Thursday, June 25, 2009

Getting Naturalized: Nothing Like the Movies

What did I expect at my naturalization ceremony a couple weeks ago? Some sort of solemn ritual recognizing the significance of turning in our green cards for Old Glory. After all, patriotism is a big part of the American psyche.
Like many of the 99 others from 38 countries becoming U.S. citizens that day, I invited my husband and pulled my son out of school to attend. We dressed up in our Sunday best and drove to the Homeland Security building.
It could be that I've seen too many news stories about those Fourth of July naturalization ceremonies where tears stream down the faces of new citizens as a choir sings and the flag flaps in the wind. Or too many sappy movies a la Green Card.
By contrast, my ceremony was more like getting my driver's license renewed.
We spent the first hour being "processed" -- waiting in line to turn in our green cards and verify our identities. More waiting for the ceremony to begin as we squeezed into a crowded auditorium clutching our little American flags.
Next to me was a man from Korea. He's lived in the U.S. for 17 years, raised a family here.
"I was sad when I woke up this morning," he told me. He didn't have to tell me that his heart will always be Korean even as he becomes an American.
I looked down my row at other citizens-to-be, from young to very old. I wondered about what twists of fate had brought them here? What had they left behind to chase the American dream? I wanted to interview each and every one of them and hear their stories.
When the ceremony began, we were welcomed by an uninspiring mid-level bureaucrat who read from a script. Another official warned us for at least the third time to turn in our green cards -- or else. (Was it even possible to get through processing without doing that?)
We watched a couple of videos and a recorded message from President Obama -- the highlight of the event. Stood for the Oath of Allegiance. Marched across the stage to get our naturalization certificate. And it was over.
What did I expect? More dignity, less bureaucracy. Someone speaking from the heart about the journeys that led to this place. Or at least a reception with apple pie.
(Photo: by Blink)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Watchdog journalism: Where are we headed?

The first time I went to an Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in 1998 I knew I'd found a Reporter's Paradise. What could be better than spending a weekend soaking up ideas and advice from the best investigative journalists in the country? I could hardly wait to get back to my newsroom and try out what I'd learned.
So much has changed since then. The feisty, beloved Seattle Post-Intelligencer is gone. Newspapers are melting down all over. This year alone, thousands of journalists have lost their jobs. Watchdog reporting has taken a body blow.
That made for a strange mix of anxiety, exhiliration and angst among the 700 journalists at last weekend's IRE conference in Baltimore. Great work is still getting done -- just a lot less of it.
I was inspired by two journalists who spoke on a panel that I moderated about Covering Invisible Populations. Mimi Chakarova is a photojournalist producing remarkable work on sex trafficking of women in Eastern Europe, rapes of Iraqui women and other tough topics. Karyn Spencer, a reporter with the Omaha World-Herald, looked into how Nebraska's shoddy death-investigation system is letting people get away with murder. She found rural coroners who admitted they just wrote down "heart attack" if they didn't know what killed someone. I kid you not.
What ran through my head like a sad tune all weekend was, "This is what we're losing."
Sure there was buzz about the new non-profit investigative centers popping up all over. But those ventures, however exciting, can't replace the sheer exodus of talent from our profession. Journalists who used to spend their days prying documents from the hands of government officials are now writing press releases.
That can't be good for democracy.
(Photo: by Roger Blackwell)

Monday, June 8, 2009

Taking Notes: The Dreaded Job Search Audit

The reporter in me is always taking notes, a habit that dies hard after two decades in journalism. 
So it took all my self control to keep my notebook in my purse when I appeared at the state employment security office last week for a mandatory job audit.
The official envelope had arrived five days before with this cheery message: "You have been randomly selected for an in-person job search review," it said. "If you fail to will be denied benefits unless you show good cause for not reporting."
I was surprised to be summoned after barely two months on unemployment. After all, our unemployment rate just hit 9.1 percent -- the worst in a quarter century. Almost  320,000 Washingtonians are on the dole. 
Guess I thought state workers would have better things to do than check up on a lowly reporter who lost her job because of the very public meltdown of the state's oldest newspaper. LOL.
I showed up at the crowded employment office right on time with my list of three job contacts for the week of May 16th. 
"Tell me about your job search," Mr. Friendly, my very nice state worker asked after ushering me into his tiny cubicle and eyeing my list of job contacts.
I aced that question. If there's one thing reporters are good at, it's knowing how to search -- for people, documents, and yes, jobs.
Mr. Friendly said he'd done a search of his own. He'd tried to find two jobs in my field that I would be required to apply for -- and had come up empty-handed.
I smiled sympathetically and told him I understood. In the next cubicle, I could hear Ms. Grumpy, another state worker, grilling some poor soul. I wanted to pull out my reporter's notebook and ask: "What's it like to do this for a living?" followed by several more pointed questions.
Mr. Friendly referred me to a resume workshop and ushered me out.
Painless? Yes. A wise use of state dollars and my time? I'll let you decide. 
(Photo: by Clementine Gallot)