April 7, 2014

Anja and Kathy – AP’s Two Heroines

Anja Niedringhaus in Rome April 7,  2005. Credit: AP Photo Peter Dejong

Anja Niedringhaus in Rome April 7, 2005. Credit: AP Photo Peter Dejong

Dear Blog Readers — By now most of you probably know about the attack last Friday in Afghanistan on two women working for the Associated Press, killing Pulitizer-Prize winning photographer Anja Niedringhaus and seriously wounding veteran correspondent Kathy Gannon.  It has taken me a few days to want to write a post and even now I am not sure what to say.  These women are my heroines.  They are the people I admire more than anyone else in the business.  They go to places where few other journalists want to go, they try to minimize the risks and over and over again tell stories to the rest of the world that no one would know about otherwise.  The AP does not pay huge, super-star salaries– people like Anja and Kathy do it out of passion for journalism, a desire to be there, to see for themselves, a yearning to tell the story to the rest of the world with pictures and words. The world needs more journalists like Anja and Kathy.  Anja’s death is a huge loss to the AP and to the world of journalism.  My heart goes out to her family.  My heart also goes out to Kathy as she struggles to recover from her injuries and the loss of her friend.

AP Correspondent Kathy Gannon. Credit: AP

AP Correspondent Kathy Gannon. Credit: AP

AP Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll sent all of us AP staffers the following message:

“Kathy has been stabilized and we are seeking additional medical attention for her and are optimistic for her recovery….

Kathy is a resilient soul, upbeat and tough all in the same package. She loves Afghanistan, a place she has covered for three decades. Those of you fortunate enough to have spent time with Kathy know the sound of that husky voice as she tells stories that always end with her looking innocently wide-eyed, as if she cannot believe the adventures she has just described. You also know how much Pakistan and Afghanistan are a part of her heart.

She and Anja were a great team, comrades in coverage and good cooking and good friendship … the first journalists to embed with the Afghan National Army … brilliant chroniclers of the people and events and wonderful human beings.

Anja’s death is a shattering loss for the AP family and for the many people around the world who knew and loved her. Much has been said already about her joyful nature and that amazing laugh. She was magical … people just wanted to be around her. She made everything brighter, more fun, more alive.

Which is not to say that Anja didn’t have a serious side. Woe be unto you if you were sloppy or late or were giving anything but 110 percent; she’d snap you back into line right then and there. Then have you laughing about something 15 minutes later.”


Afghan boy watching German soldiers set up camp in Feyzabad, Afghanistan. Photo by Anja Neidringhaus. Credit: AP

Afghan boy watching German soldiers set up camp in Feyzabad, Afghanistan. Photo by Anja Neidringhaus. Credit: AP


Below is the AP story on what happened.

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — An Afghan police commander opened fire Friday on two Associated Press journalists, killing Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Anja Niedringhaus and wounding veteran correspondent Kathy Gannon — the first known case of a security insider attacking journalists in Afghanistan.

The shooting was part of a surge in violence targeting foreigners in the run-up to Saturday’s presidential elections, a pivotal moment in Afghanistan’s troubled recent history that promises to be the nation’s first democratic transfer of power.

Niedringhaus, 48, who had covered conflict zones from the Balkans in the 1990s to Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, died instantly of her wounds.

Gannon, 60, who for many years was the news organization’s Afghanistan bureau chief and currently is a special correspondent for the region, was shot three times in the wrists and shoulder. After surgery, she was in stable condition and spoke to medical personnel before being flown to Kabul.

Niedringhaus and Gannon had worked together repeatedly in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, covering the conflict from some of the most dangerous hotspots of the Taliban insurgency. They often focused on the war’s impact on Afghan civilians, and they embedded several times with the Afghan police and military, reporting on the Afghan government’s determination to build up its often ill-equipped forces to face the fight against militants.

Gannon, who had sources inside the Taliban leadership, was one of the few Western reporters allowed into Afghanistan during the militant group’s rule in the 1990s.

Pulitzer-prize winning Photographer Anja Niedringhaus

Pulitzer-prize winning Photographer Anja Niedringhaus

The two journalists were traveling in a convoy of election workers delivering ballots in the eastern city of Khost, under the protection of Afghan security forces. They were in their own car with a translator and an AP Television News freelancer waiting for the convoy to move after arriving at the heavily guarded security forces base in eastern Afghanistan.

A unit commander identified by authorities as Naqibullah walked up to the car, yelled “Allahu Akbar” — God is Great — and fired on them in the back seat with his AK-47, said the freelance videographer, who witnessed the attack, which left the rear door of the car riddled with bullet holes. The officer then surrendered to the other police and was arrested.

While there have been repeated cases in recent years of Afghan police or military personnel opening fire on and killing international troops working with the country’s security forces, Friday’s attack was the first known insider shooting of journalists.

Past attacks have been carried out by suspected Taliban infiltrators or Afghans who have come to oppose the foreign presence in the country. At their worst, in 2012, there was an average of nearly one a week, killing more than 60 coalition troops and prompting NATO to reduce joint operations with Afghan forces.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied responsibility for Friday’s attack. Khost Provincial Police Chief Faizullah Ghyrat said the 25-year-old attacker confessed to the shooting and told authorities he was from Parwan province, northwest of Kabul, and was acting to avenge the deaths of family members in a NATO bombing there. The claim could not be corroborated and officials said they were still investigating the shooter’s background.

Ghyrat said the police commander told authorities he had seen the journalists, decided to act, and then demanded the assault rifle from one of his subordinates.

The shooting came on the eve of Afghanistan’s elections for a new president and provincial councils. With international combat forces preparing to withdraw by the end of this year, the country is so unstable that the very fact the vote is being held has been touted as one of the few successes in outgoing President Hamid Karzai’s tenure.

The Taliban have vowed to disrupt the vote and have stepped up violence in recent weeks, including increased attacks on civilian targets in Kabul and the killings of a Swedish journalist and an Afghan journalist for the French news agency Agence France-Presse.

Karzai said in a statement that he “grieved” Niedringhaus’ death and wished a quick recovery for Gannon. He also ordered an investigation into the shooting.

In a memo to staff, AP President Gary Pruitt remembered Niedringhaus as “spirited, intrepid and fearless, with a raucous laugh that we will always remember.”

“Anja is the 32nd AP staffer to give their life in pursuit of the news since AP was founded in 1846,” he wrote. “This is a profession of the brave and the passionate, those committed to the mission of bringing to the world information that is fair, accurate and important. Anja Niedringhaus met that definition in every way.”

Niedringhaus joined the AP in 2002, and while based in Geneva worked throughout the Middle East as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan. In 2005, she was part of the AP team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography for coverage of Iraq, and was awarded the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation, among many journalistic honors. In 2006-07, she studied at Harvard University under a Nieman Fellowship.

“What the world knows about Iraq, they largely know because of her pictures and the pictures by the photographers she raised and beat into shape,” said AP photographer David Guttenfelder. “I know they always ask themselves, ‘What would Anja do?’ when they go out with their cameras. I think we all do.”

“She truly believed in the need to bear witness,” said Santiago Lyon, AP vice president and director of photography.

Niedringhaus captured what war meant to her subjects: an Afghan boy on a swing holding a toy submachine gun, a black-clad Iraqi giving a bottle to her baby as she waits for prisoners to be released, a U.S. Marine mourning the loss of 31 comrades.

Others showed life going on among the killing: a Canadian soldier with a sunflower stuck in his helmet, a young girl testing her artificial limbs, while her sister teasingly tries to steal her crutches, a bearded Afghan man and grinning boy listening to music on an iPod borrowed from German soldiers.

At an exhibit of her work in Berlin in 2011, Niedringhaus said: “Sometimes I feel bad because I can always leave the conflict, go back home to my family where there’s no war.”

Niedringhaus started her career as a freelance photographer for a local newspaper in her hometown in Hoexter, Germany, at age 16. She worked for the European Press Photo Agency before joining the AP and had published two books.

Gannon, a Canadian journalist based in Islamabad, has covered Afghanistan and Pakistan for the AP since the mid-1980s. A former Edward R. Murrow fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, she is the author of a book on the country, “I Is for Infidel: From Holy War to Holy Terror: 18 Years Inside Afghanistan.” She also was awarded the Courage in Journalism Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation, in 2002.

After Friday’s attack, Gannon underwent surgery in Khost and was said to be stable. She was then flown to Kabul for further treatment.

Niedringhaus drew praise Friday from battlefields to the White House. She was honored at a United Nations briefing, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman, Steffen Seibert, tweeted condolences. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said she and Gannon were in President Obama’s thoughts and prayers.

In Washington, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren condemned “this senseless act of violence against these brave professionals covering this important political transition in Afghanistan.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists said the loss of Niedringhaus and the wounding of Gannon “reflect the heightened dangers of reporting from Afghanistan.”

“As pre-election violence mounts, Afghanistan has become a dangerous assignment on par with the height of the Iraq war or the current situation in Syria,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator.

The militants have increasingly been targeting Westerners.

Nils Horner, a 51-year-old Swedish journalist who had worked for Swedish Radio since 2001 as a foreign correspondent, was killed by a shot in the head as he was reporting on Afghanistan’s election in Kabul in early March. An extremist Taliban splinter group later claimed responsibility.

On March 21, four gunmen opened fire in a crowded restaurant frequented by foreigners in the Serena Hotel in Kabul, killing nine people. Among the dead was Sardar Ahmad, a respected 40-year-old Afghan journalist with AFP. His wife and two of their children also were killed, while their nearly 2-year-old son was badly wounded.

See Anja in her own words

See also Kimberly Dozier’s article Sisters in Danger

Related posts:

March 4, 2014

The Queen Pops In

Queen Elizabeth visits the Vatican. April 3, 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

Queen Elizabeth visits the Vatican. April 3, 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Gregorio Borgia for Mozzarella Mamma

“I think she is going to be wearing baby blue,” said AP Television cameraman Gianfranco Stara said to me as he stood at the door of Piazza Grazioli 5 outside the AP offices in Rome waiting for a taxi to arrive.  He was heading to Rome’s Quirinale Palace to cover yesterday’s visit of Queen Elizabeth to Rome.  “No, no, it is going to be mint green, I am sure of it, I said as I headed into the building.

What is going on with all these leaders coming to Rome?  Obama must have come for the good food last week, and I think the Queen has popped in this week for a bit of the beautiful Roman sunshine we are having these days.

“It is Lilac!!”  came the text message from Gianfranco a little while later.

Yes, her Royal Highness came to visit and had lunch with Italy’s president Giorgio Napolitano.   She was accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip.  I was not actually covering this event myself because I was busy with something else which I will explain shortly, so I will just give a brief summary based on the excellent reporting of by AP wire colleague Daniela Petroff.

The Queen and President are old friends and apparently he put on a super lunch for her.  I will give you the menu in Italian because I can’t manage to translate it into English.  Here it is: Risotto alle Erbe, Angello arrosto con contorno di millefoglie di patate, sformatini di caponata e fagiolini al vapore, bonet di cacao, amaretti e liquore. (maybe one of my foodie blogger friends can translate it into English properly)

The Queen was enjoying herself so thoroughly at lunch that more than two hours passed and she managed to be 20 minutes late for her appointment with Pope Francis.  “Sorry to keep you waiting, we were having a pleasant lunch with the President” she reportedly told Francis.  Ha!!! I love that.  Only a Queen could get away with saying that to a Pope.

The three (The Pope, The Queen and The Duke) then retired to the Pope’s library for a private chat.  The talk lasted only 20 minutes (compared to the 52 minutes with Obama last week).

After the private talk it was time for gifts.  Last week Obama gave the Pope seeds from the White House vegetable garden.  Not to be outdone, the Queen arrived with a wicker hamper of items “from my garden”…which the Vatican statement said were “products coming from the Royal properties.”  The hamper had honey, jam, eggs and apparently the Pope looked slightly surprised when the Duke of Edinburgh pulled out a bottle of Balmoral Whiskey from the Scottish Estate.

The Pope then gave the Queen a present for “el ninetto” — her new grandson Prince George of Cambridge.  It was an orb made of Lapis Lazuli with a silver cross on top.

I was not covering the visit of the Queen because I had been invited to speak to a group of students at Loyola University in Rome.  I was impressed by this group of young, serious Americans.  In my talk to them I tried to explain that as an Agency journalist I cover a vast range of subjects from earthquakes to Papal elections.  I find that I am never an expert on anything and need to approach all my reporting with total humility assuming that my interlocutor knows more than I do.  A journalist needs to seek information from everyone from the taxi driver to the Cardinal, from the immigrant arriving on the shore of Lampedusa to the powerful politician in Rome.  I gave the students a piece of advice for anyone interested in becoming a journalist.  The new generation of journalists have to be able to do it all.  Certainly being able to write is not enough.  One has to write, take photos, edit photos, shoot video, edit video, transmit stories,  connect cable for a liveshot etc.

I gave the students a multiple choice Trivial Pursuit quiz based on some of the stories I have covered during my 20 years working as a journalist based in Rome.  I will copy it below for anyone who is interested in taking a shot at it.  The answers are at the bottom.  All the questions are related to stories I have covered personally.


(Lots of the Answers can be found on earlier blog posts)


1.  Who is/was the youngest Prime Minister of Italy on entering office?

a. Alcide De Gasperi

b. Matteo Renzi

c. Silvio Berlusconi

d. Giulio Andreotti

2. How many Italian Prime Ministers have served since President Obama was elected in 2008?  (see post President Obama in Rome)

a. 4

b. 2

c. 5

d. 3

3. What is the total number of representatives in the Italian parliament (lower house and Senate) compared to the US House and Senate?

a. Italy 500//US 1000

b. Italy 535//US 945

c. Italy 945//US 535

d. Italy 300//US 500

4. Who is Cecile Kyenge and why is she important? (see Blog Post: Courageous Cecile)

a. The head of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization based in Rome

b. An Italian track runner originally from the Congo

c. Italy’s first black Minister

d. A prominent Italian journalist

5. Who gave Berlusconi his bed as a gift?

a. Francesca Pascale

b. Pope John Paul II

c. Bill Clinton

d. Vladimir Putin

6. Who is Ruby Heart-Stealer?

a.  A Russian undercover agent

b. A Morrocan prostitute

c.  A gold-medal olympic gymnast

d. A member of the Italian parliament

7. How many US Ambassadors serve in Rome at one time?

a. 1

b. 2

c. 3

d. 4


8.  What did the 2009 Aquila earthquake measure on the Richter Scale and how many people died?

a. 5.9//297

b. 6.0//300

c. 3.0//153

d. 7.0//1011

9. What is an “inchino” — and why was it the cause of the Costa Concordia shipwreck? (see blog post “Bitterness, Tears and Scars on the Island of Giglio“)

a. A mixed drink with Gin and Chinotto that Captain Schettino was drinking the might of the shipwreck

b. A Moldavian dance that was being performed on the ship that Captain Schettino left the bridge to go watch

c. An instrument that measures the depth of the sea that broke on the ship

d. An illegal manoeuvre used by some ship captains of nearing a shore and making a bow to the land

10. In October 2013 a ship sank off the Coast of Italy leaving hundreds of dead.  What island were those people trying to reach and why? (see blog post Into the Deep Blue Cemetery)

a. Lampedusa, they were immigrants in search of a better life

b. Giglio, they were on vacation and tried to escape the ship when it caught fire

c. Sardinia, the boat began to skip and people tried to escape to safety


11. In 2003-2004 Michelangelo’s famous statue of David was restored prompting controversy and fighting among Italy’s best restorer’s — what was the fight about?

a. concern that the David should fall apart under restoration

b. fighting over which methods would be least intrusive — cleaning versus dusting

c. the costs of the restoration

d. fighting about whether or not tourists could continue to visit the David during the restoration process

12. What company paid millions of dollars for the restoration of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling completed in the early 1990s?

a. Tods

b. Fendi

c. Apple

d. Nippon TV

13. What Vatican restoration project is taking years and requires the restoration of 140 statues and 284 columns? (see blog post “Restoring Greatness“)

a. St. Peter’s Basilica

b. Bernini’s Colonnade

c. The Vatican Gardens

d. Castel Gandolfo


14. If you have to interview a Cardinal do you call him Eminence or Excellence and should you kiss his hand when you meet him?

a. Call him Eminence and kiss his hand

b. Call him Excellence and do not kiss his hand

c. Neither one.  Call him “Cardinal” and shake his hand

15. Who are the “gentiluomini” (see blog post: “Cocktails, Spike Heels and Skullduggery“)

a.  Men chosen from the European nobility to serve the Pope for a lifetime

b.  Vatican diplomats sent to hotspots around the globe

c. Missionaries

16. Pope John Paul II is credited with sparking a major geo-political change — what was it?

a. Giving the Solidarity movement the moral support to take on the communist government in Poland

b. Bringing down the Soviet Union

c. Helping to End the Cold War

d. All of the above

17. How many trips outside Italy did Pope John Paul II take?

a. 55

b. 21

c. 104

d. 78

18. How many days of mourning are required for a Pope?

a. 9

b. 3

c. 100

d. 7

19. What is a Sede Vacante? (see Blog Post: “The Last Day of Pope Ben XVI“)

a. An empty chair

b. What the Vatican is called in the period after a papal death and the election of a new Pope.

c. A special stamp issued by the Vatican after a Papal death

20. How many US Presidents kneeled together and prayed before the body of Pope John Paul II

a. 4 (Obama, Bush Father, Bush Son, Clinton)

b. 1 (George W. Bush)

c. 3 (George Bush, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton)

d. 2 (Obama, Clinton)

22. Which Pope had solar panels put on the roof of the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican to lower the Vatican’s “carbon footprint”

a.  Pope Benedict XVI

b. Pope John Paul II

c.  Pope Francis

23. Why did Benedict XVI’s Butler lose his job? (see Blog post: “The Pope’s Butler Did It“)

a. He spilled red wine on the Pope

b. He stole money

c. He leaked secrets and documents to the press

d.  He was linked to a plot to kill the Pope

24. What is IOR and why is Moneyval a headache for it managers?

a. IOR is a charitable organization run by the Vatican and Moneyval is a group of Vatican accountants

b. IOR is the Vatican company that collects the money paid by tourists entering the Vatican and Moneyval is the Vatican bank machines

c.  IOR is the Vatican Bank and Moneyval is the EU organization that controls money-laundering and financing of terrorism

25. Who is the man who works for one Pope and lives with another? (see Blog Post: “The Vatican Heart-Throb“)

a. The Pope’s doctor

b. Mons. Georg Ganswein, The Prefect of the Papal Household and former Secretary of Benedict XVI

c. The Pope’s Butler Paolo Gabriele

d. The Pope’s Secretary Mons Alfred Xuereb

26. How many followers does the Pope have on his English twitter handle @Pontifex?

a. 3.87 million

b. 5 million

c. 1 billion

d. 500,000

27. Whose feet did Pope Francis wash on Holy Thursday during his first weeks as Pope? (see Blog Post: “Powerful Gestures“)

a. Priests’ feet

b. Feet of members of the Papal Household

c. Juvenile delinquents

d. Immigrants’ feet

28. Who wrote the Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium with the powerful quote:

“Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion…”

a. Pope Paul VI

b. Pope Benedict XVI

c. Pope John Paul II

d. Pope Francis

29. Where does Pope Francis live inside the Vatican? (see blog post: “The Revolutionary Pope”)

a. Santa Marta Residence

b. The Papal Apartment

c. The Sistine Chapel

d. The Apostolic Palace


30. Which Italian region hosted the American soap opera “The Bold and Beautiful” in 2012? (see blog post: “The Bold and the Beautiful Land in Italy“)

a. Tuscany

b. Piemonte

c. Puglia

d. Alto-Adige

31. Which American singer sang at Circus Maximus during Rome’s Gay Pride celebrations in 2012 and made some waves over at the Vatican with her comments in the “Defense of Love”? (see Blog Post: “From Pope Benedict to….

a. Madonna

b. Lady Gaga

c. Beyonce

d. Miley Cyrus

32. Which of these prominent Italian entertainers/athletes have been accused and/or convicted of evading taxes?

a. Pavarotti

b. Sophia Loren

c.  Designers Dolce and Gabbana

d. Valentino Rossi

e. All of the Above

33.  In What year did the Venice Film Festival begin. who was the leader in Italy at that time and what was the original purpose of the festival? (see Blog Post: “Gorgeous, Glamourous, Fascinating Venice.“)

a.  1943, Benito Mussolini, propaganda

b.  1972, Giulio Andreotti, to compete with Cannes Film Festival

c.  1987,  Amintore Fanfani, to please his wife

d. 1995, Silvio Berlusconi, to promote his own film company Medusa


34. Did the Judge join the jury to make the final verdict in the Amanda Knox trials?

a. Yes

b. No

35. What did Amanda Knox have in her bathroom in prison that you do not find in a women’s prison in the US?

a. A mirror

b. A Bidet

c. A hair-dryer

d. A hydro-massage

36. Where did seven-time Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti go on trial for Mafia association in 1998, how long did the trial last and was he convicted or acquitted?

a. Milan, 3 years, convicted

b. Perugia, 1 year, acquitted

c.  Rome, 10 years, convicted

d.  Palermo, 6.5 years, acquitted

37. What are the names of the three Mafia organizations operating in Italy?(see Blog Post: “The Catholic Church and the Mafia.”)

a. Gomorrah, The Mafia, Yakuzi

b. Camorra, Cosa Nostra, ‘Ndrangheta

c. Medellin, the Corporation, Khun Sa


38. Who is Mario Balotelli?(see Blog post: “Mario Balotelli Forever“)

a. An Italian olympic runner

b. A prominent Italian priest who has lead the fight against the Mafia by teaching sports to children in areas dominated by the Mafia

c. An Italian politician

d. An Italian football star

39. Who was the famous Formula One race car driver who died in an accident on 1994 in Imola, Italy.

a. Michael Schumacher

b. Ayrton Senna

c. Valentino Rossi

d. Lewis Hamilton

40.  In what year–if any– of the past 20 has Italy won the World Cup?

a. 2002

b. 1998

c. 2006

d None




3. C. ITALY 943//US 535














17. C. 104








26. A. 3.87 MILLION








34. A. YES

35.  B. A BIDET





40. C. 2006

Related posts:

President Obama in Rome

President Obama steps past the Swiss Guards as he enters the Vatican. March 27, 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

President Obama steps past the Swiss Guards as he enters the Vatican. March 27, 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Dear Blog Readers –

I was sitting at on the grass at the park yesterday in Rome, enjoying a gorgeous spring afternoon between the small white daisies popping up around me and the giant Roman pines looming overhead.

Daisies and Roman Pines in Villa Glori, Rome. March 30, 2014. Photo by Chiara Piga

Daisies and Roman Pines in Villa Glori, Rome. March 30, 2014. Photo by Chiara Piga

My daughter was playing nearby with our dog and I was flipping through some magazines when I decided to pick up my iPhone and see if I had any emails. (Dumb).

There was a very short email from my mother saying “Hi Trisha,  I’ve been looking for Mozzarella Mamma’s comments on the Obama visit….” Ah, yes, Obama was in Rome last Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and I still haven’t written about it.  I tossed the phone back in my purse, lay down on the grass and was smitten with Blog Guilt– a terrible feeling that only fellow bloggers can relate to.

So here I am on Monday morning shoving aside my long to-do list to dedicate myself to a post on Obama in Rome.  It was quite an experience.  Obviously it is too late for me to give anyone any news, since anyone who might have been interested has already read all about it, however, I will give my usual behind-the-scenes Mozzarella Mamma view.

Obama came on a whirlwind visit to Rome after stop in the Hague where he met with NATO allies for a Nuclear Security Summit, but the meetings were over-shadowed by the Russian annexation of the Crimea.  From the Netherlands, Obama travelled to Brussels where he again discussed the situation in the Ukraine with G-7 leaders.

During his visit to Rome, I was asked to appear on five different Italian TV shows and two radio shows in and around my coverage for AP television.  I am not obliged to do this, but I thoroughly enjoy explaining American traditions and politics to the Italian public.

So the night of his arrival I found myself in the studio of RAI News 24, watching live as the massive Air Force One arrived.  Despite a light rain, a slender and fit looking Obama jogged down the stairs and greeted the officials waiting on the red carpet.  I was able to provide a little commentary on how Obama is quite athletic, plays basketball regularly and always runs up and down the stairs of Air Force One.  This is not typical for US Presidents. One president in particular was regularly tripping and falling down the stairs of Air Force One and that was President Gerald Ford (for a laugh check out this link on President Ford Trips).

There was enormous interest in reports in the Italian press that a few days prior to Obama’s visit a C-130 cargo plane had brought in loads of food for the President’s visit.  The President was staying at the fabulous Villa Taverna, home to the US ambassador in Rome  (see my blog post “Cocktails, Spike Heels, and Skullduggery“).  Italians were shocked that the US President would have had food brought in for him when obviously Italian food is the best in the world.  I assured the viewers that Americans and the Obamas love Italian food and that it was unlikely that Obama’s food would have been brought to Italy for him.  However, a US government official informed me the next day that there is strict checks on what Obama eats and the preparation of his food when he is traveling abroad is controlled.  When I mentioned this to Italians they said, “So, he has a taster just like the Roman Emperors?”

I have to admit that watching Obama’s visit here made me feel a bit as though I was observing a powerful emperor.  The massive security, the circles of advisors and flacks surrounding him.  To me he seemed terribly isolated from the real world.

As Obama’s convoy left the airport, there were a total of 26 vehicles and 8 motorcycles.  There was a huge interest in Italy — the land of tiny Fiats and Smart Cars — in the enormous vehicle used by the US President known as “The Beast.”

Quoting from David Remnick’s New Yorker article on Obama “Going the Distance” — “Obama’s Limousine, a Cadillac said to weigh as much as fifteen thousand pounds, is known as the Beast. It is armored with ceramic, titanium, aluminum, and steel to withstand bomb blasts, and it is sealed in case of  biochemical attack. The doors are as heavy as those on a Boeing 757. The tires are gigantic “run-flats”, reinforced with kevlar.  A supply of blood matching the President’s type is kept in the trunk”

The version of the “Beast” used in Italy was not a Cadillac, it was an SUV.  I know in the past when George W. Bush visited Rome, the Cadillac “Beast” had difficulty getting around corners and smaller streets in the city. When the TV cameras zoomed in on the license plate on “The Beast” Italians were intrigued to see that “The Beast” had a license plate from Washington D.C. that said, “Taxation without Representation” on it.

“Taxation without Representation” license plates I had to explain is a protest in Washington that people living in the nation’s capital have to pay taxes without having the full representation in government that the States have because Washington is a separate city not within a state.

There are two identical Air Force One planes and two identical “beasts” in Obama’s motorcade to confuse any potential attackers. Italians were intrigued by the black vehicle with odd antennas in the convoy that is known as the “jammer” that blocks any potential bomb attacks by scrambling phone lines.

The big event of Obama’s visit to Rome was his Thursday morning meeting with Pope Francis. Only a few journalists and photographers were allowed into the Cortile San Damaso inside the Vatican to film the arrival of Obama.  Among them was my AP photographer colleague Alessandra Tarantino who generously gave me her extra photos after she filed for AP.   AP wire’s Vaticanista Nicole Winfield was among the few journalists allowed briefly to watch the arrival of President Obama in the Papal library and hear (above the frantic clicks of the cameras) the first words they exchanged.  I was among the TV people left covering the arrival of the convoy in St. Peter’s Square and then getting the images of the meeting from Vatican Television.

While I was waiting outside for Obama’s convoy, I met Miriam Duignan wearing a big violet button on her pink jacket saying “Ordain Women.”  “Now that’s one thing these two men definitely will not be talking about,” I thought wistfully.

Miriam Duignan of Women Can Be Priests waiting on Via Della Conciliazione for Obama's motorcade to pass. March 27, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Miriam Duignan of Women Can Be Priests waiting on Via Della Conciliazione for Obama’s motorcade to pass. March 27, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

When he stepped out of “The Beast” in the Cortile San Damaso, Obama was greeted by Monsignor Georg Ganswein, Prefect of the Papal Household (see Blog Post Padre Georg-The Vatican Heart-Throb), and then went down the long line of “Gentiluomini” — the noblemen chosen to serve the Pope for live (a group that Pope Francis has said he will eliminate.)  He then made his way amidst the gentleman and the Swiss Guards down the long corridors of the Apostolic Palace and into the Papal Library where Francis was waiting for him.

“It is a great honor, I am a great admirer” Obama told the Pope as he shook his hand and unleashed his super-smile.  The Pope looked slightly less enthusiastic.

The two men met for 52 minutes — longer than the half-hour expected and addressed a broad range of subjects.   Obama later said in a press conference which I covered that the focus was on international issues with Ukraine, Syria, the Middle East, Africa being discussed.  They also addressed human trafficking, religious freedom and immigration.

President Obama greets Mons. Georg Ganswein, Prefect of the Papal Household on his arrival at the Vatican. March 27, 2014. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma.

President Obama greets Mons. Georg Ganswein, Prefect of the Papal Household on his arrival at the Vatican. March 27, 2014. Photo by AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma.

A brief Vatican statement released to reporters later that was not widely enthusiastic about the meeting, simply noting:

“During the cordial meetings, views were exchanged on some current international themes and it was hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved.

In the context of bilateral relations and cooperation between Church and State, there was a discussion on questions of particular relevance for the Church in that country, such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection, as well as the issue of immigration reform. Finally, the common commitment to the eradication of trafficking of human persons in the world was stated.”

The use of the words “conscientious objection” was referring to the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act.  The US Bishops had pushed hard to have the Pope raise this issue with Obama.

President Obama greeting the Papal Gentlemen on his arrival at the Vatican. March 27, 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

President Obama greeting the Papal Gentlemen on his arrival at the Vatican. March 27, 2014. Photo by AP Photographer Alessandra Tarantino for Mozzarella Mamma

Following the private meeting in the Pope’s library the two leaders exchanged gifts. Obama gave the Pope a box of seeds from the White House vegetable garden to be planted at Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence.  Castel Gandolfo, a half hour from Rome has a small farm which provides some fruit and vegetables for the Papal table.  Michelle Obama’s White House vegetable garden is famous.

President Obama with Pope Francis at Vatican. March 27, 2014. Freeze Frame of Vatican TV video

President Obama with Pope Francis at Vatican. March 27, 2014. Freeze Frame of Vatican TV video

The Pope then gave Obama a copy of his first Apostolic Exhortation “Gaudium Evangelii” – “The Joy of the Gospel”.  The Apostolic Exhortation is a no holds barred attack by the Pope on the global economic system.  In it he writes, “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience.”

“Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion…”

Obama told the Pope “I actually will probably read this when I’m in the Oval office, when I am deeply frustrated, and I am sure it will give me strength and calm me down.”

Pope Francis and President Obama shake hands at the end of their meeting at the Vatican. March 27, 2014.  Freeze Frame of Vatican TV footage.

Pope Francis and President Obama shake hands at the end of their meeting at the Vatican. March 27, 2014. Freeze Frame of Vatican TV footage.

When Obama left the Vatican he headed straight for the Quirinale Palace, once the home of the King of Italy, but now the home and office of the President of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano.  The 88-year-old Napolitano is an old friend of the president and someone Obama admires immensely.  Before Obama arrived the US Ambassador told the Italian press that the president sees Napolitano as a “rock of stability and integrity.”  That makes sense.  Since Obama came to office there have been four prime ministers in Italy — Silvio Berlusconi, Mario Monti, Enrico Letta and Matteo Renzi.  While the domestic politics in Italy sometimes seem enormously confusing to Americans, Napolitano has provided the US was a sense of continuity and solidity.

The two men tackled a whole series of questions regarding world affairs and then lunched on sea bass with plum tomatoes and olives. While Obama was lunching with Napolitano, Italy’s 39-year-old Prime Minister (and the press corps along with him) were cooling our heels at Rome’s Villa Madama waiting for the US President to arrive for a meeting followed by a press conference.  He came an hour late.

"The Beast" parked at Villa Madama in Rome while President Obama was meeting with Prime Minister Renzi. March 27, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

“The Beast” parked at Villa Madama in Rome while President Obama was meeting with Prime Minister Renzi. March 27, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

The 39-year-old Renzi became Prime Minister of Italy on February 22 when he ousted his fellow Democratic Party member, former Prime Minister Enrico Letta becoming the youngest Prime Minister in the history of Italy.  Renzi has promised to turn around Italy’s flailing economy and tackle the problem of widespread unemployment.  Overall unemployment is near 13% while youth unemployment is currently fluctuating around 40%. He is attempting to reform the Italian electoral system and has proposed to dramatically reduce the power of the Italian Senate.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi meets with President Barack Obama at Villa Madama, Rome. March 27, 2014. Freeze Frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi meets with President Barack Obama at Villa Madama, Rome. March 27, 2014. Freeze Frame of video shot by AP Television Cameraman Luigi Navarra

When Obama briefly met Renzi in Brussels before coming to Rome he joked about his own grey hair and noted that Renzi would end up gray too if he continued in politics.  When Obama finally did arrive he did seem like the older politician walking calmly beside the younger, enthusiastic Renzi.  During the joint press conference Renzi–a former boy scout– seemed about to burst his buttons as he told Obama he and his generation of Italian politicians have been inspired by Obama’s “Yes we can!” philosophy.  Obama smiled warmly at him, but from my position in the packed press room it looked like Obama was treating him a bit like a sweet, younger brother who has along way to go.

The hundreds of journalists packed into the press conference at Villa Madama had been waiting hours and we were eager to hear what Obama had to say.  I was impressed at his ability to tackle a wide range of subjects – the Ukraine, the IMF, the European economy, US Healthcare, and his meetings with the various leaders with ease.

He repeatedly came back to his meeting with the Pope saying, “The great honor of meeting His Holiness Pope Francis, and like people around the world, I have been incredibly moved by his compassion, his message of inclusion.  I was grateful to have the opportunity to speak with him about the responsibilities that we all share to care for the least of leasts, the poor. ”

When the press conference finally ended, I climbed off the photographers ladder that I had been standing on at the back of the room so I could see, and began frantically editing and writing with my colleagues.  Obama and his entourage rushed off for the President’s private tour of Rome Coliseum.

Italian commentators were somewhat surprised to hear that Obama commented “It is bigger than a baseball stadium.”  I think they were hoping for something more historic or intellectual.  But I suppose Americans care more about baseball than history.

Following his visit to the Coliseum, Obama returned to the ambassador’s residence where he had dinner.  The Italian media was convinced that he would slip out to an Italian restaurant for dinner and tv reporters were doing liveshots from different restaurants around the city waiting for Obama to show up.  But he did not.

I ended thinking it must be hard for Obama to live in this security bubble — driving around in “The Beast” – delivering his super-smile to people eager to shake his hand and have a photo taken with him, but he could never just lie down in the grass on a nice spring day in Rome and enjoy the daisies and the Roman pines.

NOTE: A huge thank you for AP photographer Alessandra Tarantino who generously gave me her marvelous extra photos after she filed for AP.

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March 23, 2014

The Catholic Church and the Mafia

Pope Francis arrives for a meeting with relatives of innocent mafia victims, in Rome's St. Gregorio VII church, just outside the Vatican, Friday, March 21, 2014. AP Photographer  Andrew Medichini for Mozzarella Mamma

Pope Francis arrives for a meeting with relatives of mafia victims, in Rome’s St. Gregorio VII church, just outside the Vatican, Friday, March 21, 2014. AP Photographer Andrew Medichini for Mozzarella Mamma

The relationship between the Catholic Church and the Mafia is so convoluted, fraught with stereo-types, and misperceptions that it is hard to figure out what is the truth.  Films like “The Godfather” reinforce the image of a Catholic Church that has provided collaboration and support for the Mafia, Mafia bosses who baptize their children in church, attend Mass, wear crosses and pray to the Madonna, their acts of violence intertwined with acts of faith.  This image would be offensive to families of heroic priests assassinated by the Mafia, but there is an element of truth to it.

Mafia Boss Michael Corleone makes his confession to a Cardinal in "The Godfather- Part III"  Credit: "The Godfather- Part III

Mafia Boss Michael Corleone makes his confession to a Cardinal in “The Godfather- Part III” Credit: “The Godfather- Part III

On Friday, Pope Francis met at a church in Rome with nearly 1000 relatives of victims of the various Italian Mafia groups — the Sicilian Cosa Nostra, the Naples’ area Camorra Mafia and the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta Mafia. For 40 minutes during the encounter the Pope sat and listened as the names of 842 people massacred by the Mafia were read out loud.  The Pope then had some powerful words of his own directed at members of the Mafia. He said, “The life that you are living now will not give you pleasure or joy.  The power and money you have now from dirty business, and from mafia crimes, is blood-stained money, it is blood-stained power, and you won’t be able to take it to the after world. Repent. There’s still time to not end up in Hell, which is what awaits you if you continue on this path.” Powerful stuff.   In 1993, Pope John Paul II also delivered an impassioned call for members of the Mafia to convert on a visit to Agrigento, Sicily.  From the pulpit he intoned:  “I say this to those responsible- Convert!!  One day the judgment of God will arrive.” Friday’s meeting with Pope Francis was organized by an Italian non-profit organization called Libera run by a priest named Don Luigi Ciotti.  Ciotti began the group in 1995 to get more civilians involved in the fight against the Mafia.  Libera (check out their website) gets properties  confiscated by the government from the Mafia and turns them into profitable enterprises.  Mafia land is used to grow tomatoes, eggplants, chickpeas, wheat and grapes, to produce tomato sauce, pasta, wine and other food items; the villas of Mafia bosses are turned into stores to sell the products.  Earnings from the sales of these products goes to help victims of Mafia violence. Libera runs summer camps allowing young people to work on these properties, teaching them about the fight against the Mafia. In 2010, I went to Corleone in Sicily (yes, there really is a Corleone) to cover the inauguration of a new store for Libera products in a home once belonging to Mafia boss Bernardo Provenzano,  now serving a life sentence in a high-security prison.  In Corleone I had the opportunity to interview Don Ciotti and was impressed by his simplicity, sincerity, humility and determination. (Unfortunately back then I didn’t have a blog so I don’t have as detailed a recounting of my trip and reporting).

Don Luigi Ciotti places a stole belonging to assassinated priest Don Peppino Diana around the neck of Pope Francis. March 21, 2014. AP photographer Andrew Medichini for Mozzarella Mamma

Don Luigi Ciotti places a stole belonging to assassinated priest Don Peppino Diana around the neck of Pope Francis. March 21, 2014. AP photographer Andrew Medichini for Mozzarella Mamma

For the prayer vigil on Friday Don Ciotti placed around the Pope’s neck the stole worn by Don Peppino Diana, a priest from Casal Del Principe, near Naples, who, on March 19, 1994, was peppered with bullets by Camorra hit men as he prepared for Mass in his church.  Don Peppino Diana was famous for his phrase, “for the love of my people I will not remain silent.”  His fight against the Camorra was detailed in Italian author Roberto Saviano’s brilliant book “Gomorrah, Italy’s Other Mafia.”  What I find particularly fascinating is the way Saviano describes how the Camorra felt they needed to remove Don Peppino Diana because he questioned their use of the Catholic church and its traditions to serve their goals.

A crowd gathers around the coffin of Don Peppino Diana at his funeral in March 1994. Credit: Don Peppino Diana Fan Page

A crowd gathers around the coffin of Don Peppino Diana at his funeral in March 1994. Credit: Don Peppino Diana Fan Page

Let me quote Saviano: “Don Peppino started to question the bosses’ religious beliefs, to deny explicitly that there could be any harmony between the Christian creed and the business, political and military power of the clans.  In the land of the Camorra, the Christian message is not considered contradictory to Camorra activities: if the clan acts for the good of all its affiliates, the organization is seen as respecting and pursing the Christian good. The killing of enemies and traitors is seen as a necessary, legitimate transgression; by the bosses’ reasoning, the command “Thou Shalt Not Kill” inscribed on Moses’ tablets may be suspended if the homicide occurs for a higher motive, namely the safeguarding of the clan, the interests of its managers, or the good of the group, and therefore of everyone. Killing is a sin that Christ will understand and forgive in the name of necessity.” “Religion is a constant point of reference for the Camorra, not merely as a propitiatory gesture of a cultural relic, but a spiritual force that determines the most intimate decisions. Camorra families, especially the most charismatic bosses, often consider their own actions as Calvary, their own conscience bearing the pain and weight of sin for the well-being of the group and men they rule.”

Italian author Roberto Saviano. Credit: www.palazzotenta39.it

Italian author Roberto Saviano. Credit: www.palazzotenta39.it

“When Vincenzo Lubrano (a Camorra boss) was acquitted, he organized a pilgrimage –several busloads of faithful– to San Giovanni Rotondo to give thanks to Padre Pio, who, he believed, was responsible for his absolution.  Life-size statues of Padre Pio and terracotta or bronze copies of the open-armed Christ on Pao de Acucar in Rio de Janeiro can be found in the villa of many a Camorra boss.  In the drug-warehouse laboratories in Scampia, bricks of hashish are often cut thirty-three at a time–like Christ’s age.  Then they halt work for thirty-three minutes, make the sign of the cross, and start up again.  A way to propitiate Christ and receive earnings and tranquility.  The same happens with packets of cocaine, often before they are distributed to pushers, the neighborhood capo blesses them with holy water from Lourdes in the hopes that they don’t kill anyone, especially because he would have to answer personally for the poor quality of the stuff.” “Camorra power does not involve only the flesh, nor does it merely own everyone’s life.  It also lays claim to souls. Don Peppino wanted to bring some clarity to words, meanings and values.”  from “Gomorrah: Italy’s Other Mafia” by Roberto Saviano.  Note: Saviano now lives under police protection because of the death threats he has received from the Camorra. These images of the Camorra, described so well by Saviano, match “The Godfather” film’s scenes showing Mafia boss Michael Corleone baptizing his child, or confessing to a priest.  Again, acts of violence intertwined with acts of faith. Just as at the bottom level where the workers are preparing the 33 packets of hashish, the Catholic church has allegedly also been used at the top level to launder Mafia money.  According to Maria Antoinetta Calabro’ in her book “Le Mani Della Mafia”  (The Hands of the Mafia), for decades the  Sicilian Mafia and its American counterparts used the Vatican bank, known as IOR (Institute for Religious Works) to launder its money.

The Cover of "Le Mani Della Mafia" (The Hands of the Mafia) by Maria Antoinetta Calabro'

The Cover of “Le Mani Della Mafia” (The Hands of the Mafia) by Maria Antoinetta Calabro’

Her book begins with her investigation into the death of Roberto Calvi, a banker known as “God’s Banker” for his close ties to the Vatican bank – found handing under the Blackfriar’s Bridge in London in 1982, and moves through the investigations leading from that death to the conclusion that the Corleone Clan of the Sicilian Mafia was laundering its money through the Vatican bank. Her book is so detailed, flush with legal documents, citations from prosecutors and investigators that it impossible for me to find a quote that sums it up simply for this post. In 2011, the Vatican bank, under Benedict XVI began the process of joining Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s organization that monitors money laundering and terrorist financing.  The bank has closed down suspicious accounts and in July 2012 passed its first “transparency” test for Moneyval.  Under Pope Francis, it is assumed, that the clean-up of the Vatican bank will be completed. Last fall anti-Mafia prosecutor, Nicola Gratteri, from the Calabria region in Southern Italy said that Pope Francis’ reforms of the church were making the ‘Ndrangheta Mafia “nervous,” Gratteri made these comments in an interview with an Italian newspaper in which he said that the Pope was “breaking down the center of economic power in the Vatican.” “Those who have been nourished by the power and wealth that is directly derived from the church are nervous and agitated,” Gratteri told the paper adding, that he was not aware about a specific plan to target the Pope “but certainly they’re thinking about it. He could be a threat.” Gratteri made those comments at the time he was releasing a new book,  ”Holy Water”, written with Italian journalist Nicola Nicaso.  The two recounted the practices of the powerful ‘Ndrangheta Mafia based in Calabria, the toe of the boot of Italy.  According to the authors, many of the local priests and bishops over the years have accepted the presence and the influence of the ‘Ndrangheta and few have had the courage to stand up to organized crime.  The authors noted the ‘Ndrangheta copies Catholic liturgical tradition in their initiation ceremonies, and use religious holidays and Catholic symbols to reinforce their power.

Tens of thousands of people take part in demonstration in memory of those killed by the Mafia. March 22, 2014. Credit: Libera

Tens of thousands of people take part in demonstration in memory of those killed by the Mafia. March 22, 2014. Credit: Libera

Following the meeting with the Pope on Friday,  Don Luigi Ciotti of Libera and the relatives of the nearly 900 victims of the Mafia took part in a demonstration with tens of thousands of people demanding justice and truth for those killed by the Mafia.  On the words of Pope Francis, Ciotti said, “They were very clear, decisive, and determined.  With these words we can see an historic cultural passage, a clear cut between the mafia and the Church.”  But he also added “We have to go beyond our barriers and Pope Francis has indicated the way.  For example, the fight against the mafia cannot be a rhetorical exercise.”

Pope Francis took the hand of Don Luigi Ciotti as he arrived at the Rome Church St. Gregorio VII, just outside the Vatican Friday, March 21. Photo by AP photographer Andrew Medichini

Pope Francis took the hand of Don Luigi Ciotti as he arrived at the Rome Church St. Gregorio VII, just outside the Vatican Friday, March 21. Photo by AP photographer Andrew Medichini

NOTE: A big thank you to my AP photographer colleague Andrew Medichini who gave me some of his excellent leftover photos after he filed for AP.

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One Year Following Pope Francis

Pope Francis gets off the bus in Arricia, Italy for spiritual exercises for Lent. March 2014 Credit: Greg Burke

Pope Francis gets off the bus in Arricia, Italy for spiritual exercises for Lent. March 2014 Credit: Greg Burke

Today — one year after he was elected Pope — Pope Francis is on a spiritual retreat with bishops and cardinals.  Showing his usual simplicity he took the bus and sat in the middle of the pack.

One year ago on March 13, 2013, I stood with AP Television cameraman Paolo Lucariello near the obelisk in the center of St. Peter’s Square on a rainy, cold night, with tens of thousands of people huddled under their umbrellas waiting anxiously to see who would step out on the loggia on St. Peter’s Basilica as the new Pope.   I was freezing cold and I couldn’t tweet because my phone had stopped working due to all the cell phone traffic.  Not being able to tweet at a moment like that can be really frustrating for a modern-day journalist.

Pope Francis utters his first words on balcony above St. Peter's Square, "Brothers and Sisters, Good evening". Freeze Frame of Video shot by Vatican TV. March 13, 2013

Pope Francis utters his first words on balcony above St. Peter’s Square, “Brothers and Sisters, Good evening”. Freeze Frame of Video shot by Vatican TV. March 13, 2013

Then the red velvet curtains parted, and out he came, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Cardinal from Buenos Aires, Argentina.  The crowd roared its approval, but many were not sure what to expect.  Then he pronounced his first words “Fratelli e Sorelle, Buonasera” — “Brothers and Sisters, Good Evening” and the love affair between the new Pope and the public began.

He told the crowd that he had come from the “end of the earth” and then bowed his head and asked the people to pray for him.  Silence descended on the packed square.

I was stunned.  We had been scouring our papal contenders lists, preparing video and biographies for weeks, and I had dismissed the Cardinal of Buenos Aires at age 76 as being too old.  I assumed that after Benedict felt that he did not have the strength to do the job, the Cardinals would look for a strong, young, forceful Cardinal to clean up the mess at the Vatican.  Turns out they chose someone forceful, strong and determined but not young, and although he appears in full of energy and in great health he does have only one lung.

See my blog post: “A Bird’s Eye View of the Election of Pope Francis

From the first moment when he bent down before the crowd, it was clear that there would be change under Pope Francis.  The next few weeks left Vatican-watchers aghast.  Pope Francis refused to move into the Papal apartments, preferring the simplicity of his room at the Santa Marta residence inside the Vatican.   He chose to keep his simple black shoes and iron cross. Benedict XVI used red shoes and a gold cross.

His weekly audiences quickly became lively events with thousands of people gathering in the square and the Pope stopping to kiss every baby and greet every person with a handicap.  He often stops to trade his “papalina” white skull-cap with someone from the crowd offering him a new one.

People from Argentina often hand him a gourd with a straw with a traditional Argentinian drink called Mate inside.  Without hesitating the Pope often takes several sips.  His security guards seem to have given up on trying to stop him.

See blog post: “Francesco Frenzy

Just a few weeks following his installation, he broke with tradition celebrating the annual foot-washing mass before Easter by going to a juvenile detention center in Rome and washing the feet of young men and women of different races and religions some with tattoos on their feet.

See blog post: “Powerful Gestures

His first trip outside the Vatican was not to visit a Catholic group or church, it was to the tiny island of Lampedusa where tens of thousands of immigrants arrive from north Africa every year seeking a better future in Europe.  Over the years thousands have died in the crossing.  The Pope chose to meet these immigrants from Eritrea and Somalia, many with little understanding of the Catholic Church.  I interviewed a few of the immigrants the day before the Pope arrived and they were not even clear about who the Pope was.  Nevertheless, he made his way down the pier greeting them.

See my Post “Goosebumps in Lampedusa

The Pope began to assert his influence on world affairs.  In September 2013, when the US government was contemplating a military strike on Syria, Pope Francis called for a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria.  In the evening, tens of thousands of people gathered in St. Peter’s Square as the Pope led a five hour prayer service in which he said, “violence and war only lead to death”

In October he made his first pilgrimage as Pope to the home of his namesake, Saint Francis.  There he spoke harshly about the necessity for the church to “strip itself of its worldliness, that leads to vanity, pride and idolatry,” and urged Catholics to imitate the humility and simplicity of Francis of Assisi.  For lunch the Pope chose to eat with a group of homeless people.

I watched the Pope throughout the day in Assisi as he moved from tough words about worldliness to joking with young couples about throwing plates at each other if necessary but making peace by the end of the day.  It was the first time I noticed his ability to combine his own personal simplicity, clarity and humor to deliver his message to the public.

See blog post: “A Day in Assisi Covering Pope Francis.”

In an early interview with a Jesuit magazine Pope Francis said the Catholic church “must be like a field hospital after battle, healing the wounds of its faithful and going out to find those who have been hurt, excluded or fallen away.”  He added, “you have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else.”

See blog post: “The Revolutionary Pope

On his first trip abroad — to World Youth Day in Brazil, the Pope told reporters “Who am I to judge?” when asked about homosexuality.  He changed the schedule originally organized for Pope Benedict XVI and added a visit to the slums.

Much has been expected from Pope Francis in terms of addressing some of the thorny social issues facing the church.  Will Francis change the church’s position on communion for divorced Catholics, contraception and the role of women in the church?  Francis has passed the ball to the Cardinals and Bishops organizing a Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican in October 2014 where they will tackle these complicated questions.

One of the biggest problems facing Pope Francis has been the question of corruption in the Vatican governing body, the Curia and at the Vatican bank.  Francis immediately set up a couple of commissions and what has become known as the G8 — a group of 8 Cardinals that would oversee the cleaning up of the church.

According to Marco Politi, author of several books on the Vatican, “in this first year the Pope has done a lot of work just in cleaning the financial affairs of the Holy See and this was also one of the points of the agenda of his constituency during the Conclave. The Cardinals asked to bring transparency in the Vatican Bank.”  They are still working on that one.

Politi added that Francis is making a lot of enemies although for the moment they have mostly remained silent with just a few websites and newspapers writing critical articles., “Pope Francis has begun a revolution,” said Politi, and like every revolution there are groups who are opposed to the reformers. This is only the tip of the iceberg of opposition and resistance.”

When Pope Benedict XVI stunned the world with his resignation in February 2013, he promised he would remain “hidden from the world.”  He is now living a life of prayer in a small monastery inside the Vatican, (see Blog Post: “The Last Day of Pope Ben XVI“) but recently he appeared at a Consistory to name new Cardinals in St. Peter’s Basilica, and in an interview with an Italian paper Pope Francis that that Benedict was not a “statue” .  It looks like Benedict will be increasingly present at Vatican events in the future.

In his first year this Pope has become wildly popular with the faithful flocking to the Vatican.  He has earned the nickname “the people’s Pope” and “the Pope of the Poor”.  He was named Time Magazine’s Man-of-the-Year for 2013.

I was a week ahead of Time naming him my man of the year.  See Blog Post: “Pope Francis MM’s Person of the Year 2013.”

Maltese Monsignor Alfred Xuereb, the personal secretary for Pope Francis says the 77-year-old Pope always moves like he is in hurry – “has not wasted a minute! He works tirelessly and, when he feels the need to take a moment’s pause, he closes his eyes and does nothing: he simply sits and prays the Rosary” Xuereb told Vatican radio this week.

Francis has had a busy first year, but the next months look even busier.  In May he has a planned trip to the Middle East and this week the Vatican announced that he will go to South Korea in August.  Then in October he will preside over the Synod of Bishops on the family at the Vatican. I hope to cover it all for AP Television and blog about it.

A final huge THANKS  to my fellow blogger Tiffany Parks of Pines of Rome who wrote a delightful paragraph about me in her blog post “Twelve Months a Pope.”  I have had a hellish week with one of my children in the hospital– where I am writing this post from– and having someone even suggest that I am a “big-time journalist” boosts my spirits.  I particularly liked the part about my cooking “red velvet cupcakes” and “sewing carnival costumes”.  Love ya Tiffany!!


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March 8, 2014

Happy International Women’s Day

A mimosa flower.  In Italy women are given mimosa flowers on March 8th, International Women's Day

A mimosa flower. In Italy women are given mimosa flowers on March 8th, International Women’s Day

Dear Blog Readers,

Today is March 8th, International Women’s Day, and I have been inspired by this article “Five of Italy’s Most Influential Women” from www.ItalyMagazine.com to do a blog post reminding you of some of the interesting Italian women — past and present– who I have written about in this blog, and some of the issues facing women in Italy that I have touched on over the past two years.  My choices of the women to write about were completely random. So here goes….

In my blog post “Artemisia Gentileschi: My Italian Heroine” I wrote about Italy’s greatest female baroque artist.

In “Like Water off a Duck’s Wings” I wrote about Rita Levi Montalcini, a nobel-prize winning Italian scientist.

in “The Italian Tiger Mamma” I wrote about Ilda Boccassini, an Italian public prosecutor who has taken on the Mafia and Berlusconi with equal grit and determination.

Another determined Italian woman I’ve written about is the first black Italian Minister, Cecile Kyenge.  See blog post “Call Me Black” and “Courageous Cecile

Slipping back into history, I wrote about the beheaded Roman beauty Beatrice Cenci, in the blog post “Spooked and Inspired by Beatrice

For those interested in art, I wrote about Raphael’s great love and passion for “La Fornarina” (the little baker-girl) in “Love and Passion in Rome.”

I also have written about some Italian women who are doing interesting work.  In my post “Alessia – Breaking Barriers in a Man’s World” I wrote about Vatican photographer Alessia Giuliani.

In “The Marvelous Works of Rossana Petrillo,” I wrote about an Italian artist who uses traditional damask cloth to produce gorgeous paintings.

Over the course of the past few years that I’ve been doing this blog, I’ve also looked at some of the down sides of life for women in Italy.  In one particularly difficult blog post to write, I addressed the issue of “Femicide in Italy

Other posts “Not the Dolce Vita” and “Desperate Housewives in Italy” looked at some of the cultural challenges facing Italian women, particularly mothers.

There are plenty more women in Italy that I would like to write about.  Some were mentioned in the article linked above, businesswomen like designer Miuccia Prada, anti-Mafia fighter Rita Borsellino and politicians like Italy’s out-going foreign minister Emma Bonino or current speaker of the lower house of parliament Laura Boldrini.

I am also open to suggestions.  If anyone can think of an Italian woman, past or present that they would like me to write about, let me know.

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Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Changing Colors of Italy

Jagjit from Punjab at his vegetable stand at the Piazza Vittorio market. February 8, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Jagjit from Punjab at his vegetable stand at the Piazza Vittorio market. February 8, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Jagjit with his bushy white moustache and large green turban cheerfully organizes a pile of lettuce on his vegetable stand at the sprawling Piazza Vittorio marketplace in Rome as he explains to me that he came to Italy from Punjab state in India 20 years ago. Not far from Jagjit, Diana from Ecuador is selling specialty foods from South America while chatting with customers in Italian and Spanish.  She tells me she has been in Italy for 11 years.

Diane from Ecuador selling products from South America at stand at Piazza Vittorio market in Rome. February 3, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Diane from Ecuador selling products from South America at stand at Piazza Vittorio market in Rome. February 3, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

I stop by a butcher stand where I meet a Chinese man named Lino who says he comes from a place near Shanghai but has been in Italy 22 years.   Helping him out is a young man from Bangladesh who says “call me Filippo”.  He has only been in Italy for five months.

Filippo from Bangladesh working at a butcher stand at Piazza Vittorio market in Rome. February 3, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Filippo from Bangladesh working at a butcher stand at Piazza Vittorio market in Rome. February 3, 2014. Photo by Trisha Thomas

In the 1980s, Tuscan photographer Oliviero Toscani impressed the world with his striking photos for the Italian clothing company Benetton showing people of all ages, races and colors under the banner “the United Colors of Benetton”.  The multi-culturalism represented in those ads did not represent the Italian population at that time, which was predominantly white and Catholic.  Now the colors of Italy are changing dramatically.

Benetton Advertisement

Benetton Advertisement

Italy has one of the slowest growing populations in the world.  According to ISTAT, Italy’s National Statistic Agency,  the birth-rate in Italy was 1.42 children per woman in 2012.  Breaking that down between Italian women and foreigners they found that Italian women had on average 1.29 children and foreigners 2.37.   In addition, the average age of the foreign women having children was 28 and the average age for the Italian women was 32.  So the foreign women start having children at a younger age and have more.  Thanks to the foreigners in Italy, the population continues to grow. These statistics reinforce what is obvious to me every day.  It is rare to meet an Italian woman who has a child in her 20s.  Most of the women I know are delaying children, giving up altogether on the idea or deciding to have just one.  It is more common to see foreign women pregnant in Italy than Italians. As a result of the low birth-rate and the high life expectancy, Italy has a steadily growing elderly population.

For the past 15 years, Italy has been struggling with a stagnant economy, with unemployment floating around 12-percent and youth unemployment floating around 40-percent.  Young Italians are flocking abroad for jobs elsewhere in the world.  According to ISTAT 68,000 Italians left Italy in 2012, up 36-percent from 2011.  Among these 25-percent had university degrees.  Italians regularly bemoan what they fear is a national brain drain as their best minds seek work and study options outside of Italy. Yet every year roughly 200,000 immigrants arrive in Italy.   In 2011 the total was 351,000. I was curious about why the immigrants continue to come to Italy when it doesn’t exactly seem like the land of opportunity.

I was lucky to find Gianluca Luciano who in 2000 started a website www.stranieriinitalia.it to help immigrants and foreigners living in Italy. Stranieiri In Italia (translated ‘Foreigners in Italy) is now a publishing company that features 11 websites and newspapers in as many languages with 1.5 million readers per month.

Luciano has a charming way of “telling it like it is” combined with an ability to roll off numbers and statistics that I could barely get my brain around fast enough before he moved on to the next one. He explained to me that roughly 200,000 immigrants arrive in Italy every year, 65 percent of whom  are clandestine — but, he said, that does not matter really because in Italy roughly every four to five years they have an amnesty so illegal immigrants can obtain legal documents. Luciano explained that the majority of immigrants work in manufacturing, elderly care, domestic work as baby-sitters and house-cleaners, or in agriculture, cultivating tomatoes, apples and oranges.

According to Luciano, “Italians do not want to do these jobs because they are tiring and are not paid well,” adding that he discussed this matter with an official for an agricultural workers’ Union representing workers gathering apples and tomatoes.  The Union official told Luciano that for Italians that kind of job is not “socially prestigious enough.”  Italians feel “ashamed” to go work in the fields (with the exception of cultivating grapes for wine).  In sharp contrast, according to Luciano, the immigrants have an incredible energy, a desire to work and get things done, “as we Italians did back in the 1950s,”  adding that “In Italy ‘la dolce vita’ has become an alibi for not working.

I asked Luciano to explain to me how it is possible with 40 percent youth unemployment that people can afford to worry about what is “socially prestigious.”  I explained to him that as an American I was raised being told that even if I had to clean toilets, collect garbage and sweep floors, if that was my job, I should do it with my head held high.  Work is work.  He laughed and told me that he is married to an American so he knows well the mentality, but it is not the same in Italy, “Italy is a provincial country.  People would prefer to remain at home than do certain types of work.  The family will not let go of you.  In this country fathers take care of their children.  Sons grow up to be little princes and daughters grow up to be little princesses.  The academic studies are paid for, and parents pay for the first home for a newlywed couple.   This is our welfare system.”

So, given that Italian population growth is nearly at zero, given that the population is rapidly aging, you would think Italians would be thrilled with the influx of foreigners from other countries, having babies, doing the dirty work and paying for their pensions.  Given the reaction to Italy’s first black Minister, Cecile Kyenge, this does not seem to be the case.  Kyenge was met with racist attacks and threats.  (See Blog Posts: Call Me Black, Racial Slurs and Death Threats in Italy and Courageous Cecile), even Italy’s star football (soccer) player Mario Balotelli has had to fight racism throughout his career.  (see Blog Posts: Balotelli’s Mamma and Mario Balotelli Forever).

Luciano suggested to me that Italy is simply not used to being a multi-ethnic society, “racism is not taboo here,” he said.  Still, he believes the majority of Italians do not support the hateful, racist behavior of Italy’s Northern League party, the problem is the country is not set up for integration. Unlike the United States the national anthem is not learned by all young people.  Football stars struggle to mouth the words at the start of games as the TV cameras pan across their faces.  In school classrooms, there is much more likely to be a cross on the wall than an Italian flag.  Italians find national pride in their football and their food, but not in much else.

Luciano told me he thinks that Italy needs to work on the concept of identity, teaching people what it means to Italian and he thinks this needs to be done in schools. I got some interesting statistics on the schools in Italy from Marco Rossi-Doria, former Undersecretary at the Ministry of Education.  In the academic year 2012/2013 there were 786,360 foreign students in Italian schools, 8,8% of the total number of students.  Forty-two percent were children born in Italy to foreigners.  In the academic year 1996/1997 there were 60,000 foreign students in Italian schools.

The foreign students are from 200 different nationalities, the greatest number from Romania. (Note: Unlike in the United States, in Italy children born to foreigners are not given citizenship automatically, a legal concept known as “Ius Soli”.  In Italy a child born to foreigners living in Italy can request citizenship at age 18.  The former Minister of Integration Cecile Kyenge has been fighting to change that in Italy and has met with fierce opposition.  Her position has been removed under the new government of Italian PM Matteo Renzi).

Isa from Cuba at her position behind the cash register at the coffee bar at Piazza Flaminio, Rome. Photo by Trisha Thomas February 2014

Isa from Cuba at her position behind the cash register at the coffee bar at Piazza Flaminio, Rome. Photo by Trisha Thomas, February 2014

Forty-two-year-old Isa from Cuba makes me laugh every day when my daughter and I stop by her coffee shop after work and school.  She has been in Italy since 1998.  Her 24-year-old son also works at the coffee shop. From her position behind the cash register, Isa makes friends with the rest of the world handing back change, handing out advice and making life in Italy seem like a lot of fun.  Italy desperately needs Isa, Jagjit, Diana, Lino and Filippo, but I don’t know how long it will take before Italians realize it.

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February 23, 2014

A Whirlwind Week in Rome and at the Vatican

Pope Francis greets Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI in historic moment at Consistory Mass in St. Peter's Basilica. February 22, 2014. Credit: Osservatore Romano

Pope Francis greets Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI in historic moment at Consistory Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. February 22, 2014. Credit: Osservatore Romano

It has been a whirlwind week in Rome and at the Vatican.  On one side of the Tiber River a Prime Minister was abruptly shoved out off office and another one stepped in,  Italy now has its youngest Prime Minister ever, 39 year-old Matteo Renzi.  Renzi’s cabinet is also strikingly young and of the total of 16 ministers, eight are women, a first in Italy.

On the other side of the Tiber two Popes attended a Mass together for the first time in history, Pope Francis created 19 new Cardinals and the College of Cardinals began tackling some major social questions.  Whew.  My head is spinning.

I will start with the Vatican.  Pope Benedict XVI stepped down one year ago leaving the Vatican on February 28, 2013 and promising to remain “hidden from the world” and that he would give his “unconditional reverence and obedience” to the future Pope.

See Blog posts: The Pope Resigns, Goodbye Pope Benedict XVI and The Last Days of Pope Benedict 16

Pope Benedict has been living in a monastery inside the Vatican and has more or less remained “hidden from the world”, but yesterday he emerged from a side door in Saint Peter’s Basilica, dressed in white and sat with the Cardinals.

Pope Francis greeted him warmly at both the beginning and the end of the service.  As Pope Francis approached, Benedict bowed slightly and removed his white skull-cap. Francis’ clear warmth and respect towards Benedict appears to me to be a sign of his total self-confidence.  Someone more insecure might be less enthusiastic about his predecessor taking part in such an important event.  Likewise, I think it is an indication of Benedict’s genuine sincerity and humility that Francis doesn’t need to worry about the Pope Emeritus plotting to undermine his power.

The historic event was Pope Francis’ first consistory during which he created 19 new “princes of the church” raising them from Bishops to Cardinals.  I spoke to Robert Mickens, the Vatican correspondent for the Catholic newspaper “The Tablet” earlier this week and he said Pope Francis’ choices were indicative of his desire to reach out to the periphery, to the margins.  He chose six cardinals from Latin America, two from Asia and two from Africa.  We spent the week running around after these Cardinals-to-be.  It was hard not to be charmed by Chibly Langlois, the handsome 55-year-old from Haiti, the first ever Cardinal from the poorest country in the world.  I briefly spoke to the future Cardinal from the remote island of Mindanao in the Philippines, Orlando Quevedo and was stuck by his simplicity and humility.  There is also an interesting new Cardinal from Seoul, South Korea, Andrew Yeom Soo-Jung whose great grand-parents were executed during anti-Catholic persecutions on the Korean Peninsula.

Gammarelli, one of the shops in Rome that makes clothing for Popes, Cardinals, Bishops and Priests. Photo by Trisha Thomas

Gammarelli, one of the shops in Rome that makes clothing for Popes, Cardinals, Bishops and Priests. Photo by Trisha Thomas

There was far too much going on at the Vatican this week to adequately discuss in a blog post.  Let me just say that for two days — on Thursday and Friday– the Cardinals met to discuss some troublesome questions facing the church in preparation for a summit on the family to be held at the Vatican in October.

The meeting follows Francis’ decision to do a worldwide survey of Catholics on questions related to church teaching on marriage, sex and issues such as birth control and communion for divorced Catholics.  The results in Europe and the US have been clear,  according to John Thavis, Vatican analyst and author of “The Vatican Diaries,” “it is interesting, these surveys have shown in fact that many Catholics are not following church teaching, especially when it comes to things like birth control.  It is almost so obvious that no one has to say it, and yet very few times has that been said here at the Vatican”

However, it is not clear that the results have been similar in Asia and Africa.  Orlando Quevedo, the Cardinal-elect from the Philippines told me they are not seeking change on these social issues but would like to see a more “pastoral approach” towards church teaching.

In addition to the meetings on the thorny social questions, Pope Francis’ team of Cardinals known as the C8, who are advising him on cleaning up the Vatican bureaucracy were in Rome this week hearing from the commission studying the Vatican Bank and rumors were flying all week that there will be some major changes there, although nothing was announced.

Earlier in the week I interviewed Italian journalist Maria Antoinetta Calabro’ whose book “Le Mani Della Mafia” (The Hands of the Mafia) recounts in incredible detail the relationship between the Mafia and the Vatican bank over the course of decades.  She told me that Pope Francis has to do something about the Vatican Bank.  That is something that is at the top of his agenda.

Once again, during his Mass with the new Cardinals yesterday, the Pope showed his intention in changing the atmosphere at the Vatican, he told them, “a Cardinal enters the Church of Rome, not a royal court.  May all of us avoid, and help others to avoid, habits and ways of acting typical of a court: intrigue, gossip, cliques, favoritism and preferences.”

The Vatican Seen Past the Tiber River, Rome, Italy Credit: www.tourist-destinations.com

The Vatican Seen Past the Tiber River, Rome, Italy
Credit: www.tourist-destinations.com

Now a quick jump over to the other side of the Tiber….

On February 13th — in what was more or less an intra-party coup, the mayor of Florence and Secretary of the Democratic Party Matteo Renzi led his party in a vote against their own party’s Prime Minister Enrico Letta.  Without his own party’s support Letta was forced to submit his resignation.

Yesterday Matteo Renzi was sworn in as Italy’s youngest ever Prime Minister.  His cabinet is made up of a surprisingly small 16 people, eight of them women, a first in Italian history.

New Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi speaks to reporters at Rome's Quirinale Palace, February 21, 2014

New Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi speaks to reporters at Rome’s Quirinale Palace, February 21, 2014

Renzi is a political dynamo, full of energy and determination, but his experience is limited to Mayor of Florence.  His greatest strength at the moment appears to be his ability to communicate.  He is telegenic, with his boyish good looks and quick one-liners, he is winning and convincing on TV.  He is a frequent and effective tweeter — inventing catchy hash-tags for his followers to re-tweet.

Italians are hoping that his incredible self-confidence and decisiveness might be the key to resolving Italy’s enormous problems.  The country has 12.7 percent unemployment and youth unemployment is floating around 40-percent.  The economy is stagnating and so is the political system which desperately needs electoral reform.  Renzi will have to face Silvio Berlusconi’s party in opposition in parliament and the divisive Five-Star Movement lead by explosive populist leader Beppe Grillo, head of the Five-Star Movement.

Renzi has not arrived in the Prime Minister’s office through national elections and his first test will be how his party does in the European Elections in May.  He also has little international experience and it will be interesting to see how he handles the Italian turn at the EU presidency from July 1st to December 31st of this year.

Despite his lack of experience, it appears to me that Italians are eager to pin their hopes on the youthful, enthusiastic Renzi.

His first test comes tomorrow with a confidence vote in parliament.

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February 10, 2014

Take Two Hartney: The World’s Best Camerawoman

Camerawoman Jane Hartney with soundman Dominique Nadal on the Kuwait-Iraq border after Gulf War I in 1992.

Camerawoman Jane Hartney with soundman Dominique Nadal on the Kuwait-Iraq border after Gulf War I in 1992.

Jane Hartney has finally put down her camera.  The world’s best camerawoman in her typical laconic style put it simply in an interview with me, “I feel like I am done with this chapter of my life.”

Interviewing the best camerawoman in the world, a woman who has covered wars in the Middle East, Africa and Asia and has filmed interviews with the likes of Nelson Mandela, Hillary Clinton, and Bashar al-Assad, is difficult.  First it took me a while to convince her (I promised lunch) and then as soon as we met she announced to me, “I am a listener.  I like to listen.”  I had to convince her for once she would have to talk.

Jane spent 35 years working as a camerawoman, 30 for ABC News. For 20 years ABC News had its office across the hall from AP Television in Rome, I would see her daily and I had no clue about her glorious achievements.  We would often have a quick espresso or cappuccino together but Jane was never one to talk about herself.  Sometimes I would see her with loads of boxes of equipment trying to get it all in the creaky, old Roman elevator in our building.  “Where are you going Jane?” I would ask.  She would mumble some exotic place like “Tehran.”  Always being nosy I would insist, “to do what?” and she would respond, almost grudgingly, something along the lines of  “Oh, an interview with President Ahmadinejad, but keep that to yourself.”

Jane Hartney was born into an Irish Catholic family in Buffalo, New York.  She was one of nine children.  Her first attraction to cameras came in high school when she took a photography course.  She explained to me, “When you have a camera, you start to look at things in a different way.” Once out of college she got a job as a photographer for WNED, the public television in Buffalo.  Her job was to take photos for publicity, but she ended up working closely with a cameraman in the film department who was shooting stories on 16 millimeter film.  Jane helped him out with the sound and he taught her how to use the camera.

Jane was eventually hired as a camerawoman for WNED and when the first video cameras appeared she learned to use one.   “It was an RCATK76,” she explained to me,   “they were monsters.  There was a separate deck with the tape.”  After nine years with WNED, at age 30, Jane picked up and left for Rome, Italy.

I have been working in the TV business for 25 years and I have seen very few camerawomen.  Only now that cameras are getting lighter are more women taking the job.  I asked Jane how it was being a woman in a field dominated by men and what she thought were the advantages and disadvantages for her.  ”I don’t recall ever feeling intimidated in any way about being a woman in this field, but I looked around and there weren’t any others.  I think I was as strong as anybody out there and I was faster than a lot of them. Of course I’ve had my back aches and my shoulder aches, but who hasn’t?  I’m fast.  I’ve always been fast.  I can run.  I like the competition.  That was part of the fun. ”

There was only one moment in her long career during which Jane felt perhaps she was not being given a chance because she was a woman and that was when she arrived in Rome.  According to Jane,   “In Rome it was just the big time network news, no local television, and people didn’t believe I was a cameraperson.  The first six months were very discouraging. ”

Jane’s luck changed when ABC offered her a chance to work for them as a camerawoman in Beirut, “they must have been desperate,” Jane said.  There was a brutal civil war underway and the airport in Beirut was closed so Jane arrived on her first assignment in a war zone on a boat from Cyprus.  She moved into the Commodore Hotel — the center for journalists during the civil war.  (American writer P.J. O’Rourke wrote a brilliant, hilarious piece for “Rolling Stone” magazine on the scene at the Commodore Hotel in Beirut in that period.  Jane said she met P.J. O’Rourke there at the bar and when he told her he was working for “Vanity Fair” she just assumed he was a spy.)  The city, divided by the Green Line, was home to Shiites, Christians, Druze, and there were so many players in the war — Syria, Israel, the PLO, Hizbollah, that is it hard to keep it all straight.

Bombings, shellings, gunfights, kidnappings and assassinations were daily fare in Beirut in that period, but Jane was not afraid.  She loved it.   She adored her Shiite driver, a man named Kassem Dergham.  “He was my protector, he always got me to a story and then he got me out of it,” Jane explained to me, ” The first thing he would do would be to park the car ready for our escape.  These are important things when you are in a dicey situation.”

Camerawoman Jane Hartney covering civil war in Lebanon with soundman Milo Honein.  Note: Her loyal driver Kassem Derghan behind them probably looking for escape routes.

Camerawoman Jane Hartney covering civil war in Lebanon with soundman Milo Honein. Note: Her loyal driver Kassem Derghan behind them probably looking for escape routes.

I asked Jane if there was ever a moment where she felt particularly proud and she told me the story of going to the top  of a building in Beirut and filming an area where there was some tension.  While her camera was rolling she captured a massive bomb explosion.  “It was like a nuclear bomb and I was rolling.  It was nice.” Jane said smiling as only a cameraperson can at such a moment.  “That night in the Commodore Hotel dining room ABC correspondent Dick Threlkeld stood up and in front of the gathered press corps congratulated me on the great job I had done.”  Jane shrugged, “I was just in the right place at the right time.”

This response is typical of Jane — no tooting or tweeting her own horn.   It is impossible to get her to brag about her accomplishments.

While in Beirut she covered one of the most harrowing stories of her life. On October 23, 1983, Jane was thrown out of her bed at the Commodore hotel by a massive explosion.  It was the double truck bomb blasts at the US Marine and French military compounds in Beirut.  As Jane was putting on her pants, her driver Kassem was knocking at her door.   As she described it, “We were the first people out of the hotel, we flew.  When we got there, there was black smoke everywhere, you could barely see where you were going.  The bodies were all over the place.”

When asked if in situations such as the Marine barracks bombing she ever became emotional, got shaky, couldn’t take it, Jane responded, “You have a job to do, I always have to tell the story, you stay focused on the task at hand.”  I came back to the subject of fear several times with Jane and have become convinced that she is truly an unusually courageous individual.

Camerawoman Jane Hartney filming in Kurdistan in 1992 with her soundman Diego Grimaldi.

Camerawoman Jane Hartney filming in Kurdistan in 1992 with her soundman Diego Grimaldi.

Jane has got such a long list of wars she has covered that it is impossible to talk to her about them all. She covered the first Gulf War and the second Gulf War, and has been to Afghanistan so many times she can’t remember.  She says the first time was when it was occupied by the Soviet Union.  She says the Soviets organized a “dog and pony show for reporters based in Moscow” and she was filling in as cameraperson so got to go along.  She went back another time with Diane Sawyer and again with George Stephanopoulos after the US invasion.  Jane won an award for her work with an ABC Team on the “Blood Diamonds” story around the civil war in Sierra Leone. Together with an ABC Team, she won the Robert  F. Kennedy Journalism award for reporting on human rights and social justice  for their reports in Sudan.

Again, I asked Jane to think if there was at least one time in all these war zones where she felt frightened, that she thought it might be the end.  She recalled one. “It was in the Democratic Republic of the Congo near the border with Rwanda.  There were refugees pouring across the border and I was working on a story with Sheila Macvicar when we came under fire. I remember putting my face in the dirt.  The bullets were very close to us.  Eventually some people came from behind to get us and told us to run back 200 meters.  We jumped up and ran that distance and then jumped into a ditch.”

In the late 1980s Jane moved to Rome, the city that would remain her base for the rest of the career.  From Rome, Jane covered the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of Soviet Domination of eastern Europe.  She travelled to Hungary and Czechoslovakia.  “It was a good story, very visual, people were living in their cars,” she explained, “a real people story, and at the same time a geo-political story.  I saw communism disappearing with my own eyes.”

In the 1990s Jane was thrown into the war in the former Yugoslavia.  She spent a lot of time in besieged Sarajevo where she said she had some “scary moments”, noting that it could be a bit unnerving driving down the famed sniper alley from the airport to the Holiday Inn, where all the journalists stayed, and from the TV station to the Holiday Inn.  As she explained, “Sarajevo was a tragic, tragic situation.  These people were under siege, they were living in a bowl.  They were on the low ground and were surrounded by Serbian snipers on the high ground. ”

While in Sarajevo Jane worked with a number of different correspondents, but she says one of her favourites was ABC Correspondent Jim Wooten who she described as one of the “best story-tellers” she has ever worked with.  I was lucky to find a story that Jim Wooten told about her in an article called “The Cameraman”:

Once, in Bosnia, just outside Gradacac, the two of us were ankle-deep in mud in a frontline trench, literally within shouting (and shooting) distance of Serbs whose weapons were pointed in our direction. We were taping what’s known in the business as an on-camera, that moment in the story when the correspondent appears on the screen, continuing the narration face to face with the viewer. It had been a relatively quiet morning with only a bit of small-arms fire now and then. Suddenly, in the middle of my spiel, all hell broke loose: heavy machine guns, mortars, artillery, all laid on in the direction and vicinity of the Bosnian soldiers with whom we were sharing the long trench. It frightened me, jolted me, left me utterly speechless. Yet, quite calmly, in between explosions, without taking cover or her eye from the viewfinder, Hartney said, “Take two.” Inspired or humbled by her equanimity, not to mention the urge to get out of there in a hurry, I managed the second effort just fine, or maybe it was the third. That evening, screening the videotape she had shot that day, I noticed that when the shelling had begun and all through its duration, Jane’s perfectly focused camera had wavered not one millimeter. Not a shudder, not the tiniest reaction.”

Camerawoman Jane Hartney shoulders her camera and tripod as she chats with Cardinal Szoka at the Vatican in 2003.

Camerawoman Jane Hartney shoulders her camera and tripod as she chats with Cardinal Szoka at the Vatican in 2003.

When she wasn’t dodging bullets in the former Yugoslavia, Jane was back in Rome covering the Vatican and the end of the life of Pope John Paul II.  She travelled with him around the globe from Cuba to the Holy Land. She watched his health deteriorate and covered his death and funeral.  As Jane explained about  John Paul II, “I watched him.  I looked at him through a long lens.  I looked at his expression and I saw him deteriorate.  I kept looking for something.  Waiting and looking. With TV you can never feel like ‘ok, I got that shot and now I am done.’ You keep looking. ”

Camerawoman Jane Hartney filming George Stephanopoulos in St. Petersburg.

Camerawoman Jane Hartney filming George Stephanopoulos in St. Petersburg in 2010.

In addition to conflict zones, Jane gained a reputation at ABC for flawlessly shooting big interviews. Her list of big name interviews made my head spin.  Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, King Hussein of Jordan, President Ahmadinejad of Iran, Hafez al-Assad of Syria and twice his son Bashar al-Assad….and the list goes on.


Freeze Frame of ABC Interview with Nelson Mandela shot by Jane Hartney. February 1990.

Freeze Frame of ABC Interview with Nelson Mandela shot by Jane Hartney. February 1990.

Perhaps one of the most memorable interviews was with Nelson Mandela on February 15, 1990, shortly after he had left prison after 27 years of incarceration.  Jane was in South Africa with Ted Koppel and they managed to get the interview.  I found this interview on YouTube and noticed that it was shot outdoors at night with sounds of children laughing and playing in the background.   Jane told me they had been waiting for a long time hoping they would get the interview,  they were outdoors and people were celebrating.  The lighting on the interview is perfect and the sound is too.  Koppel is excellent and Mandela is phenomenal.  And that is Jane’s genius, no distracting light, sound or focus issues, just a brilliant interview.  No one noticed Jane, but without her talent, it would have failed.  I asked her about the interview and all she said was, “Nelson Mandela was a gracious, nice man.  We need more of them.”

Jane Hartney - camera to her eye - filming from a sidecar in Shanghai as Diane Sawyer rides along behind.

Jane Hartney – camera to her eye – filming from a sidecar in Shanghai as Diane Sawyer rides along behind.

I asked Jane if it ever bothered her that she was often working with people like Diane Sawyer, Ted Koppel and Barbara Walters who were getting a multi-million dollar salary while she was earning much less.  She said, “No, it never bothered me.  I did not want to be the star. I am good at being a fly on the wall.  Be there but not be there.  Sort of invisible but you are always there. You want to be invisible.”

Freeze frame of December 2011 interview by Barbara Walters with Bashar al-Assad shot by Jane Hartney.

Freeze frame of December 2011 interview by Barbara Walters with Bashar al-Assad shot by Jane Hartney.

Since she wasn’t doing it for the money I asked Jane what drove her to do her job.

“It was demanding and challenging and extremely rewarding. At the end of the day I was telling stories that need to be told and if I knew I had a cassette and the story was there, I felt good.”

Camerawoman Jane Hartney on a sleigh shooting a story on the Sami reindeer herders in Finland for Good Morning America in 2009.

Camerawoman Jane Hartney on a sleigh shooting a story on the Sami reindeer herders in Finland for Good Morning America in 2009.

This is what anchorwoman Diane Sawyer had to say about Jane, “Jane is simply one of the world’s greatest war buddies, journalists, and co-conspirators on getting the story, ever. She is also an incredible video artist, video athlete, friend, and colleague.”

Jane worked with some of the world’s most famous TV journalists but her greatest physical and emotional attachment was to her soundmen, “I loved all my soundmen, every single one of them.  They are another pair of eyes.  They are looking out for you and you are connected by an umbilical cord.  You share a lot of stuff.”

I asked Jane if in her long career she ever ditched her camera when she was in a dangerous situation. The answer was simple, “No, never.  It was an extension of me, it was my eye.”

Camerawoman Jane Hartney filming the Costa Concordia Shipwreck on the island of Giglio. 2012

Camerawoman Jane Hartney filming the Costa Concordia Shipwreck on the island of Giglio. 2012




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February 3, 2014

Wobbly Arms, Flabby Thighs, and Blog Awards

Italy Blogger Awards Logo. Credit: www.italymagazine.com

Italy Blogger Awards Logo. Credit: www.italymagazine.com

Last Saturday I was walking home from my Zumba Class — which is my weekly opportunity to let off steam (see Frazzled Mamma Note at the end of Blog Post: Mudslinging at the Vatican).  As I shuffled my sweaty self along, I was deep into a massive personal pity party.  The problem with my Zumba class is that I am one of the two old geezers in the class.  The other one is a man.  So all the others are toned young women.  There are mirrors on three sides of the room and as much as I try to avoid it, I can’t help noticing that wobbling flesh as I flap my arms around, the flabby thighs and rear that jiggle as I flounce around trying to keep up with the lesson. On top of that, the very flexible teacher, gyrating Jairo Ugarte, is always criticizing me for not moving my hips right and having my shoulders raised in a tense way.  He doesn’t have three teenagers, so he doesn’t get it.

It didn’t help that in the last lesson when we got to the stretching, warm down at the end (which in Italian is called “allungamento” — to elongate), the guy my age turned to me and said, “I don’t need to do “allungamento” because I am already long.”  And I was idiot enough to turn to him and say, “what do you mean, did you already do “allungamento”? — so he repeated it loud enough for everyone to hear (and for me to understand that he was taking about his allegedly long weenie) and I was obliged to respond loudly, “We are all going to pretend we didn’t hear that!” And, get this dear blog readers, the guy’s name is Benito.  Only in Italy!!

Perhaps I am being a bit over sensitive about everything these days because last month I turned 50.  Oh yeah, I guess I forgot to mention that fact in other posts.   FLOTUS just turned 50 too, so I am not alone on this one.  I am a big fan of FLOTUS. (See Blog Post: Mom-in-Chief). FLOTUS, if you are not familiar with the term, is the wife of the President of the United States (POTUS).  FLOTUS is the acronym for First Lady of the United States.  So FLOTUS (Michelle Obama) turned 50 too, but she doesn’t have flabby arms (she reportedly gets up at 5am every morning to work out at the gym in the White House — I can’t do that, no gym in my basement, and I have to walk the dog.)  She also has long beautiful fingers — no veiny spotted hands for Michelle, but she gets a lot of help with the White House vegetable garden, and I bet she isn’t washing the dishes every night.

So FLOTUS tweeted a photo of herself holding her new AARP card when she turned 50.  For those of you who are not familiar with that acronym it is the American Association for Retired Persons.  You can join when you turn 50 (retired or not).

Freeze Frame of Tweet by Michelle Obama showing her new AARP card on her 50th Birthday.

Freeze Frame of Tweet by Michelle Obama showing her new AARP card on her 50th Birthday.

In his recent article in “The New Yorker,” “Going The Distance: On and off the Road with Barack Obama” David Remnick wrote: “Andrew Wylie, a leading literary agent, said he thought that publishers would pay between seventeen and twenty million dollars for the book (Obama’s Memoirs) – the most ever for a work of non-fiction–and around twelve million for Michelle Obama’s memoirs. (The First Lady has already started work on hers.)”

Before her birthday Michelle took a week to hang out at Oprah Winfrey’s farm in Hawaii (perhaps she took a few notes for her memoir while relaxing) and then headed on back to the White House for a party where Beyonce and Stevie Wonder sang, and people danced.  So let’s add this all up: FLOTUS has got long, muscular arms and elegant hands.  On top of all that, she’s already at work on Memoirs that will bring in 12 million.  I’ve got wobbly arms and veiny hands and my dear old Mozzarella Mamma manuscript will probably never even be read by a publisher.  Oh, woe is me, woe is me.

So there I was in the middle of a massive personal pity-party and I arrived home from Zumba and began to check my email.  I had one from Adri Barr Crocetti of www.adribarrcrocetti.com (check out her blog, she writes and cooks like a dream).  Adri informed me that I have been shortlisted for Italy Magazine’s Best Overall Blog for Lover’s of Italy.  Suddenly I was dancing all over the living room, my hips gyrating in a way that would have made Jairo proud.

I don’t know who of you out there nominated me, but whoever you are, when you come to Rome, give me a shout and I am going to cook you dinner.  Actually, scratch that, if you read my blog regularly you are aware that I am a disastrous cook.  Instead, I will treat you to my favourite restaurant in Rome — Piazza Caprera Ristorante.  It is a fabulous fish restaurant in a hidden away Roman piazza that has a fountain with dancing women. The atmosphere is relaxing and the service is great but most of all the food is the best.  I am not sure many foodies have written about it, but they should.  The owner is so sweet (she told me she personally goes to the seaside and chooses the fish every morning), and I’ve been there so many times that she often gives me a beautiful ceramic dish from southern Italy when I leave.  So whoever nominated me, I hope you like fish. (By the way, since this is Italy, everyone will suspect me of bribes.  This is not a bribe, only the person who already nominated me gets the free dinner.  But if you vote for me you’ll get my eternal appreciation)

And that brings me to the point, the voting closes on February 8th, and the winner will be announced on February 10th.  So, if you enjoy reading my blog and want to vote for me, here’s your chance.  Click on the box below and if all works as planned, the website should pop up with the list of the five finalists and all you need to do is click on the black stripe under the photo of my blog’s home page.


Thank you Thank you and I will let you know how it goes.

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