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February 29, 2004

Off the Grid Journalism

When a writer dissents from it, or departs from it, the master narrative is a very real thing. Here are two examples: one from politics, one from music.

“The assignment was straightforward enough,” writes Marjie Lundstrom of the Sacramento Bee, “talk to people.” This is how she begins her essay, “Campaign Coverage Without the Candidates,” in the Winter 2003 Nieman Reports. It’s a mini-memoir of her off-the-grid political coverage during California’s recall election last year.

The Bee sent a photographer, José Luis Villegas, with Lundstrom, an editor and writing coach who won a Pulitzer Prize for national reporting in 1991. The purpose of their statewide listening tour was to understand the voters: what Californians were saying and thinking as they prepared to vote in the election a majority of them had just elected to have:

Just “go find people,” hear them out, and take their pictures—an extended man/woman on-the-street assignment, with “the street” being the 156,000 square-mile state of California. So off we went.

It wasn’t so casual. Before Lundstrom left, she asked the Bee’s librarian, Pete Basofin, to help her identify some logical places to go. She also identified patterns she wanted to avoid when she got there:

All too often, it seems, journalists take the easy route on these kinds of assignments, blowing into a community, locating the town “hang-out,” and quizzing a handful of patrons while discreetly gathering colorful anecdotes about the tablecloths and quaint wall hangings to give each piece a sense of place. But this election, and this state, were far more complex than that…. To truly capture these wide-ranging voices, and to distinguish the pieces, we had to spurn the journalistic tradition of the mom-and-pop café—of hitting the road and winging it. We had to have a plan, a strategy for where we were going and why.

“Meticulous front-end research” supplied the plan, which was simple: Admit complexity in the electorate. Crunch the numbers, look at the map, go back in the state’s history, find the trends that are picking up steam. Think. Read. Analyze. Puzzle through the data again. Then pick places where the political parts of California are revealed in sequence:

There was Placer County in the Sacramento region, for instance, a Republican stronghold that had collected the highest percentage of recall signatures of any county in the state. Later, we would visit heavily Democrat San Francisco, the county that had returned the lowest percentage of recall signatures. We traveled to remote Modoc County on the Oregon and Nevada borders, where median household income is the lowest in the state. And we spent time in Merced County in the San Joaquin Valley, where small dairy farms and lush orchards are giving way overnight to model homes and new Starbucks.

By September the team had logged 1,800 miles. “One thing was obvious: Gray Davis was in trouble, big trouble.” They found it hard to locate anyone who would speak forcefully for Davis, even people they had selected as likely supporters. Their selections weren’t wrong. Something was wrong between Californians and Gray Davis that went beyond the frame of partisan politics. “We didn’t have to say this— in story after story, the voters did.”

Suspicion of typical “road” narratives was part of Lundstrom’s method. She and her photographer developed a mantra for it:

Where there is “geographic bias” by journalists, stereotypes abound. In rural areas, for instance, the regulars at the local steakhouse suddenly become the voice for the whole community or even state. The images from the barbershop or bingo parlor are portrayed as the sum of life here. On our travels, José and I vowed to avoid that trap and developed a mantra to keep us grounded: “It is what it is,” we said over and over.

It is what it is. This tries to be anti-narrative, not in some ultimate sense (Lundstrom intended to tell stories in the Bee) but just at the beginning, the intake stage. Look directly at the people being interviewed, treating each of them not as symbols for a larger electorate, whose mood (“the voters are angry”) is developing outside the frame, but as an electorate of one. She is who she is. That way you avoid the traps and dead spots in most back-to-the-people journalism.

I pictured Marjie and Jose walking back to the car after a surprising interview. “What was that about?” one says to the other. And rather than answer the question, they decide: it is what it is.

This is not an awesome insight; Lundstrom does not present it that way. Something every good reporter knows is don’t let precepts get in the way of raw perception. But the point is easily lost on the campaign trail where “innocent” intake becomes impossible because impression management is inevitable by candidates and their staffs. With the listening tour approach, Lundstrom and her editors cancelled all that (although other journalists at the Bee did the standard campaign trail coverage.) How far off the grid did she get? “Not once, in nine weeks of travel, did we cross paths with another journalist,” she writes.

Compared to horse race news and strategy coverage, with their intense scrutiny of the candidate’s every move; compared to “issues” journalism where abstractions—health care, education, taxes—walk the land; compared to political punditry, which lets a journalist speculate freely about the voters and what they want, Lundstrom’s “campaign coverage without the candidates” is a tough, unglamorous, and at times tedious truth discipline— a way of starting at the bottom, making journalism from scratch. Her essay helps us realize why polls became such a potent tool of the political press. For polls say you can avoid all this.

If the public’s overall opinions are “there” in the poll results (which have their imperfections but do not lie) then the individual voices of citizens are going to be a sidebar to the main report. (Example here.) They add color, and some nuance to the Truth of Numbers. But if the public’s opinions must be sought, one by one, on the road, by open-ended listening to what journalists call “real people,” then the Truth of Numbers becomes the sidebar, or just one more bit of knowledge. To engineer this reversal is one point of sending reporter and photographer on the road. No one has ever seen a compelling photograph of a poll.

Polling is routinely presented as a way of listening to large numbers of people, and measuring within a certain accuracy their leanings and views. Well, it is indeed that. But any serious student of the science knows that a questionnaire wipes out most of the data respondents are prepared to offer, which is inherent in a “multiple choice” question. Limited choice would just be as accurate. Polls work because they are a leveler and abstracter of the public’s speech. They screen out way more than they allow through; but when news organizations become a sponsor and supporter of polls, they tend to stress the informational value and truth content of polling as a matter of course.

Not so visible is everything rendered mute by the basic methods of survey research. This happens not because the scripters are biased; but because they’re scripters, inevitably drawing big boxes for us to jump into, narrowing down the options in political choice, making as little room as possible for ambivalence, which does not measure well. “I’m of two minds about this,” a relatively common way of expressing our views on matters political, is not commonly allowed by polling. Not for nothing do survey firms call some questions “forced choice.” Anyone who has ever answered the phone for an extended questionnaire by a polling firm notices this scripting and fitting going on.

Any way you look at it, forced choice is a use of force by public and private institutions, although justified by them as truth-seeking, democratic, responsible, humane and (best of all, by far) scientific. But so was Lundstrom’s method scientific: the research she and her team did beforehand was social science, a very pragmatic form of it, driven by a reporter’s practical questions: If this series is going to capture anything truthful and real, where should I go to open my ears and my notebook and listen? Can we pinpoint some places, and provide the background knowledge going in, so I extract more? In this sense, a good newspaper librarian is an alternative investment to a polling firm, making possible a messier but sometimes better improvised science of the real.

All this front end work—expensive for the Bee, but they did it—is what permitted the back end to avoid stereotypes. (Key point about relying on master narratives: they save money.) Understandbly, for this is the seduction of numbers, political journalists concentrate on the information given by a poll, the results and what they tell us about the public’s mood. They are not thinking about the information wiped out and overrriden by the same poll, even when it is sensitively worded and has a huge sample. But what if there is more opinion in the part that polling ignores than in the figures it labors to bring forward? After the votes in Iowa, New Hampshire and Wisconsin this year, everyone should know it’s possible. (See this report by Howard Kurtz.)

Marjie Lundstrom’s incredibly straightforward assignment, “talk to people,” attempts to fill in—make vivid for us again—a space of public conversation, which the more schematic measures of opinion might erase, or leave blank. “Make it a series, and go all over the state” is a newspaper’s commitment to a Truth of Voices, to be set against the Truth of Numbers in a fuller portrait of California at recall hour. This is a different way of narrating what happens when the public speaks and acts. And so: “Not once, in nine weeks of travel, did we cross paths with another journalist.”

Call it the lonelinesss of the ear-to-the-ground reporter, who leaves the pack and its narratives behind. It can be frightening, and make you doubt yourself. (“If this is such a great story, where is everyone?”) Or it can be liberating, a way of being the person you are in the journalism you are doing. Lundstrom was raised in Nebraska, a rural state. She took to her assignment with personal knowledge of the big city journalist’s strategems of ignorance in handling small town life. Correcting for this became part of the point.

Any great reporter who’s ever had an important story all to herself loves the feeling of no one else around. But there are other times it drives you nuts. When a writer dissents from it, the master narrative in the press is a very real, almost cunning thing to that writer. I was reminded of this by a music critic, Kyle Gann, who writes PostClassic, a weblog in the orbit. (Terry Teachout is part of that crowd.) Gann found my original post on the master narrative in political journalism, and took it over into the classical music press.

I can use this idea to describe the predicament I and the music I love are in vis-a-vis the musical culture at large. For instance, we have a great endemic crisis concerning the imminent death of classical music. The focus of this story is inevitably: the orchestra. Look at Arts Journal: every music writer here is focused on the orchestra except me. Here and in a hundred other newspapers and magazines, the death of classical music and the death of the orchestra are treated as coextensive.

The problem, of course, is that the orchestra isn’t everything. It does not “contain” the story of classical music, but it can be employed that way—a container of everything classical—by journalists. Gann dissents from this practice:

Even if all orchestras disbanded tomorrow, 98 percent of the rather diverse spectrum of brand new classical music I cover would continue to exist as it exists now. Even John Adams, perhaps the most successful orchestra composer of our time, has admitted publicly and repeatedly that most of the good music being written today isn’t for orchestra… Classical music exists in many forms, at many venues, on many levels, with many audiences, but in terms of the journalistic Master Narrative, its health is solely and exclusively gauged from its own most inefficient, resource-intensive, financially precarious organization, the orchestra.

There is a second proposition floating around “orchestra as master narrative,” which is that no great composers are in our midst today, writing music (for orchestras, of course) that will stand for centuries as Mozart’s Sonata has. “To prove that none of the 40,000 composers working in America today is writing music that could last would require lots of research, lots of critical examination and thought,” Gann observes.

Luckily, the Master Narrative assures us that this is not necessary, because any greatness out there would have spontaneously appeared by now, despite critical and institutional neglect. (Sort of like the crusader’s cry, “Kill them all, God will recognize his own!”) According to the Master Narrative, the history of classical music had come to an end anyway, the great line of composers is over - how fitting, how convenient, that it and the orchestra, and therefore classical music itself, all died at the same time. Is this really true? Or does it become true just because everyone conspires to write as though we’ve all now assumed that it is true?

Watch out for that term “conspire,” it’s tricky. The more natural an assumption, the less need there is to conspire. And for journalists, covering music by covering the orchestra is natural. The orchestra is a big and visible institution. It has a press office. It has a conductor, a natural focal point for news. It has a season, like a local sports team. In many cities, the symphony orchestra is a special point of pride, and so the fate of the orchestra is a story about civic identity— especially for the local elite. In the popular imagination, the orchestra, the conductor and famous works like Beethoven’s Ninth already have a firm place; they’re an easier subject to write about because introduction costs are low. All this makes sense. It is not arbitrary.

Gann identifies a key feature of master narratives when he says, sarcastically, “any greatness out there would have spontaneously appeared by now, despite critical and institutional neglect.” By relying on the narrative of big institutions, journalists will inevitably neglect things that are important but do not fit the story-making pattern. Because they are neglected, these things tend to remain obscure. And because they’re obscure they are justifiably neglected; after all, no one’s ever heard of them! “So this is why I’m the Dennis Kucinich of music criticism,” Gann writes, “because I won’t talk within the Master Narratives.”

In conceiving her tour around California, Marjie Lundstrom said: what if we took the orchestra away, and went out to report on the music? “In our respective fields Rep. Kucinich and I don’t want to preserve the status quo and tinker with it,” Gann writes, “we want to tear it down and replace it with something better, and that’s too radical, so no one will pay any attention to us.”

I’m not so sure about that last part.

Marjie Lundstrom, Campaign Coverage Without the Candidates, Nieman Reports, Winter 2003.

Kyle Gann, Following the Classical Script.

PressThink, The Master Narrative in Journalism.

Posted by Jay Rosen at February 29, 2004 11:23 PM