Thursday, December 27, 2007

Journalists Of The Year, Hayasaki, Daragahi, Stack

My choice for Journalists of the Year are Los Angeles Times writers Erika Hayasaki, Borzou Daragahi and Megan Stack. All rendered brilliant reports this year on the tensions and violence that afflict society. And what better day to recognize these vital talents on a day when the news comes of another despicable assassination in the Middle East, that of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan.

Each of the brilliant journalists I'm recognizing today had a single story that stood out in the great body of their work in 2007, but each have contributed years of valuable reporting to the readers of the L.A. Times. They come from different backgrounds, but all three are superbly trained, write eloquent reports and and are capable through these reports of bringing knowledge and emotional truths out of the situations they describe. Our admiration of them should be unbounded.

Erika Hayasaki, 30, worked six years in Los Angeles for the Times before relocating to New York, where she covers both news and features, normally in the Northeast. But the high point of Hayasaki's reporting year was not exactly in the Northeast, but in Blacksburg, Virginia, where a lunatic, Seung Hui-Cho, killed 32 students and teachers in shootings on April 16, before killing himself.

Hayasaki's story, focused on the French class in Room 211, Norris Hall, taught by Jocelyne Couture-Nowak, where the beloved teacher and ten of her students were murdered, six others wounded, and the killer ultimately committed suicide, was a masterpiece. As I remarked at the time, "There has been no story so poignant on the Virginia Tech massacre as the one by Erika Hayasaki...Like Flaubert's classic novel, Madame Bovary, virtually every word in Hayasaki's article has its place. What she succeeds in doing is to portray the full horror of the event, the immensity of the loss, the evil of the killer, and the love the students felt for their teacher who was the first to die," but not before warning them to "Get in the back! Get imder your desks! Call 911!"

This was one of the great stories of the year, but in emotional power, the stories by Daragahi and Stack matched it.

Daragahi, 38, of Iranian descent, was a prize-winning Los Angeles Times reporter and bureau chief in Baghdad for four and a half years, and is now reporting in Egypt and Lebanon for the newspaper, with occasional visits to Iran.

His April 10 story, "Reporter recalls the layers of truth told in Iraq" was an account of how he survived all the terror of Baghdad through a combination of care, shrewdness and frequent dissembling in various locales of just who he was and who he represented.

"Now that I am out of Iraq, I can begin to be honest," he wrote.

"For years, I had swaddled myself in layers of half-truths. I was an Iranian heading to the shrine cities. I was an average Joe from the Midwest who liked to go canoeing in the summer. I was a reporter for Radio Canada here to tell the truth about what's happening in Iraq. I was an Iranian journalist visiting the brave fighters of Sadr City.

"Sometimes I went beyond the truth in the name of survival. I was a Sunni Arab with a speech impediment. I was a sympathetic journalist visiting the brave Sunni patriots of west Baghdad. I was among a group of pharmacists heading down to visit a hospital caring for truck bomb victims. Anything to get the story and get out.

"In fact, I am an Iranian American reporter from Chicago, a graduate of Columbia University's journalism school, where I was taught that the greatest journalists were impartial and balanced."

Daragahi's piece on what it took to do fair reporting in Baghdad was another masterpiece. Before he went to work for the L.A. Times there, he had been a freelancer. In the story, he told of visiting Kurdistani parts of Iraq in 2002 and being told by Jalal Talabani, a Kurdish leader who later became president of Iraq after the American takeover, that "Liberating Iraq is easy. Ruling Iraq is difficult."

"Even then," Daragahi writes, "we caught glimpses of the demons now ravaging Iraq."

The Daragahi story was one of several the Times ran this year about the experiences of and issues facing journalistic coverage in tension-wracked parts of the world, particularly the Middle East.

Another was the June 6 story by Megan Stack, 31, about her years of covering Saudi Arabia, before she was transferred to Moscow to become the paper's Russian correspondent. She has just begun that assignment after months of studying the Russian language and history, and has also been working on a book about the War on Terror. Her manuscript is due in July, but much is already written.

Reporting in Saudi Arabia, wrote Stack in her article, "In Saudi Arabia, a view from behind the veil," was a deeply unsettling experience for a young, American woman such as herself.

"I was ready to cope, or so I thought," she wrote. "I arrived with a protective smirk in tow, planning to thicken the walls around myself. I'd report a few stories and go home. I had no inkling that Saudi Arabia, the experience of being a woman there, would stick to me, follow me home on the plane and shadow me through my days, taunting the way I perceived men and women everywhere.

"I'm leaving the Middle East now, closing up years spent covering the fighting and fallout that have swept the region since Sept. 11. Of all the strange, scary and joyful experiences of the past years, my time covering Saudi Arabia remains among the most jarring."

There is simply no way of adequately capsulating the Hayasaki, Daragahi and Stack stories. It is commonly said there is nothing older than yesterday's newspaper, but these articles should be published in some kind of anthology, so that readers can read and learn from them in the years ahead.

If you ever want to understand why print journalism is important, these "Journalists of the Year" are prime examples.

They deserve every compliment that can be expressed about them. It is great to be able to contend that they are the "Journalists of the Year 2007."

The Journalist of the Year named last year was Dean Baquet. He has done mighty well this year, and I hope the same will be the case next year with Hayasaki, Daragahi and Stack.

--

We must wait to try to sort out just what was behind the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. While Al-Qaeda has reportedly claimed responsibility, the Pakistani government is so rife with conspirators, traitors and loonies that it is possible elements of the government of Pervez Musharaff were complicit.

The bottom line in Pakistan is that its nuclear weapons cannot under any circumstances be allowed to fall into the hands of the terrorists. There are contingencies for U.S. and Indian intervention in this chaotic country, which should never have been created in the first place. But it would be extremely dicey if the Bhutto assassination further destabilized what is already a critically dangerous situation. The dangers of nuclear proliferation are fully on display this morning, and we see in the strong statement by Vladimir Putin about the assassination that even the Russians are concerned about them, as they should be.

Bhutto was, of course, a woman. This is only the latest instance in the Islamic world of women being subjected to brutality, slavery, or death, if they sought to exercise their rights.

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