Journalists Give Voice to Voiceless

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CSM’s ‘Connections’ Literary Series Welcomes Journalists Steiner, Phillips Oct. 17

Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of dedicated people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” A small group of dedicated people in Baltimore are responsible for raising the hourly wages for cleaners at Camden Yards from $7 per hour to $11.30 per hour. Their struggle, as well as others’ living in Baltimore, is the topic of “Just Words: The Stories of Working People in Our Community”, hosted by Marc Steiner and produced by Jessica Phillips through a grant by the Open Society Institute-Baltimore.

Steiner and Phillips will present their 2007 Peabody Award-winning series as part of the College of Southern Maryland’s “Connections” Literary Series at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 17, at the Leonardtown Campus, Building A, Auditorium.

Steiner is the host of the “Marc Steiner Show” that airs every Wednesday from 9-10 a.m. on WEAA 88.9 FM. Phillips is a producer for the Center for Emerging Media.

In preparation for CSM’s Connections program, Steiner and Phillips discussed the role of journalists and the making of “Just Words.”

CSM: Tell your listeners a little about yourselves: how long have you been journalists? Where did you begin your careers and where do you go from here as Peabody Award winners? What do you see as the most vital role of the journalist, and what advice would you give a college student interested in a career in journalism, considering shrinking staffs and the changing face of the media?

Marc: I started on public radio 15 and half years ago on WJHU in Baltimore. Though I wrote for “Washington Free Press” and the “South Baltimore Voice” and was a founder of the “Liberation News Service,” most of my life was spent in journalism.

The world of media is rapidly changing, so young people today will enter journalism with mediums unthinkable in the past. Journalism is more than just blogging or throwing out an opinion. At its heart it is seeking the truth. It is listening with open heart and mind to all points of view. It is research, pondering and being unafraid of the answers you find. It is about passion and crusading for what is right. You are the fifth estate of this democracy that must hold power accountable. You must never look up to those in charge of our political, social and financial lives. You have to look them in the eye and ask the tough questions for your fellow citizens. You have to tell our collective story.

Jessica: I have wanted to work in public radio since I was 16, when I started driving myself to school and discovered “Morning Edition”. I got my start in public radio in 2004 when a wonderful public radio consultant and former vice-president of WETA named Tom Livingston took a chance on a college graduate and made me his office assistant. Through that job I made a connection at the Laurel-based public radio documentary house “Soundprint” where I was a production assistant. I worked both of these jobs part time for about 9 months. Then Tom found out Marc was looking for a producer, introduced us, and the rest is history.

The most vital role a journalist can play is to somehow find a way to make people care about things that do not affect them directly. A skilled journalist can tell a story so compellingly, so richly that a person is able to overcome their own interests and develop sympathy and an interest in the life of a person halfway around the globe or just down the street but in another world. By doing this, a skilled journalist can make the world smaller and help us understand the way we are all connected. We begin to understand our obligations to each other as human beings. However, to be honest, I consider myself less a journalist than a storyteller. Obviously, “Just Words” has a clear point of view. It is not an exercise in straight, standard journalism. It is a slice of life, an exploration into someone’s world.

My advice to a student interested in journalism is to understand these things: You will never make a lot of money or have a lot of job security. You should be prepared to have to move around the country in order to move up in your field. You should develop an ability to work for many formats, including online, print, radio, TV, etc. There are a lot of personalities in the news business. There is a lot of ego. It is important to remember that someone else being a jerk really has nothing to do with you, and you should just let it roll off your back. Finding someone to serve as a mentor is hugely advantageous. Not only will they be able to offer you the knowledge and experience of their years in the industry, but they will also be willing to vouch for you and put their name on the line for you. This can help you attain opportunities you would otherwise never have.

CSM: How did the idea for “Just Words” develop? What did you hope to accomplish by creating “Just Words?” What did you find most surprising, most challenging, most difficult?

Jessica: “Just Words” as a documentary feature series was Marc's idea. I was brought in after the grant money had already been awarded. What we hoped to accomplish was to help show the human story behind the statistics of crime, poverty, and drug addiction that float past our television screens on the evening news every night. The nature of our world and the way mass media works has allowed middle and upper class people to become isolated from the poor and disenfranchised. When we use statistics to describe these problems, people are made voiceless. “Just Words” was our small attempt to give some of that voice back to these people in the hopes that the audience would begin to understand that the working poor are not just numbers. They are human beings with the ability to build lives that can benefit the community if they are just given a small amount of support and political power. The hardest part was finding a way to make each story fresh and to make each subject unique from whoever came before and whoever came after. So many of these stories are full of painful similarities, and it was important to keep them each unique and not let them all be painted with one broad brush.

CSM: How were the people selected to be a part of “Just Words?”

Jessica: We used our existing networks we had formed from “The Marc Steiner Show,” a daily public affairs program that airs on NPR in Baltimore. We talked to former guests and people who we thought would know interesting people. We also approached organizations like Catholic Charities and Service Employees International Union and asked them to let us know of stories, people and programs they thought would be interesting. This is how we found people like Beth.

CSM: How long did it take to put together the four-minute segments? How long was each interview?

Jessica: Each interview usually was about an hour and a half long. We conducted almost every interview in the subject’s home. I would transcribe each interview which usually took around five hours or more. From the transcript I would then create a script for what usually was three pieces per interview subject. Creating the scripts took about four or five hours. Then, I would actually create the pieces with my computer editing software, recording Marc's tracks, mix it down and add music, and presto, it was done. Once the script was done, actually physically putting the piece together took about a day of work. It was generally about two to three full days of work only on “Just Words” per week and that is not including when we were doing field recordings.

CSM: Several of the speakers (Lucille Robinson, Beth, and Carla Reeves) discuss how quickly someone can fall from the top to the bottom. What do you think is the biggest contributor to that decline?

Marc: The economic and social policies of this nation keep so many so close to poverty. We have very little in the way of a social safety net to catch those on the way down, so they can bounce back up.

Jessica: The biggest contributor is just that we all live so close to the edge. It's not just older women or recovering drug addicts or ex-convicts that live close to the edge. It is middle-class educated people as well. So many of us are one-missed paycheck from a serious financial crisis. For some people, that is a choice. They choose to live beyond their means and not have a safety net. For other people, there is no choice. They are living so tight, and there is literally nothing left to create padding. It is the lack of crisis funds that makes the decline so steep and so close. Whether it is a personal fund or a government program, there should be a better way for good people to get emergency help when they need it.

CSM: In a lot of the episodes (Episode 25 Beth, Episode 31 Terry, Episode 34 Carla Reeves, Episode 37 Rose Menustik, Episode 40 Lorraine Mackey), the guests discuss their frustration with the lack of services and programs available for those in need. If they were to be instituted, what programs do you think would make the biggest difference and why?

Marc: Inmates are let out of prison with $50 (they earned at prison jobs for $1 a day) and a pat on the back. It does not take a huge amount of public resource, but we need programs to reintegrate people into society, half-way houses and prison re-entry programs. Dedicated non-profits can run these programs at the fraction of what it would cost state bureaucracies and with results that might last.

CSM: The low-hourly wages of workers at Camden Yards and of people who provide essential services is a returning subject in “Just Words.” In addition, federal minimum wage recently raised from $5.85 to $6.55 per hour, and it is scheduled to rise again next year to $7.25 per hour. Do you think these changes are really making a difference? Is $7.25 per hour enough to support a family? Is it enough to show appreciation for the people who provide the services our society depends on?

Jessica: No, $7.25 an hour is not enough to raise a family on. It is enough to survive, but barely. But yes, those few dollars make a huge difference in these people's lives. When you are this needy, every single dollar really does make the difference. In our interview with Robert, a stadium worker, he gleefully described how now he could take his family to Applebee's instead of McDonald's. His pride in being able to take his family to a place that offers traditional dining and service is apparent. The sense of pride and dignity that this small luxury affords may just be the thing to keep him going another day. Obviously it is not enough to show appreciation. A “thank you” is nice, but it can't feed a family.

CSM: In the introduction of Episode 13, Nargas Hyman and BSpirit, you [Marc Steiner] describe the kids in the basement by saying: “Like a bunker in war zone – a place of safety from the madness of the streets.” What do you think has made Baltimore a “war zone?”

Marc: It is not just Baltimore. It is the inner cities of this nation. It is every rust-belt town whose well-paying jobs have disappeared, and it is the world where honest work is not paid the honest dollar it deserves. We had a welfare system that banished fathers, industrial plants that closed down, and a drug trade that soared and took its place. Yes, I do believe the worst of it could have been avoided, but that would have taken a mindset in government and society that did not, and probably does not, exist.

CSM: Music is obviously an important part of “Just Words.” Episode 11, Various Community Activists, features “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash. The chorus says, “It's like a jungle sometimes/ It makes me wonder how I keep from goin' under.” How do you think the people featured in “Just Words” “keep from goin' under?” What holds them together?

Jessica: I do not know how they keep from going under. If I knew, I would bottle it and become a millionaire by finding a way to sell tenacity and spirit. They just refuse to succumb, or having succumbed once, refuse to do it again. Why? Usually it has something to do with love. Love for their children, love for their community, love for their parents, or love for God. The knowledge that giving up would mean someone else, like a child, would suffer. But I do not understand how they go through what they go through and keep getting up and making it happen. I chose this music because it just jumped in my head when I was listening to the recording of these interviews. This song fit the piece perfectly, and I was thrilled to use one of the best and earliest examples of socially conscious hip-hop. Music was always an important consideration for me while crafting the series. I will admit that I knew next to nothing about hip hop music when I began this project, so I did some research and found some artists I really liked like Asheru & Blue Black. I think the music choices added to the emotional impact of the series.

CSM: The “Featured Topics” section of your website, www.centerforemergingmedia.com, focuses on “Rethinking the Criminal Justice System.” In addition, several of your guests on “Just Words” were ex-convicts. What improvements do you think need to be made to the criminal justice system?

Marc: First, stop incarcerating so many people. Design a system of community corrections, restitutions and personal rehabilitation. Most people in prison are not a dire threat to society. Yes, the bad guys have to be put away, but most, even those who must be separated from us, can become productive citizens.

CSM: Is there a part two in the making?

Marc: Part two is always in the making with us. These are the stories we have to keep telling, to give voice to the voiceless. I think now we are going to focus on what works and why.

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