Stories from the Stage

S5 E2 | FULL EPISODE

Newsworthy

The news is often attention grabbing. But sometimes the story behind the story is just as interesting as the headlines. Phillip navigates civil rights strife in Boston, MA; Anne manages a local news phone line as Nixon’s White House collapses; and Jeff gives a disastrous speech with a very influential guest in the audience. Three stories, three interpretations of NEWSWORTHY, hosted by Wes Hazard.

AIRED: October 18, 2021 | 0:26:30
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TRANSCRIPT

PHILLIP MARTIN: No sooner had we gotten to the beach,

then a rock was thrown; it hit a cop on horseback.

His horse reared,

and suddenly all hell broke loose.

ANNE STUART: And then I find myself

getting many, many calls from people

saying, "Is the president going to resign?"

and I tell them, "I don't know."

JEFF HOWE: By the time I finally got to the venue

in the afternoon, I was under-slept,

over-caffeinated,

and delirious from jet lag and stage fright.

WES HAZARD: Tonight's theme is "Newsworthy."

Every day, the world over,

across an incredible variety of outlets, people read,

watch, and listen to an endless stream of news stories.

Tonight, our storytellers will help

fill in some of the blanks that we're so often left with,

by digging deep and taking us behind the scenes

of newsworthy moments, from the hilarious

to the tension-filled,

from the terrifying to the sublime.

MARTIN: My name is Phillip Martin.

I grew up in 1960s Detroit,

and, uh... but came of age, of course, in the '70s.

I work as

a senior investigative reporter for the GBH Center

for Investigative Reporting.

Formerly worked at National Public Radio

as their first race relations correspondent,

and as a senior supervising editor.

How important, you know,

or to what degree is storytelling,

I should say, important to you in your journalism career?

Is that the main thing, the story?

Or do you... or are you more concerned with facts,

characters, policy?

I'm more concerned with the story.

And though, of course,

you have to buttress the story with data,

you have to buttress it with facts.

I find it sometimes,

of course, difficult to tell my own story,

because I'm used to, uh, talking about someone else's story,

and someone else's interpretation of reality.

I'm wondering as a journalist,

how do you go about preserving

the integrity of the person's individual story,

their humanity, especially when you might not like this person,

when you might disagree with everything they say,

how do you, how do you approach that?

MARTIN: I try to think of individuals

as full-bodied, not stick figures.

And if I start from the beginning,

I'm not thinking of anyone as a stick figure,

but as full-bodied-- flesh, and blood, and skin, and bones,

and a story to tell, and a history,

a past, and hopefully a future.

Then I can basically tease out the, if you will,

the humanity in these individuals.

Detroit, 1975.

I was an anti-racist--

an anti-racist activist, I'd been all my life.

I'd been in junior high school, I'd been in high school.

I'd been in this first year of college, Wayne State University.

And so when a friend of mine, Richard, came into class

and handed me a leaflet,

it said, "Come to Boston for the summer to fight racism,"

I was ready.

I worked at the Detroit Free Press at night,

on the docks of theDetroit Free Press,

bundling newspapers and dropping them off

in suburbs and surrounding areas.

And before we would take off,

I would read the newspaper cover to cover.

And quite often I'd be reading about Boston,

and what I was reading about Boston

was attacks on Black children who were in yellow school buses.

This was all over the newspapers

for days in, so I was fired up.

And so come June of 1975, that summer,

I had packed up my car, I had this Ford Pinto,

packed it up with blue jeans, packed it up with t-shirts,

cassette tapes, especially my theme music,

Earth, Wind and Fire's, "That's the Way of the World."

That was my song.

I couldn't go anywhere without it.

And so I drove with two friends from Detroit,

we arrived toward Cleveland,

continued going to Youngstown,

reach Pittsburgh, broke down, fixed the car,

made it to the Massachusetts border,

and getting to Massachusetts was exotic.

I had never been to Massachusetts

and here I have reached the Berkshires,

it was absolutely beautiful.

But then hours later,

we hit the Boston border, and my God,

gritty, grimy, dirty,

and people were incredibly unfriendly.

This summer was organized by the Committee Against Racism.

It included progressives, liberals,

people who even considered themselves conservative

anti-racists.

And the first day, the very first day,

I'm standing at the subway station in Fields Corner,

Dorchester, the largest part of Boston,

and I hear someone going, the N-word.

The N-word!

And a year before Robert De Niro said,

"Are you talking to me?" inTaxi Driver,

I said "Are you talking to me?

"I don't see anyone else on this platform.

Are you talking to me?"

These young men made it clear that they were talking to me.

They were calling me the N-word.

I grew up fighting.

I went to Martin's Recreation Center,

that's where I learned to box.

Apparently, these kids learned to box too.

And so this turned into a real brawl.

But when the police arrived, they arrested me.

I was the only person arrested.

I was freaked out.

I thought I was gonna be in jail for a long time.

But these kids, they pressed no charges,

and why should they? They attacked me!

But the point of the matter is

I was the only one arrested that day.

The summer would be like that, day in and day out.

Fights and this type of racist contradictions

that you would find on the streets.

Then I was assigned by the Committee Against Racism

to teach at the Free School, Highland Park Free School,

teaching kids during the day, history and poetry.

And the worst and most extraordinary situation

that occurred that summer,

was just leaving the Committee Against Racism office

on Huntington Avenue.

One day, just within minutes,

the office was firebombed.

And I thought "Wow, that could have been me.

That could have been me in that office."

And some of my friends who I'd gotten to know that summer,

who had arrived from Seattle,

and had arrived from St. Louis, and other cities,

they said, "That's enough, that's enough for me,"

and they left.

I decided to hang in there,

and a few days later, we hear about an attack

on Black bible salesmen.

Black bible salesmen!

These guys were here to literally sell the gospel,

door to door in Boston,

and they decided, because they didn't know any better,

that they would go to a beach.

But this was Carson Beach in Southie, South Boston,

a beach where they did not want you there.

By "they," I meant the residents of South Boston,

the majority, and they went to the beach that day,

and they were beaten to the inch, inches of their lives.

These men were... one ended up in the hospital.

And so this unified a lot of people in Boston.

There were whites, there were Blacks, there were Latinos,

Asian Americans, who basically came together,

and decided to march on Carson Beach,

to guarantee that this beach would be used by everyone,

and should be used by everyone.

We met at a park, Franklin Park in Boston,

and a gentleman from the N.A.A.C.P. gave a speech

and said, "We are going out here today to Carson Beach,

"and we're going to lay out blankets and picnic baskets,

and we're going to make sure the beach is for everyone."

And so we started marching, about 350 people,

from the landing area to the beach.

And before we even hit the sand, you could hear the sounds,

it's sort of a roar,

of people chanting and screaming.

And the chanting was, "Here we go, Southie, here we go!

(claps twice)

Here we go, Southie, here we go!"

(claps twice) And it was thunderous.

And as we reached the sand we looked out,

and we could see about a thousand people

on the other side of this police line.

A police line that included cops on the sand,

cops in helicopters, cops on the harbor,

in, in patrol boats, and on horseback.

And no sooner had we gotten to the beach

when people started laying out picnic baskets and blankets,

that a rock was thrown; it hit a cop on horseback.

His horse reared and suddenly all hell broke loose.

The cops start rushing towards the crowd, mainly our side,

and the people on the other side of this police line

start rushing toward us.

I'm looking at a guy straight ahead,

he's rushing toward me, and his fists are balled up.

We get into a fight, he hits me, I hit him,

I'm bloodied, he's bloodied.

And this is happening up and down the beach.

I turn to my right

and I see a friend of mine, Pam, being attacked,

and I grabbed her around the shoulders and we rush...

started rushing off the beach as people are fighting all,

all around, all around us.

On the sand, on the... in the water itself,

and the helicopters above, this thunderous noise,

the sound of the horses running up and down the beach....

And I knew that we had to get out of there.

And when I say "get out of there," I meant, at this point,

I had to get out of Boston.

Seven days after that extraordinary moment,

I was back on the docks at the Detroit Free Press,

bundling newspapers and delivering them

late into the night, and before we delivered them,

reading the newspapers fresh off the press.

And I'm reading about Boston's racial violence,

and the yellow school buses being attacked that September.

The stories themselves were not always complete,

and I felt that they lacked complexity

based on what I'd seen over the summer.

And I decided,

to the astonishment and consternation of my family,

that I'm going back to Boston.

I'm going back to Boston not as an activist,

not to fight in the streets.

I wanted to become a reporter.

So I packed up again,

packed up my Ford Pinto,

and I drove back to Boston,

and I became a reporter,

over the years reporting on the complexity

and Boston's racial dynamics, and that is what I do today.

STUART: My name is Anne Stuart,

and I live in Braintree, Massachusetts,

just south of Boston, and I work as a writer

and an editor in a communications role at MIT.

HAZARD: Fantastic, and so

I'm just wondering how did you find your way

to telling a story on stage?

I'm from a family of storytellers,

and every time people get together,

we have people just sort of naturally tell stories.

So it's kind of organic.

But when I started hearing about storytelling on stage,

I figured this is something I want to do.

I want to tell my stories,

and, um, and not just to my family.

So, um, that's what brought me to the stage.

And I understand that you teach graduate students

in communications, what are some of the central lessons

that you think it's really important for them to have?

Um, always be honest, you know, um,

that's one of the things I tell them.

I teach a course in crisis communication,

and, uh, I tell them, "Don't lie,

(chuckles) "because that will,

that will only make the crisis worse."

Be as transparent as you can,

and be as, as fair as you can, you know,

don't bother blaming.

Um, but really try and inform people,

because that's what people want.

And what do you think is the value of storytelling

in, you know, this sort of format, just live on stage,

what do you find the joy in that?

I think that people can connect with a story,

even if they can't connect with the exact experience, you know?

That's something in that experience

is something that resonates

with them, even if the actual individual experience doesn't.

I'm in high school and I have a part-time job

at a fried chicken place.

And as I'm standing there, hour after hour,

packing boxes for takeout,

my mind naturally wanders to my favorite topic,

which is, what am I going to do when I go to college next year?

See, everybody assumes I'll go into journalism.

My dad is an editor at the local newspaper,

and he was a reporter before that.

My one brother is already studying

to be a television photographer,

and the other one wants to be a sportswriter,

and I myself have been a writer or an editor

on every school yearbook, or newspaper,

or magazine all along the way.

But lately I've been thinking

maybe I don't want to join the family business.

Maybe I want to do something else.

Maybe I could be a history professor,

or a veterinarian, I love animals.

Or maybe I could go into politics, run for office.

Still, when my dad tells me

that there's a part-time job open down at the newspaper,

and it's mine if I want it, I am really psyched,

because this is my chance to find out what it's like

to work at a daily newspaper,

and whether it's what I want to do with my life.

Now, the job isn't in the newsroom,

it's not even on the same floor,

it's down in a little office off the lobby,

and it basically involved answering the phone.

So I'm kind of bummed because it sounds boring,

but it beats coming home every night

smelling like fried chicken.

Early on, I learned that on some of my shifts

I will be running not just these...

answering these little phones in this office,

but actually running the newspaper's switchboard

where all the calls come in.

So I'll put on my headset,

and sit in front of this big board with a lot of lights

and slots and phone lines, and a phone call will come in,

and the caller will say they're looking

to place an ad for their upcoming yard sale.

So I'll send them up to the classified ad department,

or they'll call and say they're going on vacation,

and they need to stop their newspaper delivery.

So I send them over to the circulation department.

And sometimes they'll call with a news story, or a tip,

or something like that, and I send them up to the newsroom.

And I quickly learn that people call the newspaper

for all kinds of other reasons.

See, this is way before the internet.

There's no CNN.

There's no 24-hour news radio,

at least not in Michigan, in my hometown.

When people want their news,

they get it at 6:00 and 11:00 at night on TV,

or whenever the newspaper lands on their doorstep the next day.

And when they want to know something outside those hours,

they call the newspaper and they get me.

So they'll call and ask something like,

"We'd like to go on a picnic this afternoon.

"Can you tell me if it's going to rain?"

And I put them on hold,

and I call up to the newsroom,

and I get the latest weather forecast, and I come back,

and I'll say something like, "National Weather forecast says

"it's going to be sunny and in the mid-60s,

have fun on your picnic."

Or a Detroit Tigers fan will call and be frantic.

"I missed the game, I had to work late, what happened?"

So I'll put the caller on hold,

and I call up to the sports desk,

and more often than not I come back,

and I tell them that the Tigers lost again.

It was a bad year for the Tigers.

And then every once in a while, always at night,

I get a call from someone who says,

they're just kind of wondering if anybody else

has reported seeing a UFO.

There are these strange flashing lights in the sky.

So I put them on hold and I call up to the newsroom,

just to check, and then I inevitably come back

and tell them, "No, sorry, it's just you."

Now the summer that I... after I graduate from high school,

I start getting a different kind of call,

and it's about something that's happening hundreds of miles away

in Washington, D.C.

And now I'm finding myself telling people things like,

"The Supreme Court has ruled that President Nixon

must surrender his secret tapes."

Or "the House Judiciary Committee voted

"to approve the second article of impeachment,

and the vote was 28-10."

And then I find myself getting many, many calls from people

saying, "Is the president going to resign?"

And I tell them, "I don't know, we don't know."

What I do know is that this is really big and really important.

It's never happened before and I'm part of it.

And then one hot August day, I tell caller after caller,

"The president will address the nation at 9:00 tonight.

"He will announce that he will resign tomorrow.

And Gerald R. Ford will be our next president."

I am 17 years old.

Two months ago I was still in high school,

and a few months before that I was serving up fried chicken.

Now I'm telling people about the biggest news story of our time.

I'm telling them one at a time over the phone,

but I am telling them.

And when I leave that job,

and go off to college a few weeks later,

I no longer have any doubt about what I'm going to do.

I'm not going to be a veterinarian,

and I'm certainly not going into politics.

I'm going to join the family business.

I'm going to study journalism,

and I'm going to be a journalist.

And over the next 30 years, I cover everything,

from the guy with the largest collection of Popeye memorabilia

in the entire world,

to a triple homicide on the streets of New York,

to the 100th anniversary of the Lizzie Borden murder trial.

And I wouldn't change a thing.

HOWE: My name is Jeff Howe.

I grew up in Columbus, Ohio,

I'm a professor of journalism at Northeastern University,

and founder of the Media Innovation program.

I think you've probably heard the line

more than anyone that "journalism is dead."

People say this, we know it's not true...

- Yeah. - But I'm wondering,

what keeps you, you know, really,

just bright and excited about this field?

Journalism might be dead, I guess,

I don't care that much about that.

I care a lot about, about how we tell true stories

about the world, and, and that people are able

to discover those stories, I guess.

And I just have a fundamental faith

that we're going to keep doing that.

And I don't see any evidence that that itself is ebbing,

whether it's via Substack or Twitter or a newspaper.

HAZARD: How do you balance the need

to pull in your reader,

but also to educate them to be true, to be honest,

to present information that is important?

HOWE: So I tell my students all the time

to not think about the rough draft, to just write.

And the whole point is to just get clay on the wheel,

and then you will spend drafts two through 77

working on that clay.

And I think that's how that, that's how you reach the reader

without hopelessly depressing them.

That's how you create characters that are three-dimensional,

that are multidimensional and, uh, you know,

that's how you breathe life into your stories.

It's, it's usually not on the first draft,

it's somewhere between two and 77.

In 2011,

I received an invitation to give a talk in Moscow, as in Russia.

Exciting, right?

I love Russian culture, I love the literature, and the food,

and even the people, I mean, they're grim and moody,

but they're awesome conversationalists,

especially after a shot or two of horseradish vodka.

I did have a problem,

and that was how to get in and out of the city

without meeting with Vladimir Putin.

Now this isn't a problem for most people.

The president of Russia is a pretty busy guy.

He's got sabers to rattle and dissidents to crush.

But I was not most people.

I had coined a word.

In 2006,

I had written an article for Wired magazine,

where I proposed a new term for massive online collaboration.

"Call it crowdsourcing," I said, and people did.

I started a blog, I wrote a book.

I was big in Holland.

It was a dubious claim to fame,

but in the weird, wonderful world of the 21st century,

it meant I got presented with all sorts of opportunities,

and sometimes they were a little worrisome.

The Russia invitation had come by way of Sparebank.

Sparebank was the biggest bank in Russia,

and a stalwart of the Soviet era.

The crowdsourcing campaign was to give people a chance

to win prizes in exchange

for introducing new ideas for financial products,

whatever that meant.

The Russian government decided

to launch a crowdsourcing campaign at the same time,

asking people to tell them which roads needed repairing,

because, really, even repressive regimes

need to know where the potholes are.

(accented): "Get Mr. Crowdsourcing!"

some functionary had said to another functionary,

starting a chain of communication that ended

with a call to my agent, and finally a call to me.

(accented): Mr. Crowdsourcing

(normal voice): had reservations.

I'd become a journalist to speak truth to power,

to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

Would I be lending my ideas to the forces of tyranny?

No, my agent reassured me.

I had a message to deliver,

and the Russian people deserve to hear it.

I wouldn't just be cutting a check

from a morally compromised government.

I would be delivering a message to an oppressed people.

Well, the forces of tyranny,

it turns out, drink really good whiskey.

I was served endless cups of Johnny Walker Blue

on my first class flight to Moscow,

alongside really great filet mignon.

A richly upholstered Mercedes picked me up at the airport.

Traffic was terrible, but we had our own emergency light,

because in Russia, it turns out,

an emergency is any time a rich person

needs to get somewhere quickly.

I planned on sleeping off my jet lag,

but the beautiful, humorless woman

in charge of my schedule had other ideas.

There was the midnight buffet with the CEO of Sparebank.

And then a early morning cruise along the Moskva River.

By the time I finally got to the venue in the afternoon,

I was under-slept, over-caffeinated,

and delirious from jet lag and stage fright.

Beautiful, humorless woman passed me over to burly man

in exquisitely tailored suit.

Burly man hustled me through security and into a room

that looked like it was out of a science fiction movie.

Hundreds of people were beginning to take their seats,

and the Russian media was setting up

klieg lights and cameras.

He showed me to my seat in front of which was a name plate

that read "Jeff Howe, "distinguished visitor."

I had one overwhelming sensation.

I had drunk at least 12 cappuccinos that morning,

and now they were seeking their release.

(accented): "There is no time,"

(normal voice): he said, motioning behind me,

where the most powerful man in Russia was striding towards us.

Vladimir Putin wrapped his arm around my shoulders,

and turned me to stare

down the barrel of the Russian TV cameras.

I lived in New York for about 20 years,

and most of which I worked in the same building

asVogue and New Yorker magazines.

I'm used to seeing famous people,

and for the most part, they're reassuringly flesh and blood.

This was not the case with Vladimir Voldemort.

His skin was waxy and gray,

as if it had been pumped with the same formaldehyde

used on the corpse of Lenin

just a few blocks away lying in state.

Vladimir gave me his hand and it was limp,

and he made a sort of glazed eye contact with my left lapel.

It was all unsettling.

We took our seats and someone handed me an earpiece

for the simultaneous translation.

People were clapping,

and I realized that I was being introduced.

"Thank you," I said, "It's an honor to be here."

And as I started to speak,

my vision went dim, first around the edges,

until it crept into the center and I could see nothing at all.

I kept speaking though, and eventually my vision returned,

and my urethra held.

I spoke with power and conviction.

"There is power in crowdsourcing.

People, even the most humble, are empowered."

"A free marketplace of ideas.

Good triumphs over bad, right triumphs over might."

And by the time I finished I was, I believe, panting.

There was some polite applause,

and I heard a voice to the left of me.

I had spoken truth to power, now it was power's turn.

What would he say in response

to my blistering defense of democratic ideals?

"Thank you very much," he said.

"Unfortunately, I have to go,

"though this was a very interesting discussion,

but first I would like to thank..."

Vladimir Putin turned to look at me,

then back at his papers, he shuffled them around,

and finally just said "distinguished visitor"

before getting up and leaving.

And that was it.

The show was over, and it had been just a show.

I didn't keep too close track

of what happened to Russia's crowdsourcing campaign.

Uh, I expect not much happened at all.

In subsequent years,

Russia would go on to invade the Crimea.

And I did get invited back to Moscow though.

There was no free Johnny Walker Blue.

My host was the municipal government of Moscow itself.

And instead of Vladimir Putin, I spent the time hanging out

with kind of low-level bureaucrats.

They were very interested in how to fill potholes.

And that's when I realized that change happens at the bottom.

If you want to speak truth to power, find the right people.

THERESA OKOKON: WatchStories from the Stage,

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