Bringing it home

While I’ve never been an academic, I appreciate the connection scholarly research shares with my chosen profession of journalism. They are cousins in their ability to dispel myths and call basic assumptions into question.

IMG_E2596Take sociology, where Matthew Desmond’s “Evicted” is a tutorial on the ability of comprehensive field research to recalibrate our understanding of the world. Journalists who haven’t read his book (and I suspect there aren’t many) would be well advised to do so as a refresher on the finer points of objective observation. Not that Desmond completely succeeds in that objectivity (more on that later), but his few failures also hold lessons for us.

Based on Desmond’s field research project in the largest city of my home state — Milwaukee, Wisconsin — “Evicted” investigates the transient nature of the private low-income housing market. Chapters chronicle the struggles of both black and white folks — the former lodged in the city’s near-north side neighborhoods and the latter in a south-side trailer park — to keep a household in this famously segregated city. Desmond introduces us to a renters’ roster of welfare recipients, single moms and drug addicts who shuffle eternally through the city’s low-income housing stock, along with the landlords who engage them in a tense but familiar dance of lease and eviction.

Along the way we encounter heartbreaking mixes of bad luck and deliberate choices that lead people into drug use, prostitution, petty crime and, ultimately, homelessness. How society views these “losers” in the game of life is important, because our perceptions inform the policies we devise as a response. And that’s where the misconceptions, and Desmond’s ability to counter them with his findings, come into play.

For instance:

  • Rents in the inner city — which features dilapidated housing in crime-ridden neighborhoods — rival those of middle-class areas of the city and suburbs. Yet for a number of reasons that range from a rental applicant’s checkered past to outright racism, those middle-class vacancies remain off limits to inner city residents, and landlords take full advantage of a captive market.
  • Because of this, the inner city rental market can be highly profitable. It is not the low-margin business we might expect. Those who are willing to deal with the considerable headaches that come with low-income tenants can find it worth their while. As the book points out, “the ‘hood is good.”
  • The housing is dilapidated because there’s a disincentive for landlords to make repairs for tenants who are behind on rent and halfway out the door, and there’s an equal disincentive for tenants to make their own improvements to a home from which they may soon be evicted. As a result, they live with backed-up sinks that attract vermin, and wear overcoats around the house to weather the winter months.
  • With the imminent threat of eviction, there’s little incentive for tenants who are behind on payments to catch up. Call them deadbeats, but it makes sense. A $700 gambling windfall is better spent on a security deposit for your next place than any back rent to a landlord who’s going to throw you out anyway.
  • Like many cities, the Milwaukee police’s nuisance-call policy discouraged residents from reporting crimes in their homes — particularly domestic abuse. Under the policy (since changed), multiple police visits to a residence would trigger nuisance-property fines for landlords, who would promptly initiate eviction proceedings. The lesson to tenants: Don’t call 911 for help in an emergency, or risk eviction.
  • South-side trailer park residents are often enticed into leases that “give” them ownership of the trailer. They’re only responsible for renting the space in the park. But the tempting illusion of easy home ownership is just that — an illusion. Because the home is not his, the arrangement lets the landlord off the hook for any repairs. The tenant is responsible for maintenance and, in the event of an eviction, removal of the unit. Most can’t afford that and simply abandon the trailer, which falls back into the landlord’s possession.
  • The predominantly white residents of the south side trailer park lived at poverty levels comparable with their black counterparts on the north side, yet they stubbornly clung to bigoted attitudes. Though conditions in the trailer park were undeniably foul, they viewed the impoverished north side with the disdain of suburbanites and lived in palpable fear of ever ending up there.
  • Desmond boldly tested this divide by splitting his field work between the trailer park and the north side, where he found south-siders’ prevailing fear of racial animosity to be exaggerated. If anything, white people, while turning heads in the ‘hood, tended to enjoy a particular immunity from the daily violence that defined life there. Desmond’s black landlord fretted mightily over his safety and took great pains to right any wrongs committed against him.

A common thread weaving through these examples is a remarkably rational thought process going on in low-income circles. We typically don’t think of poor people that way. We associate their status with some sort of dysfunction, a failing of the mental faculties the rest of us have. But to a junkie going through heroin withdrawal, spending money on another hit rather than rent is a reasonable response. Buying your child snazzy new shoes you can’t afford, not only because he needs shoes but because you love him, makes perfect sense. Even the seemingly irrational racial divisions of a city like Milwaukee reflect a common understanding among its residents, poor or otherwise, of where societal norms permit you to live. Such realities are important in redefining the scope of low-income housing challenges, if not poverty itself. You can’t go about proposing solutions if you fundamentally misunderstand the problems, and in that regard, Desmond has done a great service. Once we engage the mechanics of low-income housing as essentially rational, it becomes easier for sociologists to propose solutions and policymakers to implement them.

In his final chapter, Desmond pulls back the curtain for an intriguing mea culpa on his  project. The field work entailed what we’d expect — living among the residents, first in the trailer park and then on the north side. But in both cases he acknowledges blurring the line between observation and participation. He’d give one of his research subjects a ride to an apartment showing. He’d help another with packing and moving after an eviction. He’d lend someone a few bucks. He admits possibly crossing the line, but he makes a strong argument that living in a neighborhood with people, sharing a bathroom, meals, the streets — sharing their struggles and being a part of their lives — renders the notion of objectivity into an abstract and somewhat useless academic conceit. Fair point.

There are journalists who also test the limits of objectivity — for instance, the “gonzo” practitioners who insert themselves into the story they’re telling, or “solutions-based journalists” who write and report with the purpose of effecting social change. I’ve always believed that a journalist shouldn’t be part of the story, but these methods, while unorthodox, can be instrumental to achieving access, which is instrumental to painting an accurate picture. As a trained sociologist, Desmond seems to be comfortable with his overall conduct, and I can’t argue with the results. His interpersonal relations with sources were essentially about access, without which their stories could not have been told, and our misguided perceptions would have gone on unchecked. And that’s what turns a heady research project about poverty and housing into a book about people and homes.


On the cold side of history

Newsrooms can be fairly casual office environments. It’s common to see colleagues come and go in jeans, sweatshirts, shorts, T-shirts and maybe a baseball cap. Still, I try to maintain a degree of professionalism with dress shirts and khakis, sometimes a sweater and on rare occasions a sports jacket. The idea is you never know who you’ll run into in the office.

But there are days, typically Fridays, when I join the laid-back crowd, strolling into the office with well-worn jeans, a long-sleeve T or henley shirt and comfortable tennis shoes. It’s Friday. Who’s gonna care?

Yet one Friday this autumn, it suddenly mattered. I arrived at my desk to find various elements of a film crew working around the newsroom. I immediately shrank down into my chair to keep myself out of sight lines. With cameras passing left and right, I caught an editor’s attention and quietly got the scoop: It was an NFL Films crew shooting footage for a documentary timed with the 50th anniversary of the “Ice Bowl” NFL championship game in Green Bay.

WATCH: “The Timeline: The Ice Bowl”

As I contemplated an escape route to an empty office, the editor brought the film director by for what I thought would be a cursory introduction. Instead, the director spent several gracious minutes with me and a couple other editors sharing stories in a slight Texas drawl. He was Michael Meredith, son of the NFL and broadcasting legend Don Meredith, who as quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys was at Lambeau Field for that frigid championship game on Dec. 31, 1967. The Packers’ 21-17 victory, generally viewed as one of the greatest games in NFL history, cemented coach Vince Lombardi and quarterback Bart Starr as icons. It’s what put the glory in Green Bay’s glory years.

The game held outsized impact for Dallas, too, and that was the subject of the younger Meredith’s documentary. For him, the project was personal as he sifted through the reverberations of that loss for his father and the Cowboys community. Points of interest:

  • The Ice Bowl was the second heart-breaking championship defeat in the calendar year for Dallas. On Jan. 1, 1967, the Packers held off the Cowboys — this time the host team at the Cotton Bowl -— 34-27, with a late Meredith interception sealing the victory. For a team and city desperately struggling to escape the shadows of the JFK assassination, Dallas fans were beginning to feel snake-bitten.
  • While the Ice Bowl is cherished with reverence throughout Wisconsin, the game signaled a changing of the guard. Green Bay was an aging team. Lombardi would soon leave for a short stint in Washington, and Starr would retire not long after. The future belonged to the younger, faster Cowboys. The “star” that Meredith helped put on the NFL map would blossom into the wildly successful “America’s team” that produced two decades of winning, a pair of Super Bowl titles and a lucrative world-wide commercial brand that lives on today. The Packers, meanwhile, languished in mediocrity until the 1990s.
  • For all the beaming pride bestowed on the Packers’ gutsy performance in the Ice Bowl, the offense struggled mightily for long stretches of the game. After jumping out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead, Green Bay did virtually nothing until the final drive. To its credit, Dallas shook off its miserable start and erased the early deficit, but the Cowboys only produced one offensive touchdown, that being on a halfback option pass that caught the Packers’ secondary off guard. The other points came courtesy of a Starr sack/fumble and a field goal set up by a botched Green Bay punt return. In other words, this game was not an offensive showcase. But keep in mind, it was 12 degrees below zero.
  • It’s hard to fault the Packers for envisioning a future coach in Starr. On the opening touchdown, his audible for a slant pass to Boyd Dowler badly fooled the Dallas coverage, leaving Dowler open for the easy score. Starr also called the fabled game-winning sneak. He proposed it during the team’s final timeout, getting Lombardi’s blessing with “run it and let’s get the hell out of here.” It suggests that Starr, not Lombardi, ran the team while it was on the field. Yet, given his chance at the helm, the former would go on to lead the Packers through much of the “gory years” of the 1970s and ’80s. There’s more to coaching than play-calling.
  • There’s some question as to whether Packers guard Jerry Kramer made a false start on the Starr sneak. The replay does seem to show early movement by Kramer, whose block paved the way for Starr’s score. Had the penalty been called, the Packers could’ve tried again from 5-1/2 yards out or, with time dwindling and no timeouts, opted for a chip shot field goal, sending the coldest game in the history of the NFL into overtime.

Meredith took both 1967 losses as personal failures, and he retired just a year after the Ice Bowl at the age of 31. He went on to become a long-time broadcaster on “Monday Night Football,” where his folksy charm served him well opposite the wordy Howard Cosell and straight-man Frank Gifford. And while he pursued a successful acting career, he steadfastly avoided roles that cast him as an ex-athlete. He made it clear that when he retired, he was done with football.

The connection between Meredith’s career arc and the game that largely defined it lurks within the subtext of “Timeline.” This is where it gets personal for the director. His father, who died in 2010, remained tight-lipped about the game that arguably broke his spirit. Yet the younger Meredith regrets not asking him about it, and the documentary is largely a product of trying to fill in the gaps.

I couldn’t help but sense that filial mission as we chatted around my desk that Friday in autumn. Michael inherited a healthy dose of his dad’s affable nature, regaling us with some of the tidbits that his father did share with him. How the family had to hire security guards for their home after a Cowboys loss. And conversely, how fans wanted Meredith for governor after a victory. And somewhat scandalously to us in Green Bay, how Lombardi, earlier in the 1960s and hungry for titles, had proposed a trade with the Cowboys — Starr, plus some extras, for Meredith. Who knows how serious Lombardi was, but Starr was essentially unproven at that point, with Meredith likely showing more potential, so it’s possible it was a legitimate offer that Dallas rejected.

Eventually, the younger Meredith — an accomplished film director in his own right — needed to get down to filming, leaving me briefly regretting not telling him the fond memories I have of listening to his dad defuse Cosell on “Monday Night Football.” I worried that my personal association of “Dandy Don” as a TV celebrity — I’m too young to have seen him play — would be dismissive of his distinguished NFL career. I also indulged the journalist’s instinct to refrain from talking and keep listening. That’s always a good call.

As for the day’s filming, I’m happy to report I share screen time with the likes of Jerry Kramer, Dave Robinson, Mel Renfro and Roger Staubach. But to spot me, you’ll need to do a frame-by-frame advance during the half-second of my back appears as Michael Meredith and our editor walk past my desk. Just look for the guy in the rumpled red shirt.


Short and sweet

“I”ll be brief,” said the guest presenter for a film screening I attended several years ago. He followed with a good 20 minutes of exposition on the topic at hand, after which he released us, exhausted, to finally enjoy the movie.

Clearly, some people have a different notion of “brief” than others. As a journalist, I understand the value of brevity in a vocation that demands it. I take great pleasure in paring four sentences down to two and dismissing five colorful but unnecessary words in favor of the essential one.

So imagine the consternation a couple weeks ago when Twitter revealed it was expanding, on a limited test basis, some users’ character limit from 140 to 280. Twitter is a favorite social media tool among journalists because it demands brevity and rewards word efficiency. You want description and clarity, but you also need to get to the point, and fast. It is a practiced art that few of us will ever master, but it’s a lot of fun to try. It forces good writers to be better and bad writers to… well, stick to Facebook.

There are greater problems in the world than Twitter’s character limit, and we’ll individually adjust if the change comes to pass (I suspect many of us will start out by voluntarily restricting ourselves to the original 140). But it’s worth entertaining a discussion on the value of brevity across the creative spectrum.

Ernest Hemingway famously challenged writers to think not only in terms of what they’re saying but what they’re not. Most of us know his famous six-word short story (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”), but here’s an excerpt from “The Sun Also Rises” that’s a little less provocative:

I walked away from the cafe. They were sitting at the table. I looked back at them and at the empty tables. There was a waiter sitting at one of the tables with his head in his hands.

That’s an interesting observation of a person (the waiter) we don’t encounter anywhere else in the novel. Is he distraught? Annoyed? Tired? Amid 247 pages of drunken carousing, it’s what Hemingway doesn’t say that captivates the reader.

Let’s look at pop music. In the transition from vinyl to CD (and later digital iterations), recording artists found themselves free from the constraint of five 3-to-4-minute songs, per side, offered by vinyl records (or cassette tapes). As a result, we got 70-to-80 minute CDs and now, virtually unlimited packages of official releases dressed up with alternate takes, out takes and other assorted recordings. So what’s lost? The need to curate. It’s fascinating to read about decisions that went into the production of vinyl releases, and how musicians and their labels negotiated what made the cut and what had to be left out. When artists are forced to assess and prioritize the quality of their work, you tend to get their best.

Let’s move on to cinema, where the supposed gold standard is the feature-length (90 to 120 minutes) fictional narrative. Yet recently I saw the French short film “Uncanny Valley,” set on a World War I battlefield, that was shot entirely in stop-action photography. It was an interesting, if experimental tactic that worked well for its 13:30 running time, but there’s no way it could have been sustained for an hour or two. Feature-length is not always the ideal format, yet at the Oscars or Cannes, those are the only films anyone talks about.

Let’s go back to our guest speaker. It’s a conceit in academics that more words equal more information, but anyone who has sat through their share of college lectures knows this isn’t always true. Even in politics, we’re taught that any speech of significance like the president’s State of the Union can’t be great unless it’s at least an hour long. But consider that one of the greatest political speeches in our history, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, weighed in at 271 words and was delivered in less than 3 minutes. That was a man who knew how to get to the point without sacrificing eloquence.

It’s unfortunate that we live in a world that equates “more” with “better.” An all-you-can-eat buffet will always turn more heads than a small plate of fine cheeses, and that view is widely shared among the arts. Still, our guest presenter’s “I’ll be brief” tells me he understood the audience expectation for his opening remarks. The next time we just need to hold him to it.

Defying convention

There was a time when television news was boring. When stone-faced, gray-haired anchors soberly announced, without any particular flair, the events of the day and then signed off. No commentary. No punditry or analysis. Just the facts.

It was not a particularly lucrative model for networks. In fact, it was a money loser but considered a public service duty as a condition of their FCC licenses. Johnny Carson and Dick Van Dyke brought in the profits, while the evening news was essentially a charitable write-off.

Today, television news is dominated by highly profitable cable networks who have developed a model that presents news as entertainment through a variety of programming innovations. We see younger, more attractive anchors. The coverage leans toward more sensational topics. And less sensational topics are presented with a sense of urgency (“BREAKING:”) that overhypes the subject. And finally, with 24 hours to fill each day, networks devote an increasing amount of airtime to reflection, analysis and debate. These three activities, and particularly the last, have given birth to what I’d call the punditry class — a group of people, typically ex-politicians, military leaders, scholars, authors, minor celebrities and other public figures who bring whatever expertise they have to the discussion at hand. And watching them hammer away at each other adds a uniquely entertaining flavor to what is otherwise an academic exercise.

The punditry phenomenon didn’t emerge as an epiphany from the offices of brilliant cable news executives. But you can bet they were paying attention when it was so skillfully demonstrated, long before the advent of cable, during the 1968 presidential campaign. It was then that relative news neophyte ABC, in a money-saving move, eschewed gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions and instead staged debates in what is now the classic left-vs.-right format.

Representing each side were the preeminent political thinkers of their time, William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, who agreed to a series of televised debates as a way of digesting the convention coverage. Featured in the 2015 documentary “Best of Enemies,” the conservative Buckley and liberal Vidal were intellectual giants, unmatched in any forum, until they met each other. Their hubris and arrogance was self-righteous at best, insufferable at worst, earning them devotees and critics alike who were all too happy to see either of them knocked down a peg on national TV.

The premise must’ve seemed tempting for viewers accustomed to the mindless minutia of a political convention, but the appeal only grew as the personal hostility between Buckley and Vidal became sharply evident. Throughout the summer the debates devolved into shouting matches of a particularly vindictive and, amazingly for such great minds, childish nature. Viewers became spectators, tuning in for knockout zingers rather than a succession of mental thrusts and parries. It all boiled over when Buckley, goaded by Vidal’s “crypto-Nazi” taunt, countered with a vicious tirade punctuated by a homosexual epithet and physical threat. The stunned network shut down the show, but as the lights came down, the smirking Vidal, presuming himself the winner, quipped to his still flushed rival that “we gave them their money’s worth.”

And that’s what it was all about. The debates earned ABC derision among its established, “proper” competitors, but the network got the last laugh. The experiment effectively ended gavel-to-gavel coverage of conventions, and plans for the 1972 campaign included enthusiastic nods to the Buckley-Vidal model. It was cheaper, less labor intensive and, most importantly, a ratings winner.

That’s the model cable networks have picked up on and what has since largely dominated television news. Is it a win for the viewers? Few of the pundits on the air today have the intellectual chops of a William F. Buckley or Gore Vidal, and with the substance of the discussion often getting lost in the shouting, the scale tilts heavily towards entertainment at the expense of information. But it’s not boring.

Power to the people

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to punch the editor who fancied himself a latter day Lou Grant or Ben Bradlee with this quip. We get it, boss. It’s an important, if dated, maxim by which good journalists operate.

It’s something worth remembering as the furious post-election scramble for moral superiority playing out on social media promulgates information that is misleading, out of context or flat-out false.  And any social media user would be wise to consider the benefits of checking it out, if for no other reason than saving themselves some embarrassment at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

Why I am telling you this? Be assured it’s not to lecture anyone. Throughout my career, there have been more occasions than I care to admit when I’ve gotten it wrong. It’s a horrible feeling. Yes, it’s annoying because I have to correct the record, my ego takes a ding and it’s likely to come up in my performance review. But what bothers me more is the damage I’ve done, not only to my news organization’s credibility, but to the aggrieved parties named in the article or headline I’ve edited. It cannot be undone, and it’s a responsibility I take very seriously.

But in a greater sense, I’m speaking to you as fellow journalists. That’s right. In whatever capacity you engage in social media, you are — despite the objections of those sticklers in “traditional” media — as much a journalist as I am. You have to power to retrieve and distribute information that has no small role in influencing the decisions of the friends, family, colleagues and anyone else who follows you. Through their (hopefully) positive personal association with you, your recommendations can carry more weight than the New York Times or Fox News.

Don’t believe me? Several years ago, I was stunned to hear colleagues relate a new phenomenon of people whose sole source of news and information was their Facebook feed. That’s not to say traditional media wasn’t part of the mix, but their diet was restricted to however they chose to set up the feed. If we weren’t on it, they weren’t reading it. It was a purely anecdotal observation, so I was skeptical. But it got me thinking about the possibilities. Isn’t it plausible that people inform themselves exclusively via social channels?

Why wouldn’t they? The internet offers an incomprehensible volume of information and ideas available to anyone interested in any topic. Thanks to Google, you can find the ones that fit you. And thanks to social media, you can eliminate the ones that don’t. It’s an incredibly seductive place — a place where you pick and choose the information you like, and you never have to be wrong. The temptation to operate at this level becomes evident during highly politicized times such as an election year, when we find opposing sides beating each other over the head with different sets of facts. It’s what we’re seeing play out now as winners and losers from last week’s election desperately try to buttress their cases with supporting documentation scoured from the depths of the internet. For all of our legitimate concerns over proper vetting and verification of source material, this is the new marketplace of ideas. It’s how — and where — people are choosing to engage each other. Social media is leading the discussion, while traditional media, still brooding over how it so badly misread the electorate, plays catch-up. The public forum has migrated, and in the process transformed into myriad microforums.

Let’s be clear: We aren’t going to step back from this experiment and return traditional media to its gatekeeper role. Those days are over. Somewhere in the last decade, the balance shifted irrevocably. Traditional media isn’t going away, but despite what critics from the far left and right say, its capacity to influence public opinion is severely diminished and probably has been for some time. My suggestion for our industry is to stop thinking of ways to fit social media into what we do, and instead work on how the things we do can fit into social media. There will still be a place for our content, but it will be increasingly at the discretion of social media users to share or dismiss as they see fit.

So while news organizations lick their wounds from a brutal election cycle, let’s accept their limitations in an arena they no longer dominate. Conservatives convinced of a perpetual liberal bias can rejoice (although the victory is bittersweet for radio host Charlie Sykes). Liberals who once demanded “power to the people” now have an opportunity to seize it. From any perspective, it’s a seismic shift of Jacksonian proportions. The floodgates have opened. The power once vested in the Fourth Estate now belongs to all of you, my fellow journalists. Use it wisely.