Saturday, March 28, 2009

Liveblogging J-Week:
Lunch with Anne Kilkenny

Anne Kilkenny opens her remarks by reading an e-mail she received from a stranger last fall:

“Much has been said about the bravery of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Too little has been said about those who have fought in their own ways to hold the line against a shadow from within.”

That shadow is the threat to free speech. Americans can disagree, and agree to disagree, while respecting one another’s rights to free speech, Kilkenny says. “Without you — without a free press, there is no healthy democracy. There can be no healthy democracy.”

Kilkenny jokes that she was not selected for this honor because of the “great journalistic quality” of her e-mail. “You can tell (State Rep. Mike) Doogan, I swear, I wrote that before his comments.” She adds that she didn’t “go hide under a rock” when her e-mail went viral; she realized she had a responsibility to stand behind what she’d said. Kilkenny was present at a city council meeting in which she observed then-mayor Sarah Palin ask about the process of removing books from the local library.

“My selection should not be construed as an endorsement of my opinions, or my politics, or my candidacy for pope,” Kilkenny says. Balanced reporting, she adds, depends on reporters having access to minority and dissenting opinions. It’s fitting that the Press Club chose to represent someone who expressed an unpopular opinion; free speech is not about just telling those in power what they want to hear.

“For two months, I set aside my personal life ... because I did what my conscience directed me to do,” Kilkenny says. “In short, I was selected for doing what you do every day: Telling a story as thoroughly as possible.”

“What can I tell you about the cost of being the messenger that you don’t already know?”

Kilkenny received 14,436 e-mails, up to 3,000 per day, 200 per hour. She replied to questions from about 5,500 e-mails. Most days she worked 18 to 21 hours, replying to e-mails and giving dozens of interviews. She was on the BBC live and did more than 28 interviews with foreign media. On the worst night, she got four phone calls between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., and she learned to tell callers in her sleep how to find her e-mail on the ADN website. When people contacted her with new information, she did her best to help them connect with media. She provided “innumerable” primary sources to reporters. There was a steady stream of reporters through the house.

“At one point, our mudroom looked like the lost-and-found at Heathrow Airport.”

Kilkenny tears up as she talks about the support her husband and son provided. She is proud that her son volunteered for a campaign and wore his candidate’s button to Wasilla High School, and experienced only a little backlash.

“Some people had me canonized and on the bullet train to heaven. Others, about six percent, had me demonized and already on the way to the hot place.” If she only had a buck for every person who thought her use of “irenic” had been a misspelling of “ironic,” Kilkenny said, she’d be in Hawaii. She deeply regrets having used the word “hate”; that kind of word should be avoided like the plague, she says.

“There’s kooks out there, but far fewer than I feared.”

She found two “distressing themes” in the e-mails she received: First, prejudice, including blind partisanship, is alive and well. She was alarmed at the number of people who used the information in her e-mail to reinforce personal prejudices against one candidate or another. Second, she was appalled by the number of people who believe that the First Amendment should be used only to protect speech with which they agree, particularly when it comes to social and religious issues.

Here’s how to deal with people who are in the middle of a media frenzy:
  • E-mail is not the best way to contact them. They don’t have time to read it.
  • Use the phone. People are in the phone book. She’s in the phone book.
  • Call repeatedly, but be patient and don’t get nasty.
  • If you do e-mail, put your name and publication in the subject line in caps. (“I got about 10,000 that said ‘your e-mail.’”)
  • Clearly define your lead topic and communicate with your interviewee early on.
  • Never terminate an interview without leaving contact information.
  • Leave a business card with the date and time of the interview written on the back.
  • Let the interviewee know where you’re staying in case you leave your custom European sunglasses on her buffet.
Develop and support citizen journalists:
  1. Give us validation and credentials. (The ADN was helpful by confirming that she was a person.)
  2. Fact-check us. Work together.
  3. If you can’t prove something, simply say so. Don’t use the label “partially true” just because you can’t prove it. That implies it’s partially false.
  4. Don’t badmouth the public or spread fear of the public. Don’t call attention to the negative effects of media attention. (The negative e-mails were only a tiny percentage.) Why would anyone ever speak up if they thought it would ruin their life forever?
  5. Respect your sources. (“I don’t need to go into why.”)
“Maybe I’ll write a book someday. Why not?”

The board could have chosen anybody “but they picked me, a nobody,” to represent everybody.

She closes her remarks by reading an e-mail she received from a survivor of the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps:

Dear Anne,
Too bad there were no people like you in pre-Nazi Germany!

— Maia Nolan

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