Monday, October 26, 2009

Big Enough for The Both of Us

Several years ago, while traveling through New England on a dizzying road tour of east coast colleges, I found myself in Middletown, Connecticut once home to the Mattabesett Indians and now to the 2,700 students at Wesleyan University, a school perhaps best known for its nude dormitory and student porn magazine. With an afternoon to spare and some student publications to read I arrived on campus just in time to hear a fully clothed and suprisingly old George Packer lecture on the ethics of journalism. As an enthused reader of The New Yorker desperately trying to establish my credentials as such, I felt no small obligation to pack up my things and join in to hear one of their most respected (and least interesting) writers. Despite the endless prose and obscure references which constitute his massive, though infrequent, contributions to the magazine, his talk was somber and straight-forward.

Having returned from Iraq at the high of the war, a tired and visibly aged Packer relayed two important points: The first was that the war in Iraq was a mis-guided, poorly-managed, under-staffed and over-funded last attempt at American Imperialism the secondly was that only, in the 15,000 words The New Yorker agreed to publish, could he possibly begin to scratch the surface of what he had come to learn in the ten paid months he spent preparing the it. One of these two points seems particularly apt in reading Matt Thomas' article in Poynter. While Thomas' criticism of journalism does not explicitly mention the war it does make use of an article culled from the same publication in this case to make a point about the state of journalism.

What was clear to Mr. Packer but seems to allude Matt Thomas is the privileged position The New Yorker is in. Published only once every other week, with a two month backlog The New Yorker has few obligations to be timely and even fewer to be informative (at least in the utilitarian sense.) Rather, The New Yorker, trades on its insight and rigorous fact-checking (even in fiction), on its in-depth analysis of issues already in the public purview. Quite contrarily The New York Times which is printed every day and updated at least twice an hour online does not have the leisurely privilege of spending 10 months pay or 15,000 words on any single issue, let alone a article. The primary function of The New York Times is ultimately to tell us what happened. While they have an obligation to be transparent it is equally important they are efficient; something no informed reader would accuse The New Yorker.

One needs not go into the archives to draw such a conclusion. Implicit even in the examples mentioned in the article is a fundamental disparity between two very different modes of production. At under 1,100 words stacked neatly on 121 lines, compacted into 29 short paragraphs, the article in The New York Times is could be read almost anywhere by nearly anyone while at a sprawling 7,762 words, 700 lines and 108 paragraphs, the article in the The New Yorker calls for an on duty wet nurse and an external catheter for uninterrupted reading. Equally at odd are the authors: one a compulsive corespondent for The New York Times with a background in journalism and political science (David D. Kirkpatrick) and the other an occasional contributor to The New Yorker and full-time professor/ practitioner of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Hospital (Dr. Atul Gawande.) Though this may seem an aside from the issues at hand it is in fact at their center. To consider Dr. Gawande's article over Mr. Kirkpatrick's is to completely ignore the conditions under which each was written and to discount the prospect that they might each present something valuable; while Dr. Gawande's article was thorough and thoughtful, at nearly 8,000 words it is neither pertinent nor practical for consumption outside of the magazine's limited subscriber base. And while the Kirkpatrick article is does not approach the issue of healthcare with much depth or technical wherewithal, it is clear, timely and well-suited for wide, quick consumption.

This purpose of this comparison is not to assert one journalistic method over another, nor to assign any value or judgement, but rather to point out their differences and ultimately to suggest that they need one another. That together they constitute everything that news should and can be, and that only by engaging in both of these models can we ever truly hope to be "informed."

*If You Like The New Yorker's Legnthy In-Depth Coverage Take a Look at Some Of These: Laphram's Quarterly, n+1, Dissent, The New Left Review, Democracy,

1 comment:

  1. This is a great post, Dylan; I am also an avid New Yorker reader and I agree. While I have a pretty high tolerance for long, meandering, in-depth articles, even I found a lot of the Seymour Hirsch articles on Iraq to be too much for me. And I haven't even cracked the recent day-to-day history of the financial crisis last year, which was I think more than 20 pages long. Long-form investigative journalism obviously can provide more information than a short daily news piece. I do think though that Thomas could advocate for a happy medium.