The late Democratic U.S. speaker of the House Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill famously observed that “all politics is local.”
Rukmini Callimachi began her newspaper career in 2001 covering Streamwood for the Daily Herald. Today, she is a three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist covering terrorism, ISIS and Middle East war zones for The New York Times. At a presentation at Dominican University in River Forest last week, she traced links both direct and indirect between those two very different beats. To understand what attracts young men — even young men who have grown up in middle-class suburban households — to seek the glory of terrorist jihad, she said in her lecture titled “Talking to the Enemy,” you have to try to know them as individuals. To see the documents they produce and adhere to. To examine the fragments of their daily lives. To question them when you can. To find out the interesting details of their daily lives, as she sought out the interesting details of hundreds of suburban residents she interviewed for stories she wrote as an intern and later a community beat reporter for the Daily Herald.
No, it is not likely that the FBI will come knocking on a typical Daily Herald reporter’s door with evidence of credible threats against her life by the municipal and school board sources she is reporting on, as has happened with Callimachi involving the ISIS terrorist she has covered. But her approach to her work on this international story does reflect the best of what good local reporters strive for.
Indeed, in response to a question from an audience member who asked her advice for young journalists who might want to pursue a career like hers, Callimachi specifically referenced her Daily Herald roots. She noted that the danger always exists to make a routine of stories about a local school board or government meeting or a weekend festival and to think that one could knock them off quickly in order to seek out something meatier, but that’s not how she approached her early stories. Instead, she said, she always sought to ask a deeper question and find something beneath the surface of the routine that would give a local story more life.
In the first episode of a 10-chapter New York Times podcast following Callimachi’s work on ISIS, she describes how she has come to better understand the terrorists by examining their most routine documents. The bureaucratic detritus they leave in their wake when chased out of their military positions — birth certificates, business licenses and more — tell much about the enemy, she says.
“So, look,” she tells a colleague, “every reporter that covers conflict and war knows that you have to be there. You have to be on the ground if you want to try to understand the story.”
It may seem incongruous, but the truth is that what’s true for covering a war is also true for covering a local school board. We and our reporters do our best for the readers and communities we serve when we remember that maxim.
Jim Slusher, firstname.lastname@example.org, is Deputy Managing Editor/Opinion at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at @jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.