Amy Herdy's Pakistan travel diary, volume three

Amy Herdy with participants at one of her workshops.EXPAND
Amy Herdy with participants at one of her workshops.

Editor's note: Amy Herdy, a former Denver Post and Channel 9 journalist who's currently the advisor for the University of Colorado at Boulder's CUIndependent.com online newspaper, is in Pakistan under the auspices of the State Department. Her mission: to give students and professional journalists the tools they need to improve the media in their country. Below, find the third edition of her travel diary. Click on these links to read the first and second, as well as this account of her first visit to the region.

I'm thrilled to have my jewelry. On the heels of that elation is the sick realization that my report of it being stolen has no doubt caused a lot of people a great deal of unnecessary trouble and grief.

I immediately call Traci from the Lahore consulate and tell her that I found it. Later, I get an e-mail from her highly recommending I write apology letters to the hotel staff, as well as to the security staff. In the letters, I tell them that I am very, very sorry for my mistake, that it was indeed a mistake and not intended to cause anyone harm. I doubt that's any consolation. I also send Traci and Linda from the consulate an e-mail saying how sorry I am, and that it wasn't an accusation I made lightly -- but after repeated searches, it had been the only conclusion I could draw at the time. I don't bother to say that I'm normally an exacting person, and that while it was not my imagination, the maid had been nervous, and I had obviously drawn the wrong conclusion from that. I also ask them for the name of a local gift shop so that I may send apology flowers to the hotel staff. Neither one of them reply. I hope it's because they're too busy, and not because of contempt.

As for how my jewelry ended up with my vitamins, there are only two possible answers: In my exhaustion, I put it there, or the maid placed it there while tidying up the bathroom, since my vitamins had also been on the counter and things were often arranged differently after she had cleaned.

At any rate, I feel awful to have become the stereotypical suspicious, punitive American. It's a lesson I vow to never forget.

Moreover, I tell myself, now that I am in Karachi, I can't afford to be careless.

Karachi is the cultural and economic center of Pakistan. It's a city of the arts, and of many different people. Being an ocean port, it's the transportation hub. It's where everything is going on, my students tell me.

Including terrorism.

I am the first State Department-sponsored speaker to appear in Karachi in three years. As such, I am treated as a valuable package that is passed carefully from hand to hand. As soon as I step off the plane, I am greeted at the gate by a consulate staff member, who whisks me outside to the waiting car. We are followed by what is now the familiar sight of a police escort.

At the hotel, I am dropped off at a side door that is heavily guarded. The manager of the hotel greets me, and immediately takes me upstairs. The lobby is off-limits to me, he tells me firmly but graciously. I will check in and check out on other floors, so as not to draw attention to myself. I will also not eat in most of the restaurants on the first floor.

As soon as I am checked in, it's time for me to be picked up by the public-affairs officer from the consulate, also named Traci, just like the one in Lahore. She is personable, warm and briskly efficient. Traci takes me to my security briefing, the content of which I am asked to not reveal, so I won't. The upshot: I decide that when I'm not at the workshop, I will be a recluse in my hotel room.

The other challenge for me in Karachi, I've been told, will be my audience at this workshop. They are all working journalists, hailing from every discipline -- radio, print and broadcast. And they will be, I'm warned, a tough crowd. Translation: What can you, a Western journalist, possibly teach them about journalism that will help them in Karachi?

By the time we're done with the security briefing, it's 12:20. I've been in Karachi for fifty minutes. I'm whisked off to the workshop location, and by the time we arrive, we're ten minutes late.

Great, I think to myself: What a way to start. The room is full, a mixture of men and women, whose ages range from twenties to probably late fifties. They're staring at me, expressionless. I take a deep breath and bring out the candy bars.

There's an icebreaker I like to do with my students -- an interviewing contest where I give out three prizes. I always use candy bars, because nearly everyone loves a good piece of chocolate.

They pair up and have one minute to interview their partner before they must switch. Whoever does the best job wins, and the trick is, I don't tell the three criteria on which they're being judged until it's over -- and I'm not saying it here. Hey, get your own icebreaker.

Within minutes, the room is raucous. I've never seen a group become so enthusiastic over a candy bar. They challenge the winners and argue with me over who really did the best job.

The rest of the morning follows suit. These journalists are outspoken, passionate, opinionated and a heck of a lot of fun. As a result, we spend much of the time in deep discussion. By the time of the first break, I had planned on being in the middle of my second page of outline. I'm not even halfway there.

I try to be mindful of how I present information to them. I stick to what I consider my expertise -- trauma reporting and interviewing techniques. And when they ask me questions, I try to couch my answers in terms of what I know to be internationally accepted best practices of journalism, not simply those from the U.S.

Although I've been given a podium with a microphone, it's not how I teach. I can't sit or stand still, so I walk up and down, back and forth, trying to engage as many as I can, projecting my voice to carry. As a result, by the end of the five-hour workshop, my voice is becoming worn. I'm pretty happy, though, because it's gone so well.

During the workshop, security guards are outside the door. During breaks, the male bodyguard assigned to me for the day accompanies me every step, all the way up to the bathroom door.

After the workshop, we go to the Karachi Press club.

Most of the members there are very gracious, as I've said before. Yet a few of them are hostile. One journalist asks me how many U.S. newspapers have carried the Lancet Medical Journal report concerning deaths in Iraq during the U.S. occupation, and when I tell him that it's impossible for me to answer that question without research, three of the men in the room get up and leave.

The next morning, the normally cheerful Traci from the Karachi consulate looks grim. I've garnered press coverage in four newspapers. Two are terrific, one is so-so and one in particular is awful.

"US Media Biased, Journalist Says" is the headline. There is no byline other than "by our correspondent."

It goes on to say, "Amy Herdy, an American journalist who is visiting Pakistan, has grudgingly accepted the fact that despite claiming media freedom the western and US media is biased and it creates and spreads news that promotes their agenda."

It goes on to talk about my "confession."

There is an accompanying photo to the story -- one taken of me in apparent mid-sentence, my mouth awkwardly pursed, a frown of concentration on my face.

I don't know whether to laugh or be furious. Mostly, I'm furious.

And then Traci shows me another story, which we realize has been written by someone attending the workshop, because it references the video of the teenage girl being flogged by the Taliban, which we had discussed the day before during the workshop. It's not as bad as the "confession" piece, but by the time I'm done reading it, I'm even more angry, because I feel stabbed in the back.

The journalists troop in and look at me expectantly. It's time to start, and I'm simply sitting in a chair, motionless. Finally, my mind made up, I approach the microphone for the first time. I'm so angry my voice is shaking, and they all look up in alarm.

I read excerpts from the Karachi Press Club "confession" piece, and then I go to the story that is apparently written by one of them, reading it out loud.

"Is that what I said?" I ask them after each fabricated statement. No, it's not, they all chorus, and some of them are also becoming outraged.

"I understand that as journalists, anything is fair game, including this workshop," I tell them. "And I'm not asking that you don't write about it. But I will ask that from now on, if any of you want to quote me in any way, that you give me the courtesy of checking with me to make sure that is what I actually said. Clearly, there are communication problems here for some of you. And if you feel that you can't abide by this rule, I ask that you please leave now. Because I don't want to give you my all and try to teach you what I know, and be worried that someone is going to misquote me later or take something out of context. And if tomorrow morning I find that someone from here has violated this request and once again misquoted me in a news report, I will not come back for the third day. And that's not fair to the rest of you."

No one says a word. With effort, I take a breath and try to regain the energy of the day before. We move on, watching the excellent documentary Covering Columbine that was written and produced by University of Colorado professor Meg Moritz. They are fascinated by the analysis of how the local newsrooms made their decisions during the breaking coverage of the tragedy and sobered by the lasting effects of it on the journalists who covered the story.

Later, at the lunch break, I am approached by one of the reporters. It was her news organization that ran the "confession" story from the Karachi Press Club, and she apologizes and tells me she is deeply embarrassed. Her editor is looking into it, she said, and she hands me her phone with him apparently on the line.

There is a long awkward silence and then he begins to apologize. He's looking into who wrote the piece, he said, and he's very sorry. He sounds sincere.

I thank him for his apology, and then I tell him that it's not enough -- a response that clearly floors him.

"What else can I possibly do, other than apologize?" he asks me, sounding frustrated.

"You can run a correction," I tell him, "in tomorrow's paper, saying that the story was a lie."

There's another silence, then: "I suppose we could run a clarification," he says carefully.

"No, not a clarification, a correction," I say, emphasizing the last word. "To run a clarification implies that I made statements that were misunderstood, and that's not what happened. I never said those things at all -- they are lies. And my honor is at stake, and I am deeply offended," I tell him, using key words that I know carry heavy weight in this culture.

He promises to try to do something, and we end the conversation. That night, Traci and I have dinner with many of the top editors and news directors in Karachi. As I shake hands all around, the man across from me looks at me rather hesitantly.

"I believe you talked to one of my editors today," he says just as we clasp hands, and I realize he's referring to the "confession" piece.

I'm no longer angry.

"Well, all right then!" I say to him with mock sternness, and suddenly he and I both burst out laughing. We laugh and laugh while everyone else sitting at the table smiles along, not understanding the joke.

The rest of the evening is a frank and open discussion of the state of journalism in Pakistan. I find them all to be thoughtful and progressive-minded news managers.

As it invariably does, the topic of the teenage girl being flogged by the Taliban arises. At first, they said, they were concerned the video was fake, as they thought the audio was too clear to have come from a cell phone.

The deciding factor, they said, was the response from the Taliban leaders involved. Instead of saying the incident didn't happen at all, they only refuted the how -- saying that the girl had actually been flogged standing up, not lying down. The apparent reason for it? A young man had wanted to marry her but couldn't afford the dowry, they tell me, so he was refused. Later, something in the family home where the girl lives required a repair, so a man was sent to the house. While he was there, the rejected suitor told the Taliban leaders that the young girl was inappropriately alone with a man.

As the evening wears on, other such stories and issues are shared, such as their concern about what they say is the all-too common practice of journalists taking bribes. When they find out, they immediately fire them, they said. But they're worried that the practice bleeds bias into the stories of their newsrooms.

By the time the evening is over, I'm thoroughly fascinated and sorry to see it end.

The next morning, on the front page of the section that ran the "confession" piece, there is a lengthy correction of the story. At the end it states, "The error is regretted."

Traci is elated. "I'm going to cut it out and frame it," she says. "This is the first time any media here has ever run a correction. Ever."

It's the last day of the workshop, and I pass out the checklist of "Stress warning signs" developed by Harvard Medical School. We've already discussed Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and gone over the list of "Potentially traumatic events/stressors" with many of them realizing just how much of that list applies to their reporting here in Pakistan.

War? Check.

Torture? Check.

Criminal assault, violent crime? Check.

Hostage, hijacking? Check.

Terrorism, bombing, sniper attack, kidnapping? Check, check, check, check.

As they look at the list of "Stress Warning Signs," one of the female reporters gives an audible gasp. "I've had nearly every symptom on this list!" she says with dismay.

The men have, as well. "I had one story where I just cried and cried," one of the male reporters says, and everyone in the room nods in understanding. We've all been there.

"What you need to remember," I tell them, "is to take care of yourself, because nobody else will do it for you." Journalism can become a voracious beast, I tell them, that is never satisfied. And then we talk about how to establish professional boundaries while still getting good stories.

Midway through the last day, I switch back to advanced interviewing techniques -- I don't want to end by talking about trauma. They have enough of it every day as it is.

By the end of the workshop, the mood is once again lifted, and when it's over, well, it's not over. We spend the next 45 minutes taking photos, mugging for the many cameras, and laughing. At one point I kick off my shoes in order to stand on a table to try to get a better group photo, and apparently this is hysterically funny to them and they all try to get a picture of me that way.

Finally, I must leave. The consulate has changed my schedule, and I am supposed to be flying out of Karachi for Islamabad as soon as this workshop is over, instead of staying until the next morning as originally planned.

It's for the best, as for the past few minutes, I've not been feeling very well. Once I'm in the back of the state department vehicle, my stomach begins to roll. At first I think I'm just getting carsick. I've found riding in a car in Pakistan to be a lurching, veering, careening kind of thing.

Soon, I realize it's something far worse, probably linked to our late afternoon lunch.

Somehow, my escort gets me through security and onto the plane. By the time I'm in my seat, I'm starting to break out in a heavy sweat. I would take off my jacket, but I'm wearing a sleeveless shirt underneath, and my bare shoulders would be offensive.

The flight attendant sees my face and offers me water. I shake my head at her, gritting my teeth to try to keep the contents of my stomach where they belong.

Then during takeoff, the plane bucks and I can't take anymore. I unsnap my seatbelt and lurch toward the restroom. My movement alarms the flight attendant, who comes running.

"The plane is lifting off!" she says to me in alarm. "It's dangerous for you to be up!" But I don't want to be the rude American who threw up in front of everyone on the plane.

With any luck, I think deliriously, someone will scream, "Swine flu!

"Throw up," is all I can manage to say to her. "Bathroom."

Yet even as I stand, black dots suddenly appear before my eyes. My knees buckle. And then the flight attendant has me by both elbows, and with surprising strength, lifts me up and pushes me back into my seat. That's all I remember. The next thing I know, it's apparently two hours later and I am awakened by the jerk of the plane's landing gear hitting the pavement.

I am in Islamabad.

Additional editor's note: Previous comments about this blog have been removed, and future comments have been disabled, at the request of the author due to concerns unique to her ongoing mission in Pakistan. If you'd like to e-mail us about this decision, feel free to do so at editorial@westword.com.


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