Thursday, November 26, 2009

Kidnapped Western Journalists in Somalia Freed, Arrive in Kenya; Questions Linger

1) Was their assignment critical? 2) Were they naïve? 3) Will they get book deals out of this mess? 4) Will their ordeal be made into a movie?

[Pictures Credit:  the Jawa Report blog -- Australian Nigel Brennan, left, and Canadian Amanda Lindhout -- a former model and make-up artist, right, in undated photos looking pretty, happy, healthy and possibly quite naïve, taken prior to their '08 abduction.]

[Picture credit:  Canadian-based blogger/still image of video footage obtained by Al Jazeera in July '09 -- Lindhout at left, Brennan at right ... Gunmen are unseen in the background, huddled behind the two.]

DATELINE AT LARGE (DM) -- The pair of lucky Western freelance journalists -- one a writer/reporter and the other a photojournalist -- who were freed in Somalia after a nightmare experience on Wednesday arrived safely at Wilson Airport in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, in a chartered plane on Thursday, according to The Associated Press.

Amanda Lindhout, a Canadian reporter and apparently a former waitress, model and make-up artist prior to becoming a journalist (as reported by the CBC), and Nigel Brennan, an Australian photojournalist who never sold a photo to a major outlet, had arrived in Mogadishu (video), Somalia's apocalyptic and bullet-pocked capital, in August 2008 to report on the plight of hundreds of thousands of displaced Somalis squatting on the city's outer fringes because of fighting between several militarized groups, including Al Shabaab and the Ethiopian Army.

The story has been well reported on over the duration of their captivity (most particularly -- and quite comprehensively, by the journos-at-large cooperative blog/site, Frontline Club). 

However, one question continued to make the rounds in journalist, aid worker and diplomatic circles:  "Did they know what they were getting into?"  The resounding answer, privately, to this question among these circles has been, "No."

It is understood by DM through multiple sources that neither of the pair had been to Mogadishu before.  At the time they undertook the assignment, on a freelance-pitched basis for the Paris-based France 24 English, the country was ratcheting upward off of the danger scale and was considered a no-go zone for most Western aid workers and journalists.  Though one of the two had worked in Iraq and Afghanistan before (Lindhout), for example, they were apparently unprepared for dealing with the second-by-second, anything-can-happen-at-anytime atmosphere of the chaotic Horn of Africa nation, especially its seaside capital city.

At the onset of their capture by the kidnappers, the rumor mill in Nairobi centered on the potential recklessness of the pair's decision to go to Mogadishu with no prior experience there and no emergency parachute to take advantage of, as most staff correspondents and shooters with the major newspapers and wire services have, in terms of cash and clout.  Although that doesn't always mean much, as was the case with veterans Colin Freeman and Jose Cendon, who were held for 40 days while on assignment for the English newspaper, The Daily Telegraph.

When reporting in Somalia today, journalists require heavy backing by their representative news outlet and CASH -- lots of it.  The money is needed to hire a virtual Guns-of-Navarone security detail, mostly freelance guns for hire.  (Check out this April '09 piece in Foreign Policy magazine by New York Times East Africa correspondent/bureau chief Jeffrey Gettleman, headlined 'The Most Dangerous Place in the World.')

In somewhat the same fashion as the two Current TV reporters, who admitted wrongdoing in their decision to cross the border from China into North Korea and ignored the warnings, Lindhout and Brennan pushed forward, thinking they wouldn't be one of the Western-journalist casualties, like veteran journos of Somalia Hansi KraussKate Peyton, Martin Adler (picture), and many more ... not to mention the Somali journalists who have paid the ultimate price in performing their duties.

[Check out these two guys -- Western freelance "journalists" -- who sold a larger video piece to Current TV, but cut out a "side" project on how easy it is to buy guns in Mogadishu (DM editorial note:  these guys represent what not to do in Mogadishu)... and by the way, Euna Lee, one of the two Current TV gals who had to be saved by Clinton, has signed a book deal, beating her co-captivity partner to the punch.]

But there was no Billy Boy Clinton coming to Lindhout's and Brennan's rescue -- no big-wig former prime ministers or leaders from their countries stepped up to the plate to make the public attempt to free them.  In fact, the Australian and Canadian embassies in Nairobi were coming under increasing pressure to do something about the situation, as were their leaders in Ottawa and Canberra.

Then, out of the blue, some people came to Lindhout's and Brennan's rescue.  Various reports, yet to be truly confirmed, say that something between $500,000 to $1 million ransom was paid for the pair's release.  (Now it's come out that the parents of both Brennan and Lindhout may have borrowed money and took loans against their homes to reach the amount needed to bail the pair out of their debacle, in addition to the kindness of an Australian millionaire.)

For the moment, the two can get healthy again, and find a publisher to tell sell their harrowing-and-daring story to for a six-figure advance payday!  Good luck, Ms. Lindhout and Mr. Brennan.

DM caveat:  It could have happened to anyone, really, but freelancers are at particular risk.  Somalia is in a state of anarchy and until its problems are addressed, on land, rather than at sea, it will remain the case study and poster child of failed states (FP magazine lists it as #1 in the world in their 2009 index). 

UPDATE, November 30, 9:12 am:  The New York Times and The Star (Toronto) have also written pieces similar to the post above by DM, published today and yesterday, respectively.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Exclusive Interview with Photojournalist Tim Freccia

Drifter Media took time to sit down with veteran freelance videographer and photojournalist, Tim Freccia, in Nairobi, Kenya this weekend before he flew into Somalia on assignment.

[Photo credit:  Drifter Media© archives -- Tim Freccia (Twitter account), seen at center left and holding camera, and Horeb Bulambo, center right, while working in the DR Congo in November 2008.]

[Photo credit:  Tim Freccia© -- Mount Nyiragongo volcano steams in the background while security guards protect Congolese President Joseph Kabila as he stands at attention for the national anthem in the eastern provincial capital, Goma. Kabila toured North Kivu Province in early 2009.]

DM:  You started out as a videographer/documentary guy, didn't you?  But you've made the switch to mostly still photography -- is that correct?  If so, why?  Is there more "work" out there for stills?

TF:  No -- I started out as an Alaska fisherman, then went to school for still photography.  I bought an Olympus Rangefinder at a garage sale when I was six years old.  I started working as a shooter while in school, and by the time I got out in the late 1980s I wanted to shoot motion pictures.  I started working as a professional photographer in 1987, and kept going. One of my first gigs was in Haiti, and soon after that I went to work in West Africa.  I've been doing both ever since.  Most of my work over the last two decades has been video, though over the last five years, or so, I've gravitated back more toward stills.  There are a lot of reasons for this, but one of them definitely isn't that "there's more work."

I'm shooting more stills because it's where I started and I miss the simplicity of telling a story with a single image (or series of images).  Up until very recently it was very difficult to bill myself as a "dual shooter."  There really haven't been that many shooters who do both (Mohamed Amin was one who did), and it usually confused people.  Now, editors want shooters who can do both, and I'm particularly suited for these projects.

[Tim Freccia©:  Ethnic Somali Kenyans in the dusty, drought-stricken northeastern town of Garissa in early 2009.  The pastoralist community in that area has been severely impacted by five years of little to no rain.]

DM:  You seem to have a preference for black and white photography ... do you think that black and white is ever "overused" by shooters?  Do you prefer it, overall, to color?  If so, why?

TF:  I'm not a "B&W" shooter or a "color" shooter.  I make photographs.  I started shooting on black and white film (hand rolled) because I couldn't afford chrome.  I processed my own film in the hotel bathroom in Haiti during Aristide's ouster.  Like I said before, I miss the simplicity, and I like the graphic quality of grayscale images.  As far as "overused" is concerned -- I'm not sure what you're asking, but maybe people are using B&W to cover bad images.  Color can be overwhelming in some instances or enchanting in others. If it's a great photograph, it's great.  If it sucks, B&W won't make it better.

[Tim Freccia©:  An FARDC (Congolese government army) soldier runs into enemy fire during a final advance against CNDP rebels, north of Goma, DRC, November 2008.]

DM:  Where have you been working over 2008 and 2009?  Anything already on the books for 2010?

TF:  I spent 2008 in Cambodia and then the last part covering Eastern DR Congo.  I've spent 2009 almost exclusively in East and Central Africa.  I'm booked pretty much up to Christmas, and then most of the first part of the New Year.

DM:  Who have you been working for lately (and over the course of your career)?  We also know you've been doing work for aid groups and media outlets ... do you have a preference to either?  Which pays better?  We also noticed you had a feature spread in The New York Times recently ... what was that story like?

TF:  Basically, I've billed myself as a "Media Mercenary" for 20 years.  I like to shoot either stills or motion pictures.  I spent about 10 years in Europe acting as a creative director and doing commercial and interactive stuff.  Over the years I've worked for a ton of media outlets and NGOs, as well as commercial work for big multinationals like Unilever.  I just did a story for BusinessWeek in Kisumu, Kenya; the story for NYT with Jeffrey Gettleman was great.  The Ogiek are an interesting tribe that face extinction, and the Mau Forest in Kenya is beautiful.  The NGOs don't really pay more, but I like doing the work to balance out the more "merc" stuff.

[Tim Freccia©:  A boy butcher in Kiwanja, DRC, where a massacre of civilians happened at the hands of CNDP rebels in November 2008.]

DM:  Is it getting better or harder for freelancers in Africa? Are you able to sustain yourself and family?

TF:  I'm probably not the best person to ask this question.  I'm able to sustain my family and myself, but that doesn't mean everyone can.  On the other hand, I believe that if you are talented and remain diligent, Africa has a lot to offer in terms of opportunity.  It's a huge continent, full of amazing people and stories.  Like my mom says:  "Do what you love, the money will follow."

DM:  What gear do you use?

TF:  Anything that works.  I've worked with probably every major system made in the last 50 years.  I started on a Nikon system and switched to Canon when the EOS system came out.  For a long time I shot everything on Pentax 6x7.  At the moment I'm shooting Nikon and a Panasonic HVX, though I'm starting to work more and more with video capable DSLRs.

[Tim Freccia©:  Police beat a street boy accused of stealing a cell phone in Goma, DRC.]

DM:  Do you have any advice for fresh young photographers aspiring to do the work you are doing?

TF:  Don't walk, run to a psychotherapist and seek help and/or medication immediately (if you think you want to do this stuff for a living).  Just kidding -- my advice is the same as my mom's, which I already mentioned.  I'd say don't get into this for the money.  There isn't very much anyway, but you can do well at times.  If you're doing it for the money (which you have to at times) you won't be able to go that far.  Another thing I say is don't get into it for "the adventure" -- you'll become jaded and will miss the point.  If you aren't
passionate about *making* images (as opposed to *taking* them), then this isn't the right field for you.

Maybe my best piece of advice is to look at other photographers' work and show them yours. Despite all the "di** swinging" that goes on in the business, it's a creative process full of creative people, and it's good to bounce ideas off friends. If you isolate (yourself), you'll become creatively constipated.  On the other hand, if you spend too much time socializing, you'll become boring, fat and ugly.  Don't over plan projects and don't drop into a place without knowing anything about it.  A poor workman blames his tools.  Keep the sticky side down and the shiny side up.  Don't eat (that) yellow snow.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

So You Wanna Be a Stringer? By Rob Crilly

This is a contribution from Rob Crilly, a friend of Drifter Media and an occasionally ornery English gentleman-journalist who is having a book published this month:  'Saving Darfur: Everyone’s Favourite African War'.  We are happy to promote this post as good old-fashioned, Gonzo-style advice, so heed his warnings, as Drifter Media's staff have made some of these mistakes along the way.

[Picture credit:  Photo provided by Rob Crilly©, seen at right taking notes during an interview in 2007 with SLA-(Wahid-loyal) rebel commanders in Sudan's troubled Darfur region (En Siro, North Darfur). ]

FILED FROM JERUSALEM -- I spent five years as a stringer for various British, American and Irish news organisations in Africa.  I built my portfolio from scratch until I was the first port of call for up to a dozen newspapers and radio stations.  The money was good, the hours flexible enough for the occasional 18 holes in mid-morning and the work took me from my base in Nairobi to Liberia, Botswana and Mozambique – as well as across my home turf of East Africa and The Horn (of Africa).

Foreign bureaux are shrinking. The days of the linen-suited staff foreign correspondent are gone. That’s sad and probably means foreign coverage is getting patchier. But it means there are more opportunities for motivated, well-organised and professional stringers – reporters who file to multiple outlets.

Now I’m starting again in Jerusalem, and as I wait for the phone to start ringing I’ve been thinking back to the lessons learned over the past five years.  So here’s how to make it as a stringer:

1.  Learn it – You’ve been an accounts manager in a small stationery firm in Slough and fancy a change?  This isn’t going to work for you.  Get some proper experience at a real news organisation.  Learn how print, radio or TV news works.  Learn how to pitch a story. Learn how to write it, record it, file it.  Learn how editors think.  You don’t want to be learning on the job when the job is in 50C (122 F) heat of the Danakil Depression with a deadline and gunmen looming.

2.  Bust it – Be on call all day and all night.  Never say no.  Don’t turn your phone off.  Somone wants a story, then give it to them. They have to call someone else because you have a nice lie on the fifth fairway and they won’t bother interrupting you next time.  I’ve sat on newsdesks where editors have rolled their eyes at the prospect of calling an unrealiable, awkward or alcoholic stringer.  Be Mr. Available.

3.  Read it - Local papers are dull:  full of boring council meetings and interminable political wrangles.  But if you’re not reading them, you’ll never spot the nib that says a British man has been found dead in a hotel room or the second sentence that happens to mention that police are questioning two women.  Lots of stringers don’t bother -- idiots.

4.  Meet it – Stories come from contacts, right?  Get out and about.  So the conference sounds dull, or the activist comes across as a nutter?  You never know when they might come in useful.  What else are you doing?  Probably not much in those first few weeks.  And make friends with the snappers and the wire guys (and gals) while you’re at it.  They know what’s happening long before you do.

5.  Blog it – Chances are you’ll have time on your hands when you’re starting out.  Maybe no-one wants to buy your stories just yet.  Write them anyway and stick 'em on your blog.  It gets you out and about reporting.  When a radio producer needs someone in Lubumbashi in a hurry, they might just find your name on Google. Tweet it, too. You’re not just a writer, you’re a businessman.  Advertise.  I’ve gotten work and story ideas from Twitter.

6.  Slum it – You wanna be a feature writer for The New York Times?  Forget it.  Sure they might come calling, but don’t be too snooty at first.  Be realistic.  Take work, any work so long as the publication is not going to put off other clients.  Getting editors to trust you is half the battle.  Once your name is out there, albeit in smaller publications, bigger news outlets are more likely to trust you.  Oh, and drop the middle initial – it looks daft.

7.  Flog it – Never, ever forget that you are running a business.  Someone hasn’t paid?  Chase 'em.  Keep yourself and your expenses organised and tidy. You aren’t going to change the world, or reinvent Gonzo journalism. This is your job, your living, your livelihood – not your calling.  Write stories that will sell, not ones that sound like a PhD title or a development-think-tank’s press release.  Make sure you get paid and don’t lose your receipts (my own particular weakness).

8.  Whore it – If an editor wants your arse, he can pay for it.  So until they pull out the cheque book and pay you a juicy retainer there’s no problem with selling your stories around.  Be sensible, though.  Don’t stitch people up.  Build relationships with editors so that you know what they want and can expect them to call when they need a hit in a hurry.  They’ll want to know they can count on you.  But at the same time, remember they’ll happily use someone else if they can.  You find Lord Lucan riding Shergar in the Timbuktu carnival?  Go to the biggest payer, but remember …

9.  Structure it – If you’ve got a big player using you, then use them to underwrite trips, guarantee your safety and cover your back. Bad things can happen to exposed stringers.  Put your big player at the top of your list.  Give them the best of your stuff.  Organise the demands of your other strings around them.  Everyone is a winner when you can share the expenses around a bit.

10.  Do it – It’s a jungle out there (particularly if you base yourself in the DR Congo).  But if you are any good, you’ll survive. It’s the ultimate meritocracy – no room for pedestrians.  And if you work really hard, run things like a business and follow these tips, then you’ll be set on the ride of your life. There’s no rewriting press releases or being stuck on diary, like you would back home.  You’ll be kicking news in the nuts – and occasionally having it vomit on your shoes.

This was first posted on Frontline Club, but was re-posted here on Drifter Media by permission of Mr. Crilly.  DM took the liberty to hyperlink a few more spots throughout the post than Mr. Crilly originally had ...

Monday, November 16, 2009

Kenyan Capital Braces for Possible al Shabaab Attacks: Sources

[Photo credit:  Drifter Media© archives (Afghanistan)]

DATELINE AT LARGE (DM) -- Somali-based al Shabaab rebels and/or sympathisers are planning an attack, or attacks, in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, in the coming days, according to sources who attended an emergency meeting on Monday called by the U.S. Foreign Service.  (Those sources are not named here and are being protected by Drifter Media as they were not authorised to communicate with the media.)

One Drifter Media source said that security officials with the U.S., French, British and Canadian embassies in Nairobi, along with United Nations Department of Safety and Security (UNDSS) personnel, are on high alert for potential vehicle-borne (VBIED), suicide-style bombing attacks by al Shabaab against both "local and Western targets" in Nairobi.

The U.S. Embassy is listed as a prime target.  Other targets include the compounds for the UN's DSS- and World Food Program-Somalia offices, located on the same block as the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi's Gigiri district, which is frequented by Western diplomats and aid workers.  It is also a heavily-trafficked thoroughfare for both pedestrians and vehicles.  (Get more info here about the U.S. Embassy bombing attack in Nairobi on August 7, 1998 that killed 213 people.  A simultaneous bombing occured in the Tanzanian capital that day, killing another 78.)

[Photo credit: Provided to Drifter Media's 'Intelligence Unit' by anonymous source working in Somalia ... al Shabaab members pray at an open-air gathering in Mogadishu several weeks ago.]

Also listed on the al Shabaab-Nairobi targets list is the headquarters for Kenyan police and security forcesDrifter Media has agreed not to hyperlink that location here in cooperation with the news tipsters.

In the emergency meeting in Nairobi, the sources said three vehicles have been rented by suspects currently under Western intelligence and Kenyan police surveillance.

Below is the leaked report (cut and pasted) from Monday's emergency meeting in Nairobi.  (FYI -- it is riddled with grammatical errors):

US Intel, Restricted

Desemination on approval only

Not for release

No Copy No open line coms

As of November 15, 10-12 individuls associated with Al Shabaab (see Somalia files), planning on carrying out attacks in Nairobi Kenya against local and westren targets. Targets include US. Embassy, United Nations operations relating to Somalia (DSS and WFP secificly named,) and Headquarters for unidentified Kenyan police and security forces. Attacks will be of Suicide in nature, three vehicals have been rented by suspects under watch. Attack is thought to be of VBIED in nature.

Capability: Insurgent forces have received extensive help from foreign personal. Results are inconsistant. Bombings in Hargysa and Bosasso a year ago showed a relitivly complex bomb signature, recent attacks on AMISOM in Mog, showed a simpile design relying on presure build up with in the armored vehicals for maximum effect. Bombers have included personal with US passports, however their role so far is beleived to be in delivery and not in construction. (see memorandom concerning Somali diaspora dated 12/1/09)

Credibility is considered high as person under survailance by local forces, and ellude said forces and are their whereabouts is no longer known.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Drifter Media's 10 Most Important Films of the Last Decade

[Picture Credit:  via Brammo Fan Files blog -- Peter Fonda, left, and Dennis Hopper, right, during filming of Easy Rider, which is not on the list below.]

DATELINE AT LARGE (DM) -- Alright, A.O. Scott and the right-coast Times have asked readers today what they think the most important films of the last decade are ... I've posted my own list on the Times' comment section and have also posted it below, and on Facebook.  What do you think?

1) Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (2003) -- [Watch first 10 minutes here.]

2) Syriana (2005)

3) The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

4) Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

5) No Country for Old Men (2007)

6) Traffic (2000)

7) Crash (2004/I)

8) Milk (2008/I)

9) The Constant Gardener (2005)

10) City of God (2003)

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Drifter Media/IRIN/NYT: Somalia's chaos deepens

[Picture credit: Provided anonymously to Drifter Media's 'Intelligence Unit' by a source in Mogadishu, Somalia.  Photo of al-Shabaab rebels taken several weeks ago.]

The New York Times brings us a story about how the U.S. is delaying Somali-bound food aid to the United Nations' World Food Program, who handles the logistics and distribution of the aid on the ground in Somalia.  The U.N.'s humanitarian news agency, IRIN, stands the Times story on its head with regard to relief-worker alarm over donor caution on aid to Somalia here.

The U.N. has been hamstrung by surly Somali contractors the U.S. says are channeling some food aid to the Islamist terrorist group, al Shabaab, (Al Jazeera English video piece here from Mohammed Adow about Kenyan recruitment to fight al Shabaab), who have been fighting to take over Somalia from the weak, U.N.-backed transitional government in Mogadishu.

Meanwhile, millions of Somalis in urgent need are suffering and are being left in the lurch.  And on top of that, Somalia is the most dangerous place to work in the world for aid workers like U.N. staff.  An estimated 40 percent of aid workers killed in the world last year died in Somalia while trying to help the needy (2009; 2008).

Jeffrey Gettleman's story from Friday can be read here, but Drifter Media's 'Intelligence Unit' has gained some more knowledge on the fiasco via a UN source working in East Africa.

According to the Drifter Media source in Kenya, who works in Somalia and spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to speak officially, current food rations are only sustainable to December, and that's when the aid tap for WFP will run dry without U.S./donor help.

"Right now the pipeline of food will break off in early December if the Americans don't release the food," the source told Drifter Media by email. "That said, current rations have been cut in half in many places within Somalia to make the current food stocks stretch as far as possible."

According to Mr. Gettleman of the Times: "The United States has played a huge role in saving lives by supplying about 40 percent of the $850 million annual aid budget for Somalia. But that aid is often only loosely monitored at best once it enters the country because of the dangers of working in Somalia and the fact that so much of it is a no-go zone for foreigners."

Peter Smerdon, a spokesman for the World Food Program's effort in East Africa and Somalia, said the U.S. "is traditionally W.F.P.’s largest single donor," according to Mr. Gettleman's piece.

Separately, as for the splintering leadership within al Shabaab, according to the D.M. source:  "There is some infighting within Shabaab ... moderate Muktar Robow is coming out with more hard-line talk.  Robow has not previously advocated the kind of hard-line Islam the hardliners want and have been implementing -- i.e., stoning people, attacking aid groups and their workers, killing barbers for shaving beards, or whipping bra-wearing women for 'deceiving men.' He says al Shabaab will support the fight against Israel, etc, which is earning him some of the support of the extremists within the Shabaab leadership.  This is helping him to have his way in Shabaab's decision making without really committing himself to insane tactics in Somalia."

As for al Shabaab's rivalries, says the source:  "Fighting between Hezbul Islam and al Shabaab continues. Part of the reason for the rivalry between the two terrorist groups is that Shabaab and Hezbul are both broke, so the stealing and pilfering of U.N. food aid, and hostage taking, are likely to continue."

So, overall, the U.S. needs to either pull al Shabaab off their list of terror groups, as the State Department has labeled them and which legally prevents the U.S. from releasing the food stocks sitting in Mombasa, Kenya, or the U.S. government needs to overlook that technicality in order to prevent a catastrophe from worsening in the only anarchic nation on the planet -- Somalia.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

L.A. Times Africa correspondent writes about journo taboo: fear of flying

[Picture credit:  European Union Aviation News of a downed Aeroflot plane in 2008.]

DATELINE AT LARGE (DM) -- OK, so it's not really a taboo, but flying around the world as a foreign correspondent, photojournalist or aid worker is often fraught with multiple perils.  Foreign correspondents and photographers, in particular, fly a lot -- A LOT (so do members of the military).

First off, flying to and fro is often romanticized in fiction and non fiction.  That's a bunch of ballyhoo nonesense.  Flying all of the time sucks.  It might be fun in the beginning, but as one begins to really roll the dice on playing the law of averages in flying all over the world, one tends to get nervous every time the rickety props (or jet engines) on some jalopy of a plane crank up.

Ms. Robyn Dixon, a verteran correspondent for The Los Angeles Times, brings us a rarely written-about piece on such trials and tribulations.

Her story will conjure many memories for those who have plied the air highways in planes run by airlines who cannot always be relied upon, like Russia's Aeroflot, who had a terrible track record in the 1980s and '90s, as Ms. Dixon notes:  "As a child, I loved flying. But my first posting raised alarm bells: In January 1994, three months after I became a correspondent in Moscow, a flight from Irkutsk to Moscow crashed, reportedly because the pilot ignored a cockpit warning that the engine starter turbine wasn't working. The engine burst into flames. All 124 people on board died.

"Soon after, an Aeroflot flight from Moscow to Hong Kong crashed because the pilot let his 15-year-old son fly the plane. The flight data recorders revealed that the boy unknowingly disabled an autopilot function, sending the plane into a 33,000-foot, 4-minute death dive.

"Every Moscow journalist had a terrifying story: flight attendants ferrying bottles of cognac into the cockpit; dual engine failures; emergency landings in the middle of fields when the fuel ran out; flights so cold that the beer passengers were drinking froze in their hands."

I flew Aeroflot one time from Moscow to New Delhi, but I was knocked out for that one, thanks to some of mother's little helpers, which is sometimes advisable if you don't want to get panicky when the plane suddenly drops a few hundred feet in mid flight for no apparent reason.

You can read Ms. Dixon's piece here, but I thought I'd throw in a couple of my own experiences for color.

March 2004:  While flying in a "Buffalo" (small twin-prop passenger jobbie) my French pilot, who was taking me from Lokichoggio, Kenya to Rumbek, South Sudan, decided to take a nap.  I was riding in the co-pilot's seat, as there were no other passengers on the aircraft after our first stop in Juba.  Flying over the Blue Nile swamps, I turned and noticed his chin buried in his chest, snoring having already set in (no lie!).  You know what I did?  Nothing.  He woke up after about three or four minutes and played rubber-neck chicken until we landed on the dirt airstrip in Rumbek, but not before we buzzed the landing area in order to make the goats and cattle run out of the way.

August 2006:  While flying in an African Union-run, Ukrainian-piloted Mi-8 Russian transport helicopter over the suffocating desert heat of North Darfur, Sudan our chopper began buzzing with some infernal noise alarms and we landed minutes later.  Our pilots pantomimed that the hulking beast needed some repairs, so there we sat at an A.U. peacekeeping base until they fixed the chopper.

December 2006:  Myself and two other correspondents and a photographer climbed into another Mi-8 chopper (this time an Ethiopian Army owned and flown Mi-8) on another dirt airstrip outside of a little Somali town known as Baidoa.  As twenty-eight of us poured sweat from our bodies -- mostly Somali VIPs (including the then prime minister and deputy PM) -- the chopper had to try three times to get off the ground.  There were only supposed to be a maximum of 16 people on the bird, by regulation, but that mattered little as I sat on the internal fuel tank, mattresses and bags of all kinds stacked all around us, and even on the PM's lap.  Once airborne, we stayed at a lowly 500 feet or so as we flew to Afgooye, just west of Mogadishu.  The worry was that we would be shot down at anytime by Islamist militants who were scattered across the countryside after Ethiopian troops had just routed them in pitched battles across the southern part of Somalia over the previous two days.  We landed on a dirt mound surrounded by several thousand Ethiopian soldiers and military assets.

July 2007:  The U.S. C-130 Hercules transport plane I was riding in at 2 a.m. from Baghdad to Mosul, Iraq dropped in altitude by what I estimated was a thousand feet as a fireball could be seen out the left-side port window of the aircraft.  The bearded special forces guys I was sitting next to must have gotten a chuckle as I yelped "Oh FU**!!!!!!!! -- FU**!!!!!!!!! -- FU**!!!!!!!!!  OH GODDDDDDDDDDDDDD!!!!!"  The plane suddenly leveled off, flying straight.  All of the clandestine and uniformed soldiers in the plane simply wrapped their arms into the plane's structural netting, which our backs leaned on.  Some of the soldiers who had been sleeping didn't move an inch!  I, on the other hand, thought it was all over -- my legs began lifting into the air when the plane lost sudden altitude.  I was scared.  The fireball had gone out, as seen through the port window.  One of the bearded SF guys sitting next to me, leaned over to me and said, "Don't worry, dude. If we were going down, you'd know it."  I resisted the urge to tell him I was prior Air Force, as he might have laughed more.  When we landed, one prop down (out of four on a C-130), nobody said anything about the mid-flight scare, so I got up the courage to ask one of the crew what had happened:  "Oh, that was just a maneuver," he said, which was total hogwash.  The plane took off still one prop down.

I have a hundred of those stories, as do other correspondents and photographers who have been at it a lot longer than I have.

But there was one of us who didn't make it through one of those scares:  Anthony Mitchell, my former co-worker and supervisor when I worked with The AP.  Mr. Mitchell died in a plane crash in Cameroon in 2007 while on assignment.  R.I.P. 

The moral of the story is that it can happen at any time and that thought is always nestled in the minds of those who fly around in jalopies operated by countries and airlines whose standards in aviation are not on par with those in the West, but even the West is not immune to plane crashes. 

Planes are hulking machines that we place a never-ending faith in to get us from one place to the next.  Sometimes it doesn't always work out.

Novelist John Irving doesn't want you to shoot yourself (wheeew!)

American badass novelist and Academy Award-winning screenwriter John Irving gave an interview to Big Think in which he advises young writers not to go a-shooting themselves if they can't get their work published right out of the gates.

"If I were 27 and trying to publish my first novel today I might be tempted to shoot myself," Irving admits.

He goes on to say that it's much tougher to get novels published today than it was back in the day.  We kinda already knew that one, but thanks for the expert advice none-the-less, Mr. Irving.

"I worry about what's going to happen with those good, younger writers, but -- uhhh -- I don't think 'the book' is in any particular peril.  I think 'the book' is gonna survive."  Here he is referring to the book as an art form, obviously, and that even though publishing houses are brutal places of competition and bottom-line driven environments, young writers should still aspire higher ...

Check out the Big Think video interview here.

Nice audio slide show via Reuters photographer Finbarr O'Reilly (via GlobalPost)

Here is an excellent audio slide show by Reuters photographer Finbarr O'Reilly out of Afghanistan via GlobalPost.  He has been covering Canadian troops (don't laugh -- they've been in it deep, too) in Kandahar Province.

He captures some great audio stuff during a Taliban ambush on the Canuck troops.  One of them is wounded in the attack, one of many the troops have been enduring, according to the 2005 World Press Photo of the Year winner (for a photo from Niger).

O'Reilly normally covers the African continent.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

REAL brawl breaks out in Washington Post newsroom! (Yes!)

Holy cow!!! -- more proof that print journalists are just a surly bunch of self-important misfits ready for a fight anytime, anywhere!

Pulitzer-prize winning editor and writer Henry Allen punched 'Style' writer Manuel Roig-Franzia in the face after a newsroom argument last Friday after Roig-Franzia said "Henry, don't be such a cocksu**er," according to FishbowlDC.

The "story" has also been covered by City Paper, Politico and The Washingtonian ... here's Politico's version ...

New York Times, Onion argue over which one is "paper of record"

The Onion is taking on the Times! (Ohhh, how droll!)

The paper of record has a story today in which they fawn over The Onion, which is also claiming to be the paper of record.  (Fight!)

The Onion has just come out with a collection-of-their-best-headlines book entitled, “Our Front Pages: 21 Years of Greatness, Virtue, and Moral Rectitude From America’s Finest News Source.”

Apparently The Onion folks get to sit around their offices like the kids at Vice and Gawker get to do, dreaming up hilarious stuff for the masses while stoned out of their minds.  (I actually applied to The Onion several months ago -- never heard back.)

Apparently they all go on to write for Comedy Central shows like The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Important Things with Dimitri Martin, Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, The Colbert Report, Futurama, etc.  Jeez ... I'm in the wrong business.  Hard news is sooo not comedy.  There's nothing funny about starving kids in Ethiopia, chopped up, mutilated dead combatants in the Congo or boring diplomats in Kenya (actually, Kenyan "diplomacy" is richly comedic!).

Anyway, here are some sample headlines the Times chose to highlight from The Onion's new book:

“Depressed? Try Liposuction on that Pesky Head”

“U.S. Continues Quagmire-Building Effort in Afghanistan”

“Quick and Painless Overthrow of  Taliban Enters Eighth Year”

“Afghanistan Rapidly Replacing Iraq as Replacement for Vietnam as Replacement for Quagmire”

Read the article and weep -- cause your job is boring compared to working at The Onion.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Bad moods ok; thought to boost memory!

Reuters brings us this gem of a story and further reinforcement for those of us who are always lambasted by giddy folks who don't question anything in life -- and were the ones who said, unfazed, "Ok!  I believe you!" when Bush and Cheney told us all of those massive, history-altering lies a few years back (and just last year!).

Apparently it's OK to be in a bad mood -- it boosts your memory!

The story's lede:

"Bad moods can actually be good for you, with an Australian study finding that being sad make people less gullible, improves their ability to judge others and also boosts memory."

The study "showed that people in a negative mood were more critical of, and paid more attention to, their surroundings than happier people, who were more likely to believe anything they were told."

And one more quote from the piece:  "People in a bad mood were also less likely to make snap decisions based on racial or religious prejudices, and they were less likely to make mistakes when asked to recall an event that they witnessed."

Some of us out here didn't have to be told that, but sharing a study like this with le masse will help fight the tide of the happies from crushing us all with their glowing giddiness.

Newspaper Deathwatch: Pulitzer-winning Phoenix paper set to close Dec. 31

The great year of the death of the newspaper industry marches forward!  The East Valley Tribune, a metro-Phoenix newspaper, is closing as of December 31, 2009.  It was just last April that the paper won a Pulitzer for "a five-part (multimedia) series that exposed how police protection suffered as Sheriff Joe Arpaio focused on efforts to combat illegal immigration," according to the paper's archives.

Hopefully you recognize the name and title of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is a conservative wing nut of the highest order.  He's been on CNN's weekday-afternoon show with Rick Sanchez a lot this year, where he proclaimed on his most recent appearance, just last week, "I don't take orders from anybody."  This was a reference to how federal authorities are debating the effectiveness of such loud-mouth goon who has been completely disregarding the rule of law.

He is wacky, God-fearing Republican (a.k.a. "idiot") who hates the people who aren't white!

Here's the story about their closure announcement.

Here's the story of when they won their Pulitzer just a few months ago.

Here is the five-part, Pulitzer-winning story on that crazy guy out in Arizona.

The sad thing?  He's planning on making a gubernatorial run for Arizona, or something equally insane.

Back to the death of the newspaper industry -- 2010 could be worse.  Get tough and act accordingly.

Doonesbury character, Roland Hedley, Twittering like mad!

So, for my debut post here on Drifter Media, we're taking a look at our old friend and uppity correspondent, Roland Hedley, who, of course, was the brain child of Garry Trudeau in his famous "Doonesbury" newspaper cartoon. Hedley has been brought back from beyond and is fu**ing Twittering now!

According to Trudeau, via Kurtz, "It became a creative challenge unlike any I've ever set for myself," Trudeau says. "Kind of a comedy haiku. It's ridiculously short. The trick is to make it seem tossed-off. Roland rarely thinks about what he writes."

Yes! "Tossed-off ... " Brilliant.

Here are a couple of classic Hedley tweets/quotes:

"No good stories breaking in failed narco-state, so @ Kabul International Hotel pool enjoying well-deserved me day."


"Palin gives incoherent 2,606-word speech in 14:20, or 192 wpm. I've said this before, folks: meth. People laughed. Now?"

Kurtz also goes on to discuss what's going on down in Austin capitol coverage, Rush, something going on at The Washington Times, the return of Al Gore to Newsweek, Peggy Noonan and that utterly foul woman of a human being, Liz Cheney.

Here's Mr. Hedley's Twitter page (apparently he just went at it with Kurtz on CNN):

Here's Kurtz's piece today in The Washington Post: