The Journalist as Private Eye
Submersion Journalism: Reporting in the Radical First Person from Harper’s Magazine, edited by Bill Wasik, introduction by Roger D. Hodge (The New Press, 2008)
In the introduction to Submersion Journalism: Reporting in the Radical First Person from Harper’s Magazine, that magazine’s editor, Roger D. Hodge, argues that the turn of the millennium and George W. Bush’s administration signaled a shift in both the way we consume information and the type of information we’re receiving. Opinion and publicity, Hodge continues, so completely dominate our media sources that we no longer have the ability to discern between relevant information, culturally devoid distractions, and noxious spin. His proposed solution? The type of intimate, first-person, narrative reporting that has been a keystone of the magazine’s contents during its 158-year history.
What he calls “radical first-person” is the type of storytelling in which, according to Hodge, “the individual consciousness of the writer is paramount. The reader thereby becomes privy to the writer’s experience and receives direct confirmation of its truth value.” Now, I have no idea what “truth value” is. And it seems odd that the counterbalance to opinion would be writing that specifically focuses on the “I” narrating the story. But, there is a legitimate argument to be made for this form and it is the research, commitment, and intellect that classify these writers as professionals.
Divided up into six sections, with enticing titles like “Illness” and “Vice,” Submersion Journalism is a collection of pieces that show the myriad ways a journalist can dig into an issue. The opening section features three stories from writers who went undercover to report from places normally hidden to the public—and completely blockaded to journalists. Jeff Sharlet’s experience with a mob-like religious organization that acts as a feeder system (and conscience) for some of our government’s highest posts is a model for young journalists. Like most of the writers featured in the book, Sharlet refrains from judgment, using instead his curiosity and knowledge to engage his subjects. While Sharlet’s perspective makes the piece uniquely his own, the ability to see his position within the story while simultaneously reporting it is what’s truly remarkable. Wannabe journalists, take note: let the narrative and its characters do the work for you.
In fact, Submersion Journalism could be the companion to Robert Boynton’s 2005 book, The New New Journalism: Conversations with America’s Best Nonfiction Writer’s on Their Craft (the covers of both are conspicuously similar). Boynton’s book features interviews with journalists who detail their highly idiosyncratic writing processes. Together, these two books are the equivalent of a serious journalist’s bible.
But laymen need not shy away from Submersion Journalism. Although these are nonfiction contributions, they often read like literature. William T. Vollmann’s “They Came Out Like Ants!” is the author’s story of trying to find a hidden labyrinth of tunnels in Mexicali, Mexico where Chinese immigrants, it is said, once lived. The adventure is matched only by Vollmann’s vivid descriptions: “Late in the evening the sun caught the orangeness on the backward Restaurant Victoria lettering on the white window curtains, and the pleats of the curtains began sweating yellow and gold.” This is not writing you will find in Parade (or on most blogs, for that matter). It is the work of a refined craftsman, someone who can manipulate words to the stunning effect.
The collection has only one noticeable weakness: a dearth of female writers. In fact, there’s only one. And though Barbara Ehrenreich’s piece is daring and unexpected, the subject is breast cancer. One has to wonder why more women aren’t included. Is it because this type of work, in which the writer is often putting his own life in danger, doesn’t tempt female writers? Many female journalists thrive on this sort of work. But it does seem as though Harper’s (and other reputable general interest magazines) still publish more of this “radical first-person journalism” authored by men.
Something Hodge doesn’t mention in his opening is the fact that, since 1983, Harper’s has been published by John R. MacArthur, grandson of the philanthropists John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur (the magazine has its own fund and assets, the Harper's Magazine Foundation).* So while the publishing industry frets about how to make money with online content, Harper’s is a luxurious oasis, free from the pressure to sell, sell, sell! This makes the final section of the book, titled “Confessions of War,” all that much more powerful. Willem Marx and Adam Davidson’s pieces tell stories about being war correspondents in Iraq; Marx as a young and very naïve writer who’s first gig out of college tests his ethics; Davidson as an established staff writer who’s preconceived notions don’t live up to reality. Bravely, these two writers reveal what many would not: that being a journalist is as much about a duty to find and reveal truth as it is about feeding one’s own ego. Without the MacArthur Foundation’s largesse, would Harper’s be able to publish articles that so directly undermine its authority? Maybe, but this final chapter has the potential to sour a reader’s opinion of both the magazine and the industry. Yet what Marx and Davidson prove is that the most compelling argument for Harper’s-style reporting is that it keeps everyone honest.*Ed.'s note: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Harper's is owned by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The Rail regrets the error.
Katie Rolnick is a freelance writer and co-editor of the Brooklyn Rail Books section.