My day with Eric Schlosser

Taking a ride and getting advice from the award-winning investigative journalist and "Fast Food Nation" author.

When I heard investigative journalist and writer, Eric Schlosser would be speaking at Syracuse University I made an immediate mental note of the date. As luck would have it a friend connected me with a member of the University Lecture committee who needed a student to help during the day starting with a ride-along to pick Mr. Schlosser up from the airport that morning.

In preparation I re-read his book Fast Food Nation and bought a copy of Reefer Madness. The day of the airport pick-up, I grabbed the New York Times and read it cover to cover in the event any national or political chatter might come up during the car ride. I thought about good questions relating to his books, how I might phrase them and topics pertaining to the future of investigative journalism in a volatile economy and increasingly distracted world.

It was enough material for a ride home from JFK airport, let alone Syracuse-Hancock. But of course, once he sat down in the car, mere feet away from me, all I could think to offer were queries into the quality of his flight and horribly generic comments about Syracuse’ snowfall-breaking records. I even outed the fact that I’d Googled him inquiring into his marriage to Robert Redford’s daughter. (Which he described with a charming smile as the happiest 25 years of his life.)

And in a blink, the 15-minute drive down 81-South was complete and he was getting out of the car and walking into the Sheraton. Discouraged and wondering why I’d gotten up so early and prepared like a contestant on Jeopardy, I went to class. All I’d really gleaned from the experience was a signed copy of "Reefer Madness." “To Julia, good luck with your writing,” he wrote, and a feeling that I had some work to do on making memorable first impressions.

That afternoon I attended Schlosser’s lecture, a fascinating discussion on the realities of our food industry –“a whole new form of pollution,” he called it. The food industry's success, he said, relies on our national ignorance about the byproducts of the system. These byproducts include obesity, diabetes, eating disorders, a commitment to "taste uniformity" and animal cruelty. He also discussed abuses of migrant workers, animal cloning and atrocious food processing processes, many of which lead to water pollution, and food poisoning.

As applause reverberated through Hendricks Chapel, I tip-toed to the base of the stage to help with “crowd control,” my second task of the day. Schlosser interacted with each person who approached for an autograph with a sincere and friendly warmth, assuring a woman that Reefer Madness would be appropriate for her 15-year-old son and chatting with a young boy who had organized a screening of Fast Food Nation at his elementary school.

At the dinner that followed I finally did get my five minutes with Mr. Schlosser. I felt the need to confess I’d recently had a Shamrock shake from McDonald’s, as if his extensive research and expertise in the fast food industry somehow also gave him guilty conscious-reading power. I chatted with him about his books and learned of his upcoming works—one on Nuclear Proliferation and a second on the U.S. prison system.

After dinner (a delicious spread of local grown vegetables and grass-fed beef, followed by fresh raspberries and little chocolates molded into the shape of a hamburger and french fries) I went to ask him one final question. I wanted to know how he goes about tackling these big stories, the ones that as a journalist interested in social change, seem simultaneously awe-inspiring and overwhelming.

He offered a simple but inspiring piece of advice: It’s never going to be perfect in your own mind

“But you have to go for it. So keep writing.”

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