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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Deaths of Two Journalistic Mentors

Two friends passed away this week. They could not have been more different, yet they shared some remarkable qualities.

Les Nirenberg was an actor, a director and a tv documentary maker. He died in Toronto of a stroke after many years of ill health.

Les and I met in Montreal in 1974. I was fresh out of grad school and Les was doing a series of inserts for the nightly local tv news on the CBC. Along with his sidekick Nick Auf der Maur, they invented a form of tv news and later a full program that they called "Quelque Show" - bilingual pun on the French word "quelquechose" meaning "something."

That "something" was indeed something; Montrealers had never seen anything like it. Today it would be called "reality television." Les played the role of the jolly fat man who never could be offended. Nick was the artful, sardonic, "been-there-seen-that" man about town. (He eventually left journalism and ran and won a seat on Montreal's city council where he effectively played the political gadfly, driving the then-mayor of Montreal crazy with embarrassing questions in council meetings). The French language media also found Nick (and Les) to be unique Montreal treasures. A columnist coined a new word in French to describe them: they wasn't a Montrealers (MontrĂ©alais); they were  "MontrĂ©alistes!"

Les and I became friends. He was gracious with his time and taught me (the refugee from grad school) the rudiments of street smart tv reporting ("Don't wiggle the mike back and forth. If someone won't answer, just leave the mike in front of him and wait for him to fill up the embarrassing silence. Remember when you are editing the film, you'll always have the last word..." Stuff like that).

Les was literally larger than life and struggled with his weight for years. At the same time, he used it as a prop to get acting jobs and to be the disarming jolly guy who gets away with asking all sorts of intrusive questions.

For the last few years, Les lived in a home for retired actors in Toronto (yes, they still have those places). We planned on getting together but his health wouldn't let him. I am sorry I didn't make more of an effort to go see him.

Deborah Howell was an editor, an ombudsman, a mentor and role model for young journalists. She was on vacation in New Zealand when she stepped out into a street to take a photo and was stuck by a car and killed.

I met Deborah Howell when she became the ombudsman at the Washington Post. An effervescent and tough Texas gal, she was more than a match for the hard-boiled types in the newsroom. She and I shared more than a couple of instances where the readers of the Post and the listeners to NPR disagreed with something we wrote.

Deb mistakenly said that the disgraced Jack Abramoff had been given money by Democrats which wasn't exactly true. He did receive some money but very indirectly and much less than the direct cash he received from the Republicans. But the acrimony and viciousness poured on Deborah from the left was inhuman. It was so intense that the Post had to shut down their email system for a time.

She may have privately found this pressure unwarranted but when we talked about it, she assured me that she could handle it. We would meet with other Washington area ombudsmen once a month to swap stories, share battle scars and reassure ourselves that the value of the job to the public was worth it.

As her family says about her:

Deborah was hilarious. Her sense of humor had a healthy dose of bawdiness and she was known for the prevalence and precision of her profanity. Her frequent laughter leapt out of her like a child bursting out of class on the last day of school.

Deborah was extremely sensitive. Underneath her one-of-the-boys, newsroom toughness, she was deeply affected by the world around her. She was attuned to multiple frequencies of human behavior. Sometimes that meant that she was easily hurt. But it also meant that she was blessed with tremendous compassion.

Deborah's family has created an scholarship fund in her name at the University of Texas. It will support a female student in her sophomore year in journalism.   

If these two very different people had anything in common (they never met, of course) it was their unending curiosity about the world. Les would regularly go to a Jewish nursing home in Toronto to talk to those peppery inmates about the media. Those seniors will miss his warmth. Deborah was always encouraging to young journalists. And the Organization of News Ombudsmen has lost a good and valued friend and colleague.

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