by Jonathan Vanian
What was it like working with Debbie Cenziper?
Debbie was great. We caught her at such a weird time because she was transitioning to go to the Washington Post
and we literally had a one week window with her to shoot, and then that was whittled down to basically three days -- her last three official days at the [Miami] Herald
. She was also dealing with a two-hour commute to her rental house because she sold her house in Miami. Her kids were still in school, so it was a little nutty, but she was extraordinarily gracious with her time for us.
What went on in that one week?
Basically we were trying to get the flavor of Miami. I thought: "Wow, what a perfect city for this story." I think Miami is always thought of as a kooky place. It's a perfect place for journalism because so much is going on there, from the Elian Gonzalez story to Gianni Versace. People think of it as a playground. I felt lucky to have that as a backdrop and I tried to get as much of the flavor of Miami as we could during the week we were there. I was mostly trying to capture -- being true to the story -- the juxtaposition of the rich and the very, very poor.
And that juxtaposition plays a big part in Miami as a city?
Yeah, because you don't really think of it that way. I grew up in Florida, and we would take trips down there, and it was just beach, fun, flamingos, and parrot jungle -- who knew that it's one of the poorest communities in the country?
"Should we be thinking about our own city's housing agency where we live? What do you think is going on?" You would never know what is happening behind these doors, unless someone like Debbie spent seven months on an investigation, looking through budgets and crunching numbers."
What about [Debbie Cenziper's] personality strikes you the most?
She's really dynamic. She's someone I would look at and say, "Wow, this is someone who has found her calling and she loves what she does." It's really admirable to find that, and to not be afraid to go after people like she does. Like any investigative journalist, with the constant questioning and the "why and why and why" and the persistence ... I think that's what really strikes me about her. She's just unafraid.
What struck you most about the story on Miami's public housing?
I [thought], "Should we be thinking about our own city's housing agency where we live? What do you think is going on?" You would never know what is happening behind these doors, unless someone like Debbie spent seven months on an investigation, looking through budgets and crunching numbers -- how would the layperson ever know? How would the normal citizen know what's happening with their tax dollars? I think that's the scariest thing. But a lot of people think, "What can you do about it?" I guess you have to have trust in your local officials, right? [Laughs]
Did you get to talk to a lot of the residents who were impacted by the housing authority?
We tried to stay true to the reporting that Debbie did and tried to seek out the people she had contact with. We ran into this one woman who said that her rent kept going up and it's like $400 and she could barely pay it. And then we were in a trailer park and it was the same thing -- just to have this space in a trailer park, a man was paying $400 and his doors were coming off! I was shocked. I thought we had it bad here in New York, but jeez. For these people, $400, you can imagine, is a lot of money.
What was it like working with the Miami Herald?
We spent a chunk of our time, of course, at the Herald
. They were all wonderful, absolutely generous. You would think most newspapers would look at TV with incredibly suspicious eyes, but the people that we asked for help from were very generous. It was a very good experience; the shoot was great.
Why should viewers care about people living in affordable homes in the Miami area? Why is this a big story?
It's about keeping a closer eye on what the government should be doing for you. This housing agency even had legislation passed that would funnel money to it to build houses. I mean they had millions of dollars and they weren't producing anything. So maybe [the lesson is] to keep an eye on your local government. I should see what's going on with our affordable housing agency here [in New York]. It affects everybody.
Photo: Producer Annie Wong in a U.N. helicopter, flying to Liberia.