Dispatch Two: I start work (March 13, 2006)
I started work at the news bureau last week. Though I am a mere intern, my press pass lists me as "correspondent," because there is somehow less headache with government bureaucracy if I am listed this way. Also, when I phone people while working on stories, I have learned to introduce myself as a "correspondent" or "reporter," which feels kind of cool. The bureau's office is in airless, stuffy, hot, and smells like 20 years of chain-smoking; so I'm trying to learn to breathe less while in Israel.
The news office is a chaotic place, with most of the staff working at a sort of massive collective desk with a dozen computers and a dozen phones on it. The phones ring non-stop, people are helping each other with stories, people are coming and going. I have trouble making a coherent phone call or writing even 200 words in this atmosphere; I miss the calm, clean, quiet, orderly, private office I normally work in back home. However, writing a book is a slow and solo process, whereas writing a daily wire-service article is a fast and fairly collective process; which is why the working environment is so different.
The bosses have been very nice to me, as has the whole staff. This kind of rapid-fire hard-news journalism is way outside my experience or education, and I seem to spend most of my time trying to find sources and material in a country I don't know, where I don't speak the language, for subjects about which I am totally ignorant, in a format that I'm completely unfamiliar with. But people here have been patient with my mistakes and my confusion. Perhaps I will reach a marginal level of competence at my bottom-rung function here, oh, just around the time my internship ends in June…
As an intern, one of my tasks is to do support work for stories by the staff journalists, such as looking up information, making calls to get quotes and comments, or taking down information by phone from field journalists. However, in just my first week, I went out-of-office to cover an event at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial. I also went to Tel Aviv to cover a meeting between Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and international peace envoy Paul Wolfensohn.
That second story is outside my competence zone, so it's perhaps lucky for me that we were only allowed in there for two minutes and the two men didn't say or do anything unexpected. But entering the Ministry of Defense was almost as much fun as checking in at El Al. Far too many Israelis, by now, have seen my underwear.
I traveled to Tel Aviv with two guys who work in the bureau's TV division, and we had to stay in Tel Aviv until late so they could get some camera footage there for a story they're working on. Since they couldn't film anything until later in the day, we enjoyed a long walk in beautiful weather through the old seaport of Jaffa (which looks like a Crusader/Moor/Disney fantasy) and along Tel Aviv's wonderful seaside promenade. Then we went to the big open-air market around sundown to get some camera footage for a story about poverty in Israel. When the market starts shutting down, the poorest people come out to collect discarded and rotting produce from the ground. This was a sad thing to watch, and has, I gather, been an overlooked subject in a country that has to keep most of its attention focused on security and defense.
I've been encouraged to think up feature story ideas I'd like to go out and work on, and I'm pleased, since this is up my alley. Coming up with ideas that interest me and pitching them to an editor is familiar territory, and it would probably suit my competence level better than hunting down and phoning up intelligence analysts. (Among other things, I can't spell a single name the experts reel off in their responses to me.)
In one of those phone interviews, by the way, conducted from my apartment due to a scheduling conflict, my wooden chair suddenly collapsed beneath me and went crashing to the tile floor with a tremendous clatter, knocking the phone out of my hand and the wind out of my lungs. When I apologized to the Israeli on the phone, he said, "Welcome to the Middle East." When I said rather dispiritedly that EVERYTHING in my furnished flat here is broken, he said, "Yes, that's what it's like here." When I apologized for not speaking Hebrew, he said, "Don't worry, only Jews and God speak Hebrew, we don't expect it of the rest of you."
March 13, 2006