Big day at the FAO

On Friday, Nov 17th I misplaced my storytelling skills in the face of a mammoth-like bureaucracy. I say ‘misplaced’ because ‘finding out I never really had any’ is much too scary a notion to consider.

I accompanied Associated Press Television News to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization to interview FAO and African officials on their efforts to save a rapidly diminishing Lake Chad. This was the first assignment where the pressure was on to interview diplomats and dignitaries instead of doing the usual man-on-street quote fishing.

The journalists in the office didn’t seem to anticipate a lot of news coming out of this event, so naturally the occasion called for the enthusiasm only a hungry intern could muster.  So I, along with a one-man Television crew and the APTN intern went to the FAO headquarters on World Food Day to figure out what would make this event at all newsworthy.

From the time we cleared security to the time the presentation started, as a crew we had exactly 11 minutes to interview the water and energy minister of the Congo, the executive secretary of the Lake Chad Basin Commission and the FAO land and water director. Just your typical press run.

Our first interview was with the Congolese minister was on Camera, and in French since he supposedly did not speak English. I jammed my recorder in his face with the faint hope that someone in the office might speak enough French to translate. Our 3 minute impromptu interview was concluding but I had a vital question I wanted him to answer. I hurriedly asked him if he spoke English and he said “yes.” So much for our collective elementary French skills.

“How is the proposed water transference project going to affect the relationship between the Republic of Congo and Chad?”

The minister came back with a very stately answer of course.  Later on, the TV intern thanked me for asking that question. All the encouragement I needed right there.

By the time we made it into the meeting room, I had become the designated on-camera interviewer, since the camera man and intern were tied up in the technical aspects of the shooting.  I quite liked it. I also liked having little time, it gave way to the more important questions without any ceremonial wheel greasing.

By the time it was over, we had run with the Reuters journalists up and down stairs, in and out of elevators, in and out of rooms, just trying to get some spare time with the key players. When we finally exited the building, I felt as though I’d been in a fast train with one shot to throw a football out of the window into a small hole, like you do at carnivals and such. Whether the football made it into the hole or not remained to be seen.

Alas, the day was not over.  In fact, actually going and reporting the event was the easy part.  I had been given the unique chance to write a brief on the event for a potential contribution line at the bottom of the story. With the memory of my New York Times bliss still sweet in the chambers of my ego, I was determined to summon my writing skills.  Oh if only determination were all it took.

As I sat down to write the brief, a funny thing happened.  I was so stricken by the bureaucratic weight of what I’d just done, that I felt beholden to the many titles and labels with which I’d been presented by the publicity gurus themselves. It’s as if I had forgotten that story telling makes allowance for paraphrasing and re-labeling. My first sentence was all labels and titles and truly slip-into-a-coma boring.

When I handed in the brief, my ass was promptly handed to me by the editor, again.  “What’s this?” “Who cares?” “This is bureaucratic speak.” These were the general comments coloring her criticism of my first draft. But you know, in a strange way, it felt kind of nice to be back in the writer’s seat again, no matter how much I was mucking it up.

After shame and humiliation drove me to re-working the piece, we noted that the real necessary guts of the story were untouched by my reporting. This wasn’t really my fault, I had been told to leave the event after the first speech was made so that I could have time to write the brief. Naturally, I was going to miss some stuff, the very stuff my editor now deemed vital to producing anything usable out of this event.

So I made the necessary phone calls, and got the vital info, but by the time it was said and done it was 7 pm, and the Nigerian desk wasn’t hungry enough for it for me to pursue it any further.

I asked the editor if I could rework the story on my own time and possibly get her feedback on a second draft. She was very accommodating.

I think I’ve arrived at the realization that it is better to start out with too much voice in a piece instead of too little.  Tis better to be overly dramatic at the outset than to be overly dry. I don’t know when or how I convinced myself that news had to be boring or it wasn’t proper news. You can always reign in too much perspective, but once you’ve turned in a boring piece, you’ve cast yourself as a dry, voiceless writer who’s instincts tend toward a lack of storytelling. Who wants to be that writer?

I want to be the writer that calls a spade a spade in the most colorful way possible. The one whose editor says “You’ve nailed the story, just make it a little more objective,” or “I agree with you totally, but just tone it down a bit.”  That’s the kind of writer I’d hope to have as an editor, so now I just have to set about the business of becoming her. I think this blog is the first step.

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