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.