Object Lessons

Photographer Nina Berman, a professor at Columbia’s Journalism School, on the evolving state of photojournalism:

There are stylistic trends in art and in literature, and everyone acknowledges them. But rarely are they cited in photojournalism, perhaps because people still cling to the idea of photography as an objective or neutral medium that captures a shared truth. There is nothing remotely objective about photography. Where I stand, how I got to that spot, where I direct my lens, what I frame, how I expose the image, what personal and cultural factors influence these decisions — all are intensely subjective.

Published: May 12, 2014
Length: 6 minutes (1,556 words)

The Ghost Files

Historians are uncovering gaps in the National Archives and analyzing data to find scores of classified documents that should have already been declassified and released to the public:

Krasner, who earned a PhD in mathematics at Columbia, is among a half dozen computer scientists, mathematicians, and statisticians now working with Connelly on a multimedia research project they call the Declassification Engine. For the past year, this team has been gathering up large numbers of federal documents and creating analytic tools to detect anomalies in the collections. Several of the tools are on the project’s website and available for anyone to use. The one Krasner is developing is intended to find evidentiary traces of important historical episodes — a diplomatic crisis, say, or preparations for a military strike — that scholars until now have failed to notice. The Columbia researchers suspect that by spotting something as subtle as an uptick in a diplomat’s telephone activity they may be able to reveal the existence of historical episodes that the US government has largely suppressed from the public record.

“If you can make out something happening in the shadows, then we can ask: does it seem curious that little information about this event is available in the public record?” says David Allen, a PhD candidate in history at Columbia who is working on the project.

Published: Feb 1, 2014
Length: 21 minutes (5,319 words)

Shades of Green

Excerpts from emails written home from a Marine in Afghanistan:

“The most dangerous times of any deployment are the first and last thirty days. In the first thirty days, you don’t have the experience to keep you from making stupid mistakes. Add to that the swagger that any young person might have when heading off to war for the first time, and you’ve got a potentially dangerous combination. In short, you’re too stupid to realize that your aggressiveness and confidence is what is most likely to get you killed.

“During the last thirty days, you have the benefit of five to six months of combat experience, but you are tired and have convinced yourself that you have everything under control. You’ve patrolled the same roads and talked to the same people for half a year, and all you can think or talk about is going home. In short, you’ve become too cocky to realize that letting your guard down is what will get you killed. In both cases, it is our hubris that is our most dangerous enemy.”

Published: Oct 19, 2013
Length: 13 minutes (3,453 words)

Street-Beat Confidential

A profile of New York Daily News reporter Juan González, who has been working in journalism for more than 30 years, and was an activist during the late ’60s and early ’70s:

“‘Some of the editors started quashing my columns,’ says González. ‘They killed two of them and relegated the others to the back pages. So I went to Ed Kosner, the editor in chief, and said, “Ed, why are you holding up my columns?” And he said, “Well, the EPA says the stuff that you’re writing isn’t accurate, and so does the Giuliani administration, and besides, the Times isn’t writing anything about it.” And I said, “Since when do we decide what we’re going to write based on what the Times decides to write? You have to trust my reporting.” So we went back and forth, and I finally said, “Ed, you don’t know me well. And I don’t know you well because you’ve only been here a couple of years. So here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to keep writing on this topic. I think it’s important, and when a lot of people start getting sick ten or fifteen years down the line, I don’t want it to be on my conscience that I didn’t do what I needed to do as a reporter.”‘

“Five years later, as people started getting sick, the paper, under different editors, ran editorials exposing the problem. For this, the Daily News won a Pulitzer Prize.”

Author: Paul Hond
Published: Aug 1, 2013
Length: 16 minutes (4,034 words)

Justice’s Son

A profile of Ben Jealous, the president and CEO of the NAACP:

“‘Governor,’ said Jealous. ‘You know the death penalty is used exclusively on poor people.’


“‘You know it’s used disproportionately against blacks and Latinos.’


“‘Well, Governor, this is what I want you to do: imagine the person you most worry about in trying to explain why you abolished the death penalty. I want you to imagine telling that person this: “Every time a prosecutor seeks the death penalty, it pulls hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes millions, out of our state treasury. Dollars that therefore cannot be used for anything else. And in our state, like any state, there are places where 30, 40, 50, sometimes 60 percent of the homicides go unsolved every year. I’ve thought long and hard about it, and decided that we as a state would be safer if we spent that money on homicide units rather than killing the killers we’ve already caught and put in cages. So I’ve abolished the death penalty, and I’ve asked the counties to send their savings to the homicide units and get the uncaught killers off the street.”‘”

Author: Paul Hond
Published: Apr 23, 2013
Length: 22 minutes (5,530 words)

The Last Beat

The story of Lucien Carr, who befriended Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs while he was a freshman at Columbia. The four friends had their lives changed when Carr murdered a man during his sophomore year:

“The day after Carr confessed, both Kerouac and Burroughs were arrested as material witnesses. Burroughs’s father came to New York to post his bail, but Kerouac’s family refused. Instead, his girlfriend Edie Parker came to his rescue, though the judge would not allow her to bail him out unless the pair married, which they did in a short ceremony on August 22, setting the course of Kerouac’s next several years.

“Though Ginsberg was the only one who escaped arrest, it was on him that the murder arguably had the gravest impact. Deeply in love with Carr, he had also developed a close friendship with Kammerer and was struggling with his own homosexuality. Johnson suggests in The Voice Is All that, while Carr denied it, Ginsberg may have experimented sexually with both men before the murder. And in August, she writes, Ginsberg ‘spent some intensely lonely weeks mourning the loss of Lucien and “wonderful, perverse Kammerer,” twice drafting suicide notes in his journal.'”

Published: Jan 25, 2013
Length: 12 minutes (3,103 words)

The Solitude of Invention

Paul Auster opens up about his life and work:

“Academics theorize endlessly about Auster and his literary motivations, labeling him everything from a New York Jewish hunger artist to a clever semiotician whose every decision — down to the color of the notebook his protagonists choose to write in — is fraught with symbolism. Auster dismisses most of this as academic overanalyzing, usually with a hidden agenda.

“‘So many of these people have a point of view, a position, and are trying to articulate this position by using me as an example. But I myself, living within myself, never try to put labels on what I do. I just follow my nose.

“‘I’m a man of contradictions, you know; I can’t say any one thing about myself. Yes,’ he says with a laugh, ‘I’m the hunger artist who likes to eat.'”

Published: Oct 5, 2012
Length: 17 minutes (4,381 words)

Thought for Food

How a second-generation Chinese daughter of two doctors in Birmingham, Mich., became one of New York City’s finest chefs:

“Wanting to expand her culinary outlook to include more Eastern flavors, Lo moved to a French-Vietnamese restaurant, Can, where she met Scism, who was working as a grill cook. But it was when Lo took the helm of a Korean restaurant called Mirezi that she caught the attention of the New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl, who praised her inventive dishes and ‘beautifully arranged food’ in a glowing review. After Mirezi closed in 1998, Lo and Scism spent a year traveling the world.

“‘Anita will eat anything,’ says Scism, recalling a day in Bangkok when a vendor challenged Lo to eat a cockroach. ‘At one point, I told her she had a wing stuck in her two front teeth,’ says Scism with a laugh. ‘The thing about Anita is, she didn’t try the bug because she was challenged; she tried it because she really was curious about how it would taste.'”

Published: Aug 1, 2012
Length: 11 minutes (2,901 words)