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.”