Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Best of Human Interest Writing As Investigative / In-Depth Reporting

News & Commentary

The Best of Human Interest Writing
As Investigative / In-Depth Reporting

The Cool Justice Report
Aug. 22, 2006

EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is available for reprint courtesy of The Cool Justice Report, http://cooljustice.blogspot.com

New Yorker editor David Remnick's most recent collection of profiles, "Reporting," demands the reader also devour his earlier compilation, "The Devil Problem." Both books inspire and enlighten, demonstrating that the best of profile writing can be a form of investigative or in-depth reporting.

For example, who knew from reading the mainstream media that the crack-toking and corruption-ridden former mayor of Washington, D.C., Marion Barry, also is a person of some dimension and character. Barry's core constituency, we learn from Remnick in a 1994 profile, sees him as a sort of prodigal son and a fairly normal person. Given the disproportionate levels of incarceration for minorities in the United States, it seems reasonable that most residents of mostly-black Washington, D.C. know someone who has done time. It's not an inherent disqualification for public office in this small town, especially when voters look at the list of other politicians across the country who have done worse and remain in power.

Remnick documents Barry's political comeback in a piece entitled, "The Situationist." Like many politicians, Barry changes his costume depending on the audience. His garb can range from a conservative business suit to a wardrobe distinguished by bright colors of African cloth.

The son of a sharecropper, Barry returned to Mississippi with Remnick for a gathering of veterans from the 1964 Freedom Summer. As a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Barry worked to fight segregation and register voters. The reunion was significant in that it had a healthy mix of blacks and whites.

For his constituents, many of whom benefited from his massive job programs, Barry is a friend who messed up and is trying to redeem himself. They know it was just a few generations ago that the city was controlled by some members of Congress who were proud members or supporters of the Ku Klux Klan. These elected representatives advocated the deportation or sequestration of thousands of black Washingtonians.

Remnick's subjects range from politicians and athletes to literary and media giants. His work is a testament to the dictum, "Everyone talks - eventually." Of course, it helps if you have the juice of The New Yorker and reporting stints with The Washington Post and New York Times to get in the door for extended periods of intimate time with the likes of reclusive novelists Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Don Delillo, the politically-exiled and would-be president Gary Hart, the fallen Al Gore, playwright turned president of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel, USA Today founder Allen Neuharth, Washington Post legend Ben Bradlee, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the well-spring for Richard Nixon's political career, former State Department official Alger Hiss.

Among my favorites is the Solzhenitsyn piece. It made me want to re-read "One Day In The Life Of Ivan Desinovich." As a Soviet Army captain in World War II, Solzhenitsyn joked about Stalin in a letter to a comrade. This landed him in the Gulag. As I tell students, jail is the ultimate career stepping-stone for a writer.

It doesn't get more refreshing in the candor department than with Havel as president. "I am the kind of person who would not be in the least surprised if, in the very middle of my presidency, I were to be summoned and led off to trial before some shadowy tribunal, or taken straight to a quarry to break rocks," Havel told an audience shortly after taking office. "The lower I am, the more proper my place seems; and the higher I am, the stronger is my suspicion that there has been some mistake." Pretty good for a politician, eh?

"Reporting" and "The Devil Problem" are all about big names, but this is not superficial celebrity journalism. It's great access, nuts and bolts reporting and an exciting adventure.

Andy Thibault, author of Law & Justice In Everyday Life and a private investigator, is an adjunct lecturer of English and a mentor in the MFA writing program at Western Connecticut State University. He also serves as a, consulting editor for the literary journal Connecticut Review. Website,www.andythibault.com, and Blog, http://cooljustice.blogspot.com


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