News, Poetry and 'Negative Capability'

I heard from several people after a column in which a listener, Mr. Jim Driscoll, asked why NPR doesn’t insist that its journalists reveal their politics.

One of them, Mike Fleissner had this to say:

…if you don’t agree with (right-wing talk radio hosts), then you’re a liberal with all the nasty baggage they can stick you with. I always defied anyone to tell me the political leanings of a Jim Lehrer or Robert MacNeil from their reporting. I never had a taker. I believe the same is true with respect to NPR journalists that I listen to and I hope it stays that way.

Analysis or Commentary?

Charles Brown wrote to ask:

While it might be fair to ignore the political opinions of hard news reporters, you have avoided … other important issues. In addition to ordinary news reporting, NPR News supplies "News Analysis." Perhaps you can explain what that is …

In my answer to Mr. Brown, I said:

…that NPR tries (with varying degrees of success) to distinguish between its reporters and its commentators. The former are staffers and the latter are not. NPR journalists are not permitted to express their personal views in their reporting.

Juan Williams, Mara Liasson, Cokie Roberts and Dan Schorr are — to use a technical term — analysts, not commentators. For some listeners, this may be a distinction without a difference, but here's what I think it means:

NPR provides, for the most part, fact-based, contextual reporting. That reporting is also informed by commentators who provide their opinions on the events. NPR also asks some of its reporters to analyze the news events to place the stories in further historical context and if appropriate, to signal for the listeners, what the implications of the story might portend. They are not and should not be partisan advocates. Dan Schorr certainly attracts … fire from the listeners, but in the dying days of the Clinton administration, I got just as many complaints that he was being unfair to the Democrats. I think it depends on who is in power...

That's the theory. Does it work every time? Perhaps not, according to those who may disagree with what they hear. My sense is that in this highly partisan environment, NPR listeners will always find something that they may disagree with. But NPR's goal is not to provide one point of view, but a range of commentaries and analyses, which I think it does reasonably well, if not to everyone’s satisfaction. It’s also worth reminding ourselves that politics is but one part of the newsroom culture, even though it’s what is uppermost for many concerned listeners these days.

Newsroom Poets

One of the best takes on the sensibilities and values of newsrooms and the journalists who dwell there, was heard on the May 2 edition of “Fresh Air With Terry Gross.”

She interviewed David Tucker. His day job is Assistant Managing Editor of the New Jersey Star-Ledger, based in Newark, N.J. When he’s not assigning reporters to cover stories in New Jersey, Tucker writes poetry.

This may seem like an odd counterpoise for a news editor, but it is probably more typical than many think. When I called Mr. Tucker to ask him about the relationship between poetry and news, he confirmed what I had long suspected – that many journalists are also secret poets. Mr. Tucker said his new book entitled, Late for Work, has “outed” a number of journalist-versifiers who called him to say that they, too, are newsroom poets and to express their appreciation for his art. There may even be a few at NPR…

“Negative Capability”

Here’s an excerpt from one of Tucker’s poems as heard on “Fresh Air,” and reprinted here with the author’s permission:

City Editor Looking For News

For Jim Naughton

What did Nick the Crumb say before he died? What noise

did his fist make when he begged Little Pete

not to whack him with a power saw? Did it go thub like a biscuit

against a wall or sklack like a seashell cracking open?

Did he say his mother’s name? Has anybody even talked

to his friggin’ mother? Is she broke or sick and abandoned?

Is she dying of a broken heart? Do I have to think

of these things all by myself?...

This poem should sound familiar to anyone who has ever worked in a newsroom. Listeners who seem convinced that such places are nothing but cauldrons of political conspiracy should note this exchange between Terry Gross and David Tucker.

  

GROSS: Do you ever think of daily journalism almost as an unusual form of meditation in the sense that you have to be so absorbed in the story that you're covering and focus all of your attention on it, thus blocking out all the other chatter of life?

  

TUCKER: That's a great question. I do. And, you know, Keats talks about to write great poetry, you have to avail yourself with something he called negative capability, which is the ability to diminish your ego and to cut out everything else and invest yourself in the subject that you're writing about and almost—so that kind of magic can happen where you become what you're trying to write about. And I think to an extent, maybe in a humbler sense, really good reporters do the same thing. They are, they may be egomaniacs, but they may be quite vain when they're away from the newsroom. They may be all sorts of things. But they're professionals, and when they set about in pursuit of a subject, they're able to put their egos aside and their loyalty is to that story and to getting everything they can before deadline.

  

I think David Tucker has it about right. He has done those of us who work in newsrooms a service in describing both a less-acknowledged aspect of the culture of news and the way newsrooms really work.

  

Listeners often complain to me about their perception of partisanship in daily journalism and I forward many of those comments to reporters and editors. They, in turn, often express astonishment that so many people see them as cold-eyed ideologues who inexpertly try to inflict and impose their politics on the hapless, but ultimately savvy listeners.

  

Newsrooms and journalists are a lot more inventive, disorganized and anarchic, in my experience.

  

David Tucker’s poetry celebrates that deliciously creative anarchy.

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