When Cristina Alesci graduated from City University of New York in December 2008 with a master’s in journalism, she already had a promising future. Armed with a degree from an innovative journalism program and internships with the New York Daily News and Bloomberg, she certainly had the education and clips necessary to excel as a cub reporter.
More than any degree or recommendation from an editor, however, it was an assignment from her investigative reporting class that gave her all the street cred necessary to quickly move up the newsroom ladder.
Instructor Andy Lehren wanted his students to experience first-hand what it’s like to make a FOIA request. As a former producer with “Dateline NBC” and current investigative reporter for The New York Times, he knew the power of FOIA-produced documents for a reporter. He didn’t realize the file he assigned to Alesci, that of Vietnam-era journalist David Halberstam, would be pure gold.
Halberstam, who died in a car accident in 2007, was reporting from Communist Poland for The New York Times in the mid 1960s when he met his wife, actress Elzbieta Czyzewska. Paired with his pointed reporting on U.S. leaders at the time, his Communist associations earned him the watchful eye of the FBI. As it turns out, Halberstam was under close scrutiny from the feds for nearly 20 years. This was previously unknown to the public before Alesci set her eyes on the Halberstam file. What was once an innocent class assignment quickly became so much more.
“The file became the focus of my days and nights,” Alesci said.
Her focus paid off. The file went from teaching tool to published story on the Web site of the New York City News Service, a student-produced wire service at CUNY. Not only did the Halberstam story become the most popular in the history of the service, it was picked up by The Associated Press, Huffington Post and Politico, thus turning a once ordinary day in the classroom into a worldwide exclusive.
The irony of it? Had luck been just a little different for Alesci, she might have never had the opportunity to write the story.
Only eight students are allowed into the investigative reporting class every fall, and Alesci wasn’t one of the original eight to register.
“She spent the summer lobbying her case for why she should be admitted into the class, and finally it worked,” said Lehren, who quickly found her tenacity and perseverance a perfect fit for his class. “That go-getting attitude is why I assigned Cristina to the Halberstam file.”
That’s not all, though. If Alesci had followed her first career, she never would have walked the halls of CUNY or entered the Bloomberg newsroom. While studying at Pace University as an undergraduate, she wanted to work in criminal justice. After graduating from Pace, she applied to the FBI and even considered law school before eventually working in the pharmaceutical industry.
Her initial interest in criminal justice and law was sparked by what she felt was an “imbalance in society” and a desire to “recalibrate the imbalance.” However, this interest eventually moved toward journalism, which she believes plays an important watchdog role. In terms of her path to SPJ, she owes that, oddly enough, to pharmaceuticals and big business.
“When I worked in the pharm industry, I saw the power of lobbying influences and collective voices,” Alesci said. “In journalism, SPJ is that collective voice.”
Her commitment to journalism and SPJ is one reason Lehren, her former instructor, believes she’s heading places.
“I can easily see her rising to the top of her profession,” he said.
Whatever the “top” is — perhaps it’s relative, but maybe it’s editor-in-chief of The New York Times or anchor of the “NBC Nightly News” — Alesci seems to be quite comfortable in the job she knows best: reporting.
“I honestly would be thrilled just to be a reporter,” she said when asked about her long-term aspirations. “I can see myself doing that for the rest of my life.”
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