“85 percent of professionally reported accountability news comes from newspapers, but I have heard guesses from credible sources that go as high as 95 percent.”
— Alex S. Jones, Losing the News
The Wall Street Journal last week dropped a searing three-part series that ended Saturday on how the Veterans Administration lobotomized at least 1,930 returning World War II veterans suffering from what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or some other mental illness that doctors just did not know how to treat.
“It’s just that we didn’t have anything else to do for them,” one retired doctor, now 90, is quoted as saying.
The series, by longtime Journal veteran Michel M. Phillips, himself a war correspondent, is meticulously reported, makes use of a newly unearthed discovered trove of documentation, and is written with an understated elegance in the finest tradition of Journal “leders,” the longform innovation institutionalized by the great Bernard Kilgore in the 1940s and 1950s.
Deploying technology with great discretion, the digital version is flat gorgeous. No bling for bling’s sake here, the series integrates text and other elements seamlessly. An intriguing video introduction of musty files being wheeled through a library dissolves to a haunting photograph of an aging veteran above cleanly laid-out text. The first installment begins with a nightmarish scene of the same veteran as a 29-year-old man fighting off hospital orderlies come to take him away. Current and archival photographs, maps, and documents are deftly woven into the text to create a seamless, immersive experience. The first day ends with a full document of the period offering advice for the families of lobotomized veterans. The document was intended to be helpful but for us it is heartbreaking: “…you may find he does not act as he did before he got sick or before the operation.”
The second day adds to the public record of the now-discredited Walter J. Freeman, well-known for prostelytizing the benefits of lobotomies for civilians deemed mentally ill, and here shown also to be much sought-after by the VA. (Phillips is on Reddit AMA as we speak.)
If you missed that series it was probably because you were reading Andrea Elliott’s masterpiece — and that’s the only word for it — in the Times about the life of an unforgettable 11-year-old homeless girl, Dasani, and her family.
One of the great newspaper series of any kind that I can recall, it draws on a time-honored genre that traces its lineage to the late 19th century and Jacob Riis, and no doubt before, and is right in line with Alex Kotlowitz‘s work in the Wall Street Journal in the 1980s that provided the basis for There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America (1991), set in Chicago’s housing projects. It also made me think of J. Anthony Lukas‘s Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade In the Lives of Three American Families, mostly because of the incredible wealth of detail that only comes from spending massive, massive amounts of time with a subject. In the current case, a note at the end of the series tells us, it was the better part of a year for both Elliott and a photographer, Ruth Fremson.
One of the things newspapers do well when they’re working right is to connect people who would normally have nothing to do with each other. That is still true in the digital age, when “newspapers” is shorthand for legacy news organizations. In this case, the connection is made between the Times’ middle-class audience with a New York that feels as if it occupies a parallel universe. In one universe, bottled water is an afterthought. In another, it’s an aspiration.
I read the five-part series (yes, after balking at the length), well over 20,000 words, in two or three sittings, online and on my phone. It, too, makes use of digital advantages, the most important innovation being footnotes.
But it’s the story as a story that is just plain unforgettable: It has pace, tension, a narrative arc, and most of all, character. Granted, Dasani is exceptional in many ways: complex, vulnerable, tough, innocent, and wise way, way beyond her years. But that’s rather the point of the series. She is, but so are the other 22,000 homeless children in New York (the highest number since the Great Depression; we have the highest child poverty rate of any developed country outside of Romania [!?], etc.). But the supporting cast is also compelling, including her mom, Chanel, and stepdad, Supreme, both complicated, troubled, and in their way, striving; and most memorably for me the public school figures, her teacher, Faith Hester, and principal, Paula Holmes. Here’s a snippet from one of the many occasions Dasani is called to Holmes’s office for clashing with other kids:
“Please don’t call my mother,” Dasani whispers.
Miss Holmes is seated in a rolling pleather chair held together by duct tape. She stares at the anguished girl. She has been at McKinney long enough to know when a child’s transgressions at school might bring a beating at home.
The principal slowly scoots her chair up to Dasani and leans within inches of her face.
“OK,” she says softly. “Let’s make a deal.”
When Chanel doesn’t come home after an arrest on a drug-related charge, we get a sense of what it’s like to be a kid rousted in the middle of the night:
When Chanel did not return that night, Dasani felt something in the air. There was a knock at the door. Dasani shushed the kids. They pretended to be asleep. Then the door opened as an Auburn supervisor and Homeless Services police told the children to get dressed.
And so on.
The notes don’t say how that particular scene was obtained, but it’s typical of the intimacy the series achieves. It’s remarkable. It’s impossible, for instance, not to both pull for Dasani and get that sinking feeling after a chance encounter with a self-help celebrity gives her what appears to be the chance of a lifetime. Reading how it all goes wrong, one gets an inkling of the myriad of things that still have to go right even to make even a lucky break pay off in real advancement.
It’s this mountain of detail — not to mention the enumerated structural issues and policy choices that contribute to this family’s wanderings — that overwhelms crude, paint-by-the-numbers arguments from the peanut gallery about personal responsibility, such as those made by the New York Post’s editorial board. Sorry, but it’s complicated.
Cynics might say this is Pulitzer season, when newspapers roll out their big projects to meet year-end prize deadlines, and they’re not wrong. But for me, that says more about the value of prizes than anything else. If that’s what it takes to get this kind of work done, what’s the harm, exactly?
Sometimes it’s a case of credit where it’s due.
Alex Jones published his book back in 2009, but I’m not sure the figures he mentions have changed all that much. Sure, there is much to be said for new digital entrants and their growing list of achievements. But we’re talking, as I’ve said, about the difference between journalism done on an artisanal scale and an industrial one.
Not all investigations are great; not all of longform is worth the space. But when I wrote about the decline of major newspapers’ longform writing (including and especially at the WSJ), including this graph:
This is the kind of work — investigations undone, public knowledge lost — that’s at stake.
And here’s a coda:
Last week marked the passing, too young, of Bob Kramer, a master of the stakeout and probably the greatest investigative reporter that the Providence Journal ever produced. Among other achievements, he exposed the organized crime ties of a Rhode Island supreme court chief justice, leading to his impeachment.
In a Facebook post among Journal ex-pats, a colleague remembers a tip that Kramer gave on the best way to stake out targets from a car: Sit in the passenger seat; that way passersby will think you’re waiting for the driver.
This is the kind of reporting capacity, all around the country, that we should be aiming for.
This post orginally appeared at Columbia Journalism Review and is posted here with permission.
Dean Starkman is an Investigative Fund fellow at The Nation Insititute.