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What can journos learn from lawyers, and vice versa?

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 5.37.40 PMI’m looking forward to being part of a public conversation at Penn Law School this coming Monday, for a whole slew of reasons:

1. The talk came about at the invitation of Prof. Louis Rulli, the school’s Director of Clinical Programs who is also a particularly creative thinker in the realm of public interest law.  In my recent story on police abuses of civil asset forfeiture laws, I highlighted the work of Rulli’s civil practice clinic in defending Philadelphia families who’ve had their homes seized without much due process.  Some of the cases his students have worked on are pretty jaw-dropping. I’m eager to learn about the other sorts of issues they’re tackling, within and beyond civil forfeiture.

2. I like the question Prof. Rulli has posed for the occasion, which, to put it loosely, goes something like: “What are we to make of the relationship between public interest lawyers and journalists?” What insights can journos glean from lawyers — what methodological tricks of the trade, what concrete knowledge about where systems of governance are working and where they aren’t, etc.? And what can public interest lawyers take away from feature reporters — about the powers of narrative, for instance, and its impact on public perceptions of a given policy or set of facts? There are interesting sub-questions, too, about how to preserve fairness, objectivity, and complex independent thinking when working as a reporter in tandem with litigators who have a different set of professional  imperatives.

3. It’s going to be a conversation, rather than just a talk. And I like that, a lot, because there’s plenty I’m eager to hear and learn from professors and students — down to the nitty-gritty of how they chose their cases, how/whether they think about legal complaints through a narrative lens, etc.

4. They made a really nice poster.  To sum up, the event is Monday, Nov. 4th, from 4:30 – 6:30 PM, in Silverman Hall, Rm. 240A.

The Throwaways

Police enlist young offenders as confidential informants.  But the work is high risk, largely unregulated, and sometimes fatal.  In the Sept. 3rd, 2012 issue of The New Yorker, I tell the stories of four young people who were killed working as informants — Rachel Hoffman, Shelly Hilliard, LeBron Gaither, and Jeremy McLean — and follow their families’ pursuit of accountability.  Read the article here.

Photo by Peter Van Agtmael.

The Best American Magazine Writing 2012

I’ve been meaning to announce the debut of “The Best American Magazine Writing 2012,” in which you’ll find my New Yorker story on labor abuses of third-country nationals in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as some powerful reporting by a handful of friends (Matthieu Aikins) and journalistic heroes (Lawrence Wright, John Jeremiah Sullivan).  It’s available here.


Sex and the Wounded Soldier

For Veteran’s Day, I wrote a brief story for the Dart Society Reports on “sex and the wounded soldier.”  It’s about a lot of overlapping themes — my friendship with a wounded soldier (now dead) who worried a lot about war’s impact on his intimate life; an amputee dance troupe from World War II, called “The Amputettes”; and the U.S. military’s long-standing awkwardness about matters of sex, heart, and family.

Muckreads Podcast — Talking “War on Drugs” with ProPublica

Back in October, I sat down with the managing editor of ProPublica, Steve Engelberg, to talk about my story on the deaths of young confidential informants — and, more generally, about the challenges of long-form reporting on topics that inherently lend themselves to secrecy.  I forgot to post it back then, so I’m taking the liberty to offer the link now: you can find the recording here, along with other MuckReads podcasts with the likes of David Simon (creator of The Wire) and Fortune’s Mina Kimes.

2012: The Year in Almosts

I tend to share Emily Nussbaum’s skepticism about the annual “Top Ten list” ritual and the sketchy sausage production it entails.  That said, I just posted my year-end list on The New Yorker‘s site this evening, and it was, in the end, a fun exercise.  You can find my round-up — of 2012’s “Almosts, Half-Starts, and Nearly-There’s” — here, along with a stand-out list of Mexican cartel’s outlandish feats by Patrick Radden Keefe, a handy cocktail party survival checklist by Jane Mayer, and more.  (Quick preview: my list deals with drones, Republican rape gaffes, and the war on drugs. Oh, and everyone’s favorite Ikea monkey in his shearling coat.)


Sex and the Wounded Soldier

amps001For Veteran’s Day, I wrote a brief story for the Dart Society Reports on “sex and the wounded soldier.”  It’s about a lot of overlapping themes — my friendship with a wounded soldier (now dead) who worried a lot about war’s impact on his intimate life; an amputee dance troupe from World War II, called “The Amputettes”; the U.S. military’s long-standing awkwardness about matters of sex, heart, and family.  It all seems a bit more timely with the Petraeus love triangle (quadrangle?  pentagon? hexagon?).

The other stories in the issue are well worth reading.  Lee Hancock has an exceptional piece about the ethical minefields that come with reporting on sexual assault within the military, called “The Rape Was Not The Only Problem.” And conflict photojournalist John Moore has a photo essay on veterans recovering from major burns at the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas.


Image credits: “‘Amps’ Shake a Shapely Leg” and “’Amputees’ Present a ‘Gay 90s’ Review” clippings.  The Canham Collection. Otis Historical Archives.  National Museum of Health and Medicine.

International Law Forum Event, Today, November 8th

Today, I’m speaking on a panel hosted by the International Law Forum to address a major new White House initiative aimed at curbing human trafficking on U.S. government contracts. The initiative — an Executive Order announced back in September, called “Strengthening Protections Against Trafficking In Persons In Federal Contracts” — is rare, and worth knowing about.  It’s among the first genuine government responses to the crisis of fraudulent recruiting and indentured servitude that has plagued U.S. military contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as I wrote about for The New Yorker in “The Invisible Army.”  The question I’m most eager to debate at the forum, which includes some leading experts on combat-zone trafficking: will the current round of lip service translate into meaningful impacts on the ground for some of the world’s poorest workers?

Details are below; please feel free to be in touch if you’re interested.

“Abolishing Human Trafficking in Government Contracts”

Date: Thursday, November 8, 2012
Time: 12:00 to 1:30 p.m.
Place: Vinson & Elkins LLP
Address:  2200 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Suite 500 West
Washington, DC 20006

Sponsored by the Women’s Bar Association of the District of Columbia

* Linda Dixon, Program Manager, Department of
Defense Combatting Trafficking In Persons
(CTIP) Program Office
* Laura Letterer, Director, Global Centurion &
Former Senior Advisor on Trafficking in Persons
to Under Secretary for Democracy & Global
Affairs & Former Executive Director of the
Senior Policy Operating Group on Trafficking in
* Sam McCahon, Principal, McCahon Law &
Compliance Consulting Services Pvt Ltd.
* Sarah Stillman, The New Yorker

NPR’s Talk of the Nation: “Use of Confidential Informants Mostly Unregulated.”

This afternoon I went on NPR’s Talk of the Nation to discuss the issue of confidential informants in the war on drugs.  The show was fascinating, since several callers chimed in about their own harrowing experiences working in undercover drug busts. Check it out here, if you’re interested; and if you have an informant experience of your own that you want to share, please do send it my way (thanks already to those who’ve written following the program).

Pawns in the War on Drugs? The New Yorker Podcast

Last week, I joined Nicholas Thompson and Evan Ratliff — the two  founders of the ever-brilliant The Atavist — to discuss the issue of confidential informants for The New Yorker’s weekly podcast, Out Loud.  I shared some anecdotes from my recent story on the reckless endangerment of young police informants.  Evan, meanwhile, made some really useful points about the flip-side of the informant issue: what happens when the police get “played” by their own C.I.s, as he wrote about in a great piece on the F.B.I.-funded scam artist/C.I. named Josef von Habsburg Lothringen.  You can check our our conversation here.


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