On May 3, 2017, I met ProPublica’s Illinois editor-in-chief, Louise Kiernan, at the Lookingglass Theater, where she was a guest panelist discussing the ethics of investigative journalism.
Initially, I was excited to meet her. We both were attending one of the final performances of “Beyond Caring,” a play about the abuses of Black and Hispanic workers at the hands of the temporary staffing industry.
The play, the brainchild of British playwright Alexander Zeldin, was inspired partly by ProPublica’s 2013 “Temp Land” series, written by their staff reporter Michael Grabell. Grabell and I had met the week before. He encouraged me to apply for a reporter’s position even though I initially missed the deadline of March 24, 2017.
I emailed Mr. Grabell asking if he would forward samples of my work to Ms. Kiernan. Included was a letter of introduction, several links to stories, audio commentary from WVON radio regarding the destruction of the Chicago police misconduct records, and a JPEG of a front-page story I wrote that was soon copied by all the major dailies, including the Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, and the Chicago Reader to name a few.
This was a soft inquiry, and I wanted to know if there was any possibility of applying post-deadline.
Immediately following the play was a panel discussion about ethics moderated by radio station WBEZ. Ms. Kiernan and two other female reporters discussed ethics and discriminatory practices raised in the play. They also fielded questions from the audience about maintaining professionalism when dealing with sensitive matters and where to draw the line when conducting interviews in intimate settings.
Post-discussion, I approached Ms. Kiernan and introduced myself to put a face with the name. Little did I know that our brief encounter would transform my life forever.
After shaking my hand, Ms. Kiernan’s body appeared to recoil. As she struggled with her coat while holding some items in her hand, I approached her as any gentleman would and offered assistance.
She said “No” and turned her back on me.
I was utterly stunned and taken by surprise that the Pulitzer Prize-winner and co-director of Northwestern University’s social justice initiative could be so cold and callous.
I graciously thanked her, turned, and walked away to meet my guest, who witnessed everything from across the room. My guest asked me: “How did it go?” I responded, “I don’t think it went so well.”
There was no reason for a new editor-in-chief and ambassador for the ProPublica news organization to react negatively, condescending, and dismissively. Inside, I felt deeply humiliated and profoundly violated, but I was determined not to be discouraged.
After all, this was my first time meeting her, and all I wanted to do was introduce myself and work for the celebrated newsroom.
In an interview with Broadway World News Desk, playwright Zeldin summed up his work: ” . . . I’ve found that looking at the lives of those working in the conditions of the temporary economy, the margins of society, says so much about the moral, spiritual, and emotional place that the country is in, much like it did the UK.
It tells us about how the sentiment that lives are to be lived with dignity, respect and a sense of value is only a hollow set of words. But it says something else, too — here in the U.S., it tells us about race in this country . . .”
ProPublica and ProPublica Illinois: I deserved much better!
Stay tuned for this developing story.
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