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American Magazine: August 2014

Charles Lewis professor

Charles Lewis professor and executive editor, Investigative Reporting Workshop Forty years ago, while doing my undergraduate senior thesis research about the U.S. destabilization of Chile, I met and talked with Pulitzer Prize–winner Seymour Hersh at the New York Times’s Washington bureau. Months earlier, he had broken the story about the Nixon administration’s successful, covert efforts to topple the democratically elected government of President Salvador Allende. That same remarkable day, I interviewed Orlando Letelier, the former Chilean defense minister under Allende who had been granted asylum in the U.S. and was teaching at AU’s School of International Service. Letelier told me that the U.S. had illegally wiretapped the Chilean embassy in Washington, which later was revealed to be one of the Watergate “plumbers’” illegal break-ins. He also showed me secret Chilean intelligence cables in Spanish indicating that, at the exact time of the coup d’état that led to Allende’s death and the brutal new regime of President Augusto Pinochet, U.S. naval forces had been nearby, just off the coast of Santiago. Letelier was deeply suspicious, and he certainly did not believe that was coincidental. I left his Bethesda home that day stunned by what I had heard. A year and a half later, in September 1975, I was in a grad school class when I heard constant and very loud sirens. A few blocks away, on Sheridan Circle, Letelier had been assassinated by killers specifically sent to Washington by President Pinochet. In the dead of night, they had placed a radiodetonated bomb beneath his car parked in that same cul-de-sac in Bethesda where I had driven and parked the year before. It was and remains the first and only time a foreign head of state ordered a known political assassination on the streets of Washington. 24 AMERICAN MAGAZINE AUGUST 2014 I was 21 years old and had never met anyone who was later brutally murdered. The U.S. destabilization of Allende and the assassination of Letelier were defining moments for me. From then on, there could be no higher calling for me than exposing abuses of government, corporate, or other power, through tenacious, tough, but fair investigative reporting. Jeffrey Rutenbeck SOC dean I went to the University of Missouri to become a journalist. I was in the journalism library late at night, looking for a book in the stacks. A book fell off the shelf and hit me in the head. It was called Existential Journalism by a guy named John Calhoun Merrill, who actually was a faculty member at Missouri. It was maybe 150 pages. I sat down and read it immediately, and reading that book changed my mind about becoming a journalist. I decided to become a scholar of journalism. Russell Williams SOC/BA ’74, distinguished artist in residence When I was still a student at AU, I cohosted a Saturday afternoon radio program. One day I was watching local news, and there was a story about Maya Angelou being in town for a book signing. I thought, we’re just a little college radio show, but maybe if we go down there and beg and plead, we might get an interview. She was staying at the Madison Hotel, and she sat down and gave me an interview like I was somebody from 60 Minutes. She talked about how she pulled herself up out of the South and went to Europe, and about how disappointed she was at the youth of the time who seemed reluctant to take an educated risk, a risk that would eventually pay big dividends. After we played that on the air, I would periodically go back and revisit her comments. After I graduated I said, if I don’t go out to L.A. I’m always going to be saying “what if.” I had applied to the American Film Institute’s (AFI) directing program. As luck would have it, the same day I got a rejection letter from AFI, the U.S. government sent me a nice tax return. So I took a 90-day leave of absence and went to L.A. I didn’t see her again for 17 years. The night before I won Oscar No. 2 for Dances with Wolves, she was at a black-tie dinner. When I got to the lectern, I looked out at the audience and saw her. I said, “You probably don’t remember me, Ms. Angelou, but I took your advice.” That was an omen—I felt I would win. Leena Jayaswal SOC, CAS/BA ’94, professor, film and media arts The summer after my first year of grad school, I cold-called Mary Ellen Mark, a photographer who shot for Life magazine and still shoots for Rolling Stone. A lot of her photos focus on India, where my family’s from, so I’d always been attracted to her work. I called her New York studio and said, “Can I work for you?” I got the job. One day she was shooting the “Women in Rock” issue for Rolling Stone, which included a photo of Yoko Ono. It was exciting to see Mary Ellen so nervous on set, because she had been doing this for 40-some years. She was published in every major magazine, so to watch her get nervous about shooting somebody was a real lesson to me: you always have to be humble, you have to keep yourself grounded. I got to be Yoko Ono’s stand-in while they were organizing the lights, because I was about the same height. When Yoko Ono came out, I was standing between her and Mary Ellen Mark thinking, how is this my life? Here I am with these two amazing women artists. It was one of those defining moments that made me think anything is possible for me in this career.

Eric Vignola CAS/BA, BS ’17 For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved playing video games. My earliest memory with them is of my cousin, my uncle, and myself all crowded around a small television screen playing a game called Mega Man X. It was also during this time that my father introduced my brother and me to football. As time went on, I found that I didn’t enjoy playing football quite as much as my brother, but it soon became apparent that football was a source of bonding for my brother and father. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to share a common interest with my father like my brother did. A game console called the Super Nintendo helped to build a bridge between my father and me. Some of my fondest memories are sitting next to him, ducking my head under a blanket because I was afraid of the zombies we fought together. I may have been scared, but I always knew my old man was there to protect me. Not only did we spend time actually playing the games, but we also enjoyed many conversations about them as well. In the years that followed, I bonded with many new people over video games. They helped me through moving, helped me make friends in school, and continue to shape my life. I attend AU on the Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholars scholarship. My fellow scholars and I have made the decision to dedicate our careers to helping others, and I believe that video games are the way to do it. I hope that the games I make can educate, help others through tough times, or create bonds in the same way they did for me. John Watson professor and director, journalism division I was working at the Jersey Journal, a small newspaper in northern New Jersey with a circulation of 100,000. One day, two longtime friends went to a bar in Bayonne after work for a beer. The bar hung balloons near the mugs; you could toss a tiny pen knife, and if you popped the balloon, you got a free beer. In a one-in-a-billion, freak accident, the knife one friend threw ricocheted off a glass and slit his friend’s jugular vein. He bled out in minutes. We covered the story about the horror of killing your best friend. The police came and took the guy home. Eighteen months later, we got another story about two cousins riding the subway back to Jersey from lower Manhattan, where they were watching Kung Fu movies. They were pantomiming the fights when one guy hit the glass, fell onto the tracks, and died. The cousin who kicked the other one was taken out in handcuffs and charged with involuntary manslaughter. I looked at the story: legally, it was identical to the story in Bayonne. Why was this guy being charged? He’s black. That’s the only difference I could see. Our front-page story compared the cases: this one was facing a felony indictment and this one never even went to the police station. The next morning the prosecutor dropped the charges. Richard Stack professor, public communication Seventeen years ago my daughter was born 15 minutes into my first sabbatical. I had a baby to play with in the morning, a three-year-old to play with in the afternoon, and a little time on my hands. One day I watched Dead Man Walking, and later I read the book. I was so inspired by it. One of the footnotes led me to Steve Hawkins, the executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. I told him, “I have time on my hands, motivation, a legal background, and the resources of terrific students. What can I do?” He asked me to take a look at the organization’s reading room. It was a small, dinky space, and I examined their books, videos, posters, and bumper stickers. I reported back that the coalition had two groups with incredibly powerful stories to tell, yet neither had a voice. The two were the universe of exonerates and murder victims’ families for reconciliation. After analyzing their literature and messages, I helped reframe the debate. It boiled down to this question: is the death penalty a deterrent to violent crime? I looked at studies that went both ways and thought, if you ask the wrong question, you won’t get the right answer. I thought that if we’re going to move the debate forward, we’ve got to change the question. The new question I was part of developing was, “Can we trust our government to make such irreversible life and death decisions when it makes so many mistakes?” No matter how ultraconservative the political point of view, the execution of an innocent person destroys the credibility of the system. Now conservatives no longer use the deterrence argument. It’s been discredited by and large. Along with several other people, I was part of a group that changed the debate on the death penalty. If I’ve got any contribution that I’m proudest of, it’s this little nugget. Amy Eisman professor and director, Media Entrepreneurship and Interactive Journalism As a young reporter, I covered the family of a young man who had been taken hostage in Iran during the 444 days in captivity known as the hostage crisis. The parents at first refused to talk to journalists, but I sat outside the father’s Baltimore office—he was a professor— until they would talk. He said I reminded him of a student. I ended up covering the family rather closely, sleeping several times at their eventual home in Memphis—I guess I was an early embed—and driving my rental car to a pay phone so I could file my stories to rewrite at the News American in Baltimore. FOLLOW US @AU_AMERICANMAG 25