After a week of covering the crash of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 from the Netherlands for The Washington Post I felt as churned up as ever after working a story. That had little to do with the awfulness of what happened, nor with the particularly iffy business of having to approach the Dutch next of kin and ask them for their stories. That’s all par for the course.
I’ve seen bloodshed from close up in the Middle East and elsewhere, and just a couple of years ago I covered the aftermath of the attacks by Anders Breivik in Oslo. No, my misgivings and my agitation were entirely selfish in origin; back then I had done so while in a steady relationship with my newspapers. I knew why I was doing it and for whom, and I knew that despite the sometimes awful nature of the job, it was a necessary part of a still relatively varied palette of foreign coverage that I provided.
While covering flight MH17, the demands of disaster reporting, the intensity of the work, and the ad hoc nature of my involvement made me feel I had been hired as a journalistic hit man, even though the Post request was entirely reasonable. A one-off contract killer at that; because beautiful execution or not, clients nowadays will move on with the news cycle, and not look back. This is no reproach to The Washington Post, they were fine and did what they had to do, it’s about the position of the precarious freelancer in today’s media landscape. (Note my craven sucking up to the Post. But seriously, it has nothing to do with them in particular).
So, what’s bad about that, you may well ask? Why not make a quick buck or two, really it’s not much more nowadays, and praise myself lucky that my name’s on a byline again and I’ve earned a couple of warm meals? Well, if it’s a one-off, the money is negligible, taken over the course of a year. If you’re in it for the money, you need to know that you have a reasonably regular source of income from a client, otherwise it’s hardly worth your while. For the exposure? Well sooorrryyy, all I can say: been there, done that. And what’s it done for me? You get the point. In the end, all you’re left with is a sense of obligation, to the story, to the profession, to your own sense of self, it’s what you do. But even then you don’t get to do it the way you know is right because you’re just the hired help.
Am I just an old, bitter curmudgeon? Yes, probably, but I have been active for a while in journalism and have my own ideas about how the media landscape has changed. For me, at least, not to have a certain type of relationship with a media organization means operating in a void. I’m not able to pitch the stories I think are worthwhile to a receptive editor and they cannot know exactly what I have to offer if they never take anything from me. The old-fashioned journalistic enterprise was also based on trust from both sides. As a journalist you knew you could rely on your editor for support, or at least as regular an income as possible, even if you were a stringer. As a media organization, you were able to rely on these relationships to provide you with reliable information, timely signaling of interesting developments and total dedication the moment news broke. Now these bonds have been broken.
Compared to the loss felt by those with close connections to the people on Malaysia Airlines MH17, my self-involvement is distasteful and unseemly. But I’m not comparing it to their loss, plenty has been written about that both sincerely and touchingly as well as cringingly self-serving. If never another word is written about how the Dutch mourn, it will still be too much and too soon. Disasters get politicized and the grieving relatives become pawns in international intrigue and avatars for domestic bombast. But, oh no, don’t let them fall into the hands of the press, apart from Putin always the biggest villains on the block. At least that’s how the Dutch seemed to look at it, despite the overall meek nature of their domestic reporting, but more on that later.
If this jeremiad is unseemly in the light of a disaster such as MH17, then at least I’m doing it in the appropriate place, on a blog, the forum par excellence for unseemly expression. And if anybody has wondered (I doubt it) why I have not posted for almost a year, I’ll simply say this: I found out that I really hate writing for free, in a vacuum, and for no apparent reason other than self-publicizing. I’ll make exceptions, such as in this instance, when I think I actually have something to say. I’ll follow up this post over the next week or so with an account of how it went down…