For the general American public, the Flint, Michigan water crisis is over. The problem was identified, the public was outraged, the media coverage faded. But for those residents of Flint — a former industrial hub an hour north of Detroit — the catastrophe is far from finished: lawsuits are still ongoing, funds are being allocated, water lines are being replaced, and the drinking water for thousands of people is still poisonous. All of which is to avoid mentioning that the water crisis was the culmination of disaster in a once-prosperous city that has since faced severe hardship and mismanagement at the hands of government officials; Flint’s poverty rate is above 40 percent and the median household income is less than half of what it is in the rest of Michigan. The city, according to residents featured in Brian Schulz’s short documentary “For Flint,” has hit bottom, and the only place left to go is up. The rest…
The thing I am still learning to do, is write on a tight deadline. Not that this piece was tight, or demanded on deadline, but it was a piece we decided to cover and I knocked out in about an hour or so.
It was also a story where I didn’t do much actual reporting, where I relied upon some court documents and then on previous Missourian reporting. Which, I struggled with at times, in part because we delivered contradictory information in different stories over the years. It wasn’t exactly hard to find the correct facts, but it was interesting to see how some minor things can get twisted or lost as stories evolve and different writers pick them up.
Lastly, I’m still finding my way around CaseNet, which is a great resource, but jargonistic.
More of an explainer than anything else I’ve done, this story really came from the fact that I kept hearing about tax credits, but I, in trying to write about them as a reporter, didn’t even really understand what they were. So, this was my chance to dig into the minutia of it all. The lens for it, though, was the new health care proposal and how radically it would change the current set up (to favor the young and the rich).
The story was also really my first attempt to make numbers clear. Tax credits are, obviously, based around a lot of numbers. So to give examples and help people understand what everything actually means, I had to understand the numbers and then find a clear, concise way to relate them. I don’t think I succeed much at first, but I think I got to a point where it wasn’t overwhelming, and it was pretty clear. I have a tendency to get lost in paragraphs that are packed with numbers, my eyes start erratically jumping around, and just about all the information is foregone. Eventually, I just skip to the next paragraph looking for the summary. But, I know that I have an obligation to relate the numbers, to be as transparent and thorough as possible, and that means including and explaining the numbers.
Also, generally speaking, this was the first time I understood that I was enjoying writing about health care and I was starting to get to a place where I could make sense of what other stories were saying—and when I realized just how confused so many other people probably are when they approach the painfully erudite complexities of our health care system.
This assignment came sort of late and round about. True/False was in full swing and, essentially, we were looking for a chance to take a deeper look at a film — especially with Vox covering reviews for the films and a handful of other reporters tackling the festivities.
For me, this assignment was much more in my wheelhouse. I have been reviewing movies and writing about movies and movie culture for a few years now, so I felt confident that I could do what I needed to do, and that I knew the language to articulate the story — all things that I worry about on a regular basis regarding other stories. Being a writer before a reporter, I’m always concerned that I know the words (the language, the diction, the jargon, the vernacular) to tap into the subject at hand and say what I want to say, and movies is one subject where I feel comfortable doing that.
Generally, I think it paid off. It was one scenario where I felt comfortable writing the story in my head as it played out. I knew most of what I would say about the movie before even getting a chance to talk with the directors (while open to letting their comments and interpretation guide my structure). It was new, though, to not really have any time to plan questions, to be put on the spot and need to come up with thoughtful, pointed questions. I jotted down a few notes during the movie, but I’m used to having more time to think questions over and perfect them, so working on the fly in that respect was fun and eye-opening.
Chatting with the directors was also a treat. They were open and candid in a way that many subjects aren’t. They also had a thoughtful digression about the term “subject” and how the media views those who they come to interview and watch and abandon — the disconnect created by such an exacting medical term: subjects. It was possibly my favorite moment from our discussion, but not one I could really see fitting into the story I put together.
From time to time it’s good to remind the world (and ourselves) that we are The Playlist, and in addition to being movie lovers, we are also obsessed with music, specifically movie music. It also helps when a director gives us good reason to take a long look at their musical choices — i.e. by making a movie about music. Thankfully, impressionistic mastermind Terrence Malick has finally done so with his ephemeral, soul-searching new movie, “Song To Song.” It’s a film, like much of his work has been, about the search for divinity amid the tumult of life – only this time, the search goes… song to song.
The director’s latest isn’t our favorite (check out our C-grade review), but it’s nevertheless hard not to be dazzled by his visual bravado and the raw emotion that he can elicit from a waltzing camera (courtesy of his longtime partner Emmanuel Lubezki). Much of which comes from the outlandish beauty that Malick seems to see in the ordinary mundaneness of existence (which, it must be said, is skewed some by the outlandishly beautiful people he casts). When Malick is at his best, his contemplative cinematography resonates as though we are all, in his patient hands, bearing witness to the divinity of everyday life. But just as key to his success, and so often overlooked, is the evocative music — and the provocative silence — that so perfectly harmonize with his whirling visual aesthetic.
So to celebrate “Song To Song” we have set out here to explore the music that’s most crucial to Malick’s films, the songs that most moved us, the motifs most vital, and, generally, the best Malick Mixtape we can put together.
I think my favorite part of writing this little story was simply getting a little tangled up in some True/False chaos (delightful chaos, to be sure). Certainly it’s an important little piece, but felt like the sort of thing I would skim if I came upon it. I was able to get myself into simply because of the exciting situation surrounding it: it was my first True/False and it was fun to get the inside scoop — as small as said scoop was.
Last month, “The White Helmets” took home a much-deserved Oscar for Best Documentary Short. It’s not the sort of film that reinvents the wheel, nor is it a particularly grand feat of filmmaking. What it is is an extraordinary glimpse at an urgent and overlooked crisis, a film that manages to find the human capacity for love amid the horrendous onslaught of war. Without a doubt, it was the most important film in its category. “Cries From Syria,” is, in many ways, an expansion on “The White Helmets,” a feature-length look at the war — a film that, while not especially pronounced in its structure or technical achievements, is nonetheless timely and devastating.
When I first considered the thought of being a journalist, it was always this sort of adversarial ideal: checking the power of those who hold it. It’s the sort of journalism that I’ve always admired. So, getting a chance to dive into a story like this one, about a local man who was arrested and is accused of providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization by undercover FBI agents who provided him with ideas and funding, was exciting (for both selfish and not selfish reasons).
Everything else was less exciting and more exacting though. And rightfully so. Wading through the complaint was sort of like learning a new language for me: The first few pages made little sense, but as I read more and more I was able to learn to read it. Which helped me to understand the importance of doing just this: the important tasks that the average individual doesn’t have time to do, to help synthesize important information and hold accountable law enforcement agencies.
This time, of course, the law stands on the side of the FBI (not that the law is infallible), but I’m happy to have dug to that point. An article from The Intercept, in conjunction with our own reporting, gave me the inclination to look into what happened and I think in doing so — in talking to an expert and reading the complaint myself — I was able to find a middle ground that neither previous piece had: that while seemingly egregious on the surface, it was “by the book” — for better or worse.
Fewer narratives are as played out as the prickish-man-returns-home-and-bumps-into-childhood-friend-who-never-left-and-learns-to-embrace-his-past arc. It’s about as formulaic as they come. The characters are stock, the conflict is familiar, and the overall journey is the same. Of course, the reason it’s so familiar, that directors and writers keep going back there, is because it can work, and the conceit embodies a pervasive set of familiar fears: Who hasn’t wanted to flee from the small town where they grew up? Who hasn’t felt the tug of big-city superiority? Who hasn’t been a prick for it?
First and foremost, working on this story was a lot of fun. At times it was stressful and frustrating, and at times I felt like I would never be able to work my way out of it, I’d never be able to fully articulate everything I’d learned and make it into a succinct and informative story. And to that end, I think I’ve still got a long way to go.
Without a doubt, I’m proud of the story I managed to put together, but I can’t help but feel like it could have been better. Whether with more reporting, more time, or simply more knowledge of the intricacies of building journalistic stories, I feel like it could have been a better creation for the reader. But, I remind myself in such moments of doubt, that that is why I am here. To learn about these very things. To learn how to manage time, to find sources, to ask the right questions, to structure the right narrative, to include the right information.
I did really appreciate the chance to get to know this story though. I feel way more confident and comfortable when I can dig deep into a story and feel certain (or mostly certain) that I am doing my readers a service by telling them what they need to know in the best possible manner — when I don’t know a subject, I worry that I can’t possibly guide them through the swamp of information.
And just generally, I love long form. I’m a huge fan of the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine and the Boston Review, so getting to participate in the creation of a bigger, more encompassing story (no matter how many thousands of words shorter it was than the journalism that I love most), was a real delight.