A Journalist Uncovering Stories of Injustice
Issue   |   Fri, 10/23/2015 - 12:31
Joshua Kors '01E
Joshua Kors ‘01E has delivered multiple testimonies about veterans’ rights in front of the House Committee on Veteran Affairs.

Growing up in Walnut Creek, California, Kors’ passion for journalism began almost as soon as he could write. He recalls writing his first article at the age of four, after he explored an Encyclopedia Britannica that his mother bought for him.

As a middle school student, he continued to foster a passion for journalism, writing movie reviews for his school newspaper.

Although he laughs remembering that the paper consisted of just four pieces of paper stapled together, it served as a stepping-stone on his path to a journalism career.

His passion stayed with him in high school, where he went on to write for the newspaper. He worked his way up the ranks and eventually became the editor-in-chief. “It was nice when that happened,” he said. “That paper was so important to me.”

In what would eventually develop into a trend of Kors’ work garnering widespread attention, an article for his high school paper helped him get his first taste of the myriad positive impacts his journalistic work could have.

A former student at his high school committed suicide 12 years prior to Kors’ time at the school. The student was gay and ended his life largely in response to the pressure from both a devout Christian mother as well as pressure from a homophobic culture. Kors’ article detailed the aftermath of the student’s suicide and described how the student’s mother reevaluated her views and now serves as a prominent advocate for gay youth. For a community that did little to commemorate this loss of life, Kors’ work broke the silence and showcased the transformations that had occurred since the suicide.

“It was just an explosion,” he said. “I still get phone calls and emails from all over the world from people who are just reading the article that I had written for the high school newspaper back in 1995. That was just a really special moment.”

Tales of A Freshman Nothing

After building such a strong foundation in high school, Kors knew exactly what he hoped for in a college.

“I knew I wanted to be in a classroom where there were a small amount of people and students sat around arguing about books that they had actually read,” he said. “As soon as I stepped onto the campus of Amherst, I just went ‘Ah, this is the place.’ It just felt like home.”

Kors participated in a variety of extracurricular activities during his time at the college, serving consistently as a movie reviewer for The Amherst Student as well as enjoying airtime as a commentator for WAMH. He wrote an essay series for the station and titled it “Tales of a Freshman Nothing,” in which he was audacious enough to share potentially divisive opinions.

“One time the disc jockey was sure to clarify it was me who said something controversial on air. I said it and then he said, putting on his best radio voice, ‘and that was Joshua Kors, not Kevin Johnson,’” he said with a laugh.

Kors found the idyllic classroom setting he had hoped for. An English major, Kors particularly enjoyed his time with English Professor David Sofield.

“I was so fired up about the literature, and I was yelling at him in class,” Kors remembered. “He started yelling back and I guess all of that yelling just sparked a love for each other. We’ve been very close ever since.”

He also fostered a strong connection with Spanish professor Ilan Stavans.

“He’s more than just a mentor; he’s a friend, and I think he considers me a colleague now too,” Kors said, “I didn’t have a father in my life, so he became a real father figure to me.”

Stavans had similar thoughts when asked about Kors.

“I still see him in class, articulating thoughts in admirable, thought-provoking ways, at times offering views other would be too timid to endorse,” Stavans said. “I love him: We have been close friends since graduation.”

Kors also said that his time spent at Amherst helped to strengthen his passion for journalism.

He obtained his degree in the creative writing department, at first aspiring to become a novelist. After speaking with a professor who had transitioned from journalism to creative writing, he had the opposite revelation.

“I knew I wanted to make the world better with my writing,” he said. “I thought I was going to be a novelist, but then I realized how broad of an impact you could have when what you are writing is actually true.”

Finding Fulfillment in Journalism

In pursuit of a place to use his words powerfully, Kors applied to 97 different newspapers across the country after graduating from Amherst.

“I was willing to go anywhere, I just wanted to be a reporter,” he said.

He wound up reporting at a small newspaper called the Spectrum based in St. George, Utah. He reported on local news stories, such as profiling the town ice cream man and writing about the small Jewish community in southern Utah.

“It’s funny, because I still have people from Utah calling me asking for advice about a good place to get ice cream or they ask me when my Jewish services are starting up,” he joked. “But I still do try to help these people. I have a whole list of Jewish contacts in Utah now. I’ve even Googled 'ice cream in St. George' for some people.”

After a year in the Midwest, Kors returned to the East Coast, enrolling in the journalism graduate program at Columbia. “I really believe in education,” he said. “I thought it would be great to learn from the top, and I wanted to learn more about how to do the craft.”

While at Columbia, Kors spent a year writing about epilepsy, focusing on something called the Andrews-Reiter approach — a technique proven to stop seizures and to help make sufferers well. Kors himself had his first seizure in the eighth grade, making this reporting very personal.

“I love when people who have epilepsy call me up to talk about the article,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of hopelessness associated with [epilepsy], and it’s great to be able to walk them through the approach … I like to think this is a condition — this is not who you are.”

Telling Soldiers’ Stories

Kors returned to his native California for his first job after graduate school. He worked for KCBS-AM, a local radio station, as well as at a local newspaper. That same newspaper would eventually run a story about Kors himself after his military reporting won him a prestigious George Polk Award.

The story of Kors’ military reporting begins with a connection to Amherst. After reconnecting with a former classmate, he began writing about the stories of various soldiers for a website this classmate was running. Kors served as a ghostwriter of sorts for the soldiers, empowering them to tell him their stories for a larger audience. What started as simply writing about the experiences of soldiers quickly transitioned into something much larger. The fifth soldier in his series raised an interesting issue, sharing that he had been diagnosed with 'personality disorder' and was subsequently discharged during his service.

“I thought, that doesn’t make sense at all,” Kors said. “So, I started digging, and next thing you know I spent nine years on the story.”

Kors eventually brought that work to a professor at Columbia who put him in touch with The Nation, the outlet that eventually published his work.

His reporting revealed that doctors had been purposefully misdiagnosing soldiers as having a “personality disorder.” By discharging them in such a way, soldiers would be denied a lifetime of benefits in addition to having their signing bonuses retracted.

Kors’ work landed him in front of the House Committee on Veteran Affairs, where he testified three separate times — once in 2007 and twice in 2010. His testimonies sparked the creation of two new laws helping to regulate military discharge.

“I knew absolutely what I wanted to share and how I wanted to share it,” he said. “I wasn’t there to be an advocate. I made sure that the unvarnished facts got there on the table. It was certainly one of the defining moments in my life.”

His work was featured on various national news outlets, landing him television opportunities to share his findings with a larger audience. The story was even adapted into a “Law & Order” episode.

“It’s gone all kinds of crazy ways, and I think that’s because it’s such an odd, global injustice and people just respond to it,” Kors said.

After enjoying a wildly successful career in journalism, Kors is now pursuing a new passion: law.

He’s currently in the process of obtaining a law degree from Vanderbilt University, while maintaining his work as a contributing reporter to both The Nation and the Huffington Post. Given the bleak job market for journalists, the decision to study law was partially a practical one. However, Kors also spoke to the benefits that his new degree will grant him. He will now not only be able to write about the soldiers, but also legally defend them.

“It’s exciting for me, I can still find a way to use my writing for good, which is always what it was all about for me,” he said.

“Through the law, I can make a concrete and determinant difference in people’s real lives.”

Kors was also invited to speak at an upcoming TEDx event, hosted by Vanderbilt. His talk is titled “How to Uncover A Military Conspiracy,” and he’ll speak about his military reporting with the soldiers he had initially written about in attendance.

“What I’ll be talking about in my TED talk is that this is not a political issue, this is a human rights issue,” he said. “These are people, they’re not just statistics, they’re not just photos; they’re real people and real families. They don’t deserve to come back and be surreptitiously cheated out of medical benefits.”

He hopes to use these new channels as a platform to continue to talk about issues that are important to him.
“It’s a passion,” he said. “It’s wonderful to continue to have opportunities to share these stories with so many people.”