May 11, 2006

Media Mischief

Jill Carroll Reconsidered or: How the MSM Publicly Trashes Wal-Mart but Secretly Loves its Business Model

Details about The Christian Science Monitor’s relationship with Jill Carroll have been sketchy in the past. But a recent exchange of e-mails I had with a Baghdad-based staffer reporter for The Monitor, Dan Murphy, has shed new light on how The Monitor used -- or perhaps misused -- Carroll.

By David Paulin

The mainstream media loves to excoriate Wal-Mart for a variety of alleged sins -- paltry wages, skimpy benefits and, horror of horrors: big profits. This fixation is hypocritical, however, when one considers how some in the mainstream media treat their own employees.

Jill Carroll is a case in point.

Carroll, of course, was the freelance reporter on assignment for The Christian Science Monitor when she was kidnapped last January 7th, while being driven to an interview in one of Baghdad's Sunni Arab neighborhoods. Her translator, Allan Enwiyah, was shot to death.

Carroll’s captors released her nearly three months later on March 30th -- the day I published a piece about her and the mainstream media’s exploitation of freelancers: “Jill Carroll’s Kidnapping: A Black Eye for the Mainstream Media’s Use of Freelancers.”

Details about The Christian Science Monitor’s relationship with Carroll have been sketchy in the past. But a recent exchange of e-mails I had with a Baghdad-based staffer reporter for The Monitor, Dan Murphy, has shed new light on how The Monitor used - or perhaps misused - Carroll.

Originally, Murphy contacted me to protest a single paragraph in my Carroll story. It claimed that Carroll, as a Monitor freelancer, would have enjoyed none of the same benefits as a staff reporter at the paper - although, to be sure, it noted Carroll was apparently not treated as a typical freelancer.

Murphy set the record straight.

Carroll in fact enjoyed a highly unusual situation with The Monitor. She was given the same benefits as a staff reporter, such as insurance and a room in The Monitor’s rented hotel facilities, according to Murphy. However, she was paid as a freelancer. In other words, she got paid per article.

How much? Murphy wouldn’t say. But the late Steven Vincent, the gifted freelance journalist and author of “In the Red Zone,” wrote three Monitor articles and earned $300 apiece “if I remember rightly,” said his widow, Lisa Ramaci-Vincent, in an e-mail to me.

As any journalist knows who has worked abroad, it’s not easy writing the kinds of multi-source stories the Monitor likes from a place like Iraq - where one faces irregular phone service, frequent electrical outages, traffic gridlock, and roving kidnappers. According to a Factiva search, Carroll produced about one Monitor article every three to five days, starting with her first piece on February 17, 2005. She also continued to occasionally freelance for other papers, including the Chicago Sun-Times and USA Today.

Those interested in media trends should note that The Monitor apparently pioneered a new type of employment model in respect to Carroll - an innovation I’ll bet not even Wal-Mart has tried. Normally, one has to be on a company’s full-time payroll to get benefits of any kind, but exceptions were made for Jill Carroll.

One can speculate as to why The Monitor did this. I suspect it was straight forward. It simply didn’t want to spend the money for a staff writer (I’d presume $42,000 to $55,000 per year), but it did have a need for extra copy. An accomplished journalist like Carroll, churning out about one story a week, would work just fine on a freelance basis.

There’s no denying it was decent of The Monitor to offer Carroll the same benefits as a staff writer. In doing this, her editors were no doubt aware that Iraq had simply gotten too dangerous to allow Carroll to live on her own, as she’d done for at least one year in Iraq. And what a year it was for her: a hardscrabble life of budget hotels, irregular paychecks, and growing danger – all of which she described in a colorful article for last year’s February/March American Journalism Review: "Letter from Baghdad: What a Way to Make a Living."

Days after Carroll’s release, The Monitor announced it had quietly added Carroll to its reporting staff, shortly after her kidnapping. This, Murphy said, was to ensure she had a financial “cushion” after her release. The Monitor waited until after her release to publicize this, he explained, because of concerns that revealing this while she was in captivity would jeopardize her situation with her kidnappers.

This all sounds logical, and it was very nice of The Monitor to do. But I can’t help but think that a sense of shame also motivated The Monitor; that its editors had to do something like this to avoid the shaming they otherwise were sure to face. Certainly, Carroll would not have had a huge “cushion” at the end of her freelance gig with The Monitor - but that issue was one with which her editors had never apparently troubled themselves.

There’s no doubting that freelancing can be tough, as Carroll noted in American Journalism Review. That’s why few journalists enjoy it for very long; most hope to eventually land a full-time job. I assume this was the case with Carroll. Going to Iraq, in part, was probably a way for her to jumpstart her career after she got laid off from her reporter assistant job at The Wall Street Journal.

It was nice to see Carroll finally got what she must have wanted: a staff position on a decent paper. It’s unfortunate she got it by suffering a brutal kidnapping and then living for the next three months with the possibility that she could, at any moment, suffer the same fate as her translator.

On a related front, The Monitor has yet to address another issue: What might it have done differently to have kept Carroll and her translator out of harm’s way? Unlike most American news organizations in Baghdad, The Monitor reportedly had no Western security consultant. Would it have made a difference? Did Carroll or any of her colleagues undergo hostile-environment training?

We’ll probably never know. The media, after all, is not that good at investigating itself.

1 comment:

Rick Moran said...

Fascinating piece, David. I think that Carroll's derring do in Iraq as far as going beyond the green zone to get stories should have made her eligible for the kind of consideration as far as benefits go.

At the same time, I wonder what the IRS would say about her status as a contract employee? I think that if CSM was paying her in benefits, that they might also owe social security taxes (if she files as an American citizen). My memory is hazy on this point but I think that Schedule C makes you figure the full SS tax.