Why Cokie Roberts matters.

The Founding Mothers of NPR, circa 1979 and more recently (from left): Nina Totenberg, Linda Wertheimer, Cokie Roberts.

The Founding Mothers of NPR, circa 1979 and more recently (from left): Nina Totenberg, Linda Wertheimer, Cokie Roberts.

Let’s face it: Cokie Roberts and I didn’t have all that much in common.

The journalist and commentator, who died last week of a recurrence of the breast cancer that was first diagnosed in 2002, was the daughter of two members of Congress. She came from a storied Louisiana family and grew up an insider in Washington, DC – President Lyndon Johnson came to her 1966 wedding. She rose to the top of the field of political reporting, and was best known for her work at National Public Radio, one of the few national news organizations that has continued to stay relevant as the rest of the business blew apart.

We never met.

But I am bereft at the news of her death. I feel as though I have lost a good friend, and that journalism has lost a singular voice. I guess when you hear someone talking first thing in the morning for more than three decades, you get pretty familiar. 

I admired Roberts for her political reporting, of course. And the skeptical-with-a-touch-of-humor-underneath tone of her voice. And for holding her own as the ABC News co-anchor with Sam Donelson from 1996 to 2002.

Mostly, though, I admired her for staying in the game until the end.

For women in journalism, that’s rarer than you think.

News reports have pointed out that some of the current giants of NPR’s national reporting staff – Nina Totenberg, Linda Wertheimer, Cokie Roberts – joined in the early days of 1978 because they couldn’t get paid, or even get jobs, at other, more prestigious news organizations.

You’d think we’d be long past the idea that women can’t lead journalism organizations, but look around. In Memphis, news organizations run by women are rare.

There are just five: Anna Traverse, appointed just three months ago, is the CEO of Contemporary Media, which publishes Memphis magazine, the Memphis Flyer, Inside Memphis Business and Memphis Parent. Jacinthia Jones is the Memphis bureau chief at Chalkbeat, a nationwide nonprofit network of newsrooms that cover education. Lisa Lovell is the news director at WLMT Channel 24. Stacey Greenberg does terrific food journalism at Edible Memphis. And Wendi C. Thomas is the founder, editor and publisher of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit site that focuses on the intersection of poverty and power. (Joanna Crangle is the publisher of the Memphis Business Journal, but doesn’t make daily news coverage decisions.)

That’s it. In 2019.

Think for a moment about what that means about who makes the final decisions about what stories get covered, how, and by whom.

Now I’m going to mention the REAL taboo: Age.

Cokie Roberts was 75 when she died, and her last broadcast was just days before the end. As her friend Nina Totenberg wrote of her work ethic, even after her cancer returned three years ago: “There was not a chance she was going to cancel commitments, no matter how rotten she felt. … Indeed, she was planning to go to Houston for the debates, until her disease finally trumped her grit.”

That’s just the way I want to go out: Doing something I love doing, calling friends for the latest scoop, thinking about the latest new idea. But role models for women who want to stay in the conversation, keep working and remain influential are incredibly rare, both nationally and locally.

Though maybe that’s changing, at least a little. I see you, Beverly Robertson, who this year was named to the powerful position of CEO of the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce at age 68. Karen Blockman Carrier is still coming up with delicious menu ideas for her restaurants and catering operation at 66.

And feminist icon and journalist Gloria Steinem, who’s coming to Memphis in October to receive one of the National Civil Rights Museum’s prestigious Freedom Awards, is 85. This fall she will publish yet another book: The Truth Will Set You Free. But First It Will Piss You Off.

No kidding.

Thank you, Cokie Roberts, for being a great role model, in every possible way. I will miss you.

 

 

 

Sweet Eulah.

Eulah Clarke, above, is in her customary spot at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral on Palm Sunday 2013. She is framed in a palm and pictured near the center of this photo, between the woman in the red coat and the woman in the lime scarf. (The donkey — you remember, it’s what Jesus rode as he entered Jerusalem — was not impressed with our Episcopalian pageantry.)

Eulah Clarke, above, is in her customary spot at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral on Palm Sunday 2013. She is framed in a palm and pictured near the center of this photo, between the woman in the red coat and the woman in the lime scarf. (The donkey — you remember, it’s what Jesus rode as he entered Jerusalem — was not impressed with our Episcopalian pageantry.)

I didn’t know much about Eulah Clarke, the lovely woman who sat right in front of the pulpit at the St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral every Sunday, without fail.

 Her low, comforting voice, crisp diction and love for high church Anglican music told me something about her education, and, I later learned, her career – she had been a third-grade teacher. Of course she had.

Miss Eulah’s favorite hymn was “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” the emotional roller coaster beloved by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. She also loved “Amazing Grace.”

She and I shared a birthday, the week before Christmas. She was 93.

And yesterday, a few minutes after we sang some of her favorite hymns in her hospice room, she died, leaving the beautiful and tired shell of her body for something far more glorious.

I can’t stop thinking about Miss Eulah, and how much joy she gave me, even though we never spoke outside of church. Her eyes would light up as I took her hand and leaned in close after every recessional to hear what she thought of our anthem. She would never tell me how she was feeling, only asking how I was.

In recent months, when I saw her moving slowly toward communion each Sunday, I thought often that I should offer to drive her to church, or bring her dinner, or just stop by her home and have a chat.

I never did, to my great regret.

Yet Eulah Clarke is someone I will never forget.

The biggest lesson she taught me?

Being present together can be enough. And being joyful and engaged until the end is really the only choice.

Thank you, Eulah. We will miss you.

 

Brown White Black: Stories of an American family.

“We check all the boxes,” said author Nishta J. Mehra (far left, with Shiv and Jill).

“We check all the boxes,” said author Nishta J. Mehra (far left, with Shiv and Jill).

I have just finished reading Nishta J. Mehra’s new memoir Brown White Black: An American Family at the Intersection of Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Religion, and the word I can’t get out of my head is BRAVE.

 This collection of essays, both deeply personal and solidly researched, takes the reader through Mehra’s own journey toward clarity about her identity, biases, desires and choices. While it’s possible some readers might wonder what they have in common with a first-generation, queer, brown teacher and writer who grew up in the South, this book is also a field guide to building authentic family relationships during a time when just not talking about differences can be the easiest way to get through the day.

Mehra grew up in the racially polarized city of Memphis, where “just not talking about it” is a way of life. As the beloved only daughter of two Indian immigrants, she was well on her way to fulfilling their every dream for her … until she wasn’t.

To her great credit, she listened to her heart when she fell deeply in love with her religion professor in college; that professor is now her wife. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t comfortable. But, as Mehra writes pointedly, in one of my favorite lines in the book: “So much is riding on our ability as a society to give up the notion that we are entitled to be comfortable all of the time.”

For someone who is not part of the dominant culture, of course, comfort is not an option, and, in each of these essays, Mehra provides a window into living that life that’s as wide-open and honest as you’ll find.

She tells, painfully, of the rude and questioning glances she and her wife get when they are out with Shiv, their now 6-year-old. (They are Brown White Black, or, as Mehra calls them, a tri-color family.) When Shiv was 3, Mehra had to figure out how to respond when an older white boy on a playground said, “Black boys can’t play here.” Even ordering a coffee at Starbucks sets up a cross-cultural experience; apparently no barista anywhere spells NISHTA correctly without help and (sometimes) an explanation.

Still, you get the feeling that all of this hard work is, for Mehra, also where she finds the good stuff. The most authentic connections. The strength to keep moving forward. I hope so. Parts of this book are so searingly honest that they make me a little afraid for her. Her writing, though, is confident and intimate. She is clearly not afraid. Which is what makes this book so compelling.

Like the English teacher she is, Mehra is careful about language, both in this book and in her life. Shiv, her adopted child, was “placed with us” by his birth mother, rather than “given up.”

She and her wife Jill are resolutely truthful, especially when it comes to really difficult truths. After Shiv questions why there are child-sized shackles during a trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Mehra writes: “In our family we believe evil is not inherent but chosen or taught. … There is danger, I feel, in fooling ourselves into thinking that all of the people who perpetuated a slaveholding state were somehow evil, different from us, separate, removed. A comforting thought. One I have learned to refuse.”

Mehra moves her stories along quickly, and doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining ideas she thinks a reader should know about. If you don’t already know what a bindi is and its significance, look it up. If coming out hasn’t been a part or your life or the life or anyone you know, you won’t find any hand-wringing about it here.

Yet Mehra’s point of view is clear and authentic without being defensive or harsh. It’s first-gen kid training in action, in the best way. If you’ve ever stumbled over pronouns for a colleague or friend, asked to be reminded what cisgender means or found yourself wondering how to think about a child experimenting with gender identity, you’ll find help here.

Mostly, though, you’ll find stories of a warm, loving family, told in Mehra’s signature, heart-tugging style, with a focus on what it takes to raise a healthy, whole child.

Shiv, who loves to dance, wore a tutu to see his first performance of The Nutcracker, and insisted on the same sparkly costumes and elaborate makeup as the girls in his dance class when it was time for their first recital.

Mehra continues: “The morning before (the recital’s dress rehearsal), he and I set off on an adventure with the dog, tromping around the backyard lake in the mud and muck … carrying sticks, both of us pretending to be superheroes with magic powers. And then the same boy, with the same level of excitement, took a shower, got dressed up in his leggings and ballet shoes, sat perfectly still while I put makeup on him for the first time, smoothing on his foundation and lining his eyes with my black pencil. … He took one look in the mirror and told me, ‘I’m pretty, mama!’

“You are, my boy. You are.”

 

Customer (dis)service.

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It only took five minutes to end a nearly 30-year relationship.

This week, I canceled my subscription to the local newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, which I have read since I arrived in Memphis in 1989 and for which I worked for a (mostly happy) 15 years.

(Well, it only took five minutes if you don’t count the 40 minutes I waited for the Gannett customer service rep to call me back. Where was he? Iowa? Mumbai? I thought about getting my reporter on and asking him a million questions, but I was too sad.)

I have long felt like a chump for continuing to pay nearly $50 a month for a product put together by a company that so clearly doesn’t care one bit for me or the news that shapes my city. I have already read most of the stories I care about by the time they reach print, sometimes as many as two (!) days later. A new local daily online journalism source is coming in a few weeks, and I’m already in the habit of reading news online throughout the day. It was time.

But I am not one of the cranky chorus of disappointed Memphians who points out every stupid headline and ignorant geographic reference. I don’t relish how often I can’t find even one thoroughly reported story in a day’s paper or I see a column that went on too long that I know was used mostly to fill a space. I will never say, with a sneer, “Who’s left over there, anyway?”

The answer is that there are at least 27 hardworking journalists left in The CA newsroom (there were nearly 200 when I joined the paper in 1994), and they are doing the best they can. David Waters, John Beifuss, Linda Moore, Ron Maxey – these friends and former co-workers have adapted over and over to the ridiculous corporate imperative to do more with less. In journalism, that’s simply not possible.

My heart aches when I think of the stories that aren’t getting done – at all – in Memphis right now. Not just the slow-on-the-uptake local reporting about the MPD’s surveillance of activists. What happened to all of those worrisome stories circulating on social media about people who weren’t able to vote the ballot they wanted to in the August 2 election? Are there pedophile priests in the Catholic Diocese of Memphis hiding the way they were for decades in Pennsylvania?

And those are just a couple of the stories I can mention. Like all journalists, I hear things every day that should be investigated by a competent reporter with editorial support that doesn’t depend on preserving the status quo. Some of those stories would turn out to be nothing. But some would change our city for the better, even if they made people mad on the way.

This fascinating CityLab story from May even shows the economic consequences of a city losing a newspaper. "You can actually see the financial consequences that have to be borne by local citizens as a result of newspaper closures," say the researchers. 

We're not quite there, but losing our watchdogs isn't good for anyone, really. To reiterate, journalists are not the enemy. 

As my friend, the wonderful photojournalist Karen Pulfer Focht, put it, “It was never just a job for me. Nor you. It was a calling to most everyone in that newsroom.” Karen took the sad photo, above, not long after the CA building sold in April.

To be clear, I will still read The CA digitally, for a fraction of the cost of getting a dead-tree paper delivered to my doorstep every morning. But local news will never be the same for me.

 

Hey, I wrote a book!

MLH book reveal, 6-22-18.jpg

She was the first person who called me when I launched my communications business: Lee Meyers, the senior communications/marketing officer at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, was planning for the hospital’s centennial in 2018. Would I be interested in writing a history book to go along with the 100th anniversary celebrations?

Sure! I said. (Which is what I usually say when presented with an opportunity that sounds good but with which I have no actual experience.)

Today, I hold the finished book in my hands (the photo shows the cover being unveiled at a lunch this week by MLH CEO Michael Ugwueke and Donna Abney about which more, below). In some ways, it was some of the most comfortable work I’ve done since I started working for myself. In other ways, it was really difficult.

Mostly, though, it was a great experience, and I learned a lot, both about myself and about how to manage a complicated, detailed, high-stakes project. Here’s what I learned:

1.       No matter how much time you have, you’ll work right up to the drop-dead deadline. I’d never done a two-year project – or written an entire book – and I had planned to be finished several months before the final copy-to-printer date. I made an outline, a calendar, and set up regular check-in meetings. But that slack in the schedule evaporated, and we ended up doing final production on the book right up to the last possible moment. Why?

2.       Expect the unexpected. In December of last year, the month I had originally planned to finish the writing part of the book, I ended up having major surgery. I was back at my desk by early 2018 (and feel great today), but I lost a lot of work time, and not just on this project. Which leads to …

3.       Ask for help. In matters large and small, Lee -- and the wonderful Donna Abney, a retired MLH executive (pictured above) who did most of the original interviews that form the backbone of the book -- were right there with me.

When I realized that I would never be able to figure out what to do with the 50-plus interview transcripts Donna eventually sent me, she made a road map to show me which interview would likely contribute to which chapter. I just had to ask her. She also talked me through the intricacies of managed care and hospital politics. Whew.

And Lee was remarkably calm and supportive as the weeks after my surgery slipped by. She trusted me to do my best for her, and her trust allowed me to do just that. She was a true friend, checking on me and moving obstacles out of my way. She challenged me to write clearly and helped me understand what was most important. Plus, she was right next to me on the final Friday before deadline, sweating the details as much as I did. It was a pleasure to work together.

4.       Writing is hard. No matter what kind of writing you are doing, whether for pay or for passion, writing well is damn difficult. How to get going? Anne Lamott is right: Butt in chair. Start each day anywhere. Let yourself do it badly. Take one passage at a time. Get butt back in chair. I love her.

I discovered with this project, and maybe for other projects to come, that I needed large, unbroken blocks of time to get anywhere. Which is why I often wrote on the weekends, when there were fewer interruptions and I didn’t worry I should be doing something else for some other client instead. Sometimes progress was teeth-grindingly slow. Sometimes when I opened up a chapter-in-progress the next day, I was appalled at how lame it was. But eventually I could see where it all should be going and how to bring a reader – even a casual reader – into the narrative wherever he or she opened the book. I hope I have succeeded.

It’s incredibly satisfying to finish a project like this one, to see my ideas and storytelling come together in such a tangible way.

And now I know I can write a book. Guess it’s time to pull out my long-ago outline of the story I’ve always wanted to tell and get going. Stay tuned.

Defending my health care, AGAIN.

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Dear Senator Alexander:

I’m working in a great little café in Nashville today (above), not far from your Tennessee office on Capitol Hill. As you surely know, yesterday hundreds of people gathered there protest the Senate’s latest proposal to trash the Affordable Care Act, known as the Graham/Cassidy bill, and urge you and Senator Corker to vote against it.

The reason I am in town is because my little consulting business, now almost two years old, is going pretty well! I think there are ways for me to collaborate with some of the folks I know here to build my business. It’s been a very productive couple of days.

But I can’t stop thinking – worrying – about how I’ll buy insurance for my family once the insurance I have now runs out in December.

Frankly, it’s exhausting. And infuriating.

I believed you when you said you wanted to find a bipartisan solution to the problems with the Affordable Care Act, and cheered when you sat down with Patty Murray for hearings. What happened? Why won’t you continue to work together to fix what doesn’t work about Obamacare? Why would you consider voting for Graham/Cassidy so quickly when you won’t even know (from the Congressional Budget Office evaluation) what it will cost?

I believed you and other Republicans when you said you wanted to create jobs and support entrepreneurs and innovation. Starting my own communications consulting business has been some of the most gratifying and exhilarating work I’ve ever done. But I may not be able to continue to do this work unless I can find an affordable insurance solution for my family.

It’s hard not to feel betrayed by the craven politics that are being played with our health care options. And I’m well aware that I am one of the lucky ones: We might choose to pay the exorbitant premiums that an individual plan on the exchange demand. Many of my fellow Memphians simply don’t have that choice.

I have written about my anger and frustration about health care before – when I found out how much the rates for a Cigna plan (now the only option available in Shelby County) would go up, I was sitting in my husband’s hospital room.

Please step up, vote NO on Graham/Cassidy, and commit to doing the hard, bipartisan work of fixing our health care system so it is fair to ALL Americans, not just those who have dependable work and enough money not to care.

Why?

Because I believed you.

 

"Do better."

Photo: High Ground News

Photo: High Ground News

I hadn’t thought about him in years, the most awful boss I ever had. He was a condescending and ill-informed bully, hiding behind a shiny educational pedigree in a city – Memphis – where he clearly did not want to be. It was a scary time in journalism, and for a while, his ideas were the answer to every question about how to “save” the newspaper.

I know now that he was also a racist, thanks to a heartbreaking recent Facebook post by a former colleague.  I’m only sorry – and embarrassed – that I didn’t know it then.

As I continue to process the terrorism in Charlottesville and think about my response to the hateful Confederate statues in Memphis, I see and hear often from my African-American activist friends about how I can help, and what they need to keep going.

One thing they DON’T need is to have to keep explaining what white people can do about racism. That’s up to me.

It seems to me that the first thing I can do is own it. My privilege makes it easier for me to step away from the pain and aggression and exclusion and go back to my comfortable life any time I want. (Not necessarily easy, but easier.) But the racism and hatred that fueled the violence in Charlottesville is only a new point on a very long continuum for my black friends. This IS America. I know that now.

The next thing I can do is try to see the world around me in a new way, as it really is. Where is the exclusion? What systems don’t work for everyone? Who is being marginalized and excluded, especially at work?

The Facebook post that has haunted me tells of meeting after meeting where my friend’s ideas and input were ignored, until she was finally physically excluded in a meeting room full of people. I wasn’t in these meetings, but I could have been much more aware of the power dynamics of race that were working so painfully against her. 

Finally, I can take action, especially as a business owner. What messages do I send by where I sit and whom I speak to at meetings and social events? How do I broaden my pool of potential clients and contractors to include ALL kinds of people? If I am helping make a hire, are there African-Americans in every pool of finalists?

I also find power in the prosaic: Where do I choose to eat ... do I seek out black-owned restaurants to try? What neighborhood might I explore on my way to an appointment to get a new look at my city? Whom should I call for coffee to find out how she’s feeling about things?

To admit privilege and complicity in racist systems and seek understanding and growth is difficult and uncomfortable. But the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King is fast approaching, and here I am in Memphis. 

I have a lot of work to do.