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Remembering Persephone

My friend Persephone Miel died very young about a year ago. This afternoon there’s a discussion in her memory: “Cultivating new voices, approaches, and audiences for national and international reporting.” The official description:

Journalists Fatima Tlisova (Voice of America) and Pulitzer Prize winner Dele Olojede will join Ethan Zuckerman (Berkman Center/Global Voices), Colin Maclay (Berkman Center), Ivan Sigal (Global Voices), Jon Sawyer (Pulitzer Center) and the Miel family for a discussion and reflection on these questions, and on Persephone’s work and the journalistic values she championed.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.


Ethan begins by saying that Berkman is a “supercollider” for people working on Internet issues. Berkman has everything from behavioral economists to folksingers. He says when people there go around the room and say what they’re working on, one of the three things happen: First, you find that people are speaking in a language you don’t understand. Second, you understand what they’re saying and you want to have a fight with them — a worthy conversational opponent. Third, you react by thinking “Thank God you’re here.” Persephone was the only person, Ethan says, to whom he had all three reactions simultaneously. She was a professional journalist, while Ethan works on amplifying citizen media. Then there were the sparks flying: Persephone was a professional journalist and Ethan loves amateurism. But, after talking, they realized that they shared one basic question: In a world that is increasingly interconnected, in which our actions have impact and meaning on people all over the world and vice versa, why don’t we hear much about the rest of the world?” Except that Persephone framed it: “In a world that is so interesting, so fascinating, why would people spend their time only paying attention to one little corner?”

Persephone came to Berkman to work on a massive project, Ethan says: Media Re:public. She worked with a great team to create a careful, skeptical analysis of the new media environment. The overview she wrote with Rob Faris “holds up remarkably well,” Ethan says. Persephone talked about many of the questions raised emphatically by the Arab Spring…questions of authenticity, legitimacy, trustworthiness. The questions journalist scholars are now asking are ones Persephone asked. How do you tell if the reports are true and are telling the story. The problem isn’t just making sure people are getting to speak, she wrote, but that those voices are reaching the public that needs to hear them. It’s not just increasing the supply of news.


Yet, Ethan says, Persephone remained an optimist. She worried about the loss of the values and virtues of professional news, but she also understood that news was not coming to the West from other parts of the world. “Maybe we just haven’t done it very well,” she said. Ethan: “When you’re doing reporting in a digital age, you have the opportunity to tell a story at different depths.” You can go long or short. You can bring in multiple media. You can bring in interactions. You can enable people to have a real conversation with the people you’re writing about. We can work not just on the supply problem, but on the demand problem.


The people speaking today, says Ethan, are figuring out not just how to report under difficult circumstances, but how to involve their readers deeply. Persephone before she died set up a fellowship so more of these extraordinary journalists can share their stories with a broader audience. Fatima Tilsova is an exemplar of this. She comes from the northern Caucuses and was the inspiration for Persephone asking to be remembered in this fashion.


Fatima begins by remembering how beloved Persephone was by journalists around the world. Fatima came from a very small village. The north Caucuses is a violent area, but her area was considered to be peaceful. She shares some of her work, beginning with a story about the torture of Russian prisoners. In one case she reported on a young man who in 2004 was found in a trash pile with all of his internal organs crushed; the story was never reported in the media. Same with other cases she has reported on. Her reports are ignored by the government. [She shows the Voice of America News site (voanews.com) as the home of her reporting.]


The same is true for her stories of corruption. She shows a YouTube of the expensive cars owned by a Russian official who makes $5000/year; the video was put together from photos taken by people with their mobile phones. Counter-terrorism zones are declared in order to free them of tax requirements so Russian official can invest heavily there. In another case, when Forbes announced the ten most wanted terrorists in the world, the media transformed the list into FBI’s list, because Russians where on the Forbes list. In another case, an elderly man was beaten up for holding a mild protest sign. He took them to court, which decided there was no damage to him, despite his broken shoulder. So he took it to the European court, which brought a visit from Russian officials telling him to withdraw his suit.


These stories do not get out without help. The Pulitzer Center (for which Persephone worked) helps. Persephone was one of the few people ready to listen, and ready to help.


Dele Olojede After returning to Nigeria, Dele won a Pulitzer for his work at Newsday. He is also involved in the Global Net Initiative, which Persephone also worked on. He reminds us that we in this room are in the top one percent of privileged people. In Nigeria, 0.1 percent sits atop a vast pool of oil and gas.


He started as a young reporter in Lagos thirty years ago. His cohort was the first to come into journalism with college degrees. They were quite idealistic. That lasted about 6 years. His editor was killed by a letter bomb in 1986. They had evidence it was done by the country’s dictatorial leader, and the paper was shut down over the weekend. Dele left for the US. He went to Newsday and became “the foreign correspondent to the Hamptons.” He decided the time was right to go home. (He had not been allowed back in for a while.)


He wants to create a space where news and truth can flourish, so that at least people couldn’t say “I didn’t know.” NEXT began to publish stories about what Nigeria’s leaders are up to in politics and business. Sometimes the stories have results. The establishment found them puzzling, but then the temperature started rising as they wrote about corruption in the banking system. A few of the malefactors were jailed, but only for a few months. The establishment from trying to influence them through friendship, then bribes, then through the withdrawal of business. When NEXT broke the story about a billionaire who was paying no taxes because bribing tax officials was cheaper, NEXT’s biggest ads (telecom, banks, etc.) were withdrawn.


The president of Nigeria vanished for a few months. NEXT looked into it an discovered that he was terminally ill and the country was being run from the shadows by his wife. The constitution specified that the vice president — “who we didn’t know from Adam or Eve” — should take over. NEXT became a hero to the the VP, who recently was elected president. (His name is Goodluck Jonathan.)


Now NEXT is working on exposing the “degree of thievery” in the petroleum industry run by a “beautiful 50 year old woman who is reported to be the President’s girlfriend and who is hated understandably by the President’s wife.” NEXT discovered where bribes were being paid, and showed up for a meeting where a duffel bag of cash was supposed to be exchanged. The night before they posted and printed the story, it seemed that everyone who knew Dele called him, telling him he cannot do that. He was offered $20M not to tell the story.


NEXT now is broke. They’re losing some of their brightest employees. “We put all of this into the public arena, and nothing happened.” The Petroleum minister has been reconfirmed without a single question being asked. “What if you armed the public with information and they refused to act? What then?” It was all carefully document. They published the source documents. But nothing has happened. One choice is to change how they work. The other is to say to hell with it. “What if you did all this, and armed the public with the information they need to make rational decisions as citizens, and they don’t?”


Q: Dele, did your reporting not have an effect because no enough people read newspapers?”
A: We probably have the highest traffic web site of any news site in Nigeria. Two million of the most active, educated, privileged part of society are reading us but not doing anything. The other newspapers and media do not jump all over these stories, even though we’ve offered to share the documents.


Q: Maybe you needed to frame it more sensationally, although you probably don’t want to do that.
Dele: Maybe we haven’t found the right language. I assume people are rational and will act in their own best interest. My job is to give them the information they need. But I need to learn new tricks.


Q: Fatima, how do you report on these sensational stories without being sensationalistic?
A: You can drive people to act with a quiet whisper. Sometimes I think social apathy is a survival instinct for people in the Caucuses. People don’t always react. That’s why sometimes we need international action.


Q: [me] Ethan, you and Persephone are interested in why people don’t care about people who are not like them. But we just heard two cases of people not caring about even people like them. Is your issue a subset of not-caring?
Ethan: Hearing a story that you’re powerless to do anything about is a bummer. How do you overcome cynicism. The answer may be a non-journalistic answer. It may require you to report and invite action.
Fatima: Is it a question for me whether it’s dangerous for journalists to become involved, to become partisan activists. With human rights, if you give up a small piece, you’ve given up the universal.


Q: I’m a newbie publisher with an occasional sense of hopelessness, but then you have to remember that there is hope. Even so, sometimes getting the story out can have the opposite result. E.g., support for Ghadafi went up dramatically once news go out that the West was opposed to him.
Q: That sense of hopelessness and apathy was very much the norm in the Middle East and North Africa. People put out information for years and nothing happened. Yet at some point there was a conceptual breakthrough and the stories mattered. Sometimes you have to drop journalistic principles because we’re engaged in informational warfare.
Q:[ethan] where’s the line between journalism and activism?
Fatima: Your purpose as a journalist is to tell the story, to represent the story as it is. But you’re a human being. You can’t shut off your heart and your judgment. Just tell the story. Yet I have survivor guilt. I told their stories, but I exploited them.
Dele: There is great value in calm rationality, fact-checking, balance, and not waging a campaign, principally because we have more than enough of the other side. We have bloggers, and activists. The Internet is full of junk. But there are times when I’ve withheld information a few times because of the potential damage it could do. I’m not absolutely sure I’ve done the right thing.


Ivan Sigal begins by talking about why we follow specific stories. How do we enable ourselves to follow international stories when it’s barely possible to tell them at a national level? That question encapsulates work that Persephone did over 15 years. She had two strands of her work: structure and personal engagement. She worked to create and sustain structures for media to exist so they could tell stories fearlessly. She created social webs within which people could be confident that their work would be taken up by their own communities. The second aspect of her work was that everything that Persephone did was deeply personal. The people she engaged with were always individuals. And that’s important when you’re thinking about attention. For Persephone, the choice to engage in an issue was personal before it was philosophical or rational. Persephone’s goal and gift was to create networks that allow us to expand our perception of what is important to us. That is a long and slow task. The question of media attention too often falls into the ideological sphere, but it should begin with the personal, as Persephone understood.


Ten years ago, Persephone and Ivan tried to build TV shows to attach local and international reporters. At the Berkman Center, she worked on how to create person to person links that would scale.


Ivan introduces Jon Sawyer from the Pulitzer Center who says that Persephone was wonderful at connecting people. The Persephone Miel fellowship helps international journalists tell their stories outside of their countries. The Center had trouble choosing just one, so they awarded three. One is an Indian journalist working on Kashmir. Another is another Indian journalist working on issues of caste. A third is Pakistani journalist who has returned there to report. “Persephone was one of the most influential in our development.”


Ivan says that American international media tends to focus on just one or two big stories. We rarely hear stories from the Pakistani perspective, and that are not coming out of the geopolitical framework with which we approach that country. Pakistan is as corrupt as Nigeria and as dangerous as the Caucuses. More journalists are killed in Pakistan for what they’re doing than anywhere else. In the latest case, the US government actually came out and said that we have evidence that the journalist was killed by the ISI.


Her husband Tony talks movingly about Persephone. A slide show follows. [I lose it.]

One Response to “Remembering Persephone”

  1. [...] Last night I attended the Cultivating New Voices memorial for Persephone Miel, held by the Berkman Center.  It was a fascinating event, and a very moving memorial that made me sad I had never known Miel (she passed away a month or two after I arrived at Berkman).  The event featured talks from journalists Fatima Tlisova of Voice of America and Dele Olojede of the Nigeria’s Next Newspaper, as well as Ethan Zuckerman, Colin Maclay, Ivan Sigal and Jon Sawyer.  You will soon be able to access an archived webcast of the event at the Berkman site, and in the meantime, David Weinberger has posted a liveblog of the event here. [...]

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