Working the fringes
Extensive coverage of the rebuilding of New Orleans is certainly something readers and viewers deserve, but they also deserve a form of journalism that has always been difficult for the press in the United States to produce: stories grounded in solid reporting about what is possible, rather than simply what is probable; stories that shatter the official zeitgeist; stories that help set the agenda.
This forward-looking journalism shouldn’t be exclusively about New Orleans, however, since the nation also faces growing problems elsewhere at home and abroad. In short, we need new ideas for the new century. Brian Urquhart, writing in August in The New York Review of Books, argues that in respect to America’s international role, the traditional threat to peace — wars between great powers — has been “supplanted by a series of global threats to human society — nuclear proliferation, global warming, terrorism, poverty, global epidemics, and more. These challenges can only be addressed by collective action, led by determined and imaginative men and women.”
... The vibrant coverage of ideas available in many small-circulation magazines is generally absent from the mass media, a state of affairs that makes the career of Tom Quinn, a reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, all the more instructive.
Quinn began covering environmental and energy topics for the Plain Dealer in the mid-1970s, and since has worked a number of other beats at the paper. He is currently the night police reporter. But through it all he has, as Joan Didion put it, “worked the fringes” — taking classes at Cleveland State University, talking to professors, going to the potlucks and hayrides of groups (Green Energy Ohio, the Northeast Ohio Foodshed Network, etc.) that Quinn, sixty-two, describes as part of “the dissent community.” For Quinn, working the fringes isn’t about advocacy but ideas.
In the late 1990s, Quinn learned about the phenomenon of “peak oil” — how world production of crude oil will eventually peak and then trend irreversibly downward. “Peak oil” is a source of considerable disagreement between the geologists who endorse it and the economists who argue that as the price of oil rises, market forces will spur more efficient ways to extract the remaining crude. Neither side, however, disputes that crude will eventually be scarce. Quinn read the books and technical articles. He studied geology, international finance, and Middle East politics. In January 2005, he began to talk to his editors about “peak oil” and the need to publish work in the paper that attempted to, as he put it, “connect the dots” on the future of energy. His editors listened, and in May the paper began a series that is still under way.
It helped that the Plain Dealer could ground the story of energy development in the region the paper covers. John D. Rockefeller launched the oil age when he started what became Standard Oil in Cleveland in 1863, and Charles Brush, a local inventor, harnessed the wind off Lake Erie with the world’s first electricity-producing turbine in 1887. From there the series broadens to include the global context of energy, drawing on sources from Canada, Sweden, and elsewhere, as well as explorations of “peak oil,” coal, nuclear, and hydrogen power, and stories that move from systemic solutions to practical ways to make readers’ lives more energy-efficient.
Even though the price of gas was in the news before Katrina, the Plain Dealer’s series wasn’t an obvious way for a budget-conscious paper to marshal its resources. Indeed, Doug Clifton, the paper’s editor, says, “It doesn’t sell many papers. In fact, it may not sell any.” But Clifton is quick to stress that “we felt we had an obligation to put these issues before the public.” Clifton has also considered ways to counter the “big-project effect” that can plague newspaper series — meaning that for a specified number of consecutive days the paper asks readers to digest long articles raising big questions, but then mostly drops the subject until the next big project. Series at the Plain Dealer, including one on regional development that has been under way for four years, are doled out intermittently in small portions rather than in one heaping helping, and are typically accompanied by something of an old-fashioned editorial crusade, reinforcing (and revisiting) lessons from the reporting.
Quinn says he is “perceived as kind of ‘out there’ in the city room.” And maybe he is. But the nation could use more “out there” journalism. The center has grown too complacent. The trick, of course, is to find creative ways of working the fringes and connecting the dots. That doesn’t require that we in the press seek to destroy the myths of America, but rather that we help cultivate an awareness of the ways such myths fuel arrogance and limit American ingenuity. The Plain Dealer series doesn’t do this overtly, but the idea underlies the entire project.
In September in The New York Times Magazine, Michael Ignatieff remarked that Katrina’s biggest casualty was the destruction of the “contract of citizenship” between Americans and their government. “It is very much too late,” he writes, “for senior federal officials, from the president on down, to reknit these ties. It is just too late for the public-relations exercises that pass for leadership these days . . . . The real work of healing will be done by citizens much lower down the chain of command.” That is true, too, of the real work of grappling with the many problems America and the world will have to confront in this century. Indeed, an aspect of the mythology of America is the venerated common sense of its citizens. If presented with a challenge and given all the facts, it is said, the American people will make the right decision. They will roll up their sleeves and get to work. It’s time for the press to embrace this myth and help the country decide where to begin.
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