Christians Called to Journalism (Manny Garcia)

Urbana 09 Conference
St. Louis, Mo.

December 29, 2009

Listen to the audio mp3 by clicking here. (Time: 81:48)

It always gives me hope when I see young students wanting to do journalism for a living, because this is the mission field.

Now more than ever, you can effect change on a story instantaneously, especially the way business is changing. In the old days—which wasn’t too long ago—the newspaper would land on your doorstep and then it took time for the news to filter out. Now, you can put a story on a website and within minutes have a knockout punch, a tremendous impact.

Let me give you a little background on myself. I’m an accidental journalist. I come from a long line of doctors and that’s what I was supposed to do. But I just couldn’t handle organic chemistry, so I said, “Not for me.” I’ve had a lot of different careers. I’ve been a truck driver, an emergency medical technician, I’ve installed wallpaper, and I was a shampoo salesman, which is pretty amazing considering I have no hair; but I sold shampoo and I did it darn well. But I was really, really miserable, because I always liked to write and schmooze and talk to people.

One day I was watching the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart, and I was crying and I said, “God, I’m wasting my talents. Just let me serve you any way I can.” So I went to Florida International University, which had a very good journalism program, but I had a problem getting into the school. I had dropped out of college to go sell shampoo. And I didn’t just drop out; I literally walked out of my finance class without bothering to drop the class.

So when I went back to FIU to try to get in, guess what? Manny was on academic probation. So Manny had to stand there on the last day to register, outside the dean’s office, and beg. There was a dean named Fred Bouma who took a chance on me. I was 27 years old and I said, “I just saw this movie, It’s a Wonderful Life; I need a break, I need a chance.” The reason I’m telling you this is because Bouma signed an override to let me into the school. He said, “I want to see you get a B or better in two classes, and that will show me if you’re serious.”

So I got better than a B. I got A’s in all my classes. I was motivated, and the rest is history. The point I want to make is, when someone is in need, you should take a chance and help that person. What this guy did was give me a chance that got me into the journalism school, which eventually led me to the Herald. I’ve been at the Miami Herald Media Company for 20 years. I worked my way up from a suburban reporter for the weekly section, and before that, I interned at the Boston Globe. Working my way up, I’ve covered courts, city hall, I went to the investigative team, and then I became an editor and worked my way up to managing editor of the Herald.

Nine months ago the editor of the Spanish paper El Nuevo Herald retired, so the publisher asked me, “Would you like to run a Spanish paper?” I said, “Are you kidding me? Run my own shop? Yes.” I happen to speak Spanish, because I was born in Cuba and raised in Miami. I’ve been running the paper for 9 months and it’s an absolute dream job, because it’s one of the largest Spanish-language papers in an area that’s Spanish-dominant. We cover not just local topics in South Florida, but Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela, etc. We cover the region with just 60 people, which is really amazing work.

I want you to see how the business has changed. I was talking to a young reporter named Evelyn yesterday who went to Columbia grad school. All she hears is negative messages: “Oh, journalism, it’s a dying profession.” I’m here to tell you that it’s not. It’s the mission field, and your impact is bigger than ever. It’s much more powerful. The Miami Herald isn’t losing money; it’s going through the ebb and flow that every company has gone through, whether it’s FedEx, Caterpillar, American Airlines, you name it.

The newspaper’s single core focus has not changed: to speak truth to power and be the voice for the voiceless. At the Herald we have a tremendous history of being the voice for the downtrodden. People have walked out of prison after serving sentences for crimes they didn’t commit because of work that’s been done by journalists at the Herald, and that’s doing God’s work.

We cover Haiti because there’s a large Haitian population in Miami, and last year there were major floods in Haiti. Two of our reporters, Pat Farrell and Jackie Charles, were in Haiti and heard that their village has been wiped out. So for days they were trying to get back to the village to find out what happened. Talk about determination and focus. They got there just as people were coming out of their homes and starting to realize that their children were missing.

This is doing mission work. The reporters got into the town on a Sunday as the bodies were being pulled out of the river. This is how the business is changing for you: Jackie’s got a laptop, she speaks Creole and she’s interviewing people; Pat has a long history of doing work in Haiti and he’s shooting the photos. They’re sending the story and photos via satellite to the newsroom. My colleague and I are working on Sunday as the photos start pouring in and we say, “This is mind-bending stuff.” So we put the story and the photos on the website, and less than a day later there’s over a million dollars in international aid pouring into this town. So you see what I mean about doing mission work? This is doing God’s work. Pat and Jackie went in there and documented the tragedy, and there’s international aid from around the world and supplies and relief are flying in. So the point I want to make is this: this one reporter and one photographer are no different from you. You can do this kind of work, and you will.

Another thing I want to point out is the power of convergence media, which is print media as well as shooting videos, shooting photos and doing photo galleries.

You’re here at Urbana learning about social justice; this is the same thing that journalists do day in and day out. A couple of years ago a friend of mine at the New York Times was doing a project on workplace safety and Frontline came to them and said, “We want to team up with you.” So you’ve got the power of the New York Times doing a series on this company, McWane. McWane operated big plants and there were workers getting killed. There were violations against the company but a lot of it was just going unheeded. McWane was arguing that they did take care of their workers, but the facts were that workers were getting killed. So the reporter teamed up and did a series with Frontline. I want you to understand this is the power of the reach we have now. Not too long ago you just had papers landing on your doorstep. That’s changed. Now you’ve got a newspaper on your doorstep, a series on the website, a series on PBS seen by everybody. See the reach you have now? See how much power you’ve got in your projects?

The Times ended up winning a Pulitzer Prize for this work. You want to be able to get good at multimedia series: I call it backpack journalism. That’s what the future is. As one of the recruiters at the paper, I’m looking for reporters who can think critically and write fast; I want you to be able to shoot and edit a video, take photos and do a photo gallery on the website, which our reporters do.

What do good reporters do with this series? They don’t just say, “Workers are being killed at the plant.” That’s sort of abstract—workers, well, who are the workers? “Workers are getting killed and maimed.” Well, suddenly you’ve got a face that you’re putting to the injuries. Needless to say, after the New York Times story landed and after what Frontline did, OSHA came down on the plant. Some of the company leaders ended up getting indicted. So you see the power that you have.

A Christian’s call to journalism: if this is what you want to do, it’s honest work, it’s relentless, it’s truthful, and it’s a lot of fun. At the end of the day you can have a lot of fun doing this—I know I do.

What’s key for us now? There’s a lot of information floating out there. People are concerned about what’s going on in their world. But there is hope, you know. You’ve got to provide hope; we’re the ones who will provide hope to the world. People need information, and they need it clear, and they need it honestly.

For example, right now there are reporters around the world tracking who the guy is who tried to blow up the flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. There are reporters in Lagos right now digging into his background. Holding the government accountable: it’s very simple. This guy’s name was on a terrorist watch list and he got on the plane. Don’t you think someone needs to be accountable for this? I do; that’s speaking truth to power. You’ve got to provide information. This is the Lord’s work. It’s the mission field, and we serve the least of these.

Another example: Florida has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country, and the Herald figured out why. You can be a convicted felon for stealing people’s identities or stealing money, and you can walk out of a Florida prison and go apply and become a licensed mortgage broker. You give your mortgage broker your most sensitive, personal information. So in Florida you had criminals writing mortgages and then stealing people’s ID’s and homes. Something’s wrong with that, isn’t there? Once again, speak in truth to power. The Herald did this multi-part series and what ended up happening? The laws are being changed in the state. No longer can a felon walk out and get a mortgage broker’s license.

I use Matthew 14:27 often when talking to journalists: “Be of good cheer and don’t be afraid.” This career is like a marathon and you never want to lose your cool, because when you’re doing God’s work you’re going to get attacked. And when you’re doing good journalism you’re going to get attacked. What do you have to do? You have to do it with a smile, and you can’t be afraid.

I was on a plane coming here with a young woman from Orlando. She said, “This is my first Urbana and I’m kind of nervous, but God’s got my back.” Remember that when you’re doing this work: God’s got your back. You want to be salt and light in the world. You want to save the world. It’s an old cliché that we all had in J school: “I want to save the world!” Well guess what? There’s this verse, Luke 12:2-3: “Whatever’s done in the darkness will come out in the light. Whatever is whispered in closets will be shouted from the rooftops.” That’s a credo for journalists. Think about it: what’s our job? To bring what’s done in darkness into the light.

I’ll tell you a quick story: Years ago there was a union boss in Miami named Pat Tornillo. Pat ran the teacher’s union like his fiefdom—he was taking teachers’ dues and using them for himself to take his much younger wife on trips. He was having a massive midlife crisis, having married a much younger woman, so to keep up with her he was buying marital aids from this place called Sinclair Intimacy Institute, whose motto is, “Better relationships, better sex.” He was using teachers’ dues to travel the world and keep up with his much younger wife. For 20 years we had heard that Tornillo was ripping off the union, but we could never get to him. Then one day all of a sudden, the FBI raided the teachers’ headquarters. We figured, “We’ve got to get ahead of the FBI’s investigation.” They were pulling out boxes of files and financial records. What do you do as a critical-thinking reporter? “Heck, the FBI’s got financial records. They must have gotten a warrant to pull these records.” And what do you need for a warrant? A judge will sign a warrant based on probable cause that a crime was committed. So my colleague and I said, ‘Somebody in the union’s got to know the numbers.’ Once again, here’s the power of the internet and the work that reporters do. We went on the teacher’s website and found a list of administrators: the chief financial officer, the controller, and the bookkeeper. Those are the people we figure we’ve got to talk to.

We did a background search and found out where they lived, and we went knocking on doors. The first woman told us to go screw ourselves; she wasn’t talking. When someone tells you no as a reporter, you be like a pinball and go bounce off another person. Somebody’s going to get you the information. We ended up with the chief financial officer, called him, and guess what? He said, “I knew sooner or later the paper was going to come here. This is for you.” He gave us a box with all the financial records that he had turned over to the FBI. He gave us the entire thing: credit card receipts, everything. All the teachers’ money was gone: the guy was traveling around the world on teachers’ dues and ripping everyone off.

So we ended up getting ahead of the FBI investigation. Long story short, Tornillo was indicted and went to prison. Mind you, for 20 years we’d heard that this guy was ripping off the union. So as he walked to the courthouse to surrender, I happened to be talking to a criminal lawyer and said, “I can’t believe this. We’ve been hearing that he’s ripping people off for 20 years. What happened?” The criminal attorney got his bag and pulled out a Bible and he said, “Do you want to know why this happened?” He went to that verse, Luke 12:2-3. “Whatever is done in the darkness will come out in the light.” Your best ally is time, and sooner or later things will come out. Remember that. Watchdog reporting saves lives.

I’m on the board of directors of Investigative Reporters and Editors (www.ire.org), which is $20 for students to join. The back story of IRE is, it was seed money that came from pastors in Washington D.C. IRE started because a reporter in Arizona was blown up investigating the mob, so reporters took a leave of absence to go dig and find out why this guy was killed. This is the most important reporting you can do: watchdog and investigative reporting. Some of the best investigative reporting is being done now by Christian journalists.

Look at this verse, Matthew 5:16: “Let your light shine before men, so they might see your good works.” This is how you glorify God: doing good works. It’s what we do. Journalism is like being on a mission trip. You know how mission trips are never as clear as they’re supposed to be and you have to wing it? Journalism is like that. You’re lonely, you have to wing it sometimes. It’s a lonely job and it’s in lonely places, so you’ve got to be able to count on God. As we speak we’ve got reporters in Lagos, Pakistan, Moscow, Baghdad, Mexico… it’s dangerous work. In Mexico reporters are being killed with impunity by the narco traffickers. It’s serious work, but it’s important work, because the work that they’re doing is changing and saving lives.

Television stations are cutting back on investigative reporting. A friend of mine in Cleveland told me that in his town they  eliminated a whole segment on investigative reporting so they could do polls on anything that has to do with “Sex and the City.” Entertainment, whether it’s Tiger Woods or Michael Jackson—anything salacious—is replacing serious news. That’s why your job is more critical than ever. We can overcome. Matthew 5:6-8: “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.” This is about righteousness. You want to do right.

Also, it’s a marathon. Remember when I talked about the Pat Tornillo story? If you don’t get the story today, sooner or later you’ll get it. It’s like a chess game. When somebody’s trying to hide a record from you, you’ve got to figure out how to get the back story. Are you a good schmoozer? Do you have the gift of gab? You want to be a good schmoozer and have a personality. My first journalism teacher in college said, “Listen, guys, if you don’t have a personality maybe you should go to school for hospitality management.” At FIU they had a class called “Meat Science,” so my teacher would say, “I think you should go over there to “Meat Science” if you don’t have a personality. You’ve got to be able to schmooze. You have to figure out how you’re going to get those documents.

You’ll change lives. The Lee and Pitts story is a classic example. Lee and Pitts are two men of color. The governor of Florida had signed their death warrant: they were to be executed in the electric chair. There’s a reporter at the Herald named Gene Miller, and Gene was in North Florida investigating. He discovered that there’s no way these guys could have committed the murder. So Gene looked at all the facts, all the evidence that the prosecutor had, and he started re-interviewing all the witnesses. Guess what? He started blowing holes in the case. Lee and Pitts were convicted by a white jury; there was no way they could have committed this murder. So Gene started writing stories, just like body blows in boxing, and eventually Lee and Pitts walked free. They are alive today by the work of one reporter. So if you’re thinking, “I can’t do this,” no. Gene Miller did it. You’ve just got to have perseverance, focus, and determination. Lee and Pitts are alive today because of the work of one reporter.

Relish the peaks: it’s a really fun business, whether you’re doing investigative reporting or covering entertainment. One time I got to cover hockey, which is a real hoot. I got to go to Canada on somebody else’s time and watch hockey. I’m covering an all-star game in Montreal and when the game finishes I see all these reporters walking over, and I say, “Where are you going?” They say, “We’re going to drink beer.” They opened the taps after the game and the reporters all sat there drinking beer and writing their stories. I said, “This is a pretty fun business. I’m getting paid to write hockey and drink beer.”

You should always pray before your decisions, about God having your back. Ephesians says, “Praying always,” and Isaiah 58:11, “The Lord will always guide you.”

I’ll give you another example about expecting the unexpected. Do you all remember when the space shuttle blew up some years back? The space shuttle disintegrates over Texas, and being a good husband I’m fertilizing my yard when my phone goes off. It’s my boss saying, “The space shuttle blew up and you’ve got to get to the office.” The space industry is a big business in Florida. So we’re all there are the boss walks in. There’s seven of us staring at her and she says, “The space shuttle blew up and you’ve got to find out why it happened.” What do I know about engineering, about physics, about a space shuttle? Nada. So we’re sitting here going, “What are we going to do?” Well, what do good reporters do? We’re doing Google searches and tracking down former astronauts, doing background on Lexis-Nexis, calling them at their homes on Saturday: “Hey, you were on the mission last year. Did you have any problems?”

We started to find people who said, “Well, there were some problems with pieces of foam coming off;” so now we’ve got a thread: foam. So what’s Manny’s job? “Space shuttle. Foam. Wing.” Guess what? Now we’ve got an even bigger thread. The fuel tank on a space shuttle has foam insulation. Pieces of foam were coming off the tank as the shuttle was going up and hitting the wing. So I do a Google search: “Foam, space shuttle, leading edge of the wings.” Guess what? There are people in this country who have done doctoral dissertations on this very issue. I find a guy in New Orleans who has done a whole study and warned that there could be a problem. I call the guy at home; he’s not there. What do I do then? I get on a plane. The space shuttle was blown up early that morning, and by the afternoon I’m on a plane going to New Orleans. The weather was terrible in New Orleans and I had to drive north, so I end up showing up at his house at midnight. I’m knocking on his door, “I’m sorry to show up here so late. Help me out, man.” Turns out, the guy tells me, “That’s a smoking gun.” Now we’ve got a big lead: the company that made the external tank is Lockheed Martin, located in East New Orleans. Two days later, our newspaper has a story that says, “It was the foam that brought down the shuttle.” Meanwhile, the folks at the Johnson Space Center are saying, “It wasn’t the foam.” Speak truth to power. Yes, it was the foam. At the end of the day, a piece of foam fell off and made a hole in the leading edge of the wing, and when the space shuttle was reentering the atmosphere, heat went into the wing, disintegrated the shuttle, and the crew died. So see, by doing that kind of reporting you change things.

I want to talk to you about game-changing reporting. You can do it; it’s being done out there. Look at this list: civil rights killing solved, innocent men set free, crooked politicians jailed, flaws fixed on jets and choppers, genocide stopped, soldiers saved, deadly factories exploded.

Christian journalist Jerry Mitchell works at the Clarion-Ledger (Jackson, Miss.). For over a decade Jerry has been investigating civil rights killings. Remember the Birmingham church bombings where 3 little girls were killed? The government had a pretty good idea who made the bomb. Jerry was investigating, and the suspect in the case said, “I couldn’t have planted the bomb. I was watching wrestling on TV that day.” So what did Jerry do? He drove down to Birmingham and found out that there’s no way the guy could have been watching wrestling, because wrestling wasn’t yet on that channel. Jerry wrote a story and within a short time the suspect was indicted and imprisoned for blowing up the church. Textbooks are being rewritten by the work of one reporter.

Another example: We did a project a few years ago. There was a guy in South Florida named Jerry Frank Townsend, who suffered from mental retardation. He didn’t have Down’s syndrome, but he was slow. Jerry was accused of murders, so the cops in Fort Lauderdale charged him with a couple of murders. Then there were unsolved murders in Miami, so the Fort Lauderdale cops call the cops in Miami. “Hey, we think we’ve got you a suspect!” The last thing cops want is open cases. They often do great work, but in this case they put Jerry in a squad car and take him to Miami where they charge him with those murders. Then Jerry’s serving life for murders and a rape he didn’t commit. So the Herald started looking at the cases, because a couple of years later the Fort Lauderdale case was starting to unravel. He’s got a couple of lawyers on the Fort Lauderdale case. So we say, “The Fort Lauderdale case is already being reported; how does a good newspaper get ahead of things? We’re going to look at the Miami murders.” We go and pull the file and there are tape recordings of Jerry’s confessions. The cops say, “Tell us about these murders you supposedly committed,” and Jerry’s is totally clueless  Suddenly the tape recorder goes off and when it comes back on Jerry says, “Yes, I killed her, I covered her up with stuff and put her by the railroad tracks.” Clearly the guy’s being coached. So we did a series of stories, we interviewed folks, and Jerry Frank Townsend is now a free man. He served 22 years in the Florida prison system, which is like being in Hades. It’s hell on earth. He’s now a free man living in North Florida, and the City of Miami has had to pay $2 million to him for wrongful conviction. So there’s a guardian who’s got the money and is helping to care for him, and there’s going to be a settlement soon in Fort Lauderdale. This is doing God’s work. It’s not brain surgery or rocket science, and you can do this work very easily.

As I close I’d like to talk to you about some tools that a lot of newspapers are looking for in students these days. The Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald have a very strong internship program; it’s on the metro desk. We’ve got 14 slots every summer and we get hundreds of applicants, sometimes 4 or 5 hundred. What are newspapers looking for now? They’re looking for students who’ve got a positive attitude, a problem-solving attitude. The worst thing you can do is go to an editor and say, “No one’s talking to me, they’re not calling me back.” You know what? Editors want someone who will solve their problem on deadline. They’re looking for critically-thinking journalists.

And you need to be able to write: read good writing and write often. Writing is like doing curls: the more you write, the more you’ll build the muscle. You’ve got to write because then it will come easier to you. Play around with shooting and editing videos—you want to be a backpack journalist. You want to be able to shoot, cut, and paste your own videos, do a photo gallery with a sound slide. If you’re thinking, “Oh, crap, I don’t have this in my background,” don’t worry. You’ve got time. We have a great journalist at the Herald who came to us on an internship: Casey Woods. She’s a fantastic reporter, and she grew up on a horse farm in Arkansas. She speaks Spanish and has a strong working handle of French and Portuguese. A few years ago there was a string of hurricanes that hit Nicaragua, so we put Casey on a plane with her backpack, a laptop, video camera, and camera. Casey landed and the Nicaraguan military said, “No, we can’t take you to that village.” As a reporter, you don’t take no for an answer. So she started yelling, “I’m from the Miami Herald, I need to be on that helicopter, and you don’t understand.” So Casey ended up on that helicopter, and they took her to the village, dropped her off, and just took off. No worries. She just started interviewing people. The town had been wiped out, people were dead. She got her story, took a video, and shot pictures. Then she plugged in her satellite phone and sent the story from some little village in Nicaragua to the Herald building, and it went on the website and the next day’s newspaper on page one. Then she had to figure out how to get out of there. Casey’s a schmoozer, and eventually she convinced this guy to try some roads and drive her out of there. That’s the way you want to be, and that’s the fun part of the business. They’ll send you to the middle of nowhere, like a mission trip.

I’ve got another reporter, Kathleen McGrory. Kathleen grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York. She speaks perfect Spanish, she’s got a working handle on Mandarin, and she’s a backpack journalist. She never takes no for an answer. So we parachute Kathleen into stories and she does the same thing.

Stories today have more impact. You are so positioned now to really take off in this business, because your knockout pu