dross to find the valuable in journalism—and those who believe that Entertainment Tonight is a news show.
You were in Europe just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, now 25 years ago. Are there any other big stories you wished you could have covered?
The conflict in Ukraine triggered the itch to get out and report again. On the other hand, I would avoid Syria at all costs, just as I have always avoided flights in helicopters, which drop from the sky too frequently. I could have covered the first Gulf War, the good one, when I worked for USA Today, but doubted it was going to make a decent assignment. I was right and remained glad that I stayed home and helped organize coverage. That decision helped me later weigh taking on other difficult assignments, which is always a balancing act between the importance of the story, the potential danger, and my need for excitement.
There will always be stories that are fascinating, useful and exciting to cover, but working abroad under tough conditions is a young man’s game.
Let’s talk process. As a fellow journalist, I’m curious to know your process for research and working with sources. Has that process changed now that you’re out of the rigors of daily journalism and working on more reflective nonfiction essays?
My research, like most people’s I suppose, begins by cranking through the Internet for information about the subject at hand. I also spend time looking for tips, names of people to talk to, organizations to contact and in-depth reads on the topic.
Unlike most people who do research, I also make lots of telephone calls. I love using the phone. People are inevitably startled when I call out of the blue and ask them questions. Usually they’re chatty, especially if I’m asking about their lives or a subject they have given their lives over to.
I also check back with people when I need more explanation, something I rarely had time for as a daily journalist. I ask these contacts for other people to talk to. I prefer doing interviews in person, but often that’s not possible. Using the telephone is the next best option. I also Skype when people are they willing, usually only after we’ve talked on the phone once or twice.
Many of the essays I write now rely on personal observation, memory, notes and quick interviews on the fly. Some of my stories recollect things that happened while I was a reporter. For these I always have notebooks—I have stacks of them after more than 40 years of reporting—that I can refer to for quotes and to refresh my memory. Whenever possible I contact people who were also involved in the event I’m writing about, asking what they recall.
It’s funny how often memories conflict, not in the overall impression of what happened, but in the incidental details. Above all, I try to be as accurate as I can be, while reflecting on what my reporting means in a larger sense.
Can you talk about your upcoming book, Far Country: Stories from Abroad and Other Complicated Places, which is scheduled for publication in spring 2015? What can readers expect? What stories do you tell?
Readers can expect a spanking good read from Far Country—well worth the $14.95 my publisher says she plans to charge!
That’s my hope, anyway.
My intention was to tell stories about people and places that we often overlook, countries I have traveled to since 1989: Romania, Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Afghanistan and Azerbaijan, among others. Some of the stories are set in dangerous places, including Sarajevo and Kabul during conflict, where trouble was unavoidable. Others are more about avoiding danger, in Bucharest and Pristina; still others splice together time, memory, and place and how these constant themes in our lives are quite different for all of us.
In “The Siege of Sarajevo, July 1992,” I flew into the city’s recently opened airport with doctors, journalists and staffers from the charity AmeriCares, expecting to report on the delivery of medicine and medical care to the besieged capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which had largely been cut off from the world by Serb fighters since April 1992.
That story, however, was impossible to cover. Instead, I found myself in urban warfare that was only beginning to take a toll that would, over the more than three years, run to an estimated 10,000 lives lost, 56,000 people injured, and a crippled city. The legacy of the siege of Sarajevo and the wider war in Bosnia is political instability. The “Siege of Sarajevo” describes the city in the first week of July 1992, when the nature of its future, then as now, was unfolding but not wholly clear.
“Begging in Kabul” describes the difficulty in finding some sense of certainty about the places I’ve lived or worked, including my native Detroit, my eastern Connecticut home, and Kabul, where what I believed to be true was most often, in the end, uncertain.
In “Dark Nights and Feral Dogs,” darkness and the fear it can engender – in Connecticut, Romania and in Kosovo – are brought home when Hurricane Irene strikes the East Coast in August 2011.
“Death in Tel Aviv” looks at loss and memory through the eyes of old men, one of whom saw his father commit suicide.
These stories are true. I hope they are interesting and that they tell us something about ourselves as well as the places where I discovered them.
Given that Mud Season Review grew out of a writers workshop, I have to ask you about your worst writing workshop or feedback experience.
My worst editing experience came not long ago. I received an acceptance from an editor, whom I shall not name but really should as a warning to other writers. She said she loved a piece I had written about Kosovo and would love to run it in her magazine, which is connected to a university in Virginia. Would I mind some light editing?
I’ve lived through decades of my daily journalism stories being “improved” by editors and thought, “Really, how bad could this be? She loves it already.”
I understand that any editor—whether via computer or using pen and pencil—must alter, tweak, fix and otherwise “improve” someone else’s copy. It’s hardwired in all of us who work with words. I was ready for some changes, a few suggestions, perhaps a question or two. Sometimes I am wordy. Sometimes I leave stuff out.
This editor, however, wanted to write my story.
After the first go-round of lengthy changes and many questions, I pointed out that I was not getting paid for the 5,000-word story I was supplying her magazine and I was ready to stop the editing process if she was. She was not.
After two complete edits of the piece on the annoying track-changes system, I came to the realization that the story would soon no longer be mine. I balked. She insisted things were going well. But they were not, and I withdrew the story from her consideration. I am not a beginner.
Everything I have written has been published, often in respectable magazines with smart editors, like the Mud Season Review.
This editor, I’m afraid, was unable to distinguish between light editing, which means moving grafs around to improve structure and clarifying in other ways, and a complete overhaul.
I told this tale, in shorter form, to an MSR editor not long ago. Her answer about my story fits any story and should be the mantra any good editor repeats to herself often. It was breathtakingly simple: “You either like it or you don’t.”
Editor’s note 1/18/15: Tim Kenny continues to think about Azerbaijan and has alerted us to a recent New York Times editorial on its political leadership and treatment of journalists: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/12/opinion/the-two-faces-of-azerbaijans-mr-aliyev.html