I was involved in a conversation at the Kennedy School at Harvard the other day with two people who held important jobs in the Republican Party. When the conversation turned to welfare reform and I expressed some misgivings about the return of the basic welfare programs to state control, one of mycompanions became angry. “Don’t you think the states can do a better job than the federal government has?” she asked. Maybe, I said, “But I remember when the states ran welfare programs. That’s when a major piece of the welfare program of the state of Alabama was buying bus tickets to New York for their black citizens to—as George Wallace said—send them to those Yankees up there who love them so much to take care of them.”
I mention this for two reasons. The first is to remind myself that we did a lousy job covering the patchwork of state welfare rules and regulations that were in place when I was a young reporter. As a result we failed to see how the disparate decisions of disparate states were creating the demography and the social and political patterns of today. And second to point out that journalism has a second chance to redeem its promise.
Year after year, Nieman Fellows lament that they have no big, broad, important stories like Vietnam, Watergate, the civil rights movement, to challenge and engage them as fully as my generation had.
I’m here to suggest that you’re looking at just such a story. The truth is that as large as Vietnam and Watergate seem in that dreamy, sepia tone of hindsight, they were stories that began as tentative, probing stories pursued more to scratch a persistent itch than because there was some clear goal in mind. And they were built into national stories with far-reaching implications, tediously, with a lot of plodding reporting. The broader stories that gave form to the eventual edifice were laid brick by brick the way all truly important things are built.
There’s not a lot I can tell you about the details of welfare reform, or the ways in which it is playing out at the grassroots level, that you’ve not already heard better from experts here today. But let me just offer a few insights about constructing stories of the kind that I’ve gleaned from about 40 years of off-and-on thinking about it.
One of the biggest challenges that you face is the context into which you are writing the stories today. Public surveys and election results make it clear that a miserly spirit of Dickensian proportions is building in the country today. That means there is likely to be less money available for broad-based public programs, and most people in the country will have little time and little patience for the notion of organized public obligations in general.
In order to engage a public caught up in acquiring and keeping more for themselves, your coverage of the general issue of support for the less-advantaged will have to be reported and presented in ways that will put the story in a broader context. You’ll be fishing in a stream of well-fed fishes, and success will depend on displaying an array of multiple hooks, showing them as many different lures as possible. And you tie those lures in a way which attaches the situation of the needy in America to as many other people and institutions and trends in this society as possible.
Your goal is to embed your story so firmly into the fabric of our times that everyone sees the connection between the situation of the less-advantaged and themselves. You’ll have to forage for bricks to build these stories. And I suggest you start with a look at history. Just study the work of photographer Jacob Riis, and read Lincoln Steffens and Charles Dickens, not because their story is your story, but because they can point you toward the shape and the dimension of the kind of story of vast social dynamic that confronts you.
Riis recognized that the story needed, first of all, to be exposed, for most people had no real idea of what went on with the Other in late 19th and early 20th Century America. Steffens recognized that the story needed exposure of the political imperatives and structures which provide the girding for the social system and which are still part of the landscape of American cities. And Dickens recognized that the story was not limited to a single class of people but needed, in order to be tellingly told, the interaction between those who have and those who need.
Producing the kinds of stories that I believe are necessary to win support for time and resources from your editors, and to penetrate the otherwise occupied minds of your audience, means that you’ll have to master a number of skills and look for different kinds of stories.
Initially, you’ll have to confront two paradoxes. First: You’ll have to write fast and you’ll have to write slow—constant and repetitious stories about the process and about the people caught up in it, while saving string for the broader and deeper stories. You have to, because your stories can’t wait. The press has its greatest influence on public opinion in a program’s formative stages, before issues become polarized and positions fixed. This is when people are open to new ideas and when new facts and fresh ways to see things provide them a basis on which to, as Lincoln said, think anew and act anew.
Once people think they know what everything is about, new ideas and new ways to think about the subject will grow only like stalagmites through the constant drip of super-saturated material. Unfortunately, modern journalism and modern life are much less accessible by this kind of deliberative process today.
Secondly, you have to write up and you have to write down. Stories about welfare have to be pursued on two levels. One level is the technical level of the dismantling of the national system of entitlement and the building of 50 separate state programs of limited support for cases of extreme need. The other is the more personal level that will chronicle either a miraculous end to poverty or the recreation of a class of citizens like those who stare out of Sebastian Selgado photographs.
The French essayist Montaigne has written that, “an infinity of fine actions must be lost without a witness, [for] a man is not always at the top of a breach or at the head of an army…. He is taken by surprise between the hedge and the ditch…. And if you watch carefully, you will find by experience that the least-brilliant occasion happens to be the most dangerous.”
These are the stories, the stories of people taken by surprise between the hedge and the ditch that we don’t often find in the daily paper. The ill-prepared single parent confronting day care, school, health care and soccer practice. An ailing mother whose only skills are useful to a telemarketer. And as I said, they’re not just stories of poor people. They’re stories of contrast between the haves and the have-nots: the people who organize the telemarketing calls, the people who make the calls and your readers and viewers, the people who reluctantly receive the calls.
The story of the second in that triad, the caller, is the easy one. It’s too easy. It too quickly becomes either an ennobled or a demeaned person. And too often simply closes your reader’s mind.
In fact, a great Latin American writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who also runs a training course for young journalists in Colombia, refuses to allow histrainees to interview poor people in doing their social stories. They’re too easy to reach and exploit. His trainees must build their stories by examining and interviewing those who receive the services and who receive the products and who profit from them. It is in the interweaving of these experiences that the best kind of stories will unfold.
Because of these two paradoxes—to write fast and to write slow, and to write up and to write down—you’re in a position to unite two trends of contemporary journalism that have been growing further apart for the past 30 years. One is the art of precision journalism, made popular by Philip Meyer and a book of that name back in the 1960’s, which stresses the more rigorous reporting with appropriate tools of measurement and analysis. In short, it is a more scientific approach. It is the kind of careful reporting that would, if it were the standard rather than the exception, have by now moderated the fear of crime in America. It would have pointed out that in a city such as Philadelphia, the likelihood is 93 percent that the young man living next door does not have a criminal record and 98 percent that he is nonviolent.
The other technique is the technique of the 1960’s called the New Journalism that encourages the uses of the techniques of fiction—narrative, character development, tension, plot—in order to hold the reader’s interest and loyalty in competition with more entertaining media. You can merge these two techniques by mastering a few of the tools in computer-assisted reporting—keep running notes in your computer spreadsheet for periodic analysis pieces while you report and write your human-interest stories, which reveal the new strands of social relationships that we are spinning to shape our country.
And you have the tools and the resources to do this, undreamed of by reporters 20 years ago. You have organizations like Investigative Reporters and Editors that will teach you these skills quickly, effectively. And you have accessible, on the World Wide Web, hundreds of databases and analyses prepared by some of the best social researchers in the world that you can download at the touch of a button.
But let me offer one overarching caution: Don’t prejudge the outcome of this story. There are many people, myself included, who believe that what we are doing as a society, in unraveling the safety net we have built over the past half-century, is a callous and ultimately destructive thing. But I also know that there are many, myself most definitely included, who have often been wrong. More importantly, I know that the most valuable thing a journalist can bring to the job each day is endless curiosity and the suspension of judgment. This may in the end prove, as its proponents argue, that the path taken in the 1930’s was in error.
Let me close by suggesting a few specific areas of larger context into which I think you might weave your stories of those struggling for a minimum quality of life.
- Watch what happens to entry-level jobs. See how the new people forced off welfare are being absorbed into the marketplace. What kind of jobs are available to them? Who had the jobs before? What’s happening to those people? What are the jobs like, and how do we who benefit from them, create and sustain them? How are they organized in a profit-making way for their managers? Watch what the entry of this new pool of resources for the bottom-rung jobs does to wages, to the consumption patterns. Watch what kind of pressure they put on labor organizations and how they respond.
- Watch for the issue to usher in a new era of political activism. The issues we’re dealing with are things which largely affect women and touch the core of home and family values that drive more women than men into political movements. Women have for a long time been more active in politics than men at the level of making the machinery run, if not at the level of obtaining office. These new challenges to the way the home and the family are structured, to the way children are escorted into society, are likely to inspire more women to move from stuffing envelopes to setting policy positions.
- Use your stories as an opportunity to write horizontally about our society—cross sections that present rural, suburban and city in the same picture. Break us out of the urban-blight syndrome into which we’ve trapped ourselves for decades and let people see the ways in which the experiences of families are similar rather than focusing on the ways in which they’re different. If my generation had paid more attention to and learned more about these elements of the story from two extraordinary journalists of our time who did just this—Michael Harrington and Joseph Lyford—we might very well have done a better job monitoring social change in our reporting during the 1950’s and 60’s. Michael Harrington, in his book, “The Other America: Poverty in the United States,” developed a wealth of data on the causes and effects which produced the unseen poverty of a nation, that should have prompted stories outside of the reportorial ghetto of the poor and the alienated. And Joseph Lyford, in “An Airtight Cage” and another book called “The Talk of Vandalia,” showed there was no real difference, human or otherwise, between the social blight of rural Illinois and the Upper West Side of New York City.
Finally, there is the whole question of privatization of public responsibilities. Interesting things happen to social programs when they become profit centers. There’s a recent, chilling example of this down in Florida at a meeting of the private companies that were taking over prisons and jails; the story that has gotten far too little attention in the daily press. According to reports of the meeting, the keynote speaker’s job was to reassure the attendees in face of what they all considered a disappointing trend: the reduction of the crime rate in the country. Don’t worry, he said, the elimination of entitlements guarantees that the demand for your services will remain strong in the future. Now, just think about that. We have created a system with a vested interest in a high crime rate to create a constant demand for their services. Are we building a similar incentive into our welfare system?
Many of you, I’m sure, have read stories of Lockheed’s views that privatized, state welfare programs have the potential of becoming a major revenue source for them to replace the lost military contracts.
In Virginia, according to National Child Support Advocacy Coalition testimony, Lockheed worked out a pilot study deal with the Division of Child Support Enforcement to prove their worth as managers of a privatized system. They set up two pilot offices for Lockheed to run in competition with the other state offices. But the deal was rigged. Each of the Lockheed offices had a caseload of about 500 cases per worker. The other state offices had caseloads of 1,000 to 2,000 per case worker. With state help, Lockheed identified the best state-trained staffers and hired them for their offices, leaving other state offices with inexperienced workers in their place. And finally, when it came time to compare Lockheed’s performance, they exercised “a proprietary right of nondisclosure of total and actual costs,” which the children’s advocates pointed out presented unfair and uneven evaluation measurements and encouraged false impressions and results. Lockheed then went around the country using Virginia’s pilot project as a marketing tool demonstrating its success.
Now these are just a few areas where I think you can tie the story of the creative destruction through which our system of welfare and child support is passing into the larger stories of what’s happening today.… I know that it asks you to combine journalistic skills and exercise journalistic imagination and judgment far beyond that asked of most journalists on most stories. But that’s because the story of what kind of a society we’re building is the slug line on your story and that’s the most important domestic story of your generation.… If you can develop an effective approach to this story, and forge the right combination of tools with which to produce it, you might provide a new formula for journalism in the public interest for an industry that has lost its way and doubts its own usefulness. Brick by brick, you can build a new journalism that earns the public’s trust and demands the support of the marketplace.
Nieman Curator Bill Kovach’s remarks were delivered at the Casey Journalism Center for Children and Families conference, “The Well-Being of Children: Welfare Reform and Its Impact in the New England States,” held at Boston University in November 1997.