Where’s the Beef?

Stat-Happy News Ignores Journalism’s Need for Narrative

The new generation of reporters led by the likes of Ezra Klein and Nate Silver lives and dies by the numbers, but real news still needs storytelling journalists.

05.03.14 9:45 AM ET

The arrogance of Ezra Klein and Nate Silver would not be so boring if it wasn’t a form of arrogance sharper minds already demolished decades ago. When these two, young, bespectacled journalists offer the phony presumption of mere “explanatory reporting” or “predictive writing.” they reveal that they still have all of their work in cultural studies and intellectual history ahead of them.

Klein, for example, in his debut post at Vox, writes that “too little information” is not the problem in American politics, which he contends is making people stupid, but “too much ideology.” Much of the writing that follows is the textual drag show of a transparently ideological liberal making transparently ideological points about conservatism, while posing as a neutral observer. A banner stretches across the middle of the essay making the subtle and measured promise, “Vox explains everything you need to know in two minutes.” It is difficult to determine which is worse—the self-satisfied delusion that anything is entirely explainable in two minutes, or the person who contends he is the best one for the task.

Nate Silver, founder of FiveThirtyEight, has plenty of reason for arrogance. He accurately predicted the winner of all 50 states in the 2012 presidential election, and his analysis of baseball has led to many breakthrough discoveries in the ways that managers, scouts, and fans understand the game. When he draws the dichotomy between “numbers with their imperfections” and “bullshit,” however, he is making the error that it is possible to simplify complex phenomena. He naturally places himself on the side of numbers, and everyone else—the commentator, the analyst, the critic—on the side of bullshit: A convenient categorization, if there ever was one.

It seems likely that the two smartest men in the history of humanity have never read Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Gay Talese, Joan Didion, or Truman Capote, because if they had, and if they understood the necessity and power of literary journalism, they would hesitate before pretending that they are oracles in lab coats prepared to give life’s facts, and nothing else.

Mailer, Wolfe, Didion, and company receive credit for the creation of the “New Journalism” movement in the ’60s. “New Journalism,” then and now, is a misappellation, also the result of arrogance, that ignores how the champions of ’60s novelistic journalism were not inventing, but borrowing and updating the style of narrative Mark Twain used to report on his travels in The Innocents Abroad, Joseph Mitchell employed to scrape the truth out from New York City’s underside, and Ernest Hemingway parlayed to wondrous effect in his early reporting on fishing, hunting, bullfighting, war, and his African travel memoirs, Green Hills of Africa and True At First Light.

Hemingway, who said that all good American writing came out of Mark Twain’s work, delineated his journalistic ambition in the foreword of Green Hills of Africa, offering the goal of writing “an absolutely true book that can compete with the work of the imagination.”

The truth of the imagination is what Mailer, Wolfe, Didion, and their allies injected into the sterility of conventional journalism in the ’60s. Like Twain, Mitchell, and Hemingway, they incorporated into their reporting the literary techniques of the novel to transform journalism from the statistician’s toy into a storyteller’s tool. The emotional drama, artistic creativity of the engaged individual, and the acknowledgement of subjectivity helped the “new” journalists—or participatory journalists, as they were later called—reach for what Jason Mosser, in a recent book on the movement, calls the “poetic ideal” rather than the “semantic ideal” of traditional reporting. It also equipped them to battle the ideological conceit of the traditional journalist as chemist in the laboratory simply measuring data and publicizing experiment results without the influence or presence of ideology.

Literary critic Morris Dickstein dismissed the delusion that “facts are self-explanatory” as doctrine belonging to the “cult of objectivity.” The cult’s small-minded members received a swift kick in the ’60s, but have now returned in new form, even using the old word “explanatory” to describe their journalistic startups. Nate Silver is disparaging op-ed writers, even good ones who might not make “predictions” but instead make compelling moral arguments, as peddlers of “bullshit,” his favorite word, apparently. Silver doesn’t have opinions. He has data.

Mailer, who wrote in the “third person personal” to include himself as a character in the events he chronicled in such classics as The Armies of The Night, Miami and The Siege of Chicago, and The Fight, condemned most reporters for deceiving themselves and their readers into believing that “every event is fixed and knowable.” “Most nonfiction skips the confusions,” he rightfully concluded. Confusion played a prominent role in his reporting, offering readers the truth of his experience, and giving a glimpse into the intractable mystery of most events. Mailer writes in The Armies of The Night, his Pultizer prize-winning account of the 1967 March on the Pentagon in protest of the Vietnam War, that the march was “an ambiguous event.” Its “essential value or absurdity might not be established for ten to twenty years, or indeed ever.”

Confusion, individuality, and personality—in other words, the unalterable realities of human history—are precisely the ingredients that Klein and Silver deny are part of the journalist’s tonic. In their effort to serve the public something free of the flavor of ideology, they are actually more ideological than those they condemn. The op-ed columnists that Silver insults are open about their attempt to persuade. Sean Hannity, who was the subject of ridicule in Klein’s inaugural post on his site, Vox, is, for all of his idiocy, less ideological than Klein, because he, at least, admits to having an ideology.

Jason Mosser concludes that Joan Didion, whether it was in her reporting on America’s involvement in the 1982 San Salvador civil war or in an examination of the lives of Cubans who immigrated to Miami, wrote in an “open-ended” style, exposing the “futile attempts to achieve ideological closure where no closure is possible.”

Tom Wolfe, author of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff and the leading American realist in contemporary literature, coined the term “New Journalism” after confessing that the conventions of journalism rendered him incapable of adequately capturing the events that Esquire often paid him to describe. Despite the historical ignorance of the term, and despite his well-known tendency toward self-congratulation, Wolfe was correct to boast that literary journalism brings “the writer one step closer to the absolute involvement of the reader.”

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One of the greatest practitioners of participatory journalism, David Foster Wallace, came along far after the dusk of the New Journalism movement, and receives much more attention as a novelist than as a nonfiction writer. “I’m not a journalist, and I don’t pretend to be one,” Wallace once told an interviewer, but his essays on the pornography industry, talk radio, the 2000 McCain presidential campaign, and a lobster festival in Maine are among the best works of journalism in American history. Writing in an admittedly exaggerated personality, Wallace gave readers the experience of attending the AVN awards or sitting on the McCain campaign bus, as if they had a brilliant, funny, and quirky tour guide.

What Klein and Silver do not understand is that the reporting of Wallace reaches closer to the elusive cliff edge of meaning leading to higher thought and truth than “data journalism” or “explanatory reporting” could ever attempt. Timothy Crouse, in his classic study of campaign reporting, The Boys on the Bus, makes the same point when he concludes, “It takes Mailer to tell you what it all means.” No table of facts will tell the reader what the popularity of pornography means as effectively as Wallace’s essay Big Red Son, just as no set of statistics will make sense of political conventions more profoundly than Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago.

Even if Silver continues to stun readers with prescient forecasts, as important and helpful as that remains, he will have nothing to say about the elemental fragments of human history that are not reducible to the measuring stick or the scale. “What it all means” is not quantifiable.

The storyteller is a more powerful and reliable conduit of information, truth, and insight than the statistician, because stories are what make people’s lives meaningful. Everyone’s story is different. The journalist who fails to acknowledge how the difference of his story will shape his reporting is fooling himself, or worse, trying to trick his audience.

People who cannot grasp the power of story are preparing for a life of forever reaching out into the empty dark without a flashlight.

“New Journalism,” literary journalism, was an attempt to, in the words of Mailer, give reporting the “energy of art.” It was a shot, often a successful one, at demonstrating how journalism can equal the novel in its ability to plug readers into the electric surge of story.

It is for this reason that America is in desperate need of a literary journalism startup. Gifted writers and entrepreneurs should collaborate to combat the creep of big data by giving audiences an alternative of participatory storytelling. Such a startup would remind readers that no journalist, especially the one falsely claiming objectivity, is beyond bias, and that the greatest and most memorable insights are accessible through the personalized experience of a smart, honest, and involved reporter.

Most importantly, it would also reintroduce readers to the human element of experience by emphasizing individuated human reaction to experience. Neil Postman writes in his book Technopoly, which gains relevance by the minute, that American culture, alone in the world, believes and acts as if “the primary, if not the only, goal of human labor and thought is efficiency, that technical calculation is in all respects superior to human judgment.”

As America surrenders culture to technology, it loses sight of the power of imagination, becomes inescapably dull, and transforms every activity into yet another function of the machine. Klein, Silver, and the data journalism crowd are participants in the ugly process of turning life over to the machines—allowing technique to mute creativity, algorithm to silence imagination, and the quiet tick of the sophisticated mechanism to drown out the crashing thunder of the primitive heart.

Mailer, Didion, Wolfe, and others swung away at their kind with knockout blows during the contentious events of Vietnam, Watergate, and the ascendancy of Reaganism. Now, the self-proclaimed arbiters of fact are back in the ring, and until someone with Mailer’s courage, Didion’s sensitivity, or Wallace’s wit rises to the challenge, they are looking at an empty opposite corner.