Genius at Work

The passion of the artist irritates an audience that isn’t persuaded to share it. A great reporter isn’t someone who cares; it’s someone whose readers care.

Last month the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced the 24 winners of this year’s so-called genius grants, and as I read the list one name stood out. There are three criteria for these $500,000 awards, which will be paid out over the next five years. The first is exceptional creativity, the second the potential for great work to come, and the last the likelihood that the money will make this work possible. This year novelists, composers, researchers, and inventors all received MacArthur grants.

And then there was Katherine Boo, 37, described by the Associated Press simply as a staff writer at the Washington Post “who writes about the lives of the less fortunate.” Why give half a million dollars to a reporter whose employer is already paying her a comfortable wage to do her work? I wondered. And what’s so creative about that work? Journalism is a trade, not an art form.

But journalism is both. Good reporters are dogged and curious, and because stories don’t fall in their laps they’re expected to be ingenious too. The best go beyond ingenuity. Judy Havemann is a Post editor I’ve known for years, and when I asked her to comment on Boo she E-mailed me this:

“Kate Boo is one of the best recipients that the MacArthur Foundation could have possibly found. Sure she is dogged. Sure she works hard, and sure she reports like crazy. But her creativeness is simply something that cannot come from reading or editors or reporting or just being an extraordinarily good writer, which she is. She SEES things. She SEES connections, and ideas. She sees what is really at the bottom of things. You and I have read a million stories about the poor. We could diagram the pattern which is followed by good newspapers across the country….The pattern is this, touching anecdote, so-what graf, policy explanation, and exposition of the anecdote and possibly other examples. This is not creativity.

“What is creativity is the creation of deep and touching, sometimes gripping stories of social fundamentals that are never talked about–the remaining utter and complete separation of the races even though people get along on the surface…and the bitterness and hopelessness and almost hatred that occurs when somebody has grabbed the bottom rung on the ladder and is being pulled down by her own child.”

Havemann was describing two Boo stories that had popped into her mind as she wrote me. The protagonist of the second, written in 1997, was a 34-year-old woman who’d finally and proudly achieved “what the federal government would consider a social policy triumph”–she’d made it off welfare. But her 15-year-old daughter, already the mother of a sickly infant, was pregnant again, and the mother didn’t know what to do. She could arrange for day care–and wipe out her income. Or she could tell her daughter, who was in ninth grade, to stay home and be a mother. But the girl wasn’t mature enough to be a mother, and if she dropped out of school she’d be throwing her life away. There was also a bright younger daughter to consider, as full of promise as her big sister’s life was full of woe.

Writing about the effects of welfare reform, Boo spent five months following this family and exploring the section of Washington they lived in–East Capitol Dwellings, also known as the Shrimp Boat for the dingy take-out joint that’s its commercial hub. She even went to a Goodwill janitors school for two weeks because that was where folks from the Shrimp Boat were going to learn a trade. She learned what they learned–such as that bacteria collects in soap, so a bathroom’s half-used old bars should be thrown away.

“When we think of creativity we talk a lot about the writing,” Boo tells me. “Is it creative writing? I think, for me, the people whose work I admire most, the creativity is in the front end of it–it’s in the choosing. The first person I think of is not a journalist. Frederick Wiseman did this film called Belfast, Maine, and it’s basically montages of scenes from a fishing village with a tourist industry, and the climax is an English teacher talking about Moby Dick–how Melville wrote an epic story about kings, only they were workers. It’s a subtle, beautiful film about the loss of a way of life and a class in America. The genius was that he saw ahead of time that he could do something about this. We think so much in journalism about getting the right phrase. For me the hardest thing is always to figure out what the story is–is the story worth doing? Why Belfast, Maine? Why that?

“There is a tendency in journalism to–is this a word?–exotify. To stick to the anomalous. We have an eye for the anomalous that causes us to miss what’s the same. The more important thing is maybe what’s the same. So you re-create sort of a lopsided cosmos. You create all these anomalies, when, in fact, you walk into a low-income person’s house and you might notice that 90 percent of it is like your house.”

That’s where I stop her. The other 10 percent is what we’re trained to look for, because it tells the tale.

“But sometimes,” she replies, “we forget the other 90 percent. We don’t have a context for the other 90 percent. I guess I think that in writing about the poor, so often there’s an idea that it’s a completely alien, anonymous culture, and it’s not really part of, quote, our culture. That makes for better stories, but it distorts the connective culture that there is in this country.”

It turns out Boo needs the money. A year and a half ago, shortly after winning a Pulitzer Prize, she went on leave from the Post to work on a New Yorker story, and when she finished it she extended her leave in order to stay at home and write a book. It’s about a group of children she’s watched grow up since 1996–she calls them “charter cogs in the new war on poverty.”

“I took a leave in part to separate myself from the newsroom culture and conventions,” she says. “I like newspapers, but I don’t always like the newspaper culture. There’s something about the competitive nature of newsroom culture that made me happy to be outside it. But that’s not a categorical criticism of newspapers as much as a reflection of my own wussy temperament.”

The newsroom represents, to Boo, “extraneous stress,” the need to fabricate a “public self,” meetings at which she never feels “brilliant.” Boo is uncomfortable talking about the public policy issues that obsess her, in part because they rank so low on the Washington political agenda to which the Post newsroom is exquisitely attuned. She says, “I think by the nature of the long, tedious projects I do that I have never really been part of the mainstream daily coverage. I can barely write a daily story to save my life–as my editors learned. It’s not heresy to say this, because I was never really in the church.”

Writing for the New Yorker, she found herself “a little freer to think, less paralyzed by the notion of dispassionate objectivity.” And she understood at once that the astonishing MacArthur grant would allow her to make some changes in the book she’s writing. “I’m not going to be as constrained to write a book that will sell, as opposed to a book that–” As she often does, she pauses to find a word.

That will tell the truth?

“I don’t want to say that. That’s self-aggrandizing. But that gets closer to it.”

She’s also working on another New Yorker piece on marriage as an antipoverty measure–a popular idea in the Bush administration. “It is the quickest way to raise people’s incomes with minimal government investment,” she explains. Oklahoma, she says, is a state whose divorce rate trails only Nevada’s and also a laboratory of new ideas to encourage marriage. In July she attended a “marriage prep class” at Oklahoma City’s Holy Temple Baptist Church. “Only three women came, but after class I went home with the women, and I’ve been following them ever since.”

She returned from her last trip to Oklahoma City wearing a pair of socks borrowed from one of the women, fell asleep with her clothes on, and woke up to get the telephone call telling her she was half a million dollars richer. “I think it’s safe–that is, absolutely true–to say,” she tells me, “that due to my financial situation, I wouldn’t have been able to devote the time to doing the New Yorker story in the way I thought it deserved doing.” On Monday she caught a plane back to Oklahoma.

Chicken Little Weighs In

“It’s time to buy,” said A.E. Eyre.

He’d heard I was unloading every stock I owned and looking for something solid–one possibility was a gold-plated investment opportunity E-mailed my way from new friends in Nigeria.

“That would be a mistake,” he said. “The recession’s hit rock bottom. The recovery is at hand.”

Financial acumen is easy to spot, and I’d never seen it in Eyre. Better minds than our own, I told him, were predicting that the worst was yet to come.

“The worst is right here,” said Eyre, and he slapped a newspaper on the counter. It was the Perspective section of last Sunday’s Tribune, a section devoted to the dire straits of the economy. He pointed to the keynote headline that crossed the front page: “Have we sold our souls?”

I hadn’t. And now that the bubble’s burst it’s probably worth half what it was last year.

“No mere investment counselor wrote this,” Eyre proclaimed. “This author is a professor of political science at an eminent university.”

In other words, the recession was past the point of being covered by mere journalists. The Tribune had brought in an academic.

“Our economy is weak because our society is weak,” Eyre read. “Then he makes a reference to Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom in these difficult times we would be wise to recall.”

Emerson knew his stuff.

“We should recall,” Eyre continued, his eyes on the printed page, “that in Emerson’s view, ‘reliance on property’ betokened a ‘want of self-reliance.’ Our professor is of like mind, needless to say. ‘The American “mass” now crushes beneath it everyone who seeks to overcome the crowd and become a person. In schools, in universities, in professions, in politics, in the streets, the “Mass Person”‘–that’s capital M, capital P–‘rejects everything that is excellent, individual, qualified, singular and select. One can hardly be surprised at the weakness of our markets and economy. It merely echoes a palpable weakness of our–capital S–‘Spirit.'”

It was uncanny. Though this diagnosis failed to describe myself or anybody I knew, it was right on the money about everyone else.

“Left unchanged,” Eyre continued to read, “our American society, after sucking out the very marrow of individualism, will be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with that rusty death of machinery, more hideous even than the death of a living organism. The economy, following society, will become more and more anemic.” Eyre’s eye scanned the page. “He calls for ‘an improved social order in which the’–capital I–‘Individual, firmly liberated from the mass, can begin to take himself or herself seriously.'”

The tragedy was that we must have had such a social order just two years ago, when the economy was strong. It had slipped through our fingers.

“Years of observation have taught me,” said Eyre, “that by the time the desperate press begins publishing this kind of malarkey the recession is spent and the boom times are returning.”

Eyre has a problem respecting any intelligence but his own. I told him how unpleasant it was to see him scorn a man simply because he chose to summon the better angels of our nature.

“Listen to this,” said Eyre. “Again I quote, ‘Do we want a truly robust economy and stock market? Then we first have to reorient society from the corrupted ambience of the multitude and mass taste to a noble environment of thought and beauty.'”

Who could argue?

“Could this be a parody?” Eyre wondered.

I was sure it wasn’t.

“I bet it is,” Eyre said. “The word ‘noble’ is a giveaway. Someone at the Tribune’s got to be laughing up his sleeve.”

In his distant youth Eyre was an idealist and a romantic. I don’t know what happened to him.

RedEye Headed for Turbulence

The most obvious business problem facing the Sun-Times is its failure to put out a Sunday paper that affluent suburban readers will allow into their homes. Circulation has dwindled for decades–to a point below that of the daily paper–and the Sun-Times has decided to stop fiddling with the product. Now on what editor in chief Michael Cooke calls the “drawing board” is the dramatic conversion of its Sunday paper to a broadsheet–just like the Tribune.

The Tribune’s doing something even more dramatic about its big problem, which is the unwillingness of young readers to read it. A lot of people in the coveted, exasperating 18-to-34-year-old market don’t read any daily newspaper, but the ones who do prefer the Sun-Times. According to the Sun-Times’s figures (which the Tribune claims not to put much stock in), there are 1.25 million people in Cook County in this age range, and 360,000 of them see the Sun-Times with some regularity and 225,000 of them the Tribune. So the Tribune will soon be launching RedEye, a Monday-Friday tabloid version of itself that will be sold for a quarter in places, to quote a press release, “where younger urban consumers live and play.” The Tribune’s goal is to swipe readers from the Sun-Times and advertising from the Reader.

The Tribune’s not alone in concluding that the best way to do business with the 18-to-34 market is to smile broadly but never forget you’re dealing with a difficult case of arrested development complicated by attention deficit disorder. In a cheerleading memo to his staff this month, Tribune publisher Scott Smith touted RedEye as a “savvy quick enjoyable read…smartly edited for the news and entertainment interests of young urban adults on the go.” A press release envisioned “young, urban commuters” facing “20 minutes of down time.” What to do? “Option A: Stare mindlessly into space. Option B: Get informed, be entertained, move on.” RedEye coeditor Jane Hirt was quoted making this appeal: “If readers give us 20 minutes, we’ll make the most of their time. We’ll plug them in.”

The Sun-Times’s response to RedEye has been a crash program run by Cooke to create a competitor (yet unnamed) and get it out on the street at the same time. The Sun-Times’s last attempt to target the 18-to-34 market was the disastrous Next supplement, which lasted six months. The goal this time isn’t so much to succeed as to help the Tribune fail.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Courtesy The MacArthur Foundation.