As media outlets turn increasingly to freelancers in order to cut costs, the risks for hired journalists become more evident. Australian Paul Raffaele is a case in point. Raffaele worked as a freelancer for Smithsonian magazine for more than three years, until April 2008, when he was injured on assignment in Afghanistan. While sitting in a vehicle parked inside a police base in a small Afghan town, Raffaele was grievously wounded by a suicide bomb attack that shot pieces of metal into his elbow, chest and brain, where they remain today. Twenty-two policemen were killed in the attack, carried out by a 12-year-old boy. An additional 32 were wounded. Now, disabled and unable to work as before, he wonders why Smithsonian magazine refuses to assist him. For the many freelancers out in the field, Raffaele’s plight offers a sobering, cautionary tale.
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When Smithsonian magazine editor-in-chief Carey Winfrey accepted the Australian Paul Raffaele’s first pitch in the summer of 2004, the freelance writer says he was honored to be writing for “such a prestigious magazine.” Smithsonian accepting the pitch ended a six-month hiatus for the previously successful freelancer. He started his reporting career in 1965, as a cadet reporter for Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Over the course of 12 years, he carried out assignments around the world for Reader’s Digest and authored a book, The Last Tribes on Earth, published in Australia in July 2003.
Raffaele’s type of assignment is what he calls “adventure with meaning.” In the hardcover jacket of Raffaele’s 2008 book Among the Cannibals, Alvin Toffler wrote, “Paul Raffaele is nothing less than a one-of-a-kind world treasure. Traveling via camel back and canoe, wrapping a Boa Constrictor around his neck, dancing with tribesmen, uncovering supposedly non-existent pockets of slavery – Raffaele brings back accurate, colorful stories from the remotest regions on earth. He reveals to us just how diverse human beings can be. His writing will not only grip readers but provide invaluable material for the historians of tomorrow.” Raffaele clarifies one mistake in the descriptions, saying, “Actually, it was an Anoconda, much more fierce than a boa and therefore much more fun.”
In a 2007 Washington Post profile of Raffaele, Winfrey called him a “throwback,” comparing him with 19th century British explorer-writers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke and the American writer Richard Halliburton. In the profile, the Post’s Peter Carlson said he “just might be the last of the great old-fashioned adventure writers.” Over the course of about four years freelancing for Smithsonian magazine, Raffaele traveled the world on assignments. The magazine’s website has a special section titled, “Touring the Globe with Journalist Paul Raffaele,” where his features (more than a dozen during his tenure) are archived. They convey his swashbuckling sensibility: Sleeping With Cannibals; The Pirate Hunters; and Great White Sharks off the coast of South Africa, among many others.
So, when Winfrey responded the day after Raffaele pitched a story on illegal wildlife hunting in the Central African Republic (published as “Stop the Carnage” in January 2005), Raffaele felt optimistic about the relationship. Before long, he was the most commonly used feature writer, contributing three or four features a year. Winfrey told Media Industry in February 2006 that he was “in awe of Paul’s creativity, intrepidness and writing.” He was soon writing exclusively for Smithsonian, though still considered a freelancer. The only other work he did during those three years, he says, was to research and write for books for Smithsonian Books. (Among the Cannibals, 2008 and Among the Great Apes, February 2010)
Then, in the spring of 2008, he pitched a story on poppy eradication in Afghanistan. To report the story, Raffaele initially applied to go on an opium field eradication mission in Helmand province, in southern Afghanistan, organized by the U.S. embassy in Kabul. He was to arrive in late April, but was informed that there wouldn’t be any missions at that time. Instead, the embassy suggested that he visit Nangarhar province, on Afghanistan’s eastern border with Pakistan, where Governor Gul Agha Sherzai was independently organizing opium eradication missions. Raffaele thought this was an interesting angle on his story and made arrangements.
On April 29, joined by photojournalist Stephen Dupont and traveling with an Afghan police convoy, Raffaele set out from Jalalabad. In a May 2008 episode of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation television show, “Foreign Correspondent,” Dupont says he thinks they were moving southeast, but that “we weren’t told where we were going.” Dupont, who first visited Afghanistan 15 years earlier and had returned more than a dozen times, also says that he had “a pretty good sense of security.”
About forty minutes into the ride, the convoy pulled up to the gate of a police base in a small town named Khogyani in a district by the same name. While the Afghans talked with some policemen from the base, Raffaele sat with Dupont in a car. Then a suicide bomber detonated his charge.
Raffaele described the event in an email:
“…I heard a loud metallic sound, a light flash and then the light dimmed to semi-darkness. I felt a very strong pain in my right elbow where I later learned a piece of shrapnel from the bomb entered…I felt a dripping at the back on my neck, put up a hand expecting to feel solid skull and only felt mush. It was where the shrapnel smashed into the brain.”
Dupont escaped with only minor injuries, blocked from the force of the blast by Raffaele’s body. According to Raffaele, soon after the bombing, an Afghan police officer jumped into the car and sped him to a hospital in Jalalabad. Due to the severity of his injuries, the U.S. military then transported him by medivac helicopter to the Bagram Air Base. He was immediately admitted into the intensive care unit, where he remained for four days as they treated his wounds. See video here.
Living with Brain injury; unable to work like before
Three pieces of shrapnel still rest in Raffaele’s brain, another piece in his right elbow, several pieces in his chest and right arm. In the immediate aftermath of the blast, he was prescribed Dilantin, an anticonvulsant often used to prevent seizures after neurosurgery. Raffaele took a daily dosage until December 2008, when his neurosurgeon in Australia finally felt comfortable weaning him off. But if he ever experiences a seizure, he will have to resume taking the medication for the remainder of his life.
The Dilantin put Raffaele in a fog. He calls it the “zombie pill.” His general practitioner in Australia, Dr. Colin Holliday, explained by email that symptoms include drowsiness, mental slowing, and tiredness. Plagued by mental fatigue, Raffaele’s ebullient personality was nowhere to be found. “My daughter said I was like a shell,” he explains.
In the first weeks after the bombing, Raffaele says his vision was a mess. He couldn’t see faces and “when looking at a street sign, I could see part of it,” he describes over the phone, “and then it would unfold like a scroll across my eyes.” As the swelling in his brain reduced, these initial, severe symptoms subsided and Raffaele hoped that he would make a full recovery. But by August, with other symptoms still lingering, it became clear that he would have permanent damage.
Today, he experiences continual ringing in his ears that often keeps him from sleeping at night, unsteadiness on his feet, and he suffers from hemianopia, a condition that cuts off about half of his field of vision in his left eye. He can no longer trek through rough environments, working 12-14 hours a day in the field, to write the adventure stories that were his calling card, and livelihood, for more than thirty years. Prior to the bombing, he says he felt he had ten years left in his career. He worked out regularly to stay fit for assignments, and had just weeks earlier completed a rigorous two-month assignment in Africa, mostly in the jungle. Colleague Ray Martin described him as “one of those unstoppable battery toys.” At 65, Raffaele says, “My age has nothing to do with the fact that I am no longer able to trek through rough environments. It has everything to do with the disabilities I suffered in the bomb attack.”
Raffaele is now pursuing legal action against Smithsonian magazine, who he believes should have provided compensation for his injuries. He and his lawyer, Anthony Elia, are arguing that Raffaele believed he had insurance because of conversations he claims to have had with Winfrey, which would have provided him with financial support. They are also arguing that providing personal accident insurance would be considered a “duty of care.”
Raffaele says he was “very careful.”
Although he admits that the Afghan poppy eradication story was far more dangerous than any other he’d reported, he took the same precautions he had always taken to ensure his safety. “Generally I was very careful,” he says. “I would check out a story before I went on it to make sure that I was not in a dangerous situation or that I was with someone who was a world expert so that I was fairly covered.”
Upon arriving in Afghanistan, Raffaele went to visit a friend of Stephen Dupont’s, a cameraman who had been living in Kabul for about fifteen years and owned a small hotel there. “I sat down with him and for an hour, questioned him on going to Jalalabad,” Raffaele explains. “I wouldn’t move an inch until I was assured by somebody who knew extremely well what this situation was like.”
According to Raffaele, the cameraman told him that the road leading to Jalalabad and the surrounding area was quite safe. The cameraman said that Governor Sherzai had the province under control.
Later in his stay, Raffaele was supposed to spend a week embedded with the U.S. Army in a combat zone during which he was required to wear protective gear. He borrowed a flak jacket and helmet from a “friendly correspondent in Kabul,” but felt confident, given his conversation with the cameraman, that he didn’t need to wear either while reporting near the poppy fields.
This assessment was given credence when Raffaele went on his first eradication mission about an hour’s drive east of Jalalabad. Raffaele recalls the mission including about 100 Afghan policemen and commandos in 22 SUVs, eight U.S. Special Forces in two SUVs, and other journalists (two international film crews, a Kabul-based Afghan cameraman from MSNBC and a crew from Al Jazeera). No one wore protective flak jackets or helmets. Raffaele says he approached the U.S. Special Forces leader to discuss the mission and asked about the need for wearing protective gear in passing. “He confirmed what I already knew,” Raffaele explains, “that the mission was not considered dangerous.”
A few days after this first eradication mission, Raffaele went to Kabul to meet Dupont, who had just arrived in Afghanistan. Because Raffaele had developed a rapport with Governor Sherzai, Dupont asked if the writer could arrange for them to go out on another mission so that he could take photographs. It was this second mission that took them to Khogyani.
According to Dr. Holliday, if Raffaele had worn his helmet, he probably would not have suffered such severe head injuries.
Twice before, Raffaele had been in danger while reporting for Smithsonian. In December 2005, after getting badly bitten by sand flies while reporting on bonobos in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Raffaele approached Winfrey about the magazine getting him accident insurance. But, he says, he didn’t want to jeopardize his relationship with the magazine. “It was only my third or fourth assignment,” he explains. “I didn’t press too strongly for something that would be expensive because I wanted to continue to work with this magazine that was sending me out to do stories that I wanted to do.”
Then, in 2007, while reporting in Kenya, Raffaele had a close encounter with a charging elephant. As he told reporter Peter Carlson in the Washington Post profile, “…the driver put [the car] into reverse and then he tried to go forward and the wheels started to spin and the bloody elephant’s coming at us.” He says the bull elephant “clearly intended to kill us,” as bull elephants in the region had attacked people in cars before. “He got to within 30 yards and was still charging when the wheels took grip and we could flee,” Raffaele recalls.
According to Raffaele, Carlson asked whether he had insurance and when Raffaele told him he wasn’t sure, Carlson suggested he should check. The next day, and just one week after the elephant attack, Raffaele says he had a conversation with Smithsonian’s Winfrey, in his Washington, D.C. office, about insurance and was more emphatic this time. “I told him how close I’d come to death and outlined my fears for my wife and daughter’s financial situation should I be killed or seriously injured on a Smithsonian assignment. I explained that insurance costs for the kind of assignments I went on for Smithsonian were very high,” he says.
He claims that Winfrey assured him they would provide coverage, but he didn’t get the agreement in writing. “I accepted Mr. Winfrey’s verbal promise that Smithsonian would insure me for injury or death on all future assignments,” Raffaele explains, “A feature writer has a special relationship with his editor-in-chief and I was prepared to accept Mr. Winfrey’s verbal assurance because I trusted him. As well, I am from a generation of Australians to whom a verbal agreement from someone is as good as any signed document.”
There’s no way to independently verify whether or not Winfrey verbally promised to provide Raffaele with insurance. But if he did, according to experts we interviewed, it would not have been a conventional benefit for a freelance writer.
Raffaele understands that it would not have been a conventional benefit, but says his request was justified because, “I was not a conventional writer for Smithsonian. Almost alone among the other writers I was going on sometimes hazardous assignments. In our conversation about insurance in his office in mid 2007, a week after the Kenyan elephant attack, Mr. Winfrey seemed anxious to have me keep writing my kind of features. He reassured me about the insurance when I expressed reluctance to do such features unless I had insurance provided for me by the magazine. I was aware of the very high price charged for such insurance and told him I could not afford it,” he writes in an email.
Regardless of what was or was not promised, there was no mention of insurance in his contract for the Afghanistan poppy eradication story. “Mr. Winfrey guaranteed that Smithsonian would insure me on all future dangerous assignments. I took him at his word,” Raffaele says. “As it turned out, he didn’t, and according to the Smithsonian lawyers, after the suicide bombing he denied to them that he had ever given me this guarantee.”
Payouts are different than health insurance
We learned through our research that in order to be protected while reporting in Afghanistan, Raffaele would have needed personal accident insurance, which would cover evacuation and provide a payout in case of death or permanent disablement. AKE Group is a leading insurance and hostile environment training company for journalists and media employees. Their website includes testimonials from CNN, Frontline News International, BBC Radio, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Voice of America, and others. There are also blurbs from a few freelance journalists.
AKE offers a variety of training courses, but their flagship course, launched in the early 1990s, is used by most major media outlets to prepare their journalists for work in hostile environments – everything from wars to natural disasters. Along with five days of training, split between first aid and safety and security awareness, the course includes one year of insurance coverage for those who pass the accreditation exams.
According to Bethan Haines, AKE’s training coordinator, the course normally costs 1,970 British pounds, but freelancers can get a significantly reduced rate of only 300 British pounds, which is partially subsidized by the Rory Peck Trust, a London-based organization that supports freelancers and their families, particularly those injured or killed while reporting.
Freelancers who enroll in the AKE course at the discounted rate don’t get the insurance coverage for free, but they can buy it at a subsidized rate, Haines explains. Though freelancers have to pay 80 British pounds to take the accreditation exams, and then have to buy the insurance out-of-pocket, it still comes out to less than they would have to spend buying personal accident insurance on their own.
Fraser Newton, Director of AKE Special Risks Limited, explains that people generally take out five to ten times their annual salary; journalists traveling to high-risk areas like Iraq and Afghanistan would want to take out more substantial policies ranging from half a million to a million pounds. While the costs of any policy have many variables, Newton estimates that 100,000 British pounds of coverage for a week would cost at least 750 British pounds. For someone reporting in Afghanistan, he estimates that half a million British pounds worth of coverage might cost around 2,000 British pounds per week.
Because of these steep fees, Fraser says that most freelancers go without personal accident insurance.
Derek Horton, vice president of the Boston-based insurance company Thomas E. Sears, Inc., works with both print and broadcast media outlets. Horton says $250,000 worth of coverage for a week of Business Travel Accident Insurance with a war risk component could cost anywhere from $2,500 to $3,000. Horton explained that he has worked with news organizations purchasing insurance for a freelancer, but says it’s not something they automatically provide. He isn’t privy to the negotiations that go on between a writer and a publication, but says that from his experience working with publications, he believes insurance comes up during contract discussions. “They won’t just offer it, unless the freelancer starts asking some questions.”
For freelancers who can’t get insurance through a publication, AKE offers up to 150,000 British pounds of medical and medical evacuation coverage without any payout for only 250 British pounds per year. Knowing that you’re covered for evacuation to a medical facility and medical treatment gives freelancers “a huge amount of freedom” without the economic burden of personal accident insurance, Newton said.
When Raffaele spoke with Winfrey, he wasn’t looking for health insurance – something most freelancers know would not be provided by their contracting publication.
Thankfully, the U.S. military provided him with free emergency care. Lt. Col. Mark Wright, a Department of Defense spokesman who covers Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Office of the Secretary of Defense told iMediaEthics that this is the custom for those wounded in the conflict zone (which includes local civilians, journalists, and military personnel).
Raffaele also needed something that would support him with a payout in case of a serious accident, precisely the situation he’s in now. That something would be accident insurance like AKE and Thomas E. Sears offer. While Raffaele maintains that Winfrey agreed to provide such support (the argument on which much of his legal case lies) the situation begs the question: Are publications legally or ethically responsible for providing freelance journalists with this type of protection?
“Ideally, there should be no difference in the way freelance and staff reporters are treated,” says Elisa Tinsley, Director of the Knight International Journalism Fellowships. She explains that without a prior agreement, a publication may not be contractually or legally responsible for providing support. But she thinks they do have an ethical responsibility. “I believe that the employer has a responsibility to assist anyone who suffers an injury while working.”
However, Tinsley also points out, “The key question is whether the assistance should or can be indefinite.”
Smithsonian magazine feels that they have provided enough help. Raffaele completed the poppy eradication story, but it never ran because he lost one of his field journals in the attack. There was no way to fact check the story. Even still, Smithsonian paid him his full fee of $8,000 and, as expected, covered his assignment expenses. Additionally, the magazine paid $17,900 to have Raffaele transported and escorted safely back to Australia.
However, in response to a demand letter from Raffaele’s lawyer, Anthony Elia, indicating Raffaele’s intention to pursue legal action, Smithsonian threatened to “seek reimbursement” for the $17,900 fee.
Smithsonian argues that, legally, they don’t bear responsibility because Raffaele’s contract didn’t include any mention of insurance. Elia argues that Raffaele’s conversations with Winfrey and an industry “duty of care” squarely place responsibility with the magazine.
Elia is seeking $5 million, which he says covers “pain and suffering, loss of [Raffaele’s] abilities, future pain and suffering, and loss of lifestyle.” He also explains that the figure is in line with other settlements for cases involving cognitive deficits similar to Raffaele’s.
(Carey Winfrey wouldn’t speak about Raffaele’s case specifically, due to pending legal action, but provided more general comments about the magazine’s relationship with writers, which appear throughout this piece.)
What went wrong?
So how can a freelancer avoid the situation that Raffaele now faces? In order to get a fair shake, Amy Green, chairwoman of the Society of Professional Journalists Freelance Committee, says, “You are your own best advocate. You’re a business person and have to stand up for yourself. If you don’t stand up for yourself, no one else is going to do it for you.”
Green suggests that verbal agreements, like those that Raffaele claims to have had with Winfrey, should be followed by a written confirmation. “If someone tells me something verbally, a lot of times I will hang up the phone and send an email to the editor saying, ‘As we discussed, you will provide…’”
Raffaele says that if he were ever able to work again, he would undoubtedly ask for insurance on high-risk assignments and would make sure to get the agreement in writing.
Green also contends that while freelancers shouldn’t expect insurance from a publication, they can expect to be compensated in a way that allows them to purchase their own coverage. “If you’re freelancing and you get paid $30, $50, $75 an hour, that might seem like a lot to someone with a full-time job,” she explains. “But that person with a full-time job gets everything provided by the employer. For a freelancer, the pay rate pays for time and supplies. For a journalist who goes into these dangerous situations and needs to buy additional insurance coverage…the publication should pay an even higher rate to allow the freelancer to buy that.”
Raffaele disagrees. He feels the magazine should have purchased accident insurance on his behalf and should be financially assisting him now. He does not feel the story fee should vary based on danger; insurance has nothing to do with story fee. “The story fee was the story fee and if there was a need for insurance on a dangerous assignment,” he says via email, “then this should be paid separately by the magazine.” He says that he was comfortable getting paid a standard fee, no matter how risky the story. “My understanding of it, and this was the way that I operated, was that it all balances out. There are fun stories like the Forbidden City in Beijing,” he explains. “I would not ask for any more compensation for a dangerous job because I think it’s fair to a magazine. As I say, I get the good and the tough.”
On this point, Winfrey agrees with Raffaele. When asked whether the magazine uses insurance cost estimates to determine writer’s fees, Winfrey says, “No, it doesn’t work that way. We have a scale that we pay writers based on what kind of work they’ve done for us in the past, how long they’ve written for us, and such. I don’t think insurance plays into that directly.”
If the magazine were to follow Green’s advice, they would have had to steeply increase Raffaele’s expense allocation. Raffaele was approved for $6,500 in expenses prior to the trip. For his four-week trip to Afghanistan, his insurance, according to AKE’s estimate, would have cost at least 8,000 British pounds. Round-trip airfare from Australia to Afghanistan cost Raffaele another $4,000. Had Raffaele claimed insurance among his assignment expenses, he would have exceeded his allocation before accounting for room and board. “The considerable imbalance of the insurance cost against my story fee ($8,000) shows the absurdity of the Smithsonian position that I should have provided my own insurance and surely gives weight to my claim that I asked for and received a guarantee from Mr. Winfrey that from July 2007 Smithsonian would provide me insurance on dangerous assignments,” Raffaele says.
Rudy Chelminski has known Raffaele since their days freelancing for Reader’s Digest. Prior to his work with that magazine, Chelminski worked at Life magazine in Paris and Moscow, where he served as bureau chief. He’s been a freelance writer since 1972 and has bylines in Wired, Time, Fortune, Playboy, Town and Country, and Smithsonian, for which he still occasionally writes. When Raffaele was looking for additional work in 2004, it was Chelminski who introduced him to Carey Winfrey.
Chelminski, who is 75 years old, now lives in France where, like Raffaele in Australia, the government provides basic health insurance. He purchases his own life insurance and says that he never considered asking any of the publications for which he freelances for health benefits. “If you’re a freelancer trying to flog a story,” Chelminski said, “You can’t go around asking for things like that…You just don’t do that. That’s a good way to get a non-assignment.”
Yet even Chelminski recalls an assignment for which he requested additional insurance. He was doing a story about landmines in Cambodia, and told Raffaele in an email, “At the time of the Cambodia landmine story, as my kids were young and I was concerned for them should anything happen to me, I told [then Reader’s Digest European bureau chief Dimi] Panitza I was reluctant to venture out where I could get hurt or killed. He assured me that he would take out a million-dollar life insurance policy on me, so I was tranquilized and happily went out for the story. Nothing of harm came to me, so it worked out fine.” Like Raffaele, Chelminksi took the editor at his word, never asking for proof that the policy had been taken out. “Did he really take out the policy?” Chelminski questions. “I just don’t know.”
Smithsonian should “share in the burden that I now have”
Although Raffaele doesn’t think his fee should have been higher, he does feel that the magazine should be supporting him more now. “Smithsonian enjoyed the successes of my stories, so my feeling is that they should also share in the burden that I now have. I went off to Kabul in partnership with them…it’s kind of implicit that they will look after you.”
Chelminski feels the same way. After reading in the magazine that Raffaele had been injured, he sent an unsolicited email to Winfrey to find out more about Raffaele’s status. His June email read, in part, “Carey, this is just to let you know that I’ve heard from Paul, and he sounds pretty good. He’s obviously shaken up and needs to rest (if nothing else but for the swelling of his brain to entirely disappear), but I’m sure he’ll be back in shape quickly. You know, he’s too damn much of a gent to ever ask for it, but are you planning to make some fairly significant financial gesture for him?”
Winfrey’s response gave Chelminski a sense of the magazine’s philosophy, something that Raffaele would eventually learn when the magazine responded to his legal pursuit with a $17,900 threat. Winfrey wrote, “We paid a good chunk of dough to the military to extract Paul from Afghanistan. (He needed a medical escort all the way to Sydney.)”
“I thought that would be the minimum,” Chelminski says on the phone from his home in France. “I just thought it was normal for someone who had been hurt on assignment for the magazine to get some special pay for the damage that had been done.”
In an effort to hold Mr. Winfrey and the Smithsonian lawyers accountable for their “highly unethical behavior,” Raffaele contacted Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He was given Clough’s personal email by the Smithsonian lawyers. On November 3, 2008, Raffaele sent Clough two emails, asking him to investigate the behavior of Winfrey and the Smithsonian lawyers. “Given that I had risked my life more than once in the service of Smithsonian magazine, I thought this was a proper thing for the Smithsonian Institution to do,” Raffaele explains. Neither email garnered a response or even an acknowledgment of receipt.
Other media support their freelancers
Some publications do provide more support than Smithsonian has for Raffaele. A spate of kidnappings in Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated that major news outlets are willing to invest resources to help their reporters, even freelancers. When David Rohde, a New York Times writer, and Tahir Ludin, an Afghan reporter assisting and translating for Rohde, were abducted in Afghanistan in November 2008, the paper worked to find and rescue both men. Jill Carroll was a freelance reporter for The Christian Science Monitor when she was kidnapped in Iraq in January 2006. The newspaper worked around the clock, dedicating time and money, to ensure Carroll’s safe return home. (Rohde, Ludin and Carroll all eventually escaped their captors.)
The nearly 100 news organizations who are members of the International News Safety Institute agree to follow INSI’s safety code, which includes among its tenets that “All journalists should be afforded personal insurance while working in hostile areas, including cover against personal injury and death. There should be no discrimination between staff and freelancers.”
Smithsonian feels no obligation
Soon after the bombing, Raffaele received a handwritten note from Smithsonian’s publisher Kerry Bianchi. “We of course admire the great work you have done for Smithsonian,” he wrote, “but an encounter such as this reminds us of what is truly important…We’re grateful for your return and are with you on your road to recovery.”
Raffaele says that Winfrey never called him after the bombing and declined a face-to-face meeting five months later, in June of 2008, when Raffaele was in New York promoting his book Among the Cannibals (Smithsonian, June 2008). Winfrey says that after Raffaele threatened legal action he was advised not to communicate with the writer, but Raffaele contends that Winfrey and Smithsonian’s lawyers were only made aware of pending legal action on November 13, 2008, seven months after the bombing. Prior to the legal notice, Winfrey was already avoiding Raffaele’s calls and requests for contact. Raffaele’s current feelings towards Winfrey are clear, as he writes in an email, “This clearly shows Mr. Winfrey trying to wiggle out of what might be regarded as his ethical, professional and humanitarian concerns about my welfare.”
More than a year after it became clear that Raffaele would have lingering and debilitating symptoms, Smithsonian magazine’s guide to Raffaele’s work still read, “He is expected to make a full recovery.”
But the magazine knew this was not true. In August, after a visit to the neurosurgeon and the realization that he would have on-going symptoms, Raffaele emailed Winfrey to describe his condition.
While relieved to learn that the bits of bone and shrapnel in his brain had not caused an infection, Raffaele’s general prognosis was not good. He wrote, “Reading has got a little better, but is still a trouble. The left side is the hardest to read. I often have optical illusions, seeing a letter at the beginning of the word that is not what it actually is…After reading a few lines, sometimes the words just melt together and I have to start again…With typing there seems a spatial shift…with me thinking I’m typing a particular letter, but my brain directing the finger to the letter next to it.” He continued on, describing the ringing in his ears, dizziness and balance problems.
Yet the Smithsonian website was not updated. iMediaEthics asked Smithsonian to correct their error that states Raffaele “is expected to make a full recovery.” In our request, we provided quotes from Dr. Holliday’s October 2009 assessment of Raffaele. Winfrey responded by email. “I checked the entry you referenced on our Web site, and noted that it was accurate at the time it was written, with language that was approved by [Raffaele’s] daughter and by Paul himself. You will note that it does not state that Paul has made a full recovery, only that he was expected to, which remains the hope of all of us here at the magazine…I will ask our Web editor to check with Paul and his daughter regarding a change in the language to more accurately reflect his current situation, whatever that may be.”
Raffaele and his daughter dispute Winfrey’s claim and provide emails as evidence. He writes: “Mr Winfrey in his email below seems to be trying to shift the blame for the erroneous message about my medical condition still carried on the Smithsonian website. Surely, it was his responsibility to keep up to date on my condition and change the website if needed. ” He explains that he informed Mr. Winfrey on August 7th.
He said, “The report makes it clear that little had changed since my initial report to Mr Winfrey almost three months earlier outlining the serious medical consequences of the bombing…I never received any request by Mr Winfrey or the web editor to update the optimistic conclusion about my recovery.” Raffaele concludes: ” Mr Winfrey’s email below highlights his seeming disinterest in my condition. He never once picked up his phone, as you might expect, and called me to see what my condition was and how I was faring. He never requested updates from me on my condition and he rejected a face to face meeting with me in June 2008 when I was in New York for a few days.”
iMediaEthics forwarded Raffaele’s answer to Winfrey, and again, by email, asked if the information on Raffaele’s health prospects would finally be corrected. Winfrey emailed to say they are updating Raffaele’s contributor page after obtaining his and his daughter’s editorial approval. “In the meantime,” he said, “we can delete the sentence that says Paul is expected to make a full recovery.”
On November 19, 2009, Smithsonian updated the entry. It now reads, “In April, 2008, while on assignment for Smithsonian in Afghanistan with photographer Steve Dupont, Raffaele suffered severe head injuries from a suicide bomb blast. Raffaele reports that his doctors have told him that many of the effects of his injuries will remain with him for life.”
Saying Goodbye to the Adventurer
“I can’t go see foreign movies now because I can’t get the left-hand side of the subtitle,” Raffaele explains. “And by the time I switch the focus and look around, it’s gone.” If he wants to watch foreign films, a favorite pastime before the bombing, he records them when they air on TV so that he can pause the film long enough to read each subtitle.
His library of nearly 1,000 books gathers dust. “I get through about 20 pages,” he explains, “and then the need for extreme concentration and the problem I have with scanning from line to line…tires me out. I usually have to go to sleep for a couple of hours.” Another hobby he’s been forced to give up is watching sports. “That is now impossible,” he says, “because I can’t keep track of a fast moving ball or fast moving athletes and it thus becomes very confusing.”
He spends most of his time inside, afraid to venture out because of his shaky balance and limited vision; in fact, just this September he fell while crossing the road. “If I hit my head on the ground it could have very serious consequences given the damage already caused by the shrapnel,” Raffaele explains. The fall added yet another scar to the growing number on his legs, all caused by falls since the bombing. This fear of leaving the safety of home is a common symptom of hemianopia.
In February 2010, HarperCollins will release Raffaele’s latest book, which is about great apes. Fortunately, most of the reporting was completed before the bombing. But he had to make one last trip to Borneo four months after his return from Afghanistan to do some final reporting on orangutans.
It proved frustrating. “Previously I managed two or three weeks in jungles with ease,” he explains. On this trip, “a single day wore me out.” Since the bombing, he has not written a single magazine feature. He has been involved in two current affairs T.V. stories as an “expert,” but not as a reporter or producer. This seriously decreases the mental burden of the job. On a magazine feature, he would be in charge of logistics for weeks at a time. As an “expert” he only needs to contribute “a few sentences on camera two or three times a day during the shoot,” he says, which is about all he can handle given his lasting physical and mental injuries.
“I don’t think anybody was quite the adventurer that Paul was,” Winfrey says of his former writer.
Indeed, Raffaele said goodbye to that adventurer in Afghanistan while on assignment for Smithsonian. “It was my great love, and I miss it immensely.”
– Contributions to this report were made by Danielle Elliot and Molika Ashford
Good reporting and good writing job — good journalism. Congrats.
Great Report!! The Smithsonian should do the right thing here
As a former aid worker with an international NGO this sad story sounds too familiar. I became ill while on the job in DR Congo, my contract was not renewed because I couldn’t keep up with the work. Eight months later I was finally diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis. I suffer from a range of symptoms that keep me mostly house bound and am unable to work. Even though I had insurance the company refused my claim; my former employer doesn’t want to know – as far as they’re concerned it’s between me and the insurance company. Unfortunately even having insurance isn’t always a guarantee that you’ll be taken care of. Paul Raffaele has my full sympathy – as do other journalists and aid workers who do dangerous work and end up paying for it in more ways than they expected. www.nickyreiss.blogspot.com
Great Report!! The Smithsonian should do the right thing here –
I Met this gentleman in Malayia awhile back, I looked over the internet for this story and reading it made me realized how much trauma he must have had when he told me the story in person. Thank you for your stories sir!