My Own ‘Bad Story’: I Thought Journalism Would Make a Hero of Me

Steve Almond considers his beginnings in journalism through the lens of the ‘bad stories’ he believes delivered our country to the Trump era.

Steve Almond | Bad Stories | Red Hen Press | April 2018 | 9 minutes (2,223 words)

Since November 8th, 2016, like so many other Americans, I’ve lived in a state of utter shock and disbelief over the results of the presidential election and everything that’s followed. Author Steve Almond found himself equally bewildered, but after wallowing in dread for a few weeks, he decided to try to make sense of what happened through the lens he’s most familiar with as a journalist, author, and co-host of the New York Times ‘Dear Sugars’ podcast: story.  The result is his new book, Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country, in which he contends that the election of a racist, misogynist, bullying con artist like Donald Trump wasn’t just possible; it was inevitable. He says it’s the result, in part, of our buying into a litany of “bad stories” — about our country and its history, and ourselves. In 17 essays, the book covers vast swaths of American history, from the birth of the nation, to Watergate to now. Here I’ve picked an excerpt of the book in which Steve focuses on his own “bad story,” and those put forth by the Fourth Estate, having to do with his years as a young journalist. I also spoke with Steve for an edition of the Longreads Podcast. – Sari Botton, Essays Editor

Listen to the Longreads Podcast Interview with Steve Almond here:

***

I spent the first half of my adult life almost comically devoted to the belief that journalism would preserve American democracy. I still believe in the sacred duties of a free press. But if I’m honest about my own experiences in the field, the lessons that emerge most vividly are these:

1. Reporters are no more virtuous than anyone else, and often less so

2. Journalism hardly ever tells the most important stories

3. Even when it does, not much happens

***

Consider this story: the summer before my last year in college, I took an internship at the Meriden Record-Journal, a tiny paper in central Connecticut. I was asked, toward the end of my tenure, to undertake what sounded like an ambitious project: documenting 24 hours in the life of the city. I was teamed with a veteran reporter named Richard Hanley, an energetic psychopath who sustained himself on a diet of steamed cheeseburgers and Kent cigarettes and who, wisely, consigned me to the graveyard shift.

Had I been serious about this assignment, I would have consulted with police, city officials, maybe a historian to map out an itinerary. I would have hung out with workers on an overnight factory shift, tagged along with a cop, visited an emergency room or a jail or a radio station or a homeless shelter. Instead, I spent most of the night camped in diners and donut shops, cadging quotes from bleary waitresses, then roaming the empty downtown waiting, I suppose, for the essence of Meriden, Connecticut to descend from the dark summer sky and reveal itself, like an arch angel. I eventually retired to the bucket seats of my Mercury Bobcat.

This piece stays with me, I think, because it begins to capture the audacious fallacy at the heart of modern journalism, the idea that a subjective (and frankly haphazard) account of one night in Meriden, compiled by a lazy 20-year-old who has never even lived in the city, can be touted as a definitive version of the place.

Or maybe the lesson is this: my bosses actually liked the story I handed in. The executive editor later called me into his office. He was a towering silver-haired reptile, reviled by that entire small, ill-tempered newsroom. But he looked upon me fondly, probably because I was obsequious and poorly dressed. He floated the idea that I drop out of school and come to work full-time for him. When I demurred — and this part of the story I’ve never quite figured out — he slipped me an envelope with $350 cash inside. “Go buy something for your girlfriend,” he murmured mystically. “Go get her some cocaine.”

***

After college, I took a job as a features reporter and rock critic at the El Paso Times. Like most Americans, I had never lived on the U.S./Mexico border. My balcony afforded me a view of the Rio Grande, across which Mexican day maids waded each dawn with plastic bags on their heads. They would scramble up the concrete embankment to the American side and pull dry work clothes out of these plastic bags and change into them. Sometimes it was cold and they shivered. Sometimes, a pale green INS van would show up and chase them through the low desert scrub. I watched all this from my balcony, as I sipped coffee. Then I drove into the office to interview the newest member of the boy band New Kids on the Block.

That was what my bosses wanted. I didn’t recognize it at the time — I was too busy swanning around town, flashing my business card and abusing adjectives — but journalism was undergoing a paradigm shift. Corporations were swooping in to snap up dailies and consolidate them into chains. Catch phrases such as news you can use had begun to infiltrate the newsroom. Barely a decade removed from Watergate, papers were losing audience share to television, and they responded by adopting the look and the values of television. The flagship of our chain, USA Today, was a splashy “media product” dominated by color graphics, photos, sports, and celebrities, with a dash of news.

The summer before my last year in college, I took an internship at a tiny paper in central Connecticut. I was asked to undertake what sounded like an ambitious project: documenting 24 hours in the life of the city.

The staffers at the El Paso Times weren’t callous or dumb. They simply worked for a company whose aim was to generate revenues from a dwindling readership, and which therefore devoted only a fraction of its resources to telling the essential story of the border — the perverse morality that obtains when privilege and poverty collide.

My girlfriend at the time worked as an independent radio reporter. One night she drove down to the International Bridge to cover a wildcat strike by Mexican chili pickers and called me a few hours later, in distress, to report that the police had beaten up some of the strikers, and their family members. By the time I arrived the fracas was all over. Only a few broken signs remained, along with a dozen chili pickers who still wanted to get in a day of labor. They had slipped over from Juarez in the dark and were sleeping on the sidewalks of South El Paso, curled like question marks on flats of cardboard, young men mostly, around my age. At four am, a line of school buses showed up and drove them two hours north to the fields of southern New Mexico, where they filled buckets for ten hours, until their sinuses burned with chili oil. The pickers were paid 40 cents per bucket. As I recall, the strikers were agitating for 43 cents per bucket.

I wrote all this up later, in an urgent little memo, and whisked it over to the City Editor, assuming it would wind up on the front page. A small item about the “disturbance” appeared inside the metro section.

***

I don’t mean to suggest that no one was writing stories of substance. My friend Paul Salopek produced dozens of investigative stories, about abuses by the border patrol, the inhalant epidemic, the lives of transvestite prostitutes in Juarez. (He would go on to win two Pulitzer Prizes at the Chicago Tribune.) Paul churned through mountains of data. He called hundreds of sources. He spent weeks with his subjects. He filed Freedom of Information Act requests. He filled hundreds of notebooks. Then he pulled all-nighters to distill this material into pieces that might fit within a dwindling news hole. Paul was an outlier, a journalist who produced serious work within an inherently unserious system.


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Inspired and perhaps shamed by him, I occasionally tried to take my job more seriously. The story that comes to mind was an expose about print journalism in Juarez, which I portrayed as hopelessly corrupt. Reporters, I suggested, were little more than PR agents hired out to the highest bidder. One major paper was funded by drug money. I made it all sound pretty explosive.

The staggering irony here is that the story was riddled witherrors. My Spanish was rudimentary at best. I fumbled through interviews, using a Mexican reporter for a leftist paper as my emergency translator, and massaging quotes. I reported rumors as fact. The Times published all of it.

Had I been serious about this assignment, I would have consulted with police, city officials, maybe a historian to map out an itinerary. I would have hung out with workers on an overnight factory shift, tagged along with a cop, visited an emergency room or a jail or a radio station or a homeless shelter.

Within hours, I had been summoned by the publisher and asked to produce my notebooks. At some point, a quartet of indignant Mexican reporters appeared in our newsroom. They were led to the conference room for a meeting to which I was not invited. Lawyers were involved now. The Times eventually published a long public apologia, penned by the publisher himself.

I should have been summarily fired. But the matter blew over and I returned, chastened but unscathed, to the province of glitz.

***

I left El Paso to take a job at an alternative weekly in Miami called the New Times. For four years, I spent most of my professional life documenting the misdeeds of crooked cops and con artists, shady developers and city officials. South Florida was a swamp of depravity and the overriding mission at the paper was to expose the systemic flaws that allowed it to flourish.

Reporters at the Miami Herald often derided the New Times because the paper was free. But alt weeklies provided young reporters like me the time and space to tell complex stories. If we needed a month to get all the documents, to track down the sources, to make sense of what it all meant, we could have a month. If it took 5000 words to get it right, we could have that, too. There were moments when I thought I’d found my calling.

I can remember spending hours in the basement of a county clerk’s office outside Fort Lauderdale squinting at reams of microfilm. I was hunting for court records related to the billionaire sports team owner Wayne Huizenga, about whom I was compiling an unauthorized biography. I eventually came upon a 1961 civil suit filed by a man who claimed that a young Huizenga had showed up on his doorstep, selling a trash-hauling service. When the plaintiff demurred, Huizenga attacked his potential customer, causing broken sunglasses, abrasions on his face, and, most memorably, “permanent injury to the testicles and genital area as a result of grabbing and twisting by the defendant.” This turned out to be a rather neat summary of his modus operandi as a businessman.

I didn’t recognize it at the time — I was too busy swanning around town, flashing my business card and abusing adjectives — but journalism was undergoing a paradigm shift.

Gradually, though, I began to lose my sense of mission. My editors wanted indictments. That’s what made readers pick up the paper. But pursuing subjects in this way made me feel predatory. The hows and whys of corruption began to strike me as far less compelling than why people self-destructed in the first place.

It was the same feeling I’d gotten in El Paso: that the accounts in newspapers, valuable as they could be, rarely touched the truth of what it means to be a human. There were all these sad, private moments that never made it into print. I had begun reading and writing fiction by then to help make sense of such moments, and I turned my attention to stories that allowed me to express my literary ambitions.

I remember, in particular, the months I spent writing about the James E. Scott Homes, a public housing project in Liberty City that residents called The Canyon. Most news reports about the Canyon focused on car jackings that transpired on the surrounding avenues. But I was interested in the daily life of the place, a vast archipelago of housing units filled with dejected moms and their restive children.

Because there were almost no dads around, I fell into the habit of taking a group of boys on little weekend excursions — to the movies, to the library, to the beach. One Saturday, I drove them down to the zoo in South Dade. On the way back, my car ran out of gas right in the middle of I-95. I managed to coast onto a thin shoulder. Instantly, it began to rain with a cinematic intensity. Eighteen-wheelers hurtled past, blasting water against our windows.

This was before cell phones existed, so I told my terrified charges — they ranged in age from eight to ten — that I would go find gas and that they should stay put. I tumbled down an embankment, scaled a fence, and jogged around in a panic. Eventually, I paid two guys forty bucks for a gallon of gas and a ride back to my car, which, naturally, I could not locate. We spent half an hour circling that infernal knot of highways before I finally spotted my little Tercel.

The kids were ecstatic. Two of them had been crying. “See, I told you he was coming back!” said a third. The men who had rescued me were stunned, or probably closer to appalled. “Them boys could have been killed,” one of them murmured.

I began to lose my sense of mission. My editors wanted indictments. That’s what made readers pick up the paper. But pursuing subjects in this way made me feel predatory.

It occurred to me, rather dimly, that if a police car had spotted my vehicle and pulled over to check it out, I might be facing a criminal charge of child endangerment, or even kidnapping. What was my standing here, after all? I wasn’t a social worker or a Big Brother or even a family friend. I was a reporter who had taken these boys on a kind of joyride so that later I could write about their suffering.

I spent more than a year visiting those boys and when, at last, the joyride was over, my story came out. It recorded many of the most harrowing scenes I’d witnessed in the Canyon, unguarded moments in which a mother or auntie struck her child, or the rotting body of a grandmother was discovered, or an infant left to wail. I was trying to be honest about what happens when poverty and despair collide. But the piece did nothing to change the lives of those boys, or their guardians. It merely held them up for public inspection and won me a few accolades.

It might be said that I’d finally learned to take journalism seriously and that journalism had returned the favor by revealing its most serious lesson: that it could, on occasion, hold the powerful to account. But that it could not awaken the conscience of the powerful, nor rescue those most in need.

The Canyon was an important story to tell, maybe the most important one I’ve ever told. It was also the last piece I ever wrote as a full-time reporter.

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Excerpted from Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country, by Steve Almond. Copyright © 2018 by Steve Almond. With permission of the publisher, Red Hen Press. All rights reserved.

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Steve Almond is the author of nine books of fiction and nonfiction, including the New York Times bestsellers Candyfreak and Against Football. He hosts the New York Times Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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Podcast produced by Whitney Donaldson, engineered by Brian Macaluso, and recorded at WKNY: RadioKingston.org. The music for this espisode is  My Little One Trick Pony by Doctor Turtle and Stair by Tagirijus .