Do you remember 'Kosovo Boy?'
I refer, naturally, to the massively popular NPR series "Emails from Kosovo," and specifically to Finnegan Hamill, the Berkeley teenager whose email correspondence with pseudonymous Adona - an imperiled ethnic Albanian teen who miraculously found an internet connection in the war torn region - became, for many of us, the face of the conflict.
For me, though, Finnie was the face of Finnie, my shy, heartfelt, sharp as a tack high school pal. We edited the Berkeley High School newspaper together, splitting the editor-in-chief job as seniors, in '99-2000. That was a crazy year at Berkeley High - serial arsons, student walkouts, abuses of power - and in the midst of the hubbub, Finnie went and got famous.
He took his pen pal conversation to Berkeley's Youth Radio, thinking it might make an interesting story. NPR signed on for the long haul, and as the tension ratcheted up in Kosovo, Finnie became a media star. He was in People magazine and on the Today show, President Clinton quoted the series in a speech, and suddenly camera crews were camping out in front of his house and ambushing him between classes.
This was a harrowing tale with a heartwarming ending, from what you probably remember. Adona, or "Anne Frank of Kosovo," as CNN and others began calling her, survived against all odds and eventually made it onto US soil. Finnie met Adona - her real name is Kujtesa Bejtullahu - for the first time when she deplaned at San Francisco International Airport. Cameramen jostled for position as the teenagers hugged awkwardly.
The media has a notoriously short attention span - and I say this as a member of the media - so this is probably where you checked out. Finnie graduated early from Berkeley High and left to work in a pizza place, which seemed to me an escape from the traumatic experience of being thrust ceaselessly into the spotlight. Later, he headed to Harvard.
I recently visited Finnie and his wife, Lia, in Portland. They both work teaching women's self defense classes. We talked blogging - which inspired me to begin writing for HuffPo - and Finnie pointed me to his blog. Finnie's experience of the Kosovo episode was not exactly as it was portrayed by the press, and his post on the subject bears quoting at length (I'll let Finnie do the rest of the talking): "Then," Finnie remembers," I stumbled on Kosovo.
"I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and had enough news sense to spot a story. The rest was basically out of my hands. Here are some of the things that stand out in my memory of the next year:
"A CNN producer kicked my good friend and colleague Belia, because she dozed off waiting around during 5 hours of interviewing. Right in the leg. Wake up and smile for the camera.
"The same CNN producer yelled at me for half an hour trying to convince me to let him shoot video of me sitting in my house eating breakfast.
"Katie Couric asked me what I had learned from my experience, and I couldn't think of a damn thing.
"The peace worker who started the whole thing, and one of the board members from the media organization threatened each other with physical violence.
"I woke up one morning, and read in the newspaper that the series had won a DuPont Award, and that several representatives from the organization had been in New York to receive it. I wasn't told, invited, or acknowledged.
"The first time I met Kujtesa, it was in front of about 60 camera crews, all pushing and fighting to get the best angle. Literally pushing. As if being 16 and meeting a girl from halfway around the world you've been writing with for six months isn't awkward enough.
"This is the side of the human interest story they don't talk about in People Magazine.
"Journalists have to be careful not to become the story. I figured out too late.
"I also got my share of death threats and accusations of being a CIA hack, but I got a kick out of that more than anything else.
"Bob Edwards once told me I was the future of radio journalism. Boy, did he get that one wrong. David Gans later told me how disappointing I was. That everybody was hoping I'd grow up to be a famous journalist. He told me this in the pet food store where I worked, and where every day somebody would say something like 'you went to Harvard? Why do you work here?' or 'Can't you get a better job than this?'
"Of course it was Kosovo that got me into Harvard, which I naturally assumed would make me into an important, talented person. Naturally, it didn't. I haven't written or recorded anything since I was 17."