Volume 78 / Number 16, September 17 - 23, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

The new New Journalism
First person undercover essays reveal truths worth submerging for

Submersion Journalism
Edited by Bill Wasik
Introduction by Roger D. Hodge
The New Press; 336 pp.; $26.95

By NICOLE ROBSON

In June 2003, 200 people converged in Macy’s home furnishing department claiming to be in search of a “love rug” for their Long Island City commune. Fifteen days later, a crowd of 200 flooded the lobby and mezzanine of the Grand Hyatt hotel, applauded for 15 seconds and then dispersed. Within weeks, these “flash mobs” began appearing all over the world, for no other reason than they received an email to do so.

Bill Wasik, a senior editor at Harper’s, “outed” himself as the creator of the short-lived cultural phenomenon in the magazine’s March 2006 issue. “I had been thinking about how you could use the Internet in a new and innovative way to bring people to a show. Then I realized, ‘What if there was no show?’ and everyone wants to come to this thing just because they want to see what’s going to happen.”

A meld of memoir and reportage, Wasik’s essay “My Crowd” is included in the newly published “Submersion Journalism: Reporting in the Radical First Person from Harper’s Magazine.” In the collection of 15 stories, writers use participatory, sometimes undercover, reporting to reveal a “considered judgment” on their subjects. Essayists infiltrate the Bush-Cheney “Victory ‘04” campaign, embed themselves in secretive Christian organizations and confront the “pink kitsch” of the breast cancer crusade.

The book highlights not only the form, but warns against the trend of news gatherers relying on the convenience of PR and spin. Here, Wasik discusses the importance of “submersion journalism” and the role he hopes it will play in the future of reporting.

NICOLE ROBSON: What compelled you to compile this collection?
BILL WASIK: In the past 10 years, Harper’s has been doing a lot of this type of participatory journalism. We noticed that the stories we liked best as editors, and the ones we got the most feedback from, were these very immersive, undercover-type stories. Yet, because they were only being published every month or every other month, no one was really thinking of it as a Harper’s style of journalism.

As editors, we’re always trying to help writers come up with a narrative dimension, and the more we found just the right way for the writer to embed him or herself in subject matter, the more we were getting at some real narrative truth of the story. In Kristoffer Garin’s piece [“A Foreign Affair: On the Great Ukrainian Bride Hunt”], he wanted to write about American men using services to import wives from overseas, yet he wasn’t sure if he should to do a more straightforward domestic report about the women who had been abused, or actually go on one of these trips. The more we discussed these different angles, the more we realized that he had to go. It’s the mentality of these men that’s central to the story. It’s important to understand there are victims, but what you really wanted to see was who were these guys, and what makes them go thousands of miles and spend thousands of dollars to bring home a wife?

After going through enough processes, I realized there was a thread that tied together all these stories and to collect them would make a statement about submerged journalism.

What are the benefits of submersion journalism?
During the Bush administration, this spin culture permeated the psychology of the average American, and people began communicating with reporters in digestible sound bites. One can only get honest human interactions when the reporter-subject relationship is less explicit. Jake Silverstein wrote a revealing piece [“What Is Poetry? And Does It Pay?”] on the Famous Poets Society. He paid to compete like all the other participates and didn’t lie about his profession. But by not coming in as a reporter, he was able to break through these media-sensitive barriers.

Who’s your intended audience?
There are two. Those that already subscribe to our publication, or other magazines that do entertaining, long-form narrative journalism. The second is the media community. Part of the reason we’re having public events at NYU and at the Berkeley Journalism school, is that we want to force a certain type of conversation in the world of journalism.

Reporters shouldn’t be shying away from participatory reporting, and learn to come into their stories through creative back doors. Often it’s just laziness. Some reporters would rather keep their comfortable relationships with PR departments that feed them their news. That’s a lot easier than turning up your collar, hanging outside the plant and getting involved in the story.

What was the selection process like?
I and the other feature editors came up with a list of 20 pieces that we cut down to 15. Ken Silverstein’s [“Their Men in Washington: Undercover with D.C.’s lobbyists”] essay, where he posed as someone who wanted to hire a lobbyist for Turkmenistan, hadn’t actually been written when the book was conceived. The cover story in our current issue uses participatory reporting, and next issue’s cover story is by Paul Reyes, who spent a month hauling trash out of foreclosed homes in Florida as a way of really getting at the human and physical toll of the housing collapse. We keep cranking out these types of essays, and I’m sorry the book couldn’t have been longer.

Was there a discussion about only one female voice being represented in the anthology?

Yes. Unfortunately, we don’t have nearly as many female writers pitching the magazine, as we’d like to have. All the magazines in our milieu have the same problem. I was on a panel discussion with people from The New Yorker, The Atlantic [Monthly], and [New York] Times magazine and everyone said the ratio is really off.

All the stories, as is the nature of journalism, expose. Did the writers feel any guilt or sense of betrayal to the subjects they were inconspicuously reporting on?
To be a writer or an editor of submersion reporting is not to surrender to the ethics of journalism, but on a case-by-case basis ask ourselves the hard questions. This is not to under-cut the betrayal because good journalism is often, if not always, about betrayal. It’s a balancing act, balancing what the journalist is uncovering versus what they’re betraying. There are times that we assign stories and find that what was uncovered doesn’t nearly make up for the invasion of privacy, and it wasn’t worth going forward with the story.

The book discusses how too much “access” often makes the reporter less equipped to write about the subject. Is that a major problem facing journalists today?
Yes, and much of it is due to the PR apparatuses organizations created to deal with reporters. You can definitely get some useful information through those official channels, but mostly they’re dedicated to spin. Journalists have to be creative in circumventing that apparatus or else be doomed to write boring stories. These types of stories can also mislead readers by parading back the very studied PR nonsense the reporter was fed.

What role do you hope this book will play in changing the reporting environment of today?
I hope it inspires more writers to do this kind of reporting and readers to support magazines doing long-form narrative journalism. With the Internet it seems everything is getting shorter. In our perspective, the more little chatter there is, the more that people want these considered, well-written pieces that strive to be definitive and get beyond some sound bite to a bigger truth.

A panel discussion on “Submersion Journalism: Undercover Reporting in an Age of P.R.” will be held at NYU’s Department of Journalism (20 Cooper Square, Sixth Fl.) on Sep 17 at 6:30 p.m. Speakers include Bill Wasik, Ted Conover, Jeff Sharlet, and Ken Silverstein. Free. thenewpress.com. The “Submersion Journalism” book launch will be held McNally Jackson (52 Prince St.) on Sept. 24 at 7:00 p.m. 212-274-1160; mcnallyjackson.com.

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