Clara Germani connects Main Street to the global stage at CCI event

by Karina Coombs

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Clara Germani in her informative talk at the CCI Annual Meeting. (Photo by Ellen Huber) 

When award winning journalist and editor Clara Germani was asked to speak at the annual meeting of the Mosquito’s parent organization, Carlisle Communications, Inc. (CCI), she started reading the paper. “You have a real treasure,” she said to nearly three-dozen attendees of the May 19 event at Union Hall, explaining that the 44-year-old Mosquito embodied a civic spirit she wished more towns were able to capture. “I congratulate you all on it.”

Germani is currently a freelance writer for the Christian Science Monitor and teaches journalism at both Emerson College and Boston University. She has been a consultant for Public Radio International’s The World program and an editor for WGBH’s New England Center for Investigative Reporting, the Christian Science Monitor and the Baltimore Sun. Germani also served two years as the Sun’s Moscow bureau chief from 1995-1997. 

A broader reach

When Germani worked for the Sun in the 1990s, the paper had a strong tradition of international coverage, with bureaus scattered in major cities across the world. In Moscow, she had a staff of three and an operating budget of about $250,000. While she employed a number of translators, the Sun had also sent Germani to school for six months to learn Russian. Considering the current state of journalism, “It seems really luxurious now,” she said of the experience. She is not sure the volume of coverage will ever be the same, but pointed out that having a far flung reporter “can really connect you.”

While the Mosquito focuses on the 15 square miles that make up Carlisle, it also connects to the larger world. A March 16 feature profiling the humanitarian work of Carlisle’s Jennifer Silverstone at the refugee camps in France brought a connection to the Syrian crisis closer to home. Referencing this, Germani discussed two surprising connections she made during her years in Moscow: one to Baltimore and the other to the country and to Boston.

A Russian sculptor’s Baltimore dream

When communism fell in Russia, so too did its great monuments. Germani explained that Sculptor Zurab Tsereteli became the “go to guy” to supersede these works of art, replacing pieces as soon as they were torn down and earning millions from the government. An industrious fellow, Tsereteli was also mass-producing and selling miniatures of his monuments, earning even more money.

Germani interviewed the artist thinking it would make an interesting story, but when he started bragging about his commissions, she found one of his examples more intriguing than the others. “He said, ‘I have commissions in Paris, in Rome, in Tokyo and in Baltimore...’” Tsereteli told a curious Germani about a deal he had with a city councilman to bring a four-story sculpture of Christopher Columbus to Baltimore’s inner harbor. In turn, the Sun got an investigative reporter to follow the story, revealing that while Tsereteli would “give” the sculpture to Baltimore, the artist would receive money from the sale of his miniatures at a proposed 20 million dollar harbor island. “Our story saved Baltimore 20 million dollars,” said Germani.

From Chechnya to Main Street, USA

Following years of heavy fighting after Chechnya declared its independence from Russia in 1991, a truce allowed Germani an opportunity to visit the area in 1997 to cover the war. She showed photos of children who were finally able to come out of bomb shelters and rebels who were now able to eat, relax and bury their dead. With a backdrop of complete destruction, Germani described a region where historically religion was not noticeable: women did not wear coverings, men drank liquor and she never heard the mosques’ prayer calls. “Islam just wasn’t a marker there at this point,” she said. 

While Arabic was also not something typically seen in the area, Germani pointed out a photo taken during her trip that showed hundreds of tanks withdrawing from the region, one carried a flag with Arabic writing. Another photo showed a man waving a Koran, which she also noted as being unusual at the time. And as she took a photograph of a group of young children, they collectively held up their fists and yelled, “Allahu Akbar.” 

While her translators were convinced the rebels were Arabs, Germani asked the Union Hall audience, “What did you know about Al-Qaeda in 1997? We couldn’t connect the dots at [the] time.” Four years later she and her colleagues realized what they had seen and what it meant. “This build-up had an effect on Main Street, USA,” said Germani. And with the 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon by the ethnically Chechen Tsarnaev brothers, “That very foreign war became ours.” 

Q&A and CCI Business

Following her presentation, Germani took questions from the audience, with many asking how she was able to get Russians to speak openly.  She explained that while in the 1980s things were more controlled, by the 1990s people spoke freely. In the case of the artist, she explained that Tsereteli did not realize he was saying anything problematic because when people do not understand the role of the press, it is easier for them to speak freely. “Sometimes the ignorance works in your favor because they don’t get it,” she said, noting that officials were savvier when it came to the press.

Germani also addressed a question about covering town government, with an attendee asking if local reporters can be too trusting by working under the assumption that public meetings are representative of what is actually happening within the board. “Are there red flags that we should watch out for?” “You can’t take everything for granted,” when covering meetings answered Germani, “Especially if you are friends with them.” She also said it was helpful if reporters had a basic understanding of the group or groups they were covering so if they heard something unusual they would notice it. If someone in a meeting is groaning or frowning? Germani said that would be the person she would follow up with. 

CCI President Jay Luby presented Germani with a Carlisle gift basket containing gifts from local writers, artisans, and businesses at the event’s conclusion. 

Preceding Germani’s talk, Mary Hult was awarded the Phyllis Zinicola Award during the CCI Business Meeting. “The person receiving this award reminds me the most of Phyllis,” said Penny Zezima who presented the award and thanked Hult for “leaving a strong, good mark” on all that she did. “I’m extremely appreciative,” said Hult, adding that it was meaningful to have her name on the same plate as her friend Phyllis Zinicola.   ∆