The “A Rape on Campus” debacle upset me, but not because Sabrina Rubin Erdely will keep writing for Rolling Stone. It was a group failure, and they believe Erdely’s reputation and track record shows this to be a mistake, not a sign of basic incompetence.

A writer like me, however, would be a bug on their windshield. Gives me chills.

Anyway, the media has been tiptoeing around Jackie’s role in all this, reminding us that she isn’t to blame and leaving her harshest criticism for the Twitter-sphere. You’ve probably seen a quote or two’s Jessica Valienti’s column in the Gaurdian, which goes so far as to call Jackie a victim.

What we have is a little shudder crawling up the industry’s back. It’s still radioactive to downplay sexual assault, yet statistics are being debunked, faculty and students are making noise and reports are emerging of wrongfully ruined young men. The media pushed the cart too far. It’s starting roll back, and it’s gonna be a nasty ride.

Posted in Cartoons, Journalism | Comments Off

Why Serial can’t not believe in Adnan Syed

I think the moment the smash-hit, podcast-of-podcasts Serial became my guilty pleasure was when creator Sarah Koenig did a guest interview on another of my podcasts, Slate’s The Gist, and I was reluctant to listen because I hadn’t caught up and was afraid of spoilers.

Spoilers. The first time I used that word on this blog, a fantasy dwarf shot a warlord with a crossbow. The second time, a Baltimore teen killed his ex (maybe).

I wasn’t early to the backlash, which you can guess at even if you don’t follow the show: The true (or at least, nonfictional) story of a murder case that left Baltimore high schooler Adnan Syed in jail for half his life and counting has the trappings of a paperback whodunnit, yet whodunits are delightful for all the wrong reasons if the dead girl is real.

Of course, one can’t fault the journalist if her story actually has narrative appeal, which is what inspired Koenig (who maintained to Stephen Colbert that she still doesn’t know how it will come out one week before the finale) to tell it one week at a time.

The problem is that the show not only can, but must tantalize, every single episode, even when the story doesn’t necessarily want to. This gives Koenig’s team some purely Hollywood responsibilities: They have to make the listener pull for Adnan; otherwise there would be no stakes. They have to make us believe in the possibility of his innocence while keeping his supposed guilt in the foreground. And most importantly, we have to feel like Koenig is just as mystified as we are.

Doubtlessly the story is suited to these tasks, that’s why they picked it. But perfectly? Doubtlessly not. This makes Serial a kind of Jekyll-Hyde of real journalism and paperback schmaltz. Even if most of the time the narrative serves the journalism, once in a while it’s going to be the other way around. And we have no way to know when.

I’m bringing this up on near the season terminus because (well, ok, because this blog has been on hiatus, but also because) we’re starting to see some of Koenig’s maneuvering play itself out in the show’s endgame.

When Koenig introduces Adnan’s attorney Christina Gutierrez in episode one,  she tells us that his family suspects she threw the case to make more money during appeals and, indeed, that Gutierrez was later disbarred for mishandling client funds. She doesn’t come back to these until episode ten: Turns out, the case-throwing was an unfounded hunch, and Gutierrez’s fall from grace was more for crimes of negligence than real corruption. Yet Koenig let that seed grow for nine episodes. She allowed it to subtly sway us against Gutierrez before it was her time to take the stand – so to speak.

At one point while analyzing the evidence, Koenig realizes (or seems to) that a lawyer’s goal isn’t truth, but to employ truth only when it is useful for making a case. I’m not sure the Serial team isn’t operating the same way: The truth is good, but the story is better.

I texted Carla Jean about this (as one does for moral-epistemic crises). She said perhaps Serial flavors its journalism with entertainment, but don’t we all? Any story has demands for storytelling. But on the other hand: “The dramatic arc is inherently more problematic when stretched over three months and dealing with real people.”

This isn’t breaking news. Adnan isn’t going anywhere. The reporting may be in progress, but they could have finished and released the episodes all at once Netflix-style. Yes, the show wouldn’t have reached its 5 million listeners without  snowballing buzz like a season of Breaking Bad, but it is paying for those downloads in integrity. It would give me pause if a convicted killer got a legal remedy because a whodunit made 5 million people think he’s innocent.

“Except what if he is innocent?” Carla Jean replied.

Maybe he is. Serial, at least, believes in Adnan. Problem is, it has no choice.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off

Laura Barnett: The writer who hangs out with your favorite bands

I found Laura Barnett by her review of Fifty Shades of Grey for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. I was looking for a literary critic to help me improve my reading diet (which has lately contained unhealthy levels of detective wizards).Turned out, Laura only reviews fanfiction-turned-mommy-porn when she isn’t attending London theatre, hanging out backstage at rock concerts, or drafting her novel.

As a freelance writer, she’s on London editors’ short lists when it’s time to give out the review tickets and backstage passes, from  videogame-inspired interpretive dance to poet-comedians with Viking beards. I asked her how a rookie might make a career shift from, I don’t know, promo copy for Minnesota quilt shops into hanging around with Lorde.* Continue reading

Posted in Freelancing, Journalism, Pro Files | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The thrill

Posted in Cartoons, Freelancing | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Freelancer Jon Rosen: How to write like Indiana Jones

Jon travels to the pygmy homelands at a tense time in the Congo…

Jon spends the night atop Nyiragongo, a mountain that, for all its beauty, remains an existential threat to…

Jon travels to the Tanzanian hinterlands in search of a man who claims to have cured millions through an elixir prescribed by God…

(Wookie sidekick not pictured)

Wookie sidekick not pictured

These are lines from the clips page of writer Jon Rosen. The first thing I told him when we spoke was that I think of him as Indiana Jones with a laptop.

“It’s funny you should mention that because I’ve been told I look like a young Harrison Ford,” he replied. “One friend still calls me Dr. Jones.”

I hadn’t actually  known what he looked like before our Skype session, only that he was in Kigali, Rwanda, writing on topics from Kenyan marathoners to deadly volcanos, for the likes of Slate, Al Jazeera and, most recently, National Geographic covering the struggle against Continue reading

Posted in Freelancing, Pro Files | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Fearful Symmetry


Those are what you think.

My Thai visa ran out today, which means instead of finishing the post on freelance journalist and badass Jon Rosen, I had travel from my current town, Maesot, 10 or so kilometers to the the border, venture into the town on the Myanmar side, and cross back for a fresh passport stamp.

But while I didn’t finish Jon’s write up, it was a successful day in the writing life. First, because tonight I had a fantastic interview with British writer Laura Barnett, responsible for The Telegraph’s reaction to Fifty Shades of Grey. Second, because I acquired two new cans of sardines for my collection (which my Thai pal carried back from a trip to Ghana), an antique opium pipe and a tiger fang.

I don’t support tiger death. But the tooth is very old – more a relic than a souvenir, and for Myawaddy, purchasing one in the locked back room of a dusty junk shop was like buying a an I heart NY tee shirt in Times Square. My town, Maesot, is a patchwork of smugglers, rebels, refugees, NGO’s and Chinese entrepreneurs. Myawaddy is somewhat less lively, but its underbelly is a different seedy. Like, old-school seedy. 

Besides, I’ve been starting to worry my future nieces and nephews won’t believe any of this crap.

And anyway it’s not even the sketchiest thing I’ve got. (But the human skull is another story.)

Posted in Updates | Comments Off

How George R. R. Martin destroyed Westeros; why HBO might be its last hope

(Game of Thrones TV spoilers; mild spoilers for books 4 and 5)

If you caught the season finale of HBO’s all-time most popular show, you watched Jaime Lannister risk all to rescue his brother Tyrion from certain execution. The two share a quick hug before parting, a small spot of warmth in Tyrion’s devastated life.

We book-readers didn’t get that. In our version, Jamie touches the wrong nerve and Tyrion torches his last real friendship with the lie that he really did kill his son. One parting stab from Mr. Martin.

And you TV fans think you’ve got it bad.

Well, either way things don’t look good for Westeros. At this point the protagonists of the central plotline have been harried, hacked, backstabbed and exiled in turn. The Lannisters end up on top, yet most of them are poisoned, shot with arrows or fleeing for life before the end. Thus, the War of Five Kings reaches the bottom of its arc like the Hindenburg.

Yet we still have Continue reading

Posted in Cartoons, Fiction, Screen | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

If you’re going to take a hiatus, do it in Japan

Yep, that's a cartoon about  George R. R. Martin books.

No, those cave scratches are actually fragments of cartoon about George R. R. Martin books.

I’m back in Maesot, Thailand. Went over to Japan for the last three weeks, and though I brought my little drawing tablet, the only thing it accomplished was breaking it again. It still sort of works, bless its heart, but I experimented with honest-to-goodness paper and ink today, heaven help us. (It’s more of a blow to this project in development.)

As for lately, here’s a piece on, if you were wondering what I’ve been getting paid for lately. And I stretched my fiction muscle a little bit, just for fun.

Last night I had a killer interview with a freelancer named Jon Rosen, who writes from east Africa and is more or less Indiana Jones with a pen. Feature forthcoming, but for now, I’m suddenly all excited about writing about writing again.

So: I’ve decided to do something – maybe not a big, meaty feature, but something - at least once a week. Stay tuned.

And finally, I, in all seriousness, collect canned sardines. Wanna see my neeeew ones? :D






Posted in Updates | Comments Off

Posted in Cartoons | Tagged , | 1 Comment

A Study in Paper

Posted in Cartoons, Freelancing, Journalism | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment