Friday, March 26, 2010

Molly Ivins, Objectivity, Subjectivity, and Blogging the Legislature

'Nail the bastard' is advice I've gotten from some.  Clearly, some legislators need to be more exposed so the public can hear what they say and weigh how they use power.  And while I do expose a bit of what's going on, I'm not giving away context-free scandal headlines.

My personal style though is to hold back on pronouncements and give lots of information for readers to draw their own conclusions.   The truth is so elusive, declaring you've caught it is a fool's mission.  While I have hunches, and they tend to be basically in the ballpark, what seemed black or white at first gets greyer and greyer.   On the other hand somebody has to stop counting angels and reveal the emperor's naked state.   Bloggers have to go with the style they are most comfortable with. 

As an academic, I long ago gave up the conceit of objectivity.  No one is objective.  Using 'we' instead of 'I' or other devices to avoid the writer's presence in the article is just a pretense.  The writer is always there and always has a point of view.  Even if it is a belief that the writer can be objective.  While part of me says readers should figure out who I am from my writing, another part says to reveal my points of view so they can better judge what I write. 

So the biography of Molly Ivins I'm reading now by Bill Minutaglio and W. Michael Smith is a useful reminder for me not to get too hung up on how others want me to do this.  But being aware of what and how I'm doing this is always important.  Here's a passage I enjoyed because it speaks to these issues I wrestle with. 

Ivins has just finish a year long graduate program in Journalism at Columbia.  There are campus demonstrations going on (it's 1967, there were protests against military recruiters, but the big demonstrations at Columbia were yet to come in 1968)  yet many of the journalism students are being "neutral."
At the journalism school, some students and faculty were frozen by indecision and alleged journalistic objectivity;  others were too fixated on their careers, their student draft deferments, to do anything other than remain neutral.  "The classes of 1967 and 1968 seemed intent on moving ahead with their careers and staying out of activist politics . . [T]he graduate classes may have absorbed unconsciously, even too well, the school's newer ideal of the job-oriented neutral - or neutered - journalist."2  
Ivins had decided that Albert Camus, George Orwell, and I.F. Stone were her literary and journalism heroes.  She was also reading the new journalists, the writers who had an edge.  Richard Goldstein, who would become one of the better-known rock journalists of his era and an editor of The Village Voice, had
graduated from Columbia the year before.  He'd clearly gotten more quickly to where Molly Ivins the columnist would finally emerge almost fifteen years later.  After Columbia, he would write about "the struggle for subjectivity" and how to dance between objectivity and the nagging doubts, fears, and history swirling in his head :  how to inject your own voice, your own subjective sets of experiences - and basically run counter to particular rules espoused at Columbia or at the Houston Chronicle.  The dictum that was usually preached over and over again was to never make the story about you.  But Goldstein was immersing himself in as many entry points inside the crackling counterculture as possible - and bending the hell out of conventions that some were dutifully outlining at Columbia.  Most mainstream educators and editors wanted journalists to speak truth to power, but they wanted it done in the usual time-honored fashion - dig, report some more, write a linear story devoid of any subjectivity.  Goldstein and others were on another path - covering the news, speaking in their own voice, and weighing the cost of using it in stories about the Real Politick edges of the '60s and '70s.  Hunter Thompson hadn't yet risen up like the homunculus born to feast on Richard Nixon and his ilk, but his brand of subjective journalism was coming.  Ivins would later chuckle and call her short-form version of it "story-telling," in honor of her Texas mentor John Henry Faulk, the blacklisted humorist who specialized in Southern-style homilies and parables.  Whatever it was called, there was a new set of possibilities, something way the hell beyond the hometown woman columnists in Houston that her mother was praying she would be like. 

My goal here isn't to expose foibles or even corruption.   My interest is to understand why people are acting the way they do.  So I might write about behavior - not so much neutrally, but by trying out different stories to explain the behavior - as a way of understanding not just what happened on a given day in the Capitol, but the long term evolution of that person and the institutions that encouraged or permitted that behavior but not others. 

Merely 'throwing the rascals out' is a short term fix.  The systems that be keep putting new rascals in.  My interest is in understanding how the decent, honest, public interested legislators get in and stay in power and why the public elects them and why they also elect the self-serving, deceptive, ego driven legislators. And it's also important to remember that these qualities aren't neatly divided among people as I divided them above.

Another goal here is to get people to start using BASIS and Gavel to Gavel and all the resources available to keep track of what's going on in Juneau.  Depending on an unpaid blogger to keep at it is much too big a gamble in the long term. 

What I really think is needed are 20 or more teams of reporters spread out and covering the legislature in different slices.  Some focus on key committees.  Others on key bills.  Others on key legislators.  Others on key issues.  Sort of like having topographical maps, political maps, street maps, and a bunch of other types of maps to keep track of various important features and events. 

1 comment:

  1. I really like this post. I, too, report on a specific issue, and try to keep my personal opinions out of the reporting. I think this sometimes leads to very dry reporting. I love Mike Doogan's newsletters, they are never dry. But I worry that if I were to insert my humor/personality/opinions into my reporting, it would take too much away from what I'm reporting on. Besides, some people think I have a really horrible sense of humor! Of course, I think I'm funny, but having to point out to others how funny you are, everytime you say something funny, well, obviously if you have to point it out, they don't think you're funny. It's kind of like making a pun, then saying, "No pun intended."

    I love BASIS. You can find pretty much anything on there. My only complaint is that FTR, the program the legislature uses for posting audio of meetings is so fragile and picky, that it is difficult to get the program installed and working on many people's computers. My husband had to uninstall my print drivers, install FTR, and then reinstall the print drivers to get it to work on my netbook. And the edition of FTR that the legislature uses doesn't work with Windows 7 at all, so forget it if you have a new computer. In addition, I have been told it simply doesn't work on Macs.

    I report on education issues. I have a newsletter, but you can get a little bit of my info from a blog I just set up a month ago. It is

    Yes, I was inspired by your blog, which I have been following for a while!

    Shana Crondahl, Alaska Education Update


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