The value of tenacity
By Roberta Baskin
Journalism is a back stage pass to the world, an entrée to historical events. An invitation to discover truth. But without tenacity, you won’t stay long. Tenacity is the force that cracks open doors, that uncovers sources, that prods the muse by insisting that you not take “no” for an answer. It’s what can make the most challenging stories possible.
Without tenacity, there is no story. Especially for investigative reporters who seek information people don’t want to reveal. Who interview people often too terrified or reluctant to talk.
Tenacity is what makes the impossible, possible. It helps reporters overcome barriers. It allows journalists to succeed. And the value of tenacity can help in the pursuit of even the most ordinary of objects.
Like an armoire, for instance.
The quest to buy an armoire for my mother taught me my first lesson in tenacity at age 13. My mother always longed for more closet space in our tiny Manhattan apartment. And I found the answer outside an antique store in Greenwich Village: a broken-down, old oak cabinet with six creaky drawers and ample space to hang her blouses, skirts and slacks.
The sign read, “$50 unfinished – $175 finished.” I’d saved up the enormous sum of $50 by baby sitting for $1 an hour. I wanted to buy the gift for my mom’s upcoming birthday.
I stepped over the store threshold and began my negotiation. I explained that I could only pay $50. But since it would be a present, it would need to be fixed up.
At first the shopkeeper just laughed. But I returned every day after school and reminded the store manager that my mother’s birthday was coming up soon. I still wanted to buy the armoire for $50 – and only if he fixed it up. To my surprise, on the fourth day he relented.
The shopkeeper did a magnificent job. The oak patina gleamed. The drawers slid open easily. The brass hardware was polished. But he had sobering news. “We don’t deliver,” he said. “How are you planning to get it?”
My heart pounded at the thought of not being able to take possession of this precious thing. I resorted to undignified begging. “I’m a kid and of course I can’t drive. You have to deliver it. It’s my mom’s birthday present.” When he decided not to argue, I wanted to dance down Hudson Street. Then I asked for one more thing. Could he tie a big red ribbon around the armoire, carry it up the stairs and sing “Happy Birthday” to my mom?
“Up the stairs?!” he asked, his eyes widening. I delicately explained we lived on the third floor of a walk-up. He rolled his eyes. “You’re killing me, kid!”
On that special Saturday, he and his friend managed to carry the armoire up all three flights. They groaned and huffed and puffed as they sang happy birthday. And as my mother looked at her gift with its big red ribbon, she burst into happy tears. The shopkeeper pointed at me. “That kid of yours,” he said, “she never gives up.”
“I know,” my mother said.
There would be other symbolic “armoires,” pursued in a lifetime of journalism, and it began with landing my first journalism job.
Before journalism, I headed the consumer affairs office for the city of Syracuse. I testified before Congress and sued companies for violating the city’s consumer protection code. After my office sued a baby food company for using scare tactics in its marketing, I appeared on ABC News’ “Good Morning America.” The news director at Chicago’s NBC station liked what he saw and invited me to audition as his consumer reporter. I flew out to Chicago and charged out with a camera crew to shoot and edit a consumer story. I returned to Syracuse without the job, but realized I had found a career – and it wasn’t for the bashful.
So I called the news director back to reassure him I could do better and ask for another audition. Amazingly, he agreed. I flew back to Chicago and tried again – and failed again. That’s when tenacity, in a stage whisper, told me I must find a way. I called the news director a third time to persuade him I was trainable. “Don’t put me on the air,” I suggested, “until you feel I’m ready. And pay me the least you can under the union’s contract.”
My doggedness paid off. He hired me.
Over a 30-year career, tenacity would give me my most memorable reports. Like the story on Pakistani children – some as young as 6-years old – who labored in stitching workshops making soccer balls for Western children. I walked past guards with shotguns and waited five long hours for the factory owner to finally appear and acknowledge the truth. At first he said it didn’t happen. When I offered to show him my video he declined. “If it happens, it happens beyond our face.” In other words, that’s not his concern.
Tenacity is what made me skeptical when the Environmental Protection Agency assured me there was no radon problem in the Washington, DC area. I encouraged my television station to launch a campaign to investigate by subsidizing nearly a hundred thousand radon tests. Those results revealed that a third of the homes had radon levels above the EPA’s safety level. And I had my story.
Tenacity also spurred me to investigate when I heard that a chain of dental clinics subjected thousands of impoverished children to unnecessary baby root canals in order to bill Medicaid for the procedures. Exposing the dental chain’s exploitive practices eventually led to a $24- million settlement and corporate probation.
Tenacity is sometimes maddening. It can ignore reason and common sense. It can make you unpopular.
A cameraman I worked with for many years called me the “Pit Bull of Broadcasting” – and did not always mean it as a compliment. An assistant news director wrote in my evaluation that I was the “Queen of End Runs.” She considered it a vice; I saw it as a virtue. And the head of the National Football League once called me ”a journalistic Molotov cocktail” for exposés I did on the league’s faulty drug testing program.
Is tenacity a source of annoyance? Absolutely. Particularly to family members, colleagues, sources and others not inspired by the word, “no.” But in the end, what I learned so long ago at 13 has remained the enduring lesson in a lifetime of reporting.
Tenacity, in pursuit of the good, is what gets the story in the end.
Roberta Baskin’s piece is from a series of essays on Voices & Values of Journalism that has been created by Images & Voices of Hope with the generous support of the Fetzer Institute and the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University. Our collective intention is to make these essays widely available to journalists, aspiring journalists and anyone interested in the field as part of an emergent curriculum to explore the deep foundation of values that support the important work that journalists do.