Live Bonus: Press Freedom

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S1: Hi and welcome to a special bonus edition of Amicus exclusively for our Slate Plus members. I’m Dahlia Lithwick and this is a show that was recorded at the Miami Book Fair this past week in partnership with the Reporters Committee for the freedom of the press the Reporter’s Committee is the leading organization in the country working with pro bono lawyers dividing their docket between representing reporters who are being sued assisting with public records litigation and they also have a robust amicus brief practice to amplify arguments in pending cases around the country. I’m also proud to serve on their board and I was very proud to share the podium this week with three journalists doing really impactful investigative work Laura Moscow so is from the Centro de pair D MO investigate TiVo in Puerto Rico.

S2: She is their data investigative reporter there. She was key in breaking the story about the undercounting of deaths in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Among other scandals NORA GOMEZ Torres covers Cuba for the Nuevo Herald and The Miami Herald. She has dealt with cyber attacks and cyber bullying from the Cuban government for her investigations.

S3: And finally Emily Michaud from The Miami Herald worked with Julie Brown to break the big Jeffrey Epstein story. Emily is a photojournalist and she documented Epstein’s victims in photos and videos for the Herald’s award winning series perversion of justice. This was a fascinating discussion that served as a very timely and useful reminder of the centrality of journalism to the health of our democracy.

S4: Enjoy. We are coming to you live from the Miami Book Fair in partnership with Reporters Committee that you’ve just heard about.

S5: And Miami Dade College who’s hosting us today and I cannot believe I’m on an all women panel talking about not me too. I mean we’ll talk about me to a little but it’s really nice to be on a panel of just state of the art brilliant talented journalists that also happen to be women. So I’m kind of in the catbird seat right now. We’re here to talk about law the Constitution journalism freedom of the press. I always like to start these talks by reminding people that journalists are in fact the only profession named in the Bill of Rights. There’s no guarantee of rights to any other profession. And I think that the framers really understood that the media and journalism plays a special role. And I could not be more thrilled to be joined by Laura Nora and Emily today. And I think I want to start with my just basic framing question that I ask journalists which is the pay sucks everybody hates you. Consolidation is killing us. Why do you do journalism Laura.

S6: Can we start with you. Why do you why do you do this job.

S5: What drew you to it. What makes this matter for you.

S7: I come from a house of a journalist my mother is a journalist so I was raised in a newsroom. I actually study literature then and study journalism I study it later. I feel like I wanted to write and that’s the job that I got when I was in college right at the police station and in local newspapers. And then you get a satisfaction of time from the work that you see that your work has real impact in politics and culture in the lives of your neighbors. Right. And so I think that I do it for the challenge cause every day is a new challenge. And I also do it for dissatisfaction is very satisfying. Line of work.

S8: Same question Nora. I think I’m very lucky on having this job because I was born in Cuba so now I’m able to explain what’s happening in my county my family. I mean have country I’m American as well. But to the American public in a way that some times journalists that don’t have like a deep knowledge of the context cannot do. And also I’m able to do this sort of journalism that I would never be able to do in Cuba because they they have no sense or media they don’t have freedom of the press. So we are paying a service not only to the Cuban-American community here in Miami but also to the Cubans on the island who actually find out about things by reading El Nuevo Herald. So I’m yeah I’m more than lucky and happy to have this job.

S4: Emily you’re your lane is visual but I guess I want to ask the same question What draws you to this profession as opposed to other sort of forms you might have you might have chosen.

S9: I was really fortunate to get an internship in school twenty six years ago at the Miami Herald and just I was hired after that internship and never left because it’s an amazing job and an amazing place. You’re seeing just something different every day meeting incredible people every day. That kind of started out as photography black and white photography. You know it’s been a while and and and it merged into video and audio and you know it worked with the investigative team that we have the Miami Herald down for the past several years just doing really in-depth incredible reporting and it just really has turned. It’s just a passion and I just feel really honored to still be there. You know times are tough but it’s just really such important work that we’re still doing.

S5: So Laura I wonder if you could talk a little bit about sort of the work with CPI the work around trying to ferret out the truth of Puerto Rico and I guess I might my initial question is how did you find yourself in the middle of that after the hurricane.

S7: So that was very challenging obviously because the government still has the official number two years later as 74. That’s and our project. Fact checked five hundred and then there was an academic survey that had almost 3000. So that’s from 64 to three thousand is a large difference. I mean we knew we had to do it right because we aren’t Puerto Ricans. Also we suffer the consequences of the hurricane and we knew from neighbors and sources and talking you know on the streets that this was happening in hospitals and in houses around the island and nobody was counting literally counting people and counting deaths. And so we started publishing stories that contradicted the official discourse on the subject. And after a while we we asked for the official database if the demographics registry. They denied it. And so we went to court because we thought that it was maybe the most important story right. So we’re talking about the lives of our fellow Puerto Ricans. And so yeah we kept at it and finally won the lawsuit in the we sued on January 2018 and then we got the database on June 2000 into 18 and previously we had like 10 stories ducking and covering the subject and then we had this massive massive database that we got and in collaboration we courts and with the data team in AP we did this special project that has its own a web site it’s called a lot more of those the media medias that you can search it online and is like a big investigative piece. But it’s also a very visual publication in our timeline right. How the official message was run and how many lives were lost in that process.

S4: And so yeah it was very hard work many days and nights of reporting and of course having the responsibility and the challenge and the strength to to go to court and sue the government over this issue and I guess what’s interesting is I’m just trying to think as a journalist you come to this story because it’s clear like you said from day one that there’s a huge discrepancy between what you know official government counts are and what you’re seeing even the in the emergency rooms and just talk for a minute until you actually you know prevail in court. What are you doing short of that to try to gather the story.

S10: A lot of reporting we went to Mark’s we went to hospitals we went to people’s houses and we went to elderly homes. We were everywhere and we all created.

S11: Our own database. We used the police missing reports and we cross that with funeral homes and and remarks and hospitals and we did a lot of talking with sources that because they fear what the consequences right. They couldn’t come on the record.

S10: But they had confidence in our work. And so what we did with it was gather and create our own database. And so when we got the the official database we were ready to check with this tool that was very helpful because we had the names and the addresses and everything and it validated are like nine months of work.

S4: I almost have the same question for you Nora which is that you flicked at this when you were describing your own work but you’re trying to describe what’s happening in Cuba. I was reading your most recent piece trying to describe Cuba and Ecuador. You’re trying to you know it’s an amazing world you’re trying to reconstruct and you don’t have the kind of access to facts on the ground. And you know I was just thinking like how do you write about Cuba and Bolivia and Ecuador and all these you know you’re being gas lit in many of the same ways that Laura describes and I wonder if you know as somebody who thinks of reporting as something where you just go and you knock on the door and you ask a question you’ve had to craft a career that has to end run the fact that nobody really wants you to know what you’re trying to find out right.

S12: It’s frustrating because for a week in a four year for records we don’t have access you know to the banking system for example I work on the old the Bragg investigation that was a regional collaboration between several media. So we’re trying to figure it out you know what happened with this Brazilian company other BRIC in Cuba and Venezuela. The difference with other countries is what you said. Like we don’t have access especially in Cuba and Venezuela those authoritarian governments. Yes they don’t like the Miami Herald at all. They don’t like our coverage because we are very persistent and honestly we do a lot of you know quality reporting every day every single day on those countries because we think we’re doing a community service to the Venezuelans and the Cubans. So you have to take other routes. You develop a lot of sources by phone. We do talk a lot with Cubans on um Venezuelans are people in the countries sometimes. They allowed us to travel maybe not not me but someone from the paper might be able to go and do some reporting. We also partner with local media outlets for example in this other rig story. I rode in Venezuela and the corruption there. We partner with Armando inform which is the Venezuelan outlet. Actually they have to work out of Colombia because they have been prosecuted as well. So we have to get Marv is a lot of strategies to come out with this story of course is just frustrating because at the end they’re going to be always pieces that are missing because we don’t have access to their records. But we think we should.

S13: Keep doing this because we are doing the kind of watchdog journalism that unfortunately local journalism cannot do. So for us for it for the papers it’s clear that this these are very important beats even for example if we can not monetize the claims. I mean you’re not going to sell advertising to poor Cubans or Venezuelans but we keep investing in these sort of investigations and in this reporting. But yeah it’s staff.

S12: I’ve not been able to go to Cuba for example in let’s say like three years or so. I mean the last time I when I was with President Obama and it was very hard to get that visa and they haven’t allowed me to go and that’s that’s one of the ways these authoritarian governments control the coverage they receive by by you with media.

S13: That’s one of the things they do they pick and choose which reporter they allowed to go in. So yeah there’s a lot of challenges. And also like the extreme polarization of every scene that it’s related to Cuba to the Cuban-American community here in Florida. So it’s you are constantly under attack from you know maybe members of the Cuban exile that would like you to call the leader of Cuba a dictator all the time. The most interesting thing and one of the hardest challenges I have face is that the Cuban government for many years have been using this same sort of misinformation campaigns that we have been seeing now on a national level in the U.S. I mean they learned this from Russia from the former Soviet Union. So. They had they they have been doing the same things like. The fake Facebook accounts the fake Twitter accounts the trolls attacking me and attacking the paper.

S12: And and it’s a systematic thing. For example I do have my own assigned troll. A guy that e-mail to me every time I read a story. AMOS Mack and we know they have destroyed farms. You know it might not be the case that is only Russia who is actually you know trying to undermine our journalism or their foreign governments also do that.

S4: And in a way we’re only learning what you’ve known for a while. I mean in this country where you’re like Oh this got invented in 2016 and you’re saying this has been around for a long time unfortunately yeah I have my I have fake stories publish under my byline elsewhere.

S12: I mean you know it’s a book that they use whether in Russia in Cuba in Venezuela they’re using as well they’re using it in other Latin American countries in Africa but in El Nuevo. It’s been for ages.

S4: So Emily you you have a slightly different take because you know we’ve just heard from Laura and Nora talking about they’re just trying to find the facts and they’re being lied to and obstructed and they’re trying to uncover the facts. What you and Julie K. Brandt did was the facts were known. You had to surface that which nobody wanted to talk about and you actually had to go one further and then get images of of women who probably were not super excited to have their picture taken and tell their story.

S14: And I guess I’m wondering you know what I’m hearing here is this is deep investigative journalism where you just run it the wall over and over again to try to get information. It seems to me that you must have had to do something very different that had to be about sort of building some kind of trust for people who probably had every reason not to want to not to want to talk to you.

S9: Well I really I have to credit Julia with that. I mean Julie really did a lot of digging to even find out who these women were because they they were just minors at the time many of them. And. So so their names were redacted and there was just it was a really challenging process for her to even find them and then once she did find them to see if they would want to talk to us. And so she really worked on building that relationship and and getting in the door and getting us there and I think just. You know it took a little doing two to make sure that they felt like that they wanted to tell the story. But I think Julie also had had convinced them that she wanted to do the story in a different way because the story had been done before. On some levels but I think. It really focused on the salacious nature of it that these were young women and you know the massages and this multimillionaire gentleman in Palm Beach. So a lot of the reporting was really focused on that and not so much on what happened with this case that this man got a slap on the wrist and and that these young women were like kept in the dark. So that was really Julie really wanted to just really get to the bottom of that and the opportunity to talk to them is really difficult because I didn’t I really didn’t know a lot about the case going into it. And so our first interview in Nashville was really quite overwhelming to hear this one woman’s story who was only 16 at the time and it only gone to him one time and it ruined her life. I mean she was it just really really was crushing when she didn’t even know it. You know Julie had written her a letter and told her everything. What the Epstein case that came after she had no idea how lenient his plea deal was and she had no idea that he was out there you know still most likely doing a lot of the same abuses. I think the actual interviews the video interviews were just were just really hard for Julie and I both as moms as you know women just. To see that these young girls what they’d been through and that they were blaming themselves when certainly they were not at fault. And I’ve done a lot of projects with the investigative team that the thing that I’ve just come off the project I’ve just come off of that had been another really difficult one was one we had done called Fight Club that was abuses in the juvenile justice system. So again just really horrible circumstances happening to these young men. Who were being bribed by prison guards with honey buns to fight each other and and just just things you can’t even you can’t even imagine. So it’s it takes it takes a bit of a toll and I think I was just ready to just you know it just was just thinking like maybe something light would be good. And then Julie had come along and I was like well that’s not going to be light but it’s certainly important.

S14: So all three of you have talked about needing to sort of foster trust with sources and you know people wouldn’t tell you their name on the record. People don’t call you back. Or they call you back in they’re burned and they don’t. And you know what women who would much rather not be talking to you and I I ask this question just through this through this lens of we’re at a moment of record low trust in the media you know and Americans with every passing year I think and you make a good point Norah. This is not just Americans. People don’t trust journalism anymore. And I guess I’m wondering how do you foster. You know and I’ve had the same thing with with sources who are just deeply dubious about this whole project of journalism right now. And yet journalism really I think rises and falls on people’s willingness to trust us. And I wonder if any of you have any sort of reflections on how you build trust in yourself as an individual journalist when journalism generally is really suffering from a lack of public trust.

S7: I think that right now I’m very lucky because CBI in the center is a it’s a nonprofit organization. And that surely helps for my existential questions and for trying to reach out to sources and other folks because we only have our work. We don’t. We don’t. Get money from advertising and we don’t have any other commercial relations with anyone right. Only with our audience when they give us donations so that’s the only relationship there. And I think that working in a place that only those investigative work is also a relief in that case because you have to time to come back to a source to come back to our data set to come back to an expert and to really like take care of your story and what you’re doing and learning to maybe leave something alone for some period of time and come back later and not to rush it. And yeah I guess that if I was working a daily newspaper it would be difficult for me to answer this question.

S15: You know it’s a great question. When I came into the speed I had to face a lot of distrust from the community I mean there were people blogging who had this person and why is she writing about Cuba and posting horrible things about me without actually giving me a chance. So I really have to think about that. So my strategy was to be as much violence as I could. This was like a very polarizing issue. So I tried to be as honest and balance as I could. And then the sources so that I was fair that they they that I would take their their point of view seriously and reflect on their stories. But at the same time I would not be opinionated as they want me to. And I would also reflect all their views. It took some time but I was I managed to build you know this sort of trust in which you know people from very different political backgrounds would both talk to me and it’s very hard. I think professionalism is the only answer you know to be fair to be villains and to show them also that you care about their issues. I think women journalists live in a different world in some sense because I think the trolling is scary and the threats can be scary and.

S16: Which isn’t to say that our male colleagues don’t face the same kinds of threats but I certainly know when I talk to women journalists that just the number of times a day you know they are threatened with actual rape is astounding. And I don’t know Nora if you if you want to talk about the ways in which this kind of shapes the way you do your job or if you’ve just had to blinker yourself to gender.

S15: I mean as a female journalist and also one you know trying to do work on politics which is usually the realm or formally the realm of men and there’s people though still believe that you know you don’t have as much or they doubt your expertise because in politics because you’re a women journalist. So I have to face all of that and it’s a major I receive daily e-mails of this prison from Cuba saying horrible things. And then on Twitter and the bots and you do have you know they’ve got some technical you know ways to get to me then I will debate on Twitter and the email I have a special folder for him.

S12: I’m for older females like that. It was surprising to me. You know how even sources like academics or experts well kind of you know call you are out for example on Twitter less carefully if you were a male journalist. I mean if you compare it you think well they don’t address you know older male journalists like they’re addressing me.

S15: So I tried to be again as much balance I can I can be. Sometimes you do kind of not censor but take a much less opinionated tone on social media.

S12: I think that that have worked for me. But in a way I’m not able to you know be as free or boys just the same sort of opinion that men would boys if they were in my beat and they would not be that punished for that. So it’s like yeah you need to come out with some strategies and then you always get the joke. I mean I I’m getting jokes from sources about me being a secretary or I mean you all get that. Unfortunately it’s still is less frequent. I mean it’s less frequent. That’s something that it’s good. But. You know I always talk to like younger female reporters to be referred to get some some of those jokes as well.

S4: Emily you’re like me you’ve been doing this. I’ve been reporting for two decades and I. Two decades ago believe that we hit peak sexism and that it was all going to be like a lovely downhill glide into parody and joyful common understanding. Do you do you have any ways in which gender inflicts on what you do how you do it what your worries are what your challenges are.

S9: I think it is it’s so important to have female journalists and somebody asked me if I thought you know we would have had the same response from the women if it had been men that were interviewing them and I honestly I can’t imagine really it’s just because you know they were even saying one of them was even saying part of her traumas being around men still. So it is it is something you just really have to take into consideration.

S16: I just want to ask you all what the scariest thing you’ve ever done as a journalist is and made it scary doesn’t need to be you know like walking through the woods with a basket in a red cape like it could just be what was challenging what was a thing that you thought I’m not gonna be able to do this sentence.

S12: We do have that feeling every day. I’m not going to be able to make it to that line. But there are so many different experiences. I don’t know. I have not been directly on for example you know the sort of bile ends our colleagues for example we have right now a colleague in Haiti and you know the situation in a country is very tough.

S13: I’m not I haven’t had that sort of experience but the Crucible always risks. For example I went to Kokoda you know the border with Venezuela when the U.S. was training trying to get the aid into Venezuela. It was he was a very tense environment and and also it’s a border town which is like very violent and and you have to go round in a place you don’t know you’re parachuting you know for two days and you need to find out the story you need to chase the politicians are also parachuting there for the picture and trying to get a reason tried to get the deadline.

S12: And there’s no water you don’t eat on day and night but we can do that very frequently.

S17: So there’s always that sense of Oh my God am I gonna be able to do this on the deadline and to provide to all our readers. So that’s that’s a scary feeling. But it’s also challenging and invigorating.

S7: I think that I’ve been this curious this last summer. And so we we published a telegram and shot of the former governor right.

S11: That resulted in his resignation. And when we publish. That at 3:00 a.m. on a Saturday people started coming into the governor’s mansion way more people than I expected and with every day the protest got more violent and the room hundreds of thousands of people gathering. They’re very firm in what they wanted which was the resignation of the governor. And I thought until he resigned and left. If something happens to someone here or something and someone dies if the police you know physically abusing someone. This is our response. I really think we did this. I’m not forcing people to go to a protest but they did it in part because we gave them this information all at once and then we publish an investigation with corrupt corruption scheme. And so I was like if something happens in one of these protest I’m going to feel responsible for this and I. That was scary because at some point we really did think that something really crazy and bad was going to happen. Right.

S7: And so I was very very very very scary that something will happen at the end everyone was alive when he died and the. And the work work. Right. But it was very scary because you feel responsible.

S4: Yeah. And I think we forget that. I mean some of us live our lives behind a keyboard. You forget that there are real implications for real people. Emily do you have an answer to the scariest thing you’ve ever done.

S9: Like Nora was saying one of our video journalists is in Haiti right now too and you think wow the risks that people take to do this job or are pretty incredible. I can’t really think that I’ve ever been like really scared for my life but I’ve just always been you know just. Cognizant of telling stories in a fair way and making sure that the truth came out but that there wasn’t harm to the person telling the story. So I think that’s always something that weighs on on me a bit.

S4: Did you have the same sort of feeling around the Jeffrey Epstein reporting that like some harm could come to these women and that you somehow had enabled that or were you able to sort of barricade yourself and say look this is you know I’m doing my job and they are agreeing to be to be photographed and to be interviewed or did you also have that lingering fear.

S9: I just I mean I knew they were super brave for what they were doing. You know it was I think telling that story to take risks in different ways. A lot of them had said that they just really hope that somehow it would make a difference and that maybe would encourage other survivors to come forward as well. And it sure did. So I think everybody felt like there was some justice at the end not the justice that everybody had hoped for.

S16: But I just wanted to ask each of you if you have thoughts about you know we’re sort of talking about journalism as though it’s this monolithic thing right and we’re talking about established newspapers and not for profits and I am thinking of my you know 16 year old son who gets all his news from Instagram and from YouTube and who you know generally I think believes that all news is fake news and you know old people don’t know stuff. And I think that we are raising up a generation of people who think it’s all too malleable and too subject to distortion and I wonder what you think about in terms of really inculcating this idea. No this is real. This is true. This matters when I think there is a pretty cynical generation coming up behind you. Everybody looks very sad for audio purposes.

S13: It’s a real challenge as an industry and especially local papers. They’re thinking a lot about how to get these younger audiences audiences to you know consume media in different ways and sometimes we are very sad in a you know like give me. A reason. Reporter maybe with some visuals if we’re lucky. And then you know this generation is entirely on the cell phone on the web and is seriously a question of survival also for especially for newspapers figuring out how to get to that younger audience. I think also this oldest disinformation campaigns they don’t help because they tend to you know make people believe that everything is either fake or you know it in steals is sort of what about autism in public discourse. Distrust in institutions like the media but also the government so it’s like it’s an entire different context in which they’re growing up. So to best we can do is like do this sort of reporting we do. And of course try to you. Also fact checked. All you fake stories or. Disinformation campaigns and the like. But honestly I don’t think as an industry we have. An answer to that yet.

S7: I don’t. Maybe I’m an optimistic but I am not cynical out at all and my colleagues aren’t. And our work isn’t. And we also you know we collaborate with other news outlets and we make a habit of identifying other journalists in other newspapers and other news outlets that we follow because the job is good and we we work with them and so we collaboration is a way of bettering that. And and also we are very engaged with sharing our tools.

S10: And so twice a year we we give seminars to other journalists.

S11: Free of charge in any subject that we have. And because we believe in journalism I do think that it matters. There are people that are going to say you’re doing some fake thing or that the only way to deal with that is not doing a fake thing right like facts. No.

S10: Do your job good. Which is the only way you can do it and try to be louder than the other person. Admit your mistakes when you make out obviously. Yeah.

S16: And here’s where I align myself with with Laura in being a little bit optimistic because I think that while it’s true that print journalism. You know what my what my younger colleagues called dead tree journalism might be sort of slipping away. But I think what is rushing in to fill the void can be some of them. I mean you all are examples of just incredible you know multimedia data driven you know incredible investigative journalism that you could not have done 20 years ago and I think it’s you know I’m always really careful to say you know there are huge economic problems there are you know media consolidation problems I mean there are legitimately problems with people that don’t want to pay for news and you should all pay for news but I think that in the same moment that one despairs about you know sort of the end of one era there is amazing amazing deep investigative reporting happening every day. It’s just that we don’t always see it and recognize it. So I I just think it’s you know the best of times worst of times. There is some real. Best of Times stuff. I think we should be celebrating with that. I’m going to wrap up this special live bonus edition of Amicus. I want to thank the good folks in Miami for coming out. I want to thank people who are listening in. I want to thank the Miami Book Fair. I want to thank the Reporters Committee for the freedom of the press not just for helping put this together but as you know somebody who is a proud consumer of the product and the services we don’t always know that we’re going to need the Reporters Committee until we really need it. And I want to thank my three amazing amazing co panelists Laura Moskow so gnaw at them as Torres Emily me show all of whom I think are really lighting the way for the next generation of journalists who are gonna be even more extraordinary join me in thanking them and thanking you for being here tonight.

S2: And that is a wrap for this special live bonus edition of Amicus. Thank you so much for listening. If you’d like to get in touch our email as ever is Amicus at Slate dot com. And you can always find us at Facebook dot com slash Amicus podcast. Today’s show was produced by Sara Birmingham with live audio engineering on site in Miami by Krista Angeles. Gabriel Roth is editorial director of Slate podcast and June Thomas is senior managing producer of Slate podcast. And we will be back with another episode of Tamika’s next week.