By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Show us the money (II)

Boston Globe columnist Maggie Jackson yesterday gave us a feel-good story about families who are enjoying all kinds of togetherness now that they’ve had to downsize their careers and get by on less money than it costs to drive through the tollbooths on the Tobin Bridge every day. Jackson’s lead example: the Ayanna family of Somerville, mom, dad and two kids making it on $35,000 a year.

Well, now we know that they’re not making it, and that all is not the bliss that Jackson describes. We can thank Amiri Ayanna, who has been open enough about her family’s situation to leave a series of comments here about life since her husband, Ariel, was laid off from his $170,000-a-year job as a corporate lawyer. To wit:

  • The Ayannas pay $1,850 a month for the mortgage on their Somerville condo. But they are trying to negotiate that down, and may soon be forced to move into a studio apartment — with a 5-year-old boy and a baby.
  • Jackson wrote that Ariel Ayanna is “considering becoming a stay-at-home dad for a year.” Not true, says Amiri: “I wanted to clear up one other inaccuracy stated in the Boston Globe article: Ariel is enjoying his family time now, out of necessity, but is very actively and strenuously looking for work, since, as I stated, our financial situation is fairly tenuous.”
  • Amiri also has this to say: “I agree our finances were painted way too rosily by this article (many things were selectively excluded from the lengthy interviews with both myself and my spouse, and our family was used as a story ‘hook’ because we were willing to disclose specific dollar numbers, I think).”

What seems clear is that the Ayannas are doing a lot better on $35,000 than most of us would — but that it’s not their choice, and that Jackson massaged their situation to fit a pre-existing template. The result: a story that is accurate, for the most part, but that is fundamentally not true.

If Jackson and/or the Globe would like to respond, I will, of course, post it immediately.

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26 Comments

  1. matteomht

    Why am I not surprised a Globe reporter has done something like this? Wasn’t ‘selective exclusion’ the same bad habit the paper slipped into with the famous Ray Flynn hatchet job in the mid-1990s? Not much has changed.

  2. J.S.Cutler

    I think the problem is that sometimes reporters decide ahead of time what kind of story they want to write and then seek out facts that support their angle. It’s certainly not an issue specific to the Globe, but this does seems like it may be the case here.

  3. Rick in Duxbury

    Classic example of the self-absorbed cluelessness of the Globe. Take a family man who (ostensibly) has to seek work to retain unemployment benefits. Say he has made the unilateral decision to be a “stay at home Dad”. Anyone agreeing to an interview with Ms. Jackson should consider the possiblity that they too will be thrown under the bus.

  4. rozzie02131

    Rick – is it the Globe’s responsibility to protect people from their own comments? Suppose the interviewee did tell the reporter he was considering stay-at-home Dad status. Yes, that would affect his unemployment benefits, and that is the law the way it’s set up. If the reporter quotes the subject accurately, that’s not throwing anybody under the bus, that’s just reality. If the Ayanna family has to change their plans in order to collect unemployment, that’s also reality for thousands of other unemployed people. It’s not the Globe’s job to hide any of these facts to protect their source.

  5. io saturnalia!

    This sounds similar to the way Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle used to play fast and loose with the truth (though, as far as I can tell, Jackson didn’t manufacture sources and subjects out of whole cloth).Craigslist and news on the Web have definitely put a dent in the Globe’s circulation, but shoddy business practices, by journalists as well as management, hold the true key to the paper’s woes.

  6. One Crazy Family

    Nice work, Dan! I like it that our story got put out in more detail!Amiri

  7. ShelT

    Good for Mrs. Ayanna for attempting to correct the record. Always find these stories dubious. Good idea to put a human face on economy stories, but the reporting needs to be solid, and not shaded to fit some pre-conceived hypothesis.Can’t figure out why folks submit to appearing in stories such as these or in laying bare their financial worth in the Globe’s “Financial Makeover” column. For that matter, am puzzled by the “Cupid” feature in the Sunday magazine in which there is never a second date and participants gleefully articulate their unreasonable expectations and display their character weaknesses for a free dinner. Couples should be forced to stay together so that no one else has to risk dating them.

  8. endangered coffee

    Not that I necessarily disagree with you, ShelT, but have you seen any of what passes for television these days?Pretty much a sad potpourri of folks baring their souls, lovelifes, pocketbooks and fat pockets.

  9. endangered coffee

    (In all fairness, I do not mean to imply that Amiri’s family should be lumped into that category.)

  10. Peter Porcupine

    DK – As mentioned in your previosu post, tax obligations effectively turn that $35,000 into $26,200, if you prepare to pay the honking bill that will fall due next April 15. While Amiri seems clever enought o pick up on this, I can’t help wondering about the newly released denizens of teh Globe bubble-culture.Will we be seeing stories next spring from newly impoverished journalists who are shocked, SHOCKED, to find out they must pay taxes on their unemployment checks? And that severance is sometimes taxed as income, Etc.?

  11. Dan Kennedy

    PP: Isn’t there a provision in the stimulus that exempts quite a bit of unemployment from taxes? I could swear I read that somewhere.

  12. Ron Newman

    Also, with four personal exemptions and the married standard deduction, how much tax would they actually have to pay on the unemployment income?

  13. One Crazy Family

    Yeah, the stimulus plan does help with tax issues on unemployment benefits, but the spouse’s final lump severance check was taxed so extensively (grouping many final weeks of payments into one lump sum so that it appeared as though Ariel had earned approx. 40K per month!). And the stimulus does help with Cobra benefits, as well. I feel duped by the Globe’s portrayal. Making it seem as though Ariel is lounging at home being a stay at home dad really ticks us both me off. And, this of course exposes Jackson’s lack of understanding of how unemployment benefits actually work—one MUST be looking for work in order to receive benefits at all. The system is closely monitored and all job-seeking activity must be recorded and submitted.I had hoped the article would focus on our new frugality practices, such as using Freecycle for furnishings and clothes, selling our clothes dryer, stepped up use of the public library for entertainment, elimination of cable and long distance phone service, etc. Focusing on the the human side of needing to turn to social services and to HUD mortgage restructuring via the stimulus package would have also painted a clearer picture. Alas, all that was not included.Thanks, Dan! I will not be agreeing to any more interviews anytime soon!Amiri, who is now a fan of MediaNation!

  14. Dan Kennedy

    matteomht: Despite the esteem in which I hold Ray Flynn, I would disagree that the Globe produced a hatchet job. Flynn was having some real problems, and the Globe pointed them out. Nor were his personal foibles irrelevant, as Flynn was about to re-launch his political career. Here’s what I wrote at the time.Disclosure: the lead reporter was Walter Robinson, now a colleague of mine at Northeastern.

  15. One Crazy Family

    I have updated my frugal “travel” blog to note the sentiments I expressed in comments above regarding selective omission to the point of falsification in the Globe:http://roadtriphouston.blogspot.com/2009/05/welcome-medianation-readers.htmlThanks again, Dan! Amiri

  16. matteomht

    Possibly a fair point about Ray Flynn, Dan– to be honest, it was so long ago that I don’t remember the details. But I’ve known many Globe reporters over the years, and ‘selective exclusion’ to the point of excess seems to be a recurring problem there.

  17. Mike Saunders

    OK matteomht, I’ll bite: who are the Globe reporters you claim to have known? And since there were “many” of them, you won’t have any trouble coming up with names, and specific examples of the “selective exclusion” they practice.And…go. The clock is ticking, friend. I doubt names are forthcoming. I’d bet there’s not a Simco dog’s length between you and some unsavory pol, or some back-alley deal that someone at the paper took a dump on, both of which would explain your reluctance to put your real name behind such a broadside. Tick…tick….tick….

  18. Amused

    If it was a politician who claimed to have been misquoted, selectively quoted, or quoted out of context after seeing his comments in print, the claim would be greeted cum grano salis or with general derision. It seems that we are ready to accept an attempt by this interview subject to pull the age-old “that’s not what I said/meant” routine when the story doesn’t suit her agenda. Maybe the requirement that persons collecting unemployment benefits sign a statement under oath that they are available and actively seeking work has something to do with it, I don’t know and don’t pretend to know. I do know that in trying to correct the record, this complainer states that “[w]e used no heat at all last winter and hardly had to break out the sweaters.” If anyone spent this last winter with the heat “off” as this women seems to claim, that’s a bigger story than anything about making it in reduced circumstances. A bit prone to exaggeration, wouldn’t you say? Moreover, we see nothing in the family travelogue about arguments over finances. Are we to presume that after not baring this intimate detail on a blog the family detailed internal squabbles to a reporter? I think not. The suggestion that a reporter “massaged their situation to fit a preexisting template” is nothing more than committing the sin complained of. We now have a rush to accept and validate her post-publication comments in order confirm a theory, this time about a reporter’s, or a newspaper’s, perceived agenda. Taking the interviewee’s word for the claims of being quoted out of context, without lifting a finger in original research, is a perfect case study on why we need newspapers and why blogs will never replace newspapers: there is no evidence of actual reporting in deciding the story was fundamentally untrue, only the uncritical and uncomfirmed post-publication lament of a interview subject. If you want to contend the story is “fundamentally not true,” do some original reporting, don’t merely speculate based on the buyer’s remorse of someone who agreed to an interview and then didn’t like the way the story came out.Maybe the income is $35K right now. But an income of $170K will sustain a mortgage, based on the traditional 28 percent mortgage payment, of almost $4K a month, and they’re paying less than half that. Good for them, but it would seem there was significant disposable income, perhaps savings, during the good times. Had the reporter’s piece been about the financial intricacies of keeping a family afloat with a sudden income loss, that’s the sort of thing that should have been explored . However, this story was about a sort of unexpected benefit experienced when people have to rally ’round as a family to survive, and this family’s experiences certainly illustrated, that in the undeniable strain, stress and fear of a sudden loss of income, a “slower” lifestyle has some benefit in an almost spiritual way.h

  19. Ron Newman

    We now have at least five discussion threads going on about this — one in the original article’s comments, two here at Media Nation, one at Universal Hub, and one at the Somerville Journal blog.I’m thinking it might be time to e-mail Maggie Jackson, let her know about all of the discussion she stirred up, and see if she wants to respond. (Or has someone already done this?)

  20. Neil

    Amused, I’m not sure what “original reporting” you can do to verify or disprove anything here, beyond actually communicating with the Ayannas directly, which Dan has done and you are free to do, and which is all the original reporter did after all. Politicans have always had a forum in which to dispute a story, which up until lately hasn’t been available to ordinary individuals. That’s the most significant change here–we no longer have to rely on a reporter’s brief, one-shot interpretation of the situation. In this case you can address your doubts about the heat for example, directly to Amiri. This ability to follow through, via sources like Dan’s blog or the family’s blog itself is a fundamental shift and highlights the dinosaur-like nature of newsprint. Until recently the extent of interactivity with the Globe consisted of writing a letter to the editor which was mostly an exercise in futility as they might condescend to print one in fifty. Getting a letter published was a remarkable feat of luck and timing. Now the readers have a voice and can question and follow up.Ron, if Jackson is unaware of the discussion stirred up by her report, then she’s in the wrong business.PS: I said “Ayanna’s” twice in an earlier comment. Apostrophe for plural–d’oh! I once said if I ever do that, I’d kill myself! Hope a reporter wasn’t listening…

  21. One Crazy Family

    Yes, “Amused”, I am free to be contacted by any and all–as Neil says. I aimed for transparency on the phone with Maggie, when she interviewed me from NY, and I still do. I had hoped the article would focus on our freecycling, home-made clothes, difficulties associated with camping in March,reduced use of heat in our relatively well-insulated condo that we may have to sell, tight-bugdeting, eliminating meat, using a cash-envelope system, and growing our own vegetables. Learning how to deal with the downtimes together as a family, including these stresses, was the experience I wanted to share with Globe readers, not to belittle the difficulties we feel or to belittle the many people who have it much worse than we do.I do understand the skepticism, especially when my husband made 6 figures for 2 years, but being 27 years old with 2 kids and having only had one working parent for 2 years does not give a lot of time to amass “hidden wealth.” But anyone is free to contact me and my family directly over my blog. “Amused” has a bloger ID, but I could not contact him through it, since it was “unavailable.”Thanks! Amiriwww.roadtriphouston.blogspot.com

  22. Dan Kennedy

    Amused: Blogging isn’t perfect, but blogs simply engage in a different type of verification compared to other forms of journalism. If you were writing a story for a newspaper, you would do all your verification up front and in private. On a blog, it’s incremental and public.I began with nothing but my skepticism about the facts laid out in Maggie Jackson’s story. Now we have considerable testimony from Amiri Ayanna regarding the flaws in Jackson’s story. Yes, I find Ayanna’s critique to be credible, and I’ve said so. But from my first post I’ve invited Jackson and her editors to weigh in. I continue to welcome their comments.

  23. Ron Newman

    > on the phone with Maggie, when she interviewed me from NYThis strikes me as part of the problem. To properly and accurately write a lifestyle article of this type, the reporter should have visited you in your own home.

  24. Dan Kennedy

    Ron: Reporters often have to do interviews by phone when, ideally, they would do them in person. In this case, though, I have to agree — doing this particular interview by phone was not a good idea. The Ayannas were Jackson’s lead anecdote, after all.

  25. Ron Newman

    Right, not all interviews need to be in person. But if the point of a story is to tell how frugally a family lives, you need to SEE them and their clothes, their furniture, their condo, their car, etc.

  26. One Crazy Family

    In all fairness, the Globe actually did sent a video dude to our house, and we were told they were going to put up the video interview over boston.com, of us talking about job searching, using vinegar to prevent mold buildup on clothes hung to dry in the basement, images of our furniture gleaned from Freecycle and home-sewn curtains, how my husband worked in a now-collapsed financial services industry and how tricky the job hunt was and continues to be for this reason. He even filmed us hanging up wet clothes, but even that inocuous (or simply boring?) activity didn’t make the video cut. I can guess that the video interview of our home and frugality practices didn’t come out as “feel-good” as hoped for in this Mom’s Day article. Or maybe the video was nixed because I had exposed my unsightly/unshaven legs, another shot-in the dark theory! Who knows! 🙂

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