As an undergraduate, Jeffrey Gettleman ’94, East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times, had no idea what to do with his life.
When a professor recommended journalism, Gettleman refused. “That was the dumbest idea I had heard,” he said, remembering his reaction to the advice. “Who wants to work for a boring newspaper?”
Returning to Cornell on Monday, Gettleman spoke about his experience working for The Times. As a reporter, he seeks out untold stories in order to defy stereotypes about Africa and uphold accountability, he said.
“By illuminating a problem and getting people to care about it,” Gettleman hopes his stories will lead to positive change, he said.
More than 60 students attended Monday’s event, held at Goldwin Smith’s Lewis Auditorium and hosted by Munschauer Career Series at Cornell. The biannual event sponsors a prominent alumnus to address students on possible career options.
Gettleman described his journalistic experiences in East Africa, one of the most war-torn, impoverished regions of the world.
For one interview with Ethiopian rebels, Gettleman and his wife, Courtenay Morris ’94, spent 12 days walking through the desert — covering 200 miles in two weeks. He recalled the rebels’ deprivation and malnutrition.
“I cover the poorest part of the world, but I had never seen people so close to death,” he said.
Gettleman and Morris — a former videographer for The Times — braved harsh conditions while chasing an important story.
“All of a sudden, these guys emerged from the bush with huge afros, torn pants and bearing AK-47s,” he said. Gettleman said he soon realized that they were ragtag rebels fighting the Ethiopian army.
Although, Gettleman said, oftentimes in Africa it was “not clear where the line between rebel and criminal is,” these rebels appeared to have legitimate grievances.
When Gettleman and Morris sought the government’s side of the story, they were kidnapped.
Marched into the desert at gunpoint, Gettleman, his wife and a photographer were held at a military base for several days. He was placed in solitary confinement and worried endlessly about his wife’s fate, he said.
Suddenly, the trio were transferred to a different military unit, where officials apologized for the reporters’ abduction, which was blamed on “confusion,” Gettleman said. “Please don’t write about us,” a high-ranking Ethipian military officer asked Gettleman.
Gettleman called the ordeal “a really gratifying experience — terrifying — but I was able to survive it. I believe in what I’m doing.”
He combined his stories of East Africa with recollections of his undergraduate experience at Cornell.
Gettleman listed some memorable activities he participated while on campus, including his fraternity membership, taking photographs for The Sun and playing lacrosse.
In the middle of his undergraduate education, Gettleman took a leave of absence that, he said, proved important to his life’s trajectory.
“I decided to backpack around the world for a year,” he said. “That helped me to start thinking of what next I wanted to do with my life.”
After college, Gettleman won a Marshall scholarship and received a Master of Philosophy degree from Oxford. “It was there that the idea of being a journalist congealed,” he said.
When he applied for a summer internship, Gettleman was struck at the difficult process of entering the profession.
“Journalism is very hierarchical. It’s an old-school profession where you have to pay your dues,” he said. Through his early work experiences, he learned “how to write on deadline” and “just suck it up.”
During the talk, Gettleman recounted one of his near-death experiences in Ramadi, a city near Baghdad.
A militia carrying Rocket Propelled Grenades had seized Gettleman, and “a guy had a gun to my head,” he said. “This was right before they started beheading people,” he said, referring to how some other journalists in the region died. Eventually, Gettleman and his entourage were freed.
In Afghanistan, Gettleman wrote about a child sex slave held hostage by the Afghan Northern Alliance, a militia composed of former mujahadeen fighters once battling the Soviets and at that time opposing the Taliban.
“They were the so-called ‘good guys,’” he said. Gettleman interviewed the boy, a 16-year-old who showed clear signs of abuse, including scars and burns on his arms.
Gettleman traveled to Pakistan in an attempt to contact the child’s parents.
“I went to Pakistan thinking, ‘I’m not going to find this kid’s parents,’” Gettleman said. “It was news to [the father] that he had been captured and was still alive.”
Gettleman’s story on the boy’s plight led many readers to email Gettleman asking what they could do.
“They ended up raising $10,000 and bought his freedom,” and the boy married and now has children, Gettleman said.
Gettleman said that being an objective journalist was difficult, especially when observing human rights abuses.
“You try to get both sides — that’s the best you can do. But you don’t want to be a robot either,” he said. “It’s something I struggle with.”