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My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Lara Logan’s Talk at PSU: Not the Chicago Talk (Or, “Never Attend a Talk with a Preconceived Idea of What You’re Going to Hear”)


Author’s note:  I KNOW this is a long piece, particularly for a blog.  It’s my blog.  I decided to break the “rules.”  I look forward to your comments.
AN 10/20/12:  After seeing pics on the PSU Facebook page, I changed the oh-so-important description of what she was wearing.  Turns out, what looked blue in the Lincoln Auditorium's dim lights was actually black.  I *did* label that paragraph "God Is In The Details"!

Preamble

A few months ago, I received a surprising - and very short - email from a friend in Portugal.  “I’m so jealous!,” it said.  And then there was a link.  I clicked on the link and discovered that Lara Logan would be giving a talk in Portland, a mere two hours from where I live.  My friend, like me, a longtime “fan” of Lara’s, wouldn’t be able to go, but *I* would.

I got in touch with a few (more local!) friends who have journalism backgrounds, asking if they’d like to go to the talk with me.  One already had plans, but the other jumped at the chance.

So, to cut to the chase here, I went to Lara Logan’s talk at Portland State University this past Friday with an old, dear friend who got her journalism degree from Northwestern University in Chicago.  She jokes that in her next life, “it’s 60 Minutes for sure.” 

The talk was held in a 100-year-old, very ornate building, though the auditorium itself was very simple.  The first 10 rows or so were reserved for people who had forked over the big bucks to attend the reception beforehand.  My friend and I managed to score two seats in the first available row behind the reserved section.  
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The Initial Reaction

When the talk itself ended, however, we both looked at each other.  “What did you think,” I cautiously asked.  Maybe I’d missed something.  Like something BIG.  My friend, a generous soul not prone to criticism, hesitated, “Um, not what I expected,” she replied.  I asked if she wanted to go out and discuss it – kind of debrief about the array of fascinating stories we’d heard and what we had *thought* we were going to hear.  My friend wanted to go out and talk over a beer, but couldn’t, as she had to be at work at 6:30 the next morning.

So, I went to bed that night trying to sort out why I felt let down.  And I’m glad I didn’t blog about the talk right away, because thinking about it for 48 hours (and emailing my friend in Portugal with the “detailed, blow-by-blow” account she’d requested) gave me a chance to realize some things about expectations and about the talk itself, things that I surely wouldn’t have realized had I blogged what I was feeling at 9 p.m. Friday night.

What I was feeling that night at 9 p.m. was “Really?  Thirty-five dollars and a two hundred mile round trip and THAT was what I got?” 

But, happily, I don’t feel quite like that now.  

There is an important difference between simple *expectations not met* and *really bad talk.*  It wasn’t what I had expected, but it wasn’t a bad talk. 

What the Talk WAS

It was totally distinctive from any other talk I’ve ever been to at a university or college (and as an academic, I’ve been to my fair share!).  I’m going to be bold (and conceited?) enough to say that a mini-introduction about the talk’s main message and how she planned to deliver it would have gone a long way toward making the talk itself easier to follow.  It was not introduced with any kind of main idea; it was a meandering stream-of-thought talk and I literally have spent two DAYS typing emails about it to my Portuguese friend in order to figure out what was the message

There were, to be fair, several messages.  Really care about what you do.  Don’t expect others to achieve your success.  And “this is the way we seasoned journalists get it done.” 

But it was nothing at all like the barnburner of a talk she gave in Chicago 10 days prior, and which has received an ungodly number of retweets (primarily by folks on the right, who feel – perhaps correctly – that Lara has given them the narrative they were looking for to claim Obama is lying to Americans and sucks at foreign policy).  Never mind that she said in that speech that she did not care who was in office, or that she emphasized that MANY actors in Washington were giving this false narrative (CIA, think tanks, military, AND the administration). 

Watch the WHOLE speech from Chicago.

Never mind that the right has always claimed to be the “defense party” and that this tired old trope gets dragged out every election cycle.  Never mind that ANY sitting president with a war on his hands gets raked over the coals by the other side for the decisions he makes.  Never mind that there is little evidence that the other side would necessarily handle this messy situation much differently.

Lara’s talk in Chicago, whether she meant it to or not, gave the right the kind of fodder they salivate for. 

Folks glommed onto her Chicago talk and ran with it and (in my humble opinion) the media on the “left” has TOTALLY dropped the ball in responding to her speech. 

Are they scared to admit she might be right (because that is an inconvenient fact during this time in an election year)?  Or, if they think she’s wrong, are they scared to argue with her because of some kind of deference for a colleague who has been through hell? 

I suspect there may be some of both processes going on, and, in my opinion, the “left” media’s unwillingness to address the fallout from her speech furthers the right’s common refrain that the MSM is biased. 

Good god, people, don’t give them that!

But I digress...back to the speech Friday night.

What I Had Expected

I’d expected that she’d address the fallout from the Chicago speech – and that she’d do so explicitly.  She’s known for being blunt, honest, forthright, so I expected she’d address head-on what had just occurred.

I think that in fact she did refer to the Chicago speech several times, but BOY you had to be paying CLOSE attention and you had to have followed the prior 10 days obsessively to know that that was what she was doing.  She never once made an explicit reference to the Chicago speech (except in the Q and A, to my question) or to her main claim in that speech that the US has defeated neither the Taliban or Al Qaeda and that that story coming out of Washington is really nothing more than the (expectable, in my opinion) justification for deciding to get out of an unpopular and (in my opinion) largely unsuccessful war.


*******
So, What Was the Talk About?

First, she received a standing ovation BEFORE the talk.  I don't ever remember seeing somebody get one of those just for, literally, walking out on stage.  (The guy who had just introduced her had just read the promotional material from her agency;  I recognized it immediately, as I've read it before. There was also a short video about her, which can also be seen online.)  

God Is In The Details

For those who want to know the trivial stuff:  She was wearing a color-blocked dress with short sleeves -- the bust part of it was black, the mid-section was white and the skirt part was grey and black.  She had on very high heels.  AND SHE HAS GREAT LEGS.  Holy smokes.  And she really is every bit as pretty in person as she is on TV.  She just IS.

“Portland Polite”

She immediately said that she'd heard that Portland is very polite, something called "Portland polite" and that she just expected we'd nod our heads and smile.  My friend and I (and many others) laughed, though I knew, from growing up there, that that was essentially true. (This becomes relevant later...keep "Portland polite" in mind.)

How to Take Notes When You Don’t Have Paper

She started talking about how she got into the field, and talked about "initiative" and about writing her first story (which was picked up by all presses in South Africa) on the back of a cigarette box.  (She hadn't expected to be writing a story, and was asked to do so.)  Privately, I was laughing to myself, because the notepad that I ALWAYS HAVE WITH ME wasn't in my purse, so I was writing notes for the email I was going to send to my friend on the back of a letter and on the ticket envelope I found in the bottom of said purse.  

Those notes, such as they are, are the skeleton for any details in this blog.

That, and my memory, which we all know is a dangerous thing to rely on.  (Not mine specifically, but everyone’s memories in general…)  But it’s what I’ve got.

First Message

She emphasized that she got to where she is because she "never expected anyone to do it for me."  She also said that she had been delighted when "shit hit the fan" in South Africa, because that was exciting for a journalist.  She talked about riding with fighters in South Africa /Botswana, about having a knife pulled on her in the airport, about understanding that when people believe they're fighting for everything and they’re exhausted, they behave badly (I’m paraphrasing here, but that was the gist).  She related this to what she now sees in Israel.

This was one of the many places in the talk where the connection between one thought and the subsequent one wasn’t all that clear. I can imagine how she’s connecting fighters in apartheid South Africa with people in Israel, BUT…she definitely didn’t spell it out.

A Little Afrikaans

She inserted some Afrikaans into her lecture.  I loved hearing her speak it, and she did translate it -- something about somebody handing her something and telling her she was pretty -- but at this point she was talking so quickly and jumping from anecdote to anecdote so fast that I had a hard time following this as a linear train of thought.  

The Overall Message, With References to Looks

She was really, throughout her talk, talking about training -- getting training by doing the job.  

She mentioned hearing more than once that "they hired you because you're so pretty."  My friend and I had the same reaction to this -- why was she even bringing it up?  She seemed to be wanting to say that she earned her place through her work, not her looks, but I don't think anybody in the room thought otherwise, so it was kind of weird to have this inserted in the talk (and without references to the specific people who have made these claims, which *I* know of -- at least some of them -- but which others might not have known).  

It was at this point in the talk that I started thinking about who her audience was, and for what type of audience this talk was likely first conceived. 

This was an alumni audience.  LOTS of grey hair.  Some students, to be sure, but they were most definitely not the majority.  So, for this relatively “mature” audience, the array of stories of how she did her job was probably less relevant than they would have been had the audience been made up of journalism students.  

More Stories

She talked about getting arrested by the French police, when she was working for GMTV. I know I've read about this story before, so I didn't write it down.  She also mentioned that she'd been playing hooky from work the day that 9/11 happened and kept calling GMTV to ask "Are you sure you don't need me to come in?"  

Throughout the talk, there were lots of little interesting stories like this, but with absolutely no analysis or any clear connection, really, between them.  She talked about entering Kabul, in a place where women had not been seen in public for 8 years.  She briefly mentioned the current talk of "gentler Taliban" and said that this is "hard to believe."  

This was one of the few places in her talk that I thought she was probably obliquely referring to her Chicago speech.

She said she doesn't compare Iraq to Afghanistan.  I didn't understand where she was going with this point....She hated that CBS pulled her out of Baghdad and she stayed on the Jordanian border trying to get back (lots of detail about what she didn't have that she needed -- phone, money, food, cameraman).  

She then switched to discussing that that was the point that journalists started using security companies, and that these companies didn't know ANYTHING, she claims, about what was really going on.  To test her theory, she told a lie to a security contractor, to see if it got back to her.  It did and she learned that the security guys were relying on the journalists to tell them what was going on.  

Overall Reaction

At this point in my notes, I wrote down "really disjointed but entertaining."  I'd have to say that was my overall reaction to the whole speech, at least that night.

She also referred several times to "absolute certainty" but I was unclear whose absolute certainty she was referring to.  Hers?  Or doubting it?  She was talking, at times, VERY fast.

She talked about importance of contacts on the inside (like translators and fixers).  In my notes, I wrote "duh."

Self-Characterization

Without ever using this word, throughout the talk she was describing herself as STUBBORN and driven -- she would go where she wanted to because DAMN IT that was where she thought she needed to go to get the story.  And it sounds like she'd lie and charm and do her own filming or go without food or whatever if that's what it took. She said as much, and I've heard this about her before.  

Another Message

She then said "so much of what you do in this job is what you make of it."  I wish I'd asked her about this; could be interpreted as a bit self-congratulatory.  Perhaps deservedly so, but I also just wonder what the hell she's made of that makes her so different from most people who, you know, might want to be a tad more cautious.  Or just less energetic!

Then she asked what time it was; how long she'd been talking.  She remarked that as a journalist, she’s always going too long.  Somebody in the front row told her it was 8:20.

“Good,” she said, “I have a few minutes.”

She totally switched topics to Egypt.  

Egypt

She said she "stands by" what she said about what happened to her in Egypt.  She said that she did NOT feel the need, ever, for revenge or justice.  And that she's never had nightmares.  She said she made a conscious choice not to be a victim.  

Another reference to Chicago speech?

She said that Egypt has nothing to do with Afghanistan, that her opinion about what is happening in Afghanistan is NOT due to what happened to her in Egypt.  I interpreted this as her saying that the criticism some have leveled since her Chicago speech – that of course she’d be worried about the rise in the Taliban and Al Qaeda due to her assault in Tahrir Square – is total BS.  

And I agree, that is total BS.  You don't have to have been through some sort of horrific event in Tahrir Sqare to be able to document a rise in terrorist groups and identify DC actors who deny that very rise, and to see those two facts as alarmingly inconsistent.

She said she was very proud of the fact that people can talk of sexual violence because of what she did, coming forward to say what happened to her.

She told a few anecdotes about that night in Egypt that I'd never heard, and because I don’t know if she was assuming everything about this speech was private, I’m not repeating them here.  Editorial choice; it just doesn’t feel right.  I’ve said enough about the talk already.

The Question and Answer Part (Or, "One Person Blows “Portland Polite” Out the Window")

During the Q &A, the first question was, essentially, "how do you keep your own perspective out of stories about the Taliban?"  Lara responded rather simply:  "I don't."  She went on to say that she's always very honest with people about how she feels about the repression of women, about religion's role in that.  She also made a comment that she thinks one of the reasons South Africa was able to change was because it was not a “religious” country.

Wholeheartedly agree.

At this point, I put my notes down and went to stand in line to ask a question.  Everybody was asking SUCH easy questions ("What's your favorite part about journalism?"  and "What do you hope for?").  The guy in front of me, though, totally went another direction when he said that although he was so upset to hear about her assault, he didn’t feel like he had a very clear idea of what had happened.

Oh, you asshole.  Cry me a river, you didn’t get enough detail. 

I wanted to scream.

He kind of went on and on, and I took a quick glance around the room.  People were APPALLED.  Lara interjected "What?  You want the gory details?"  I think she should NOT have even answered his question, but instead she almost verbatim repeated her interview from 60 Minutes (making me think she's either watched it 100 times, or she rehearsed it 100 times before she gave it).  

If it were me, both things would be true.

That was kind of weird to see in person.  She appeared very in control, but I hated seeing her give this guy the time of day.  But for God’s sake, major KUDOS to her for the cool (and POLITE) manner in which she addressed that jerk.

I Ask a Question (Almost Coherently)

Some guy handed me the microphone.  I *almost* said "Well, I guess the stereotype of "Portland Polite" has just been completely blown."  But I didn't. 

I kind of wish I had.

I made a reference to the talk in Chicago, acknowledged that three recent stories (Malala, drones in Pakistan, changing intelligence on what happened in Benghazi last month) seem to confirm what she argued there, and then asked if she thinks that means that staying in Afghanistan is a good idea. 

Honestly, I know that how I said the question was messier, less linear than how I just wrote it.  But that’s what I wanted to ask.

I was the only person who asked a foreign policy question.

The Answer

Lara was quick to say she doesn't do policy and all she does is tell what she knows to be true.  I interpreted this to be another vague reference to her Chicago speech – that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are on the rise and the US hasn't gotten rid of them.  But she was quite careful in how she answered the question, and I, obviously, couldn't take notes because I was standing there at the microphone.  I asked, without holding the mic, about whether we need to take war to Pakistan (she couldn't hear me).  The men waiting to ask questions behind me said "Ask that!"  

“Wrap it up!”

A woman in the audience apparently thought I was taking up too much time (even though it was LARA that was talking) and gave me the journalistic sign for "wrap it up" (rolling your hands over one another).  The man handed me back the microphone and I did ask about Pakistan, but could hardly, sadly, pay attention to the answer as I was trying to snake my way back to my seat.  

(Aside:  What IS the protocol for that kind of situation?  Was I supposed to immediately move back toward my seat – as I did – so that I didn’t appear to take up “too much” time?  Or by doing so did it appear that I didn’t even care about Lara’s answer?  Whatever…these types of interactions make me less like myself and into some caricature of me.)

I'm sad to say, but I do not even remember what the last two questions were about, except that they were easy, lowball ones.  One was, I think, about why she “always” goes to the Middle East, and Lara laughed and listed an impressive list of places she’s been and places she’s going this year.

The Ending

One of the men who had introduced her got back on stage and said "Thank you for coming."  Lara was standing off the side, practically off stage, and the clear message was "IT'S OVER."  People clapped and left.

I am assuming she was ushered off because she had to catch a flight BUT it's one of the few college talks I've been to that did NOT have a meet-and-greet.  And that was disappointing, and I cannot really frame that any other way.  I feel immature for admitting that I was disappointed, but heck, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.

I would have loved to have said, face to face, how much I admire her work and that I think how she has handled the fallout from Egypt has ABSOLUTELY made a massive difference for victims of sexualized violence.

I didn’t get the chance.

Final Thoughts

As a professor, I'm used to a certain lecture style:  you use stories to illustrate a POINT that you have already clearly laid out.  The stories come AFTER the point.  

This talk was set up as if it was up to all of us to figure out the point from the stories themselves, and I admit this may be a journalistic “thing.”   (Make people feel like they’re “there” and let the facts speak for themselves with little analysis.)  I realized later that I don’t think I’d ever listened to a talk by a journalist. I’ve heard Nobel Prize winners, politicians, researchers, scientists, activists, but never a journalist.  So, perhaps the  ‘format’ that I’ve come to expect is just not the format for journalists.  In any case, it sure ain’t her format. 

She comes across as energetic, restless – as if you stuck a quarter in her and SHE’S OFF!  An energizer bunny.  Or, as she once related her brother said about her, that living with her is “like being handcuffed to a tornado.”  Her energy is impressive.

And perhaps a tad disarming, disorienting, and tiring. J

She is quite possibly as charming a person (at least at a podium) that I have ever seen.  She's funny, too.  There were lots of laughs during the stream of stories-from-the-trenches that she told.  I have no doubt that *for journalism students* these stories are probably not only as fascinating for them as they are for everybody else, but they are likely helpful

For me, who was expecting talk about lessons learned *about foreign policy or foreign situations* I didn’t hear what I thought I came for.  I didn’t expect (nor would I want) her to pretend to be a policy person, but I had expected that, between her last 60 Minutes piece on blue-on-green violence in Afghanistan and her speech in Chicago, I’d hear more specifically about what she thought was going on.

I cannot do much, personally, with a story about how to get a visa from the Russians (take the visa guy to a cafĂ©, offer him your – fake – phone number, and voila, score said visa). 

On second thought, perhaps I can…

Any talk that keeps you thinking about it for a full 48 hours has to be rated, in the final analysis, as a very good talk.

J

3 comments:

  1. Thanks to the writer for such a detailed and thoughtful report on this appearance by the suddenly controversial Ms. Logan.
    One cannot but be struck by the difference between this speech and the much more opinionated one for Better Government Association in Chicago a couple of weeks ago.Suffice to say,it appears to me that her overseers at CBS may have cautioned her in the meantime particularly in light of this charged election season.
    I think I'd also feel a little cheated,on such a night, if there wasn't the opportunity for a little meet and greet with the celebrity post event.

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  2. I do not know if I want to make that assumption (speeches at colleges are, after all, often quite different than those given at other venues). But thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

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  3. Elaine: A delightful and fascinating blog (and I agree, one that is quite different than the one you would have posted 48 hours earlier). Excellent writing, thoughtfulness, and pointed questions about not just Logan's speech but why certain topics were (or at least appeared to be) suddenly downplayed or off-limits, versus the Chicago speech. Congrats on a classy -- and Portland polite -- review. :-) Aloha, Holly

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Politeness is always appreciated.