When you went into Haiti with Travis Fox last month, what was your assignment?
It was pretty broad. We’d been talking to Frontline for a long time about ambitious ideas for hour-long documentaries that would take a year to make. And we thought, “You know it’s never worked. Let’s just do something manageable and small.” I was going to Haiti anyway for Planet Money, for NPR. I suggested we just try some of the stories I was thinking of doing for NPR anyway and do them for Frontline as well.
They were sending Travis down, and we had the idea: “Let’s do something Planet Money-like, something that might not be an economic story explicitly, but something using economics as a backdrop to understand an issue.” I think the excitement all round was about working together. The actual stories we would do were a secondary concern.
You ended up doing a piece on the tap-tap buses and small businesses in a tent city. How did you find those stories?
I had been to Haiti a few weeks before. The tap-taps are ubiquitous, and I found them fascinating. I was puzzled—Haiti is genuinely a desperately poor country. Most of my reporting was about how every person, every business, the government—everybody in Haiti, more so than every country I’ve been in before—is cutting costs down to a real bare-bones subsistence level.
And then you see these buses that are so expensively and elaborately painted. And I was like, “How can that be happening?” I loved them and thought they were so beautiful. I’ve been in the Middle East, other places where you see painted trucks and painted buses, but I’ve never seen them so cool and awesome.
But I’m a hard-hearted economics reporter, so I never believe that people do anything, especially in very poor countries, just for art’s sake—especially very expensive art. I genuinely had a puzzle I wanted to understand. We also had the question of “if we’re going to work with Frontline, what’s a visual story?” That struck me as such a visual story.
And then “The Economy of a Tent City”—I was driving around Port-au-Prince, seeing these tent cities all over. Most of my work right then was not focused on life there, but I noticed an Internet café in a tent, and I thought “Wow. What’s going on with that?” I thought they must be developing such complicated economies. I think many of the best stories come from wandering around a city and wondering what the hell is going on.
The audio for the Planet Money radio piece was very different from what we hear in the video. How do you think about collecting audio for the same story on different platforms?
That is the key lesson to me of multimedia. At least in my experience, it is not really possible to do one set of reporting for both video and audio. The demands are very different. I sit right next to Alex Blumberg, who has worked a lot on This American Life TV show. He’s helped me understand these issues. For example, radio is primarily people talking about things that have already happened, and TV is not very good when it’s just people talking about things that have already happened. It’s much better when it’s people actually doing stuff and seeing things happen. That right there is a major difference.
A big part of public radio storytelling and This American Life storytelling is creating a visual sense—getting people to describe things. Some of the most common questions we ask people we’re interviewing are “What are you looking at? What does this look like?” And often they say, “What are you talking about? You’re sitting right here.” We say, “I know, but people are going to hear this on the radio who are not sitting right here.” With TV, you don’t have to ask anyone what something looks like, because the audience can see what it looks like.
There are different demands for creating a sense of intimacy with the subject. If you take the woman in the beauty parlor, the salon—I just feel like with her smile, her look, you kind of fall in love with her. You don’t need a lot of help getting to like her. But with radio, especially when she’s talking in a foreign language, it’s much harder to create that sense of intimacy.
But other times, it’s exactly the opposite. Something that really influenced me was a radio series that Ira Glass did 15 or more years ago about gang kids in L.A. That was a case where you really fell in love with them on the radio, but if you saw them, you would instantly kind of hate them, because they look dangerous and scary.
Either way, there are very different demands. And then there’s just weird stuff. I’m very naïve about TV, but in the tent city, we had to sit around waiting for “magic hour,” waiting for just before sundown, because that would be much better to shoot in. That was frankly a little annoying. I’m thinking, “Come on, I got my tape. Why are we sitting here for four more hours?”
Did you have a checklist to make sure you had enough to do both kinds stories?
Yes, definitely. In that case, Travis had the TV checklist, and I had the radio checklist. I just don’t know enough about TV yet to know what that checklist is.
Travis and I got along great, and it was fun and a good collaboration, but there were moments of tension. We had very little time, and that by the way was the biggest lesson. I really just booked the trip, created my schedule based on what I had to get, without even consciously realizing it. I was thinking it was an 11-day trip.
I now know that I should have added three more days, at least, for TV footage. As a result, we had very little time. I like Haiti a lot, but it’s a very difficult place to work. There’s traffic, problems with phones. We were both kind of scared wondering if we would get everything we needed. In the end, it worked out, but there were times where it felt like it would be radio or TV—that we couldn’t do both.
My trip was being funded by NPR, so it was clear to me if something had to go, it would be TV. Travis’ trip was funded by Frontline, so obviously he needed that TV to happen. We had some growing pains. I like Travis a lot, and we get along great, but there were just moments where I was like, “Come on, forget about ‘magic hour.’ We’ve got a whole other story to do.” And he was like, “We want this to look good. We want this to work.”
The angles you’ve chosen were a little unconventional: in your pieces, there are no amputations, no talk of the dead. Was that a conscious choice?
I think that’s just intuitive to me. I spent a year in Iraq doing stories, and I never once did a bombing or violence. Not that that stuff isn’t important, obviously it is, but I feel like that’s pretty well covered. When I covered the tsunami in Indonesia, I did a lot of that kind of coverage.
I feel like we have an ability to do something a little different with Planet Money. I hate the word “economics” in this context, because people think of bankers or boring things with interest rates. For me economics is about how people on the ground try to get resources for themselves and their families, and how resources are distributed, for better or worse. In my experience, when I’ve covered war and disaster, the people on the ground several weeks or a month after the crisis, they’re not sitting around every day saying, “What a terrible disaster.” They’re trying to get food for their families and develop a system that works for them, so that they can try to create normalcy and some kind of life that works. That’s what’s actually happening. I don’t want to say the other stuff isn’t happening, but the other stuff is disproportionately covered. At the same time, I don’t want to beat up on any other reporters—that stuff is important to cover.
And selfishly, I find this much more interesting. I like doing stories where I don’t know what’s going on, where I’m confused. It’s powerful to learn that someone was really injured, and this doctor helped them. But as a storyteller, I don’t know how much I’d learn from that. I feel like I kind of understand that story. There’s no mystery there, no puzzle to solve.
Do you actively look for stories in counterpoint to what’s already covered in abundance? Or do you really just follow your curiosity?
By definition, if there’s a real puzzle that I’m curious about, then it’s just unlikely that that’s the thing that’s being covered in a big way. If I can criticize our media for a moment, I don’t think we’re great at “big picture” explanatory stories. You can read an awful lot of stories about health care and not really understand the fundamental questions undergirding health care or the financial crisis or how Haiti’s society might change as a result of this earthquake.
It’s not just me. It’s not that I have a particular kind of curiosity. My hunch would be if you asked the vast majority of people what they’re curious about, what puzzles them, they would ask, “Is this a good idea? A bad idea?” And even after all the coverage of say, health care, that’s been done, most people still have that question: “Is this going to work?” It’s the same with “Why is Haiti so poor?” or “Did the banks screw us all?” My hunch is that the vast majority of people have these questions, and so do I.
I do think that there’s this big explanatory hole in a lot of coverage—not that there aren’t wonderful reporters who do great work in these areas, but I don’t think we’re fully satisfying the curiosities of the American people.
I don’t know that I deliberately set out to zig when the rest of the media zags. If you start from the premise of “I want to figure out what’s puzzling me, and I want to explain some basic ideas,” then you’re probably not going to be reporting the same things that are on the front pages.
This is where it’s good to have a reporting partner like Alex or Chana. I do have an abstract brain—I would be perfectly happy to discuss this stuff in abstract, academic ways. Chana, Alex and David Kestenbaum are good at making sure that any story we tell is grounded in a real story with real characters. That’s a wonderful thing about being part of a team like this—they keep you honest and keep your storytelling good.
Is there anything else about this project you want to say, especially with regard to storytelling?
There are things you can only do in radio, and there are things you can only do in visual storytelling, and then there’s something fun and challenging about trying to figure it out. What’s a radio story? What’s a video story? How can we help each other out? I find that very exciting. It’s tough—it’s not obvious.
I used to always think radio is about intimacy, and video is about spectacle. But I’m now seeing, okay, TV or video can create a different sense of intimacy in ways that radio can’t. There’s something very cool about that. Frontline certainly has a similar sensibility and commitment to good storytelling about important issues and pursuing core curiosity in an interesting ways. I hope we do a lot more together.
[For more on this project, read our commentary on the Haiti videos from Frontline and our interview with producer Travis Fox. You can also check out a Nieman Lab conversation with Frontline executive producer David Fanning.]