Earlier this year I gave a couple of speeches, one at the State Department and another to an assorted collection of expatriates and Sri Lankans courtesy of the American embassy in Sri Lanka. The speech was on immigration, emigration and writing. Part of what I spoke about involved a sort of meditation on what it required of a writer who wishes to write of or about a foreign country. It involved a reference to the sort of ‘parachute journalism’ practiced by many reporters these days – supported, avidly, by their readers back home – and which describes the practice of “dropping in” on a “situation” in another country, sometimes for a couple of days sometimes for a week or two, firm in the conviction that one has the competence to understand everything that it is necessary to understand before one presumes to write about conflicts or, indeed, disasters or other catastrophes, that affect a culture not ones own. I have written about all that before, here (All the News Fit to Print) and here (Foreign Media).
As it so happened, however, that week’s New Yorker(January 25th, 2010), which I took on the flight with me, carried several excellent articles that spoke to the birth and nourishment of this phenomenon in America. The first of those was Ken Auletta‘s column, Annals of Communication (‘Non-Stop News’), which uses the Obama administration as a way of discussing the matter or, to be more specific, the President’s ongoing effort to educate and retrain the press corps. The issue, laid bare by the President in an interview on CBS’ Meet the Press, is exemplified by his comments to two journalists:
To Bob Schieffer: “I do think part of what is different today is that the twenty-four hour news cycle and cable television and blogs and all this, they focus on the most extreme elements on both sides. They can’t get enough of conflict. It’s catnip to the media right now.
And, to David Gregory: “What gets you on the news is controversy.”
Separately, the President is said to have used the occasion to chastise a press corps that has rushed to judgment, with “instant commentary and celebrity gossip and the softer stories that Walter (Cronkite) disdained. . . . ‘What happened today?’ is replaced with ‘Who won today?’ The public debate cheapens.” It is certainly laudable when the President sits through a two and a half hour long service, so he could deliver a sermon of sorts to the journalists who had gathered there to honor their fallen comrade, Walter Cronkite. Cronkite, the president argued, had earned his title as a trusted news person, through decades of “painstaking effort, a commitment to fundamental values; his belief that the American people were hungry for the truth, unvarnished and unaccompanied by theatre or spectacle.”
Listening to the President’s press conference today, I was struck by the relentless search for a soundbite that seemed to be the driving force behind many of the questions from seasoned personnel from the NYT on down. Indeed, minutes after the conference ended, we have this live-blogging take from Kate Phillips from the NYT, “…it remains an open question whether the measured tone that has become the soundtrack of Mr. Obama’s presidency – a detached, calm, observational pitch – served to drive the point home that he is sufficiently enraged by the fury in the Gulf Coast.”
As far as I know, being sufficiently enraged is reserved for us foot-soldiers, for activists at the front of a multitude of battles that need to be fought and won on the ground. Detached calm and observational pitch and, indeed, clarity of thought and perfection of diction – which continue to be refreshing in the post-Bush era – is what I expect from a President. But not for journalists, oh no. For them, for the newspapers they wish to sell, for the innumerable byte and pen-and-ink venues in which they wish to spew “the latest,” the “right here right now, don’t go away” version of what is important, rage and fury are what matter.
In that same article I mention above, Peter Baker is quoted as describing the difference between beat reporters from ten years ago and today thus:
“(He had) the luxury of writing for the next day’s newspaper. He had at least a few hours to call people, to access information, to provide context. Today, as much as you want to do that, by the time your deadline comes around you’ve already filed for the Web”—often more than once. In between times, you’ve filed for radio, and appeared on TV, and maybe done a podcast or a blog. “When do you have time to call experts? When do you have time to sort through data and information and do your own research? Even with a well-staffed news organization, we are hostages to the non-stop, never-ending file-it-now, get-on-the-Web, get-on-the-radio, get-on-TV media environment.”
Which is why I was particularly heartened by this interview with the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author, Lorraine Adams (Harbor and The Room & The Chair), who states the importance of fiction in adding the nuance missing from the news, something I’ve written about before here (Global Civilians). It’s a short interview, and includes both Lorraine and Nick Davies (Flat Earth News), another journalist/author who has been critical of the press, and well worth a listen.
I have just finished reading Harbor, and am deep into Lorraine’s second book. As an immigrant who has experienced the underside of what it means to work illegally in the United States (I won’t say how or why), who has felt both cold and poverty in environments where wealth and privilege seem de rigueur and the lack thereof indicative of a deeper lack in oneself, who has known that the stories from “back home” were never the stories that would be told, who has understood, above all, that the news that is presented to Americans about left-behind countries are never, ever, comprehensive or truthful, Adams’ book, about a group of Algerian stowaways in Boston, was uplifting. Not because the themes contained therein were, but because in her fiction, Adams portrays the origins of perception and the vastness of the distances between us, as immigrants, as survivors, as Americans, as well as the acute intimacy of our inner lives, both proximate and divergent, with an empathy that unfolds what is true in a way that no amount of news coverage ever could.
If I want a soundbite, there are dozens of news blogs and news-aggregating websites and personal rants that I can access. But if I want to understand the human beings behind the story, if I want to truly understand a history, I go to fiction. Harbor was one of those books. Chimamande Ngozi Adiche’s Half of a Yellow Sun was another. Long may writers of fiction, particularly those with the skill to uncover both fact as well as moment, gift us with the truth that really matters and could, perhaps, change the world.