By Arielle Dollinger and Nicole Kohn
In a land where bullets were the equivalent of rain and the sound of helicopters overhead was normal, former foreign correspondent and current New York Times Deputy Foreign Editor Michael Slackman went from local crime reporter to full-blown war reporter.
Slackman’s “distrust for authority” and desire to “bear witness” led him to such far away places as Bahrain, Egypt, Germany, Iraq and Russia. Getting shot at became routine as he reported on resistance and revolution.
And now he’s back.
Slackman took the stage of Stony Brook University’s Student Activities Center auditorium on Sept. 11 as part of the School of Journalism’s “My Life As…” series to both speak to students about his career and reunite with the School of Journalism faculty members he called colleagues during his days at Newsday.
The journalist opened the lecture with a video taken by his cameraman as they traversed the Bahrain ground under a bullet-laden sky.
“I’m not trying to glorify risk-taking,” he said. “It’s a big mistake.”
But the risks he took have provided him with myriad stories to tell. He spoke of a Russian woman who had golden teeth as a result of bad dental practices, and the controversy over the death and potential stuffing of Knut the polar bear of Germany’s Berlin Zoo.
He spoke of the controversy that resulted from his story about the polar bear, of being black-listed from certain countries because of his reporting, and most importantly, of the lessons he learned overseas.
“If we don’t understand these little things about each other, how are we going to be at peace?” he asked. “What you see is not what you get when you step outside the boundaries of your range of experience.”
He explained to students that moving to another country means learning the way that certain systems work in that location. Such establishments as banks, for example, can be confusing to foreigners because of varying customs.
Slackman told students that to move to different countries to witness history was a privilege: one which both he and his family had the pleasure of enjoying.
His wife and two sons moved overseas with him and were exposed to new cultures as well, he said. When he and his family arrived in Egypt, one of his sons was three years old and the other was a newborn.
According to Slackman, the simple things that we take for granted are not necessarily things we should. In Egypt, he noted, people do not stop at red lights; police officers are stationed at lights to make drivers stop their cars.
Now, Slackman works as the foreign deputy editor at The New York Times, and applies lessons that he learned in foreign countries to his oversight of the paper’s overseas coverage. He compared his job to that of an air traffic controller, emphasizing the importance of keeping on top of every story.
He has returned to Long Island with advice to accompany his stories. “Follow the trail that life offers you, and take opportunities that maybe you didn’t expect,” Slackman said.
He also reminded aspiring reporters that it is the reporter who gets to leave the area when his work is done. The people he is writing about are the ones who will have to suffer the consequences of the written words.