Two stories of undercover journalism made news last week. Although the immersion and reporting of each shared similarities, the reception that followed was vastly different.
In the first story, a journalist worked undercover as an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher at a university in North Korea. In the second, a journalist worked undercover as a security guard in a private prison in Louisiana.
Both felt compelled to expose human rights violations, mismanagement, neglect and power in areas inaccessible to journalists and outsiders. To get the information they needed, they went undercover and worked in the system, interacted with people implicated, took and hid notes and risked their safety.
Both were the right people to go. They had extensive experience reporting on the topic and inside knowledge of the subject matter.
Suki Kim researched and investigated North Korea for over a decade as a journalist in the States. Born and raised in South Korea, she understood North Korea’s language, the culture, and the subtle non-verbal nuances that most western reporters didn’t. If caught, she could have been expelled, imprisoned, or worse. But it was worth it to her to get an insiders look into North Korea, in a way she couldn’t as a journalist.
Shane Bauer reported on the prison system extensively as a journalist and knew what it was like to be behind bars. He and two friends were captured while hiking in Iran several years ago and spent almost two years in an Iranian prison. To better understand what happens inside private prisons, Shane took a risk going under cover. He could have been harmed by one of the prisoners, or fired and sued if caught by prison staff.
In their writing, they were their story’s main character. They wrote in the first person, a structural tool to describe the events and circumstances in which they were a part.
That’s where the similarities ended.
After four months undercover, the prison system discovered Shane’s motivations. He left the prison system and spent the next 14 months organizing his notes,writing and editing the piece, choosing which stories to include or drop, and fact checking it with Mother Jones’ editors. His final piece, five chapters total, was published as a full length piece in Mother Jones print magazine and posted online. Podcasts and radio hosts interviewed him. Reviews referred to his work as “a stunning new exposé” and said his reporting “offers a never-before-seen look” into the private prison system.
After six months undercover, Suki left North Korea and returned to the States with 400 pages of notes on her flash drive. While in North Korea, she wrote notes hidden in lesson plans, transferred files from her laptop to the flash drive each night, and kept the flash drive on her body at all times. I imagine, just like Shane, she probably felt a sigh of relief being back home, the fear of being caught behind her, and ready to write her account of a people and culture that had not been reported on in such a way before. She probably reviewed her notes, decided what to keep and what to take out, how to structure it, wondered how much of herself to put in. When she submitted her draft to her editor, she probably expected to see “a book of investigative journalism” or something similar in the subtitle.
Instead, her editor labeled her book a memoir, an act that, to Suki, diminished her work as an investigative journalist, or someone who risked their safety to unearth a part of society most people are unfamiliar with, to that of a memoirist, or someone who conjures up memories to make sense of emotions and feelings.
Suki resisted, but the editor wouldn’t budge. Her book was released as a memoir. In Suki’s follow up article with the New Republic, she describes the reaction reviewers had of her and her book. They accused her of lying and risking people’s lives for financial gain. They said what she wrote was nothing too shocking or new. They accosted her for betraying her employer.
Labeled a memoir, some reviewers called it the “Eat, Pray, Love of North Korea”. This critique was meant as an insult. A triple insult, the way I see it.
An insult to Suki – because the editors didn’t listen to her and her wishes. This was her reporting, her book, shouldn’t it be her choice if she wanted it labeled as a memoir or not? Labeling it as such eliminated her chances of winning a journalism award. As seen in reviews of Shane’s prison reporting, undercover work is generally seen as admirable, heroic. But Suki’s work was not perceived that way.
An insult to Elizabeth Gilbert and the curse reviewers in the literary world gave her – the “Eat, Pray, Love curse”. If a woman writes a first person piece in which travel is involved, it is often ridiculed as the Eat, Pray, Love of wherever. Some reviewers referred to Kim Barker’s book, The Taliban Shuffle, as the Eat, Pray, Love of Afghanistan, a comparison meant to insult. But why? I think Eat, Pray, Love was well received outside the world of reviewers. It was translated into over thirty languages, sold over 10 million copies and made into a movie. By calling Suki’s piece of investigative journalism the “Eat, Pray, Love of North Korea” it’s insulting to both Suki and Elizabeth Gilbert.
An insult to woman writers. As an aspiring author, working on a piece of creative nonfiction, these are the messages I see when I compare the differences in which men and women are reviewed. I am noticing, if you are a woman and write in the first person, whether it’s investigative journalism or a personal account, you are setting yourself up to be shamed by the publishing industry, by reviewers, and on social media. I wonder – why it is like this, how long will it last, and what needs to change?