Fairness & John McPhee’s ‘Archdruid’

[H]uman judgment tells you what to do in journalism—not god or the rule book or the facts. That’s not a trivial point: journalism is saturated with judgment, and a lot of that judgment belongs to the individual journalist. The trouble arises (and this is the whole reason we have the bias debate) because American journalists some time ago took refuge in objectivity, and began to base their authority on a claim to have removed bias from the news.—Jay Rosen

“What’s with you ex-newspaper guys, so angry at newspapers?” the memoirist asked me. She had written for twenty years for The New Yorker. I’d been foaming at the mouth over the peculiar frustrations a newspaper reporter can feel from practicing the conventions of the objective style. “Newspapers,” she said, “are a great training ground for writers.”

“Yes, they are,” I said. “But I’ll try to explain. Remember in the 1960s the incident where a Times reporter who was covering school desegregation in Arkansas rescued a little black girl from a white mob? He pulled her into his car. If you’d been covering that story for The New Yorker, your colleagues would have slapped you on the back. You might even have written about how it felt to save her. He was criticized for getting involved in the story.”

That silenced her, though she shot me a cool look. I don’t think she understood—I don’t, either. But I do know that the writer’s task is to become ever more human; in America, at least, the journalist’s task has been to figure out what a journalist would do. And good luck with that, because most of the craft’s conventions aren’t spelled out but, rather, sensed and sussed and absorbed.

All this comes back, my conversation with the New Yorker writer turned memoirist and my fraught relationship with objectivity, whenever I visit Jay Rosen’s Press Think blog, subtitled “Ghost of Democracy in the Media Machine,” which worries the subject—deliciously painfully for me—like a tongue probing a sore loose tooth.

The objective style would scrub the writer from her prose; it relies on a “he said/she said” format with little or no authorial intervention. Newswriters rarely may reveal their impressions or unveil their hypotheses; they must find sources who’ll speak for them. The objective style exists partly for good, or at least for practical, reasons. And it can lead to brilliant public service reportage, partly because of the rigor and even the cruelty of its constraints. (I once tried to teach a middle-aged lawyer in a reporting class how to build a case journalistically and failed spectacularly—I couldn’t get across how it’s done and merely enraged a man who already knew how to make an argument, at least in his world.)

In the early 1980s, unhappy with my crass editors at a Florida newspaper, I read books and diagnosed their problem as micro-ethics: I was convinced that they’d print, during riots, instructions on how to make a Molotov cocktail—in the interest of public knowledge, of course—and this narrowness was an outgrowth of the objective style. As for me, I read John Merrill’s books on existential journalism and liked the notion of the journalist revealing himself but trying to be fair. Ted Williams wrote a great article around 1980 for Audubon on fishing tournaments, which he revealed he despised. But the piece was fair and even sympathetic to the participants in this activity he openly deplored. I doubted this model would never fly in newspapers—too many time and space constraints, plus reporters functioned not as free agents—as writers, as in magazines—but rather as representatives of an institution. Okay, but it seemed sad that the deracinnated style of reporters on the news side, pursuing miscreants, bled perniciously into the features section and even constrained columnists.

Over several more years I got good at the objective style, but a stone of discontent had lodged in my breast. Once, frustrated by the low level of discussion about writing at a newspaper conference, I wrote an essay, “Traces of the Writer at Work: Overcoming the Enshrinement of Craft in Journalism,” and argued passionately—to myself, for the essay wasn’t published, or submitted—that the profession’s inability to acknowledge the reporter-as-writer was deforming and retarding. Of course even journalists covering school board meetings feel their work is creative—it is—but the objective format itself denies this, specifically that the work is shaped; meanwhile readers sense it must be the product of selection rather than of mere transcription and can become bored, suspicious, hostile. I believed, and still do, that the objective format allows reporters and editors, who’ve followed their “rules” after all, to abdicate responsibility for how they operate and for what they publish.

But not necessarily. It can be done usefully and well.

And Exhibit A in the complexity of this subject, the use of the self in journalism, is John McPhee’s brilliant Encounters with the Archdruid. McPhee went on wilderness hiking and raft trips with legendary preservationist David Brower and three of his sworn enemies, men who develop pristine islands for golf courses and condos, who mine iconic mountains for copper, and who dam wild rivers for boaters and hydroelectric power. Presented as the ultimate tree-hugger, the top druid of the book’s title, Brower is a fascinating figure. But so are the hard-nosed, hard-fisted men of the world who grind their teeth over Brower’s tactics (he’ll lie to the public if it helps save one scrap of wilderness). And they point out, We need to live somewhere, we need minerals, and we need power.

McPhee, known for his reticence about using his persona overtly in his work, set up these encounters in which sparks fly, though he doesn’t bother discussing that obvious point. His admiration and affection is palpable both for Brower and the men he’s picked to accompany and argue with Brower. More to the point: McPhee refuses to take a side. He lets Brower and his foes each have their say. Having presented the complexity of his topic, human need vs. environmental preservation, McPhee throws the burden onto the reader to make her own decision. Partisans on both sides have attacked the book for its bias. I’ve read it several times and it’s impossible to discern McPhee’s position. I believe he must side with Brower, who, though an extremist, makes the compelling case that we should refuse to molest the tiny percentage of wilderness that remains comparatively untouched.

But that’s the position I’ve come to, and I can’t blame McPhee for it. In Encounters with the Archdruid he goes beyond my ideal of a forthright existential journalism into a Zen-like “objectivity” that, paradoxically, places the existential burden of taking a position on the reader. It’s impossible to engage with Encounters and remain a mere voyeur. It’s an amazing performance. Of course McPhee, as a writer (an inquiring and shaping intelligence), saturates the book. But he refuses to guide the reader to a conclusion, beyond the arguments and evidence and personalities he presents.

The book, as rare and risky as its approach is, complicates my feelings about the objective style. (All successful examples of which, I believe, are based on deeply subjective decisions.) And McPhee’s restrained use here of self—so intrinsic to writing, as to any art—stands as a corrective model to the contrary approach in journalistic narratives: excessive “I” deployment when the writer’s role is already obvious and, anyway, he’s orchestrated the whole shebang.



Filed under honesty, journalism, subjectivity

2 responses to “Fairness & John McPhee’s ‘Archdruid’

  1. I missed this post while I was on vacation. Very interesting! When I was studying in my MFA program, after some years of writing primarily for a newspaper, my classmates often said that my essays were lacking in emotion. They said things like “I want to get to know the narrator more.” I see now (but couldn’t then) that that desire on the part of the readers had a lot to do with my journalistic habits. I’m not sure if I was consciously trying to be objective, but that was the result. I was holding myself back. It’s taken me some time to find my creative voice, the one that’s allowed to be involved and have an opinion, whether or not that opinion is expressed outright (or not as in the case of McPhee, it seems).
    I have wondered whether the focus on objectivity and possible resulting lack of creativity can be tied, at least a little bit, to space constraints. It can be easier to be formulaic when shoehorning a complex story into a few column inches.

  2. Elizabeth, I think you are right that space is one of the major constraints. Summary, which tends to be abstract, is very efficient in terms of conveying basic information–not so good at emotion.

    And I’ve also learned, or am still learning, how to put myself in the essay. Michael Pollan is really good at this, and says it’s vital to show his evolution, his blundering, his process, in order to avoid the dull journalistic know-it-all voice (which McPhee risks but escapes). Readers crave the personal, I believe, and also to be on the journey with the writer. It is very subtle, though, and turns on the issue of what’s personal and important and what is just egotism. I’ve just enjoyed a post, “The Silhouette,” on No Such Thing as Was (the blog is linked on my blogroll) on this very issue. Come to think of it, this is worth another little post here!