Breakfast with Jon Lee Anderson (Hold the eggs, Boris)

Fresh from his 14-day trip to cover the devastation in Port-au-Prince, New Yorker staff writer and man-about-the-world Jon Lee Anderson was in no mood for the likes of the uptight waiter who served us breakfast at the Harvard Faculty Club.

 

He’d just witnessed people with missing limbs, the charred corpse of an alleged thief who’d been murdered on the spot by executive order, a presidential palace smashed “like some monster had jumped on it 1,000 times.” He’d even helped Nadia Francois, the woman he profiled in the Feb. 8 New Yorker, get food for the wounded and starving in her small community, located perilously in a hillside ravine.

When Nieman fellow Boris Munoz dared to change his breakfast order, Anderson bristled at our waiter’s grumpy response. I wondered if he wasn’t being a bit hard on the waiter, but when Anderson described his time in Haiti, I understood the annoyance: There are so many more important things in the world to grumble about. Scrambled eggs or starvation in Port-au-Prince?

Anderson, 53, is based in Britain but travels the world covering devastation in places like Uganda, El Salvador, Iraq, Afghanistan and post-Katrina New Orleans. He came to the Lippman House Monday night to attend a presentation by his longtime pal, Munoz, a journalist based out of Caracas, Venezuela. As a bonus, Boris arranged for him to talk to our group about his work over breakfast the next day. Humble and intensely thoughtful — and man, can a job get any cooler than his? — Anderson was one of our best speakers yet.

When someone questioned whether he’d crossed the line in helping his Haitian story subject get food, he described a gaffe he’d made earlier in his career while covering the Mexico City earthquake: He was trying to interview a grieving mother when she snapped, “Get away, you vulture.” The incident has haunted him ever since. Guided him, too.

“You have to help if you can. I couldn’t leave someone with a gunshot dying on the sidewalk,” he said, adding that he’s seen young photographers do just that.

It’s something not often talked about in journalism — the relationships we make with the people whose lives we chronicle. I’ve wrestled with it myself, having been accused of getting too close. As long as you’re excavating your way toward the truth, I believe there’s nothing wrong with being friendly with the people we write about, or caring, or acting accordingly, within reason. In other words: To do honest journalism, be a person first.

Last year I read Pulitzer winner Anne Hull, someone I greatly admire, describe her refusal to translate street signs for some Hispanic immigrants she was following — because it might have slightly changed what happened in the story. I wondered: If she hadn’t been writing about the women, wouldn’t she have done them that favor? Would that small courtesy really have changed the way her piece came out — other than them not being furious at her for hours afterward (which, ultimately, may have changed the outcome even more)?

In Anderson’s view, his favor was justified because he knew Nadia wasn’t “playing me,” or otherwise trying to manipulate what he wrote or did. He also included the fact that he’d helped her in the story. I would argue that his deed helped him get closer to an honest portrayal of Nadia because it strengthened their mutual trust.

“Journalistic mistakes are not as important as moral and ethical mistakes,” Anderson said. “It’s not about how I feel about myself or some code that was enacted in a hallowed chamber.”

Messy, complicated stories like Nadia’s should leave readers feeling “ragged, sore, raw. Because that’s the way life is,” he added. “Everybody should feel a little bad afterwards.”

The genius stroke of the Nadia profile was that it offered a slice of the chaos from the viewpoint of someone who didn’t represent the worst of Haiti’s devastation but nonetheless offered a powerful window into it. Nadia’s story was more nuanced than most of the staggering profiles of people in grief we’ve been reading in the newspapers. She had been deported from the United States for armed robbery, forgery and, later, re-entering the country illegally. And yet when Anderson first spotted her, she was walking the streets trying to find food for her community, an unlikely hero with a row of children trailing “behind her as if she were some kind of Pied Piper,” he wrote.

When I asked him to articulate how he came to settle on Nadia as his main character, he described a process familiar to many reporters who try to explain complex issues through the lens of a single person. The challenge is in choosing the right person, someone whose story allows for context and intimacy.

“I didn’t immediately know she was my story. At first it felt a little off-the-wall, too peripheral,” he said. But gradually over the next several days Nadia’s truths came tumbling out, and Anderson realized she was emblematic of Haiti itself: the country’s complicated link to America, the way she and her desperate enclave underscored its poverty. “I have always thought Haiti was a shame with a capital S,” he said. Telling her story was a “simple way of re-explaining what poverty is to people.”

It was also a way of conveying his own long-held feelings for the place — something he thankfully seems to manage everywhere he goes, including the Harvard Faculty Club.

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4 Comments

  1. Shelly Maycock

     /  February 11, 2010

    Fabulous!

    My class has been talking about subjectivity in documenting various kinds of catastrophic human experience in different genres, based on Robert Coles, James Agee and George Orwell, etc.

    I am going to have them read your blog and Jon’s article together as a more current example! Will let you know what they think…

    Reply
  2. bethmacy

     /  February 11, 2010

    Shelly, what a super cool idea.
    i have an essay i wrote for the book “best newspaper writing:2007-2008” that was all about my relationship with one of my story subjects — an illegal immigrant from mexico and her inner-monsters. i’m happy to send that along to you as a Word doc.
    it’s not online, alas, or i would’ve linked to it because i think it shows better what i was trying to tell here.
    your students are lucky to have such a thoughtful professor.

    Reply
  3. Shelly Maycock

     /  February 12, 2010

    Oh Yes, please do! Thanks!

    Reply
  4. Bob Spencer

     /  February 17, 2010

    Most of the world outside of cocktail bars and TV hypnotism has feelings and want to relate to others. From my personal experiences, people in developing countries and American inner city people value person-to-person interaction and relations more than the suburban and city cultures where you can wander their neighborhoods for hours and never see neighbors congregating and enjoying each other’s company.
    So, Anne Hull probably never got into a worthwhile conversation because she projected her way of life into a different culture. No doubt, she came up dry or only told a fragment of what is important.
    Just thinking about this a little more, I guess it’s not unusual for a newspaper or writer to leave out vital information so that they can more easily project their bias. She set herself up to do that without feeling bad about it.
    Jon Lee Anderson wants to relate to people; consequently, he has access to a rich understanding of what’s happening.

    Thanks,
    Bob

    Reply

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