Monday, May 10, 2010

Opinion: Forced Encounters of the Fourth Estate

By Alysa Obert
Gordon College News Service
May 6, 2010

I am terrified of two things, even though both happen to be in my blood: journalism and airplanes. I have an insatiable itch for truth and a curiosity for new lands. And yet, I know that with each interview, as with each walk down the jet way, comes an invitation, an inevitable flirting with death, and an obligation to defy the comfort of my own germ-phobic skin to interact with the Other.

On a recent flight from Chicago (home) to Boston (college), for instance, a plump tan man with a Marine Corps bag caught my eye. Is the bag for pleasure or for politics? I thought, amusing myself with the cleverness of me. What I actually said was, “Is Boston home?” “No,” he said.  “Redwing, Minnesota. I commute twice a month.”

Gary was uncommonly gracious. I was cranky that the plane was late. I was mad that I wouldn’t finish my article on time and most of all I was annoyed that on this Boeing 737 with twenty passengers, he sat next to me.


We made small talk, and I tried not to smell a story. It was late; I was tired, besides my notepad was tucked away in the seat pocket in front of me. Whether it was the years of commuting to put his daughter through school or his commitment to his cocaine-addicted son, I lost.

When I’d set off for my first story this semester in my journalism internship, to say I was a novice is an understatement. I’d taken Journalism 1 only three months before and had never interviewed, let alone spoken, to anyone off campus. My first interview with the eccentric bookkeeper was a disaster. I let him buy me coffee. I left early ‘because I had a previous engagement’ (class) and the interview itself was so awkward that his employees hung up every time I attempted to ask a follow-up question.

It was during my second story I realized why I was putting myself through the torture of asking strangers personal questions. She was rough around the edges, self-conscious about the weight she’d gained in “research and taste development” and I was not allowed to take her picture. Yet by the end of our interview, her face was glowing as she flicked her wrist and said, “Secretly, I’m a pink princess.”

The first few minutes are the most dangerous, I’ve learned, and that applies to flying and reporting. When you take off whether in the form of a question, a lede or the runway, a hard and fast face-plant is the most detrimental. Two things will happen. Readers or sources will go no further, and if you’re in the plane well, use your imagination.

Still, the ability to fly amazes me. You’re traveling 35,000 feet above ground at a speed of roughly 400 miles per/hour, six miles closer to being an astronaut but in my mind, six miles closer to six feet under.

So when my plane ride with Gary became a rollercoaster, I freaked. “I was hit by lightning,” he said distracting me. “No kidding,” I said.

“I’m serious,” Gary said. “One moment I was at the window the next my head hit the ceiling and then I was bleeding on the floor.” Understanding between strangers has baffled me ever since.

My last interview was the hardest and not because of the accent. “Afghans are often too ambitious,” he said. “They want to be doctors or businessmen so they can return to help their home.” And he was no different. He barely passed a business class, but wouldn’t change his major.

Professors gave him the gentleman’s D because he worked hard. And I felt cheated. How could they send him out into the world? I wanted to tell them all he’d told me, the aspirations and reasons they didn’t know and how they were hurting him by letting him slide by. But who am I? I’m not his friend, not his foe but certainly not his mentor. After all our shared hours, my job was to synthesize, to condense, to report.

And when the plane landed, Gary turned to me and said, “I’d like to make a donation to your future.” “Ok,” I said. He handed me a 100-dollar bill. I stared at it and thanked him. I told myself I’d save it and it would be my forever muse. But I used it all that week on groceries.

I continually tell myself I don’t want to go into journalism and that I shouldn’t board planes. Both bring me face to face with my fears: strangers and death (which is a type of stranger). At times journalism is sensational, at times political, and sadly at times untrue. But at its best it is Truth; a sharing between un-introduced Others, a forced encounter that demands we choose our response, even if it’s apathy.

In a world of continually insulated spheres, journalism, like a conversation with a stranger on a plane, is the prick that causes us to realize that fingers hurt, that we can bleed, and that what we need most, is to touch elbows with people we don’t know, even if we risk getting germs.

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