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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Kaplan's CJR essay a must-read

Why does one become a reporter if not in large part to satisfy curiosity about the world? At least that’s a big reason for my becoming a reporter. Sometimes it’s hard to remember what motivated you to pursue a job that so much of the public mistrusts and for which you get paid so little.

I’ve said it often enough here, that I want to see the world and write about all that I see. I get physically antsy when I’ve spent too much time behind my desk. The wonderful thing about being a reporter is the actual reporting process. But given the nature of how we work these days and with budgets constraints particularly for freelancers, so much of reporting is done over the phone or the Internet. Much is lost as a result.

For example: Nearly two years ago I wrote a fairly in-depth piece about Amina Silmi for Lakewood Buzz. It was a story that moved me tremendously for many reasons. There was the social justice angle, the mother and children angle and the government trying to equitably if not compassionately enforce immigration laws.

Last year about this time, I tried to pitch a follow up story. Amina was deported to Venezuela, but she made the agonizing decision to leave her three American-born children here in the states. I spoke with Amina by phone when she was in Venezuela and she was at turns profoundly sad and weepy and intensely angry. It will be at least eight more years before she can return to the states to visit her children.

In my mind I pictured going down to Venezuela to meet with her, to describe the park in which she spent her first night, to spend time in her neighborhood with any family or friends she has. I spent time at her Lakewood home. I wanted to absorb how she was now living. But I know the editor of Lakewood Buzz, as much as he would love to have that story, cannot afford to send me. And another local editor very callously told me that she broke the law and therefore was of no interest to her readers.

So I Iet that story die. Maybe I should have pursued it more doggedly. But I don’t have the luxury of working on something that extensive (and costly to my own pocketbook) without the guarantee of a paid assignment. So I moved on. Occasionally I think of her and wonder how she goes on when her heart is fractured at the loss of her children…

I mention all of this because an essay in the January/February issue of Columbia Journalism Review inspired and reminded me about the importance of such work. Written by Robert D. Kaplan, a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, it’s unfortunately unavailable online. So I’m going to spend the rest of this post pulling paragraphs that resonated in my journalistic heart. The piece is called, “Cultivating Loneliness: The importance of slipping away from the pack to encounter, and understand, the world firsthand.”

The Internet now makes facts so effortless to obtain that there is the illusion of knowledge where none actually exists. With so many low-budget Web logs that do little more than emotionally react to the headlines, rare is the commentator who does the field work necessary to earn his opinions – or even his prejudices.

• Above all, it is the lack of appreciation for geography in the broad, nineteenth-century sense of the word that is basic to an age of journalism increasingly given to summarizing from above rather than reporting from below.

• Journalism desperately needs a return to
terrain, to the kind of firsthand, solitary discovery of local knowledge best associated with old-fashioned travel writing.

• In and of itself, travel writing is a low-rent occupation, best suited for the Sunday supplements. But it is also a deft vehicle for filling the void in serious journalism: for example, by rescuing such subjects as art, history, geography, and statecraft from the jargon and obscurantism of academia…

• Owen Lattimore, while traveling in Inner Mongolia, makes an observation that all journalists should take to heart:

“There is nothing that shuts off the speech of simple men like the suspicion that they are being pumped for information: while if they get over the feeling of strangeness they will yarn as they do among themselves. Then in their talk comes out the rich ore of what they themselves accept as the truth about their lives and beliefs, not spoiled in trying to refine it unskillfully by suiting the words to the listener.”

Just listening to people, to their stories – rather than cutting them off to ask probing, impolite questions – forms the essence of these and all other good travel books.

• Reporting emphasizes intrusive, tape-recorded interview; travel writing emphasizes the art of good conversation, and the experience of how it comes about in the first place.

• Rather than interrogate strangers, which is essentially what reporters do, the travel writer gets to know people, and reveals them as they reveal themselves.

• Travel writing emphasizes solitariness. The best writing, literary or journalistic, occurs under the loneliest of circumstances, when a writer encounters the evidence firsthand without anyone of his social, economic, or professional group nearby to help him filter it, or otherwise condition his opinions.

Kaplan writes of many travel writers works spanning a century and beyond. He references Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari (2003) and Colin Thubron’s In Siberia(1999).

Whatever the prejudices of Theroux and Thubron, at least they are the result of direct contact with the evidence – uncontaminated by contact with a clerisy of specialists, clustered in nearby foreign capitals. As Jack London put it, “They drew straight from the source, rejecting the material which filtered through other hands.”

• If anyone deserves a public service award for peeling back the curtain on distant societies, it is less the publishers of major newspapers and magazines than those of the
Lonely Planet Guides and The Rough Guides. These two series combine historical and cultural depth with intrepid, solitary research by young travelers who get to every remote location in a given country … In the 1990s, when it was particularly hard to get visas to Iran — and much of the information about that country emerged out of seminars in Washington — the best thing to read on the subject was Iran: A Travel Survival Kit by David St. Vincent, published in the Lonely Planet series.

• Reporting, — one of history’s oldest professions, even as it has gone under different names — will survive and prosper, while “journalism” as a respected discipline threatens to dissolve into another branch of entertainment. How will good reporting survive? Individual men and women will slip away from the crowd — away from the panels and seminars, the courses and conferences, away from the writers’ hangouts and e-mails networks — to cultivate loneliness.

And they will do this out of curiosity — for as the illusion of knowledge grows daily, the reality of places themselves becomes more of mystery.

Pick up a copy if you can. I’ve only captured a skeletal look at Kaplan’s essay. If anything he has the raconteur in me longing to be silent and fill my reporter’s notebook.

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