Elemental Issues

Storm King, Memorial Day

This Memorial Day, Carolyn and I climbed the Storm King 14 trail, on Storm King Mountain, overlooking Interstate 70 near Glenwood Springs, CO. The trail leads to the sites where 14 of America's elite wildland firefighters - smokejumpers, hotshots and helitac crewmen - were overrun by an exploding wildfire on July 6, 1994. The hike isn't particularly hard as Colorado ventures go, but it is sobering. It takes less than an hour to reach an overlook where visitors can visualize how a small, slow wildfire exploded across a gully to the slope where it trapped firefighters digging a line to contain it.

Hiking across the gully to the memorials on the steep slope, we looked over the hundreds of items that visiting firefighters have decorated the headstones. The crazed collection of torn t-shirts, hats, carabiners, children's toys, bullets, axes, skis, coins and Native American crafts. From the lowest of the stone crosses marking where each of the smokejumpers and hotshots fell, we hiked up the slope to the ridgeline, keeping in mind that the fire ran 35-feet-per-second up the slope that we couldn't imagine running up at all.

It didn't surprise us that we only saw a handful of visitors during our two hikes up and down the mountain over the Memorial Day holiday - the Storm King 14 didn't die in combat. But they are nonetheless casualaties of another of America's wars - one that won't end anytime soon.

 

 

 
  

 

The Missing in Nepal are not all on Mount Everest

Today the Colorado Public Radio program Colorado Matters told the story of Paul and Connie Sacco's attempts to find their daughter, Aubrey, who vanished in Nepal two years ago. While most of the world only focuses on the climbers on Mount Everest, where four climbers have died in past two days, and avalanches and collapsing seracs have driven at least two expeditions from the mountain. Nonetheless, hundreds of climbers are continuing up the mountain - a photo on Outside magazine's website today showed a virtual conga line of more than 100 mountaineers queued up on the way to the summit. But while every injury, death and disappearnace on the celebrity mountain gets attention around the world, other visitors to Nepal who go missing or perish there, are virtually ignored. That's proven a terrible challenge to the Saccos, who've come to believe that Nepal is dangerous country for tourists. And it's a problem I'm guilty of contributing to - my book High Crimes: The Fate of Everest in an Age of Greed, and the newspaper and magazines stories I wrote that led up to the book, all focused on the troubles on the mountain, while dedicating little attention to the troubles other travelers in Nepal face. The Saccos and Colorado Public Radio are doing a bit to correct this.

Hewlett Fire, Poudre Canyon, CO - May 14, 2012

 

 

The Hewlett Fire crests a ridgeline in Poudre Canyon, northwest of Fort Collins, CO, on Monday night. The fire broke out around 1 p.m. Monday about a mile from Poudre Park, northwest of Fort Collins. The fire burned actively through the night rather than laying down as wildfires often do. By Tuesday morning it was nearly 280 acres in size, and had 100 wildland firefighters attacking it on the ground it on the ground as a single-engine air tanker and a type 3 helicopter fought it from the air. The fire, which is named for the Hewlett Gulch trailhead near where it ignited, is within a quarter mile of a number of homes, about 160 of which were warned Monday evening to prepare for a possible evacuation. The winds Monday night seemed to be blowing the fire away from the homes, but dry weather with winds forecast to blow up 15 miles-per-hour could move the fire back towards the homes.

Bike Tube

 

 

Today, as I was walking across the University of Colorado campus with a friend who was visiting from New York for her nephew's graduation, I came across a trio of students headed out to cool off in Boulder Creek. One of them wore a personal flotation device in case she sank her bicycle. The costumes were a little different than the caps and gowns filling the campus this week, and there was a little less pomp and circumstance in their procession.

 

 

A Bear came to Campus and got an Education.

Early this morning a bear climbed a tree near CU Boulder's Bear Creek apartments. Carolyn was working on a video on the "Buff Bus" that serves the apartments and the nearby Will Vill high-rise dorms.  Drivers of the buses were warned of the bear, which was on a tree limb that overhung the road they had to travel. They made dozens of passes by the tree with the bear, although switching to the left side of the road to keep from traveling directly below the bruin. A few dozens students stopped along a nearby bike path to watch and make pictures until, shortly before noon, the bear was tranquilized and dropped from the tree onto a huge crash pad, then relocated.

 

Whole Foods Market and Sustainable Seafood

Fish 'n Chips

Russ Bowles unloads dogfish that will be sold to make fish and chips from the Serena. The vessel changes the species it fishes for based on quotas set by the National Marine Fisheries Council. As the region's quote for a more valuable species is met, and regulators force fishermen to quit bringing them to market, fishermen pursue the next most-valuable species. Dogfish are low on that list.


Starting this week Whole Foods Market, the grocery chain, will no longer sell seafood rated red by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and the Blue Ocean Institute. The standards take into account not only how many of each species of fish there are in the sea, but also how quickly they reproduce and how damaging the methods of catching them are to their marine habitats and to other species. The chain originally announced that they would no longer carry “red-rated” wild seafood in 2013, but pushed up the start of the moratorium to coincide with this year’s Earth Day. On Sunday the grocer announced in a blog on its website that “From now on, all of the wild-caught seafood we carry will be from fisheries certified sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or green (best choice) or yellow (good alternative) species rated by Blue Ocean Institute (BOI) and Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA).”

That means that Atlantic cod sold by the grocer will have to be caught using hooks or gill nets, not trawlers that drag nets over the bottom of the ocean. Sturgeon, Atlantic halibut, octopus, turbot, tautog, imported wild shrimp, swordfish caught by certain methods, and many species of tuna and rockfish will be no longer appear on the Whole Foods fish counters. The grocery store has already stopped selling certain critically overfished species such as bluefin tuna, orange roughy, shark, and, for the most part, marlin. Even canned tuna sold at Whole Foods will have to be caught with a pole or a line.

While environmentalists embrace Whole Foods’ embargo of overfished species and fish caught by environmentally damaging methods, fisherman, particularly those in New England, where I covered the collapse of fisheries in the 1990s, are outraged. The description of fishermen grousing and complaining also angers anglers, but it’s well-earned, and often justified. The New England Fisheries Management Council makes the regulations fishermen have to navigate as turbulent as the seas they work on. Consumers and retailers pushing sustainability with their purchases make those fishermen’s jobs that much more difficult. It's not unlikely that Whole Foods' move will push a few of them out of business, like New England Fisheries Management Council regulation drove a fisherman named Russ Bowles, who I spent time with in the 90s, from the business.

In the New York Times story on Whole Foods’ ban on selling certain seafood, and New England fishermen’s reaction to it, one Gloucester fisherman commented, “they’re just doing it to make all the green people happy.” I heard similar complaints virtually every time I wrote about or photographed the dwindling New England fish stocks and efforts to restore it.

The complaint of the fisherman is not only true, it’s the way market-based environmentalism is suppose to work. And you don’t need Whole Foods to interpret the ratings for you – on my smartphone I use the Monterey Bay Aquariums Seafood Watch App and another just called Seafood that make purchasing sustainably harvested seafood as easy as reading a grocery list.

Unfortunately, the ratings that Whole Foods is basing its actions on don’t always work. Last week the journal Marine Policy published a study showing that, for fish stocks where enough data is available, nearly a third of those certified as sustainable by the MSC were actually overfished. Juliet Eilperin, an environment writer for the Washington Post and the author of Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks, reported Saturday on the credibility of sustainability standards in fisheries and the move of some fisheries to less-stringent certifiers. Last Thursday, Eilperin points out, the MSC certified the long-line swordfishery in eastern Canada that kills hundreds of endangered sea turtles and 35,000 sharks every year. As the MSC has approved more species as sustainable to catch and sell, environmentalists concerned about those fish are backing away from the organization’s certifications.

Whole Foods ban on red-rated species swims in the right direction, and fishermen are likely to have a lot more to complain about when scientists and activists push the other 30 percent of commercially harvested fish species that are currently overfished onto the MSC list, and Whole Foods moratorium, or those stocks start to run out.

In the meantime, those of us who vote with our dollars for conservation should see Whole Foods’ move as a success, but also recognize that it’s just a drop in our terribly troubled oceans.

Netted

Russ Bowles, first mate on the Serena, a fishing vessel out of Stonington, CT, works on nets before the ship takes off in the middle of the night for a day of trawling.

Serena

The Serena, a trawler our of Stonington, CT, heads into port at dawn after a trip trawling for fluke. 

Early Morning, Long Day

Bowles cleans up after finishing a day and night fishing for skates, then has a smoke after returning to port on one of his last fishing trips. Bowles left the industry because restrictions prevented him from captaining his own vessel and bringing enough fish to market to support his family.

Last Trip

The Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition

Last fall, at the Society of Environmental Journalists' annual conference in Miami, I organized and moderated a panel on which environmental photojournalists discussed their work. I became friends with all of the panelists, but recognized one - Carlton Ward, Jr. - as a kindred spirit in adventure when a group of us ended up swimming in the Atlantic in middle of the night. Carlton was organizing a far more ambitious adventure - the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, a 1,000 mile journey by human power from the southern tip of the Everglades to the Okefenokee Swamp. On Sunday, Carlton and his three companions finished their trek and moved on to the next stage of their work - establishing a continuous wildlife corridor running the length of Florida. For yesterday's Weekend Edition, National Public Radio caught up with the team. The piece is worth a listen, and the Florida Wildlife Corridor is a worthy endeavor to provide appropriate habitat for Florida panthers, black bears, and countless other species threatened by Florida's rapid development.Last fall, at the Society of Environmental Journalists' annual conference in Miami, I organized and moderated a panel on which environmental photojournalists discussed their work. I became friends with all of the panelists, but recognized one - Carlton Ward, Jr. - as a kindred spirit in adventure when a group of us ended up swimming in the Atlantic in middle of the night. Carlton was organizing a far more ambitious adventure - the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, a 1,000 mile journey by human power from the southern tip of the Everglades to the Okefenokee Swamp. On Sunday, Carlton and his three companions finished their trek and moved on to the next stage of their work - establishing a continuous wildlife corridor running the length of Florida. For yesterday's Weekend Edition, National Public Radio caught up with the team. The piece is worth a listen, and the Florida Wildlife Corridor is a worthy endeavor to provide appropriate habitat for Florida panthers, black bears, and countless other species threatened by Florida's rapid development.Last fall, at the Society of Environmental Journalists' annual conference in Miami, I organized and moderated a panel on which environmental photojournalists discussed their work. I became friends with all of the panelists, but recognized one - Carlton Ward, Jr. - as a kindred spirit in adventure when a group of us ended up swimming in the Atlantic in middle of the night. Carlton was organizing a far more ambitious adventure - the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, a 1,000 mile journey by human power from the southern tip of the Everglades to the Okefenokee Swamp. On Sunday, Carlton and his three companions finished their trek and moved on to the next stage of their work - establishing a continuous wildlife corridor running the length of Florida. For yesterday's Weekend Edition, National Public Radio caught up with the team. The piece is worth a listen, and the Florida Wildlife Corridor is a worthy endeavor to provide appropriate habitat for Florida panthers, black bears, and countless other species threatened by Florida's rapid development.

Hoop Dreams

 

Watching all the pageantry surrounding the NCAA basketball tournaments during the past couple weeks reminded me of this photo I took nearly 30 years ago during a photography internship at the Kansas City Times (back when the Star was Kansas City's afternoon daily and the Times was published from the same building as the morning paper). We were always looking for "wild art" back then, and through most of my newspaper photography career. The "Great Picture Hunt" was often frustrating, and sometimes a photographer would spend almost the entire day looking for something visually interesting and come back with something so weak they hated to see their name under it in the paper, but none of us ever came back empty handed. It was always tempting to just pose something for the camera. This was always taboo at any paper I worked for, but we all knew some photographers did it, just like we know now that some photojournalists cross ethical boundaries in how much they manipulate images with Photoshop. But, aside from the dishonesty of presenting something as a found, slice-of-life situation when it was actually choreographed for the camera by the photographer, that photographer will also never know what really would have happened had they not changed the situation. Sometimes the photos you just let happen looked more like a setup than anything we could have posed.

Working for my hometown paper, and the first large newspaper I had worked for, I was sent out to find a stand-alone photo and was determined to bring back something special. Eventually most photographers develop some reporting skills to bring back unusual feature photos - a notebook of ideas in the car, perusing some newsletters or calendars for local schools and senior centers, even a read through the phone book to find some unusual and visual businesses. When most of us started out, howeer, we just drove around looking for cool photographs. I took my picture hunt to a local housing project in K.C., saw these kids coming out of an apartment with the hoop, hammer and basketball, and could imagine what was going to happen. I introduced myself, and then followed them to the telephone pole where James McIntosh, left, held the hoop as Rodja Pearson pounded in the nails. Raimor Darrington looks like he's just waiting to take the first shot, but was really bouncing the ball off the back of Pearson's head. The final photo looked too good to be true, but sometimes we just got lucky.

As for real basketball photography, Rich Clarkson, the dean of NCAA photographers and a Kansas native who ran the photography departments at the Topeka Capital Journal and National Geographic, just finished shooting his 57th, that's right 57th, NCAA Tournament Final Four. CBS This Morning profiled Clarkson, who is now based in Denver, Monday morning

 

 

A Few of Otto's Lives

 

Otto's Lower Left Canine Tooth

Otto, our cat, lost a tooth in a fight with Lionel, a neighbor's cat that often strays through our back yard. The two cats have had ongoing tensions.

 

Otto had already had a tough week. The previous Saturday, when we let him outside into the unseasonably warm sun, he had murder in his eyes. He sat on our back deck for a few hours glowering. We figured he was waiting for Lionel, another gray cat, although long haired, that lives a few houses away and has become Otto's arch enemy. Otto's not much of a roamer, and tends to stay in a couple of spots in the yard of the house we're renting, or under the deck. Lionel, however,  is everywhere. We constantly see him making his way up the neighbors' walk across the street, hoping fences, climbing trees in the neighborhood, and traipsing through our yard - an act that outrages our own gray cat. A few times we've awakened to find our cat in the sill above our headboard, puffed up and yowling with anger at Lionel sitting in the tree just outside the window. After a few hours on Saturday, we heard the inevitable cat fight on our deck. Otto had his teeth at Lionel's throat and Lionel had his on the top of Otto's head. Every paw and claw was clenched onto an adversary, and the two cats were rolling in a fist-tight ball of gray, fuzzy outrage. A silvery fog of fur filled the air. We kicked and hosed the cats apart and dragged Otto inside as Lionel retreated to his own house. Later that afternoon, when we returned to our deck, we found a fang from one of the cats. We worried that we'd have to tell Lionel's owners that their cat had lost a tooth, but, upon opening Otto's mouth, found that the tooth was his - his lower left canine had probably gotten caught in the chain collar that Lionel wears. The broken tooth didn't seem to be paining him, and he didn't have any other injuries of note, so we accepted that, after 12 years, Otto's grin wouldn't be quite as sweet. We gave thanks that he didn't have any more serious or expensive injuries and hoped the same was true of Lionel.

We always knew letting Otto outside was a risk, even when we lived in Connecticut. When we moved to Colorado, we knew that those risks increased, especially at night, dawn, and dusk. Otto clearly knew that too, and when we lived in a park with him, he spent most of his time on the screened-in porch, and curtailed his time outside. On his first venture into the yard, he found a big pile of bear poop, and that convince him that the Colorado woods didn't have much in common with the Connecticut gardens where he spent many of his days back East. Even after our move into the heart of Boulder, Otto showed much more caution on leaving the house, and would sniff around the door and the deck before heading into the yard. He often changed his mind and came back inside, which was fine with us. But even though Otto doesn't go out too much anymore and never travels far from the door, he lives for his time outside. I'm sure he would say it is the best part of his life - digging holes, eating grass, rolling in the dirt, sitting for hours on a sunny porch rail, or sleeping under a bush. He would paw and claw the door, meowing and looking over his shoulder at us to convince us to open it. When he came in, he would be puffed up and chatty, holding his head and tail high as he made his way to his dinner bowl. In Connecticut, where he often spent the day outside while we were at work, he would run up the driveway from the backyard gardens to great us and roll on the walk to wait for us to unload the car and then make his way inside with us. In the decade we've been letting him out, the worst thing that had happened to him were catfights that had left his pretty gray ears with a couple of nicks, and two battles that required stitches.

Otto Post-Coyote

Otto at the vet's after being attacked and carried away by a coyote intent on eating him.

 

Friday evening we had plans to meet a friend for dinner and to see another friend's son play a jazz show at a local used clothing store - Boulder has some unusual music venues. It was still light out when we were getting ready to leave, Otto was at the door pawing and begging to go out. We told him no - it would be dark by the time we came home - and pulled him from the door, but he's persistent when he really wants to get some sun and grass and, against our better judgement, we relented. We rode our bikes downtown, and came home around 10:30. As we pulled off the sidewalk onto our street, we saw a dog trotting up a side street by our house. It was very dark, and we could see the dog carrying something - Carolyn though it was a blanket. I thought it looked like a purse. I turned up the street the canine was heading up to investigate, just as Carolyn shouted "It's a coyote, and he's got someone's pet!"

I charged my bike right at the yote shouting "Otto!" at the top of my lungs, not because I thought it was our cat - it looked black rather than gray - but because I realized he was out and at risk. The coyote dropped its prey, I leapt onto the lawn, landing on my knees next to the motionless pile of fur as my bike crash into the curb. The coyote, which was big by Boulder standards, raced up the street and vanished. As I got to the small animal, I could see the small white patch in the center of Otto's chest, and shouted back to Carolyn that it was Otto. He was contorted and completely still.

I was sure he was dead and started crying and petting him and cursing myself for giving into his perstering to go outside. Although the entire event lasted a few seconds, I had time to wonder whether it was better to see your pet killed by the jaws of a predator, or to search through the night and following weeks, but never find him.

But Otto was still warm and, as I stroked him, I felt him breath, although just barely. I scooped him up and yelled to Carolyn to find an all-night vet. I carried Otto to our yard, figuring he was going to die in my arms, but I saw his eyes open and saw that, at least for the moment, he was still with us. I put Otto in the back of the car, and we headed to Alpenglow Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center a couple miles away. Otto's neck was soaked - Carolyn tried to find a wound bleeding on him, but couldn't. As we drove, Otto raised his head and I thought, "at least his neck's not broken." He had a look of total shock on his face - like he didn't know where he was.

Carolyn carried him into the hospital, and in the light, we saw he had a badly broken left, front leg. Both the radius and the ulna were sticking through his skin and the bottom of his leg and paw hung backwards like they were about to fall off. The young woman who had met us a the front desk just commented that it looks like he hurt his paw and carried him through a door to the back of the hospital. Carolyn and I embraced, then sat down with our grief and guilt, preparing ourselves to hear that there was nothing that could be done for him.

Otto and Carolyn

Carolyn embraces Otto at the Alpenglow Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center in Boulder, where we took our cat after the coyote attacked him.

 

After they x-rayed him, however, they came to tell us that, aside from his broken leg, some air that had escaped from his lungs into his chest cavity in his struggle, and another missing tooth - this one his upper right canine - he was OK. The moisture we felt around his neck was coyote saliva. There were two small cuts from the yote's teeth, one above Otto's right eye and one behind his left ear. Our best guess is that he somehow protected his neck and throat with his leg, and the coyote failed to break his spine or puncture his jugular. Otto's size - he's grown to nearly 15 pounds - probably worked in his favor as well. The coyote couldn't run well with such a big cat in his mouth.

Otto and Carolyn

Carolyn pets Otto at the Alpenglow Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center in Boulder, where we took our cat after a coyote carried him away.

Michael and Otto

Otto and Michael reunited at Alpenglow Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center, where Otto spent last weekend after he was attacked by a coyote.

 

Otto spent the weekend at the vet's and we worried that he might lose his paw. The staff at Alpenglow were terrific throughout, and managed to clean the wound up well. They kept Otto in a plexiglass cubicle the size of a large dog carrier that they pumped with oxygen. Saturday, in the middle of the night, barely 24 hours after the attack, Otto managed to wiggle through one of the vents in his cage, despite his IVs and bandaged leg. The vets found him just as he was making his getaway. They had a laugh and took it as a positive sign.

Otto and Carolyn Reunited

Carolyn embraces Otto at the Alpenglow Veterinary Specialty and Emergency Center in Boulder, where we took our cat after the coyote attempted to kill and eat him.

 

 

Otto Recovering from surgery

Otto's left front leg was broken, with compound fractures to both the radius and ulna, by the coyote's bite. He has an "external fixative" splinting the bones and will be recovering for about 16 weeks. The vets expect him to regain full use of his leg.

 

 

On Monday, he had surgery and they were able to put his leg back together with a "external fixative" - a flexible tube screwed to his broken bones and then filled with a cement to make it rigid when they had the bones set the way they wanted them. The screws and splinting device will all come off when his leg is healed. We really can't say enough about how well Otto was treated at Alpenglow -  they were caring and focused and allowed us to visit at all hours for as long as we wanted. I'm sure they strive to make everyone feel their pet is special, but they showed genuine concern and affinity for Otto. Perhaps that's because of how unusual his case was - one of the emergency vets told us that in his 13 years at the clinic, he had never seen a cat survive a large predator attack. Usually they just vanish. Otto's surgeon said he had treated one cat that survived a mountain lion attack, but with far more serious injuries than the gray dude's.

 

Otto's Camouflage

The surgeon thought Otto would look good in camo when he changed his bandage.

 

 

Domestic cats are the most popular pet in America, numbering some 80 million. There are 400 million domestic cats worldwide. We tend to feel we are either parents or partners to our cats, but in reality they don't think of us as serving either of those roles.  Cats were the last species humans domesticated. They can't be herded, and won't run in a pack. According to Jake Page, author of Do Cats Hear With Their Feet?: Where Cats Come From, What We Know About Them, And What They Think About Us (published by HarperCollins and Smithsonian Books), our house cats are really just shrunken versions of their big cousins - lions, jaguars, leopards. No matter whether they stay indoors or not, they hold the same place in the food chain that they have always had. They're designed to eat nothing but meat, and set up to kill it themselves. We've been thankful that Otto's a lazy and incompetent hunter, but in our Connecticut house he managed to catch and kill a few mice and, during his time outside, nabbed a couple of birds. He embarrassed us last summer by torturing a chipmunk to death in a friend's backyard. As horrible as it was to see him in a predators mouth, there are certainly plenty of people who would see it as karma. And, as opposed to the coyote that certainly intended to eat him, Otto's a trophy hunter - killing his prey, then showing it off to us, but never attempting to devour it. His canned food and kibble more than satisfies his need for food, but not his hunger to kill.

Otto's also more than aware that being a part of the food chain means as he's prey as well as a predator, and he's generally shown great caution outside. Nonetheless, we've chosen to indulge him with time outside the captivity of our home and, in so doing, are risking not only his life, but his impact on other wildlife. The wild predators that make their way into the city do so because we provide them with food - our garbage, our picnic scraps, and our pets. In Boulder, along with the coyotes that have become quite a problem in certain neighborhoods this year, we also get foxes, raptors, and, on very rare occasions, a bear or mountain lion. One cougar was darted in a tree on the University of Colorado campus a few blocks away from our house last year. The lion was tranquilized and relocated, but by drawing wildlife to our cities and suburbs, we doom a certain number of them to death from traffic, other animals, and wildlife managers who feel they must destroy them for public safety.

We'll be faced with another challenge when Otto's recuperation is over - curtailing his time outside. But it's important to realize that we're doing that for selfish reasons. We want to keep his company as long as we can, and so will do what it takes to prolong his life (inlcuding, at least in this instance, spending more on his health care than on our own). He, however, would certainly choose to confront the risks the outdoors pose to him to reap the rewards he instinctively hungers for and has grown accustomed to.

All told, Otto's convalescence will last about 16 weeks. We'll spend much of that time pounding the pavement for some more freelance jobs to pay for his care.

Peg-Legged Cat

Otto getting some sun in our living room after getting his broken leg repaired after being attacked by a coyote.

 

 

 

 

Invisible Children, All-Too-Visible Entertainers

 

When someone claims they are serving a higher truth, perhaps it's because they're lying to you.

That's proven to be the case with a spate of recent journalistic and documentary works. Most recently it was monologuist Mike Daisey, whose one-man-show, "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" was the most downloaded segment of the radio version of This American Life. In his performance, which he has done in theaters around the United States in addition to performing parts of it on the radio program, he describes his trip to China to look into working conditions and child labor at factories making parts for Apple products. The piece was exposed as full of fabrications by Rob Schmitz, a reporter in China for the radio business program Marketplace. Sunday This American Life ran an hour-long retraction of the story. Schmitz told why he suspected Daisey - only police and military are allowed to carry firearms in China, workers in the factories could never afford to visit a Starbucks, where Daisey claimed they met. Daisey told staff at This American Life that the cell phone for his translator - the only source the program could check facts with - no longer worked. Then he told them that he had changed her name in the performance because he didn't think she wanted to be mentioned in it. Schmitz was able to find her in a single Google search, by the name that Daisey called her in the piece - he had never actually changed her name. Charles Duhigg, a reporter for The New York Times who has written extensively about the factories that Daisey claims the media doesn't care about, told TAL host Ira Glass that the issues that Daisey talked about are real, even if the incidents that Daisey described are fabricated - Duhigg and another Times reporter, David Barboza, have reported a number of the problems, such as in this story about the human costs built into an iPad, or one looking at how pressure from the public (to which both the Times and Daisey certainly contributed) is bringing about changes at Foxconn, the plant that Daisey visited. But Daisey didn't want to share that credit, and, before he brought his show to New York and This American Life, he claimed that "there's no journalism" in Shenzhen and The New York Times just reprints press releases from Chinese executives. A simple search of the Times archives shows plenty of coverage of Foxconn. This American Life, which claims to have fact checked Daisey's piece as best they could without his translator or notes, should have been aware of questions about the credibility of his piece. One reviewer challenged his honesty as long ago as last May.

There's been intense media coverage of the episode, which is fitting given that Daisey's story got a lot of coverage when it was believed to be truthful. David Carr, in Monday's New York Times, and Jack Shafer, a Reuters reporter who was on PRI and BBC's radio program The World Monday, and a number of other media reporters have compared the Daisey episode to the Kony 2012 documercial that, during the past two weeks, became the most viral video ever. I was glad to see this, as I think part of the problem with the Daisey episode, the makers of Kony 2012, and a number of other recent incidents of deceptive and misleading journalism and documentaries, is the desire of their makers to be entertainers first and truthful storytellers second.

The 30 minute Kony 2012 video focuses on bringing to justice Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, which nearly two decades terrorized Uganda, kidnapping children to serve as soldiers and sex slaves, but now moves between the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan. I commend Invisible Children for their dedication to ending Kony's reign of terror, and I'm saddened to learn that the face of Invisible Children, Jason Russell, has apparently suffered a nervous breakdown that left him naked and vandalizing cars last Friday near his San Diego home. But his public meltdown fits, in a Brittany Spears way, with the method that his organization has produced spectacles and courted celebrity. Russell, the face of Invisible Children and the Kony Documentary, has repeatedly told the story about how he wanted to make musicals and just fell into advocacy and humanitarianism. So it's not surprising that most of the charity's resources go into making films - there are more than 200 of them on their Vimeo page - but they have played so fast and loose with the facts in the name of entertainment that most of the viewers of the charity's "documentaries" are misinformed of what country Joseph Kony is in (he hasn't been in Uganda for six years), how many child soldiers he has in his army (Kony 2012 cites tens of thousands of children turned into soldiers or sex slave, which may be accurate, but the Lord's Resistance Army numbers no more than a few hundred today), and what's being done, and can be done, to stop the bloodshed.  Many of Invisible Children's films, most of them elaborate productions with expensive special effects, never even mention Africa, Joseph Kony, or child soldiers, although that is allegedly what they are raising money to address. Invisible Children has taken down some of the more ridiculous videos, but one of the most troubling is still on YouTube - the Global Night Commute Musical.

The Night Commute musical bothers me on any number of levels. Jason Russell sings "We're on a mission put Uganda deep inside your mind." One of his partners responds "It needs attention and a dance to make it sparkle and shine."  The song and dance trivializes the crisis in Africa, and, despite the claim that their goal is put Uganda deep inside our minds, that lyric is about all the attention the crisis gets. The video is more than seven minutes long, but it hardly mentions Uganda. Aside from one young African in the documentary footage showing in the high school at the beginning of the video and a photo stuck on a t-shirt, it shows none of people they claim to focus their work on. In fact, the only people of color in the performance, and I'm not sure there are any black people in it at all, are dancers in the background behind the three Invisible Children organizers' special-effects-ridden moves. The fact that a charity spends much of the funds it raises on a video that it hides when it draws criticism doesn't bode well for the organization's transparency, and, indeed, there's been steady criticism of Invisible Children's inability or unwillingness to show how they spend the funds they raise. And, with the unprecedented attention that their Kony 2012 video has drawn to the charity, if not to the Lord's Resistance Army and its child soldiers, it is critically important to scrutinize what Invisible Children does with the wave funding that their viral marketing campaign is pulling in, particularly since some of that money would certainly go to other causes served by more established charities with longer track records and more transparent operations.

The criticisms of the Kony 2012 video that seems to have rewritten the rules of charity fundraising are many. They tell the story through Russell and his five-year-old son, and, like Mike Daisey, make it appear that Russell is stepping forward because nobody else is. When Russell's toddler says his father "stops the bad guys," I'm sure it was touching to dad, but to leave it in the video seems terribly self-aggrandizing. And telling the plight of Africans through white Americans insults many people in both nations working on the problem, just as creating an army of largely white youths in the developed world to free black child soldiers in the developing world is offensive to many who work in international aid and development. The Ugandan army that Invisible Children wants the U.S. military to help capture Kony has been accused of many attrocities themselves. The military situation in Uganda is one of myriad gross oversimplifications of the Lord's Resistance Army and its part in a very complex and horribly violent part of the world. Military actions against Kony in the past have resulted in ratcheting up the violence in the region. Ugandan Journalist Angelo Izama writes in a New York Times opinion piece that the devil really is in the details here, and Kony is only part of a much bigger problem. Do we really want teenagers misinformed by a documentary pressuring for military action? The United States has gone to war before because of misinformation and deceit and I don't recall it working out very well.

Many aid workers, NGOs and policy makers fear that the Kony2012 video could make things worse. Joseph Kony often retaliates against innocent villagers when the LRA is under military threat or international pressure, and other aid organizations and NGOs working in the DRC and CAR may also face retaliation from Kony and the LRA in response to the new wave of attention. It's entirely plausable that the Kony2012 campaign could lead to more bloodshed. (That's not to say that the charity hasn't done some good - the radio network they set up to monitor the LRA's whereabouts and warn villages of potential attacks is a great idea  that appears to have had some success.)

Invisible Children claim they simplified their message and left out or fudged a few facts to more effectively draw attention to the plight of the child soldiers kidnapped by the LRA. That may be true, but their misrepresentations could, in fact, hurt their cause rather than help it. That is certainly the case with Mike Daisey, whose deceptions will make it far harder for legitimate, honest journalists to report on the situation in Chinese electronic factories, and make it easy for those scrutinized to shake off criticism as just another lie like those told by Daisey. Daisey probably doesn't have a problem hurting the work of reporters - he responds to criticism with the same kind of attacks on the "mainstream media" that Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh do.

Daisey's claim that he was serving a higher truth is almost identical to John D'Agata's, the "lyric essayist" and Iowa writing professor who, when commissioned to write a story for Harpers about a teenager who jumped to his death from the Stratosphere in Las Vegas, changed so many facts about the incident that Harpers killed the piece. It was picked up by The Believer, but the line between fact and fiction was so blurred by D'Agata that it led to a long battle between the author and his fact checker. The book The Lifespan of Fact, which also partially fictional, details their dispute over the content of the story. D'Agata routinely falls back on the argument that he is distorting or misrepresenting factual truth to serve a higher truth, occassionally articulately, but often with great quotes like "It's called art, dickhead."

I'm a big fan of This American Life, but I was disappointed in the retraction episode. TAL had a number of big red flags that they ignored - Daisey not being able to find the translator that another reporter found with a single Google search; Daisey's claim that he had changed the translator's name in his piece, but hadn't told anyone until he was pressed by TAL, because he didn't think she wanted to be in his performance; not being able to go over Daisey's notes. It seems to me that TAL made no attempt to speak to single source in Daisey's story. What Ira Glass described as fact checking struck me as backgrounding - double checking dates, times, facts and figures that had already appeared in numerous news stories. And even that was lacking, as challenges to Daisey's credibility had been on the web for at least six months before his performance on This American Life. What I would have liked to hear is a bit less of Ira Glass grilling Daisey, as satisfying as that was, and another segment of someone questioning Ira Glass about TAL's fact checking and journalistic standards.


Other outlets have done large retractions when deceptive journalists embarrass them. When Jayson Blair gamed the New York Times, Dan Barry wrote a multi-page takeout, which started on the front page, looking at how Blair deceived the paper and how the paper screwed up. Two of the paper's top editors were fired over the incident. The New Republic corrected every story that Stephen Glass made up and devoted many pages to explaining what he had done, how they fell for it, and what they were going to do about it.

Perhaps it's unfair to hold TAL to the standards that newsier outlets are held to. David Sedaris has been criticized for exaggerating his stories on This American Life and elsewhere. These, however, are personal stories about him, his family, and his friends, and probably should have different standards than an investigation into the working conditions at a major corporation.

Which leads to one of the biggest problems with Daisey, Invisible Children and their ilk - the claim that it's ok to lie, because they draw so much attention to a problem. As popular as "The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs" was - I completely fell for it on the radio - I think it's yet another level of dishonesty for Daisey to credit the attention the Chinese plants are receiving to his performance. The Times terrific, front-page piece on the plants was the result of months and months of reporting that started back when the suicides occurred at Foxconn - before Daisey knew jack about where his Apple toys were made. Many other outlets have done real reporting on this issue, put in the legwork, fought for access, gathered real facts, done due diligence, and had great impact. To claim that an entertainer can go there on a two-week vacation, make up a bunch of BS for his theater piece, and then pat himself on the back for "raising awareness," erodes the value of real reporting. I think the same thing is true for Invisible Children and John D'Agata - it's easy to have theatrical drama when truth is optional. For me, Daisey said it all when he commented that he fabricated parts of his story because he "wanted to be heard." It wasn't about the working conditions in the factories, but about drawing attention to his own work on stage. In the end, he turns the Chinese workers, both real and fictional, into slaves to the story that he wants to tell.

Daisey's is an actor who wants a reporter's credibility without doing the legwork or being beholden to facts, just like James Frey (whose made-up memoir about addiction deceived Oprah and, ironically, was a subject in one of Daisey's earlier monologues), Michael Finkel (who made up a character in a New York Times Magazine story), Jayson Blair (the New York Times' reporter who fabricated multiple stories) , and Stephen Glass (who fabricated more than a dozen stories at The New Republic.) Like the New York Times and The New Republic, This American Life's credibility was damaged by a fabulist. The radio program, however, hasn't gone nearly as far as the other news organizations to explain how a fraudsters lies could slip by them. Poynter, the journalism training outfit, lists questions they would have liked Ira Glass to answer  and, in the Columbia Journalism Review, Lawrence Pintac, dean of the Washington State University School of Journalism,  comes down hard on Glass's program's fact checking process. Both are worth reading, but, the ending of the Poynter piece has a hell of a kicker - noting that three wild stories that the radio program presented years ago were provided by another Glass - Stephen Glass, The New Republic staff writer who completely fabricated many of his stories in the magazine. 

There's a fine movie about that episode, which devastated what was once referred to "The In-Flight Magazine of Air Force One." At the end of the film, Peter Sarsgaard, playing Chuck Lane, the editor of The New Republic who dug up Glass's deceptions and fired him, is arguing about how a reporter could get away with fabricating so many stories. His answer?

"Because we found him...entertaining."

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