David Evans | The Holy Bible | Bloomsbury Academic | May 2019 | 17 minutes (2.781 words)
Manic Street Preachers never exactly fit in. When they emerged from South Wales with their debut album Generation Terrorists in 1992, their leopard-print outfits, political sloganeering and widdly-woo guitar riffs already seemed out of date amid the musical movements du jour: Madchester, Shoegaze, Grunge. Critics tended to dismiss them as a quirk of pop history, about as relevant to the zeitgeist as that other Welsh throwback, Shakin’ Stevens.
But when The Holy Bible came out, in August 1994, it felt more than just anachronistic. Rarely has a major record been so spectacularly out of step with its cultural moment. This, after all, was the year Britpop took off; the year of girls-who-do-boys and boys-who-do-girls; the year of the New Lad and his lairy pursuit of sex and drink; the year a former barrister named Anthony Blair began remaking the Labor Party in his own primped, twinkle-toothed image. The dominant mood was a sort of willed optimism. “Things Can Only Get Better,” as D:Ream helpfully put it.
Dorothy Butler Gilliam | an excerpt from Trailblazer: A Pioneering Journalist’s Fight to Make the Media Look More Like America | Center Street | January 2019 | 17 minutes (4,927 words)
When I arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1961, the city, the entire country, and the African continent were all on the threshold of change. The dashing, young John F. Kennedy had just begun his presidency promising “a new frontier.” The Civil Rights Movement was kicking into high gear with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. now urging young people like me to pursue professions we’d been excluded from and to excel. It was thrilling to be in the nation’s capital to begin my career as a daily newspaper journalist in the white press.
I brought a pretty placid nature to that career. When I later looked back, I surprised myself. I was so conservative politically! For example, only six years earlier, when I wrote about school integration in the student newspaper while attending Lincoln University from 1955 to 1957 (the Negro college in Missouri that provided higher education for colored students, allowing the state to keep all its other colleges and universities white), I indicated reasons we should go slowly with integration. But reporting for The Tri-State Defender in Memphis as the Civil Rights Movement dawned had begun to change me. The bus boycott victories had begun to liberate my thinking. And added confidence came from my faith, strengthened my spirit, and pushed me to do things that other people in my family didn’t do. Read more…
Learning on the job means making mistakes, but journalists get to make theirs in front of the reading public and their seasoned colleagues. At BuzzFeed, the site’s Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith looks back at his early years as a reporter, when he worked in Belarus as a stringer for the Wall Street Journal. In Belarus’ history, 2001 was a tumultuous time and the young Smith wasn’t experienced enough to see it all clearly. Revisiting this part of his professional life, he sees the hard lessons he learned, not about writing ledes or getting scoops, but about stories’ consequences, reporters’ moral responsibilities, and the naiveté that leads to false predictions about democracy.
There’s an axiom in reporting — crystallized by Janet Malcolm in The Journalist and the Murderer — that at the core of journalism is betrayal. I thought that’s what I’d done to Shydlovski. And I’ve thought a lot about the balance of responsibility to your sources and to your readers.
One night last summer, I found myself googling him yet again, when I decided to try some alternate spellings of his name. Up popped an interview with him on a Czech website — in which he mentioned, in passing, that he was lucky not to have been jailed for his beliefs.
I couldn’t quite believe it. The Google translation was so rough, the source so obscure, that I accused myself of fantasizing his words in order to expiate my guilt, and I put it out of my mind. But I always think about Minsk around 9/11, when most people are thinking about the moment when they first heard about the attack on the Twin Towers. I was reading Hansen’s book, and I began to think about writing this piece, and I thought I should at least ask Shydlovski himself what really happened.
By Josh Roiland
Longreads | December 2017 | 32 minutes (8,200 words)
At a hip Manhattan book launch for John Jeremiah Sullivan’s 2011 essay collection Pulphead, David Rees, the event’s emcee, asked the two-time National Magazine Award winner, “So John…are you the next David Foster Wallace?” The exchange is startling for its absurdity, and Sullivan shakes his head in disbelief before finally answering, “No, that’s—I’m embarrassed by that.” But the comparison has attached itself to Sullivan and a host of other young literary journalists whom critics have noted bear resemblance to Wallace in style, subject matter, and voice.
When Leslie Jamison published The Empathy Exams, her 2014 collection of essays and journalism, a Slate review said “her writing often recalls the work of David Foster Wallace.” Similarly, when Michelle Orange’s This is Running for Your Life appeared a year earlier, a review in the L.A. Review of Books proclaimed: “If Joan Didion and David Foster Wallace had a love child, I thought, Michelle Orange would be it.”
Wallace was, himself, a three-time finalist for the National Magazine Award, winning once, in 2001; yet he compulsively identified himself as “not a journalist” both in his interactions with sources and reflexively as a character in his own stories. Nonetheless, he casts a long shadow in the world of literary journalism—a genre of nonfiction writing that adheres to all the reportorial and truth-telling covenants of traditional journalism, while employing rhetorical and storytelling techniques more commonly associated with fiction. To give better shape to that penumbra of influence, I spoke with Sullivan, Jamison, and Orange, along with Maria Bustillos, Jeff Sharlet, Joel Lovell, and Colin Harrison about Wallace’s impact on today’s narrative nonfiction writers. They spoke about comparisons to Wallace, what they love (and hate) about his work, what it was like to edit him, their favorite stories, posthumous controversies, and his influence and legacy.
Joel Lovell only worked with Wallace on one brief essay. Despite that singular experience, Lovell’s editorial time at Harper’s and elsewhere in the 1990s and 2000s put him in great position to witness Wallace’s rising status in the world of magazine journalism. He was unequivocal when I asked him which nonfiction writer today most reminds him of Wallace.
Joel Lovell: The clear descendant is John Jeremiah Sullivan, of course. For all sorts of reasons (the ability to move authoritatively between high and low culture and diction; the freakishly perceptive humor on the page) but mostly just because there’s no one else writing narrative nonfiction or essays right now whose brain is so flexible and powerful, and whose brainpower is so evident, sentence by sentence, in the way that Wallace’s was. No one who’s read so widely and deeply and can therefore “read” American culture (literature, television, music) so incisively. No one who can make language come alive in quite the same way. He’s an undeniable linguistic genius, like Dave, who happens to enjoy exercising that genius through magazine journalism. Read more…
Souad Mekhennet | I Was Told to Come Alone: My Journey Behind the Lines of Jihad | Henry Holt & Company | June 2017 | 19 minutes (5,112 words)
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The same masked man always spoke first in the beheading videos.
He was known as Jihadi John, a name given to him by former hostages who reported that he and three other ISIS guards came from the United Kingdom.
The hostages called them “the Beatles,” and Jihadi John was their most prominent member.
I tell you, Souad, this man’s story is different.
About a week after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo, while I was still in Paris, I got a call from Peter Finn. He wanted me to talk to another Post reporter, Adam Goldman, who was trying to identify the “the Beatles.”
Adam’s booming voice and thick New York accent reminded me of a character from a detective movie. He told me he’d heard that Jihadi John was of Yemeni descent, that his first name was Mohammed, and that he came from East London. He asked if I had good contacts in the Yemeni community in London. Not exactly, I told him, but I did have sources among radical Muslims there. I had reported in London and its suburbs after the transit attacks of 2005, and I’d interviewed Omar Bakri, a prominent British Islamist cleric, and some others who didn’t often talk to reporters. I told Adam I’d ask around.
I made some calls, but no one wanted to talk on the phone, so I flew to London. Once there, I reached out to ISIS and Al Qaeda supporters, jihadi recruiters, and a handful of Bakri’s former students. The identities of “the Beatles” was a hot topic around London, I learned. Some of my sources told me that even if they knew who the men were, they wouldn’t tell me for fear of being punished as collaborators or supporters, since they hadn’t shared their information with the police.
One of my sources was a bit older and lived outside the city. He had been involved with a couple of high-level Al Qaeda operatives and was seen as a sort of godfather by many radical young men in and around London. The man said he’d heard rumors about Jihadi John, and he thought he might have met him before he left to join ISIS. Read more…
Everyone in the room knew about leveraged buyouts, often called LBOs. In an LBO, a small group of senior executives, usually working with a Wall Street partner, proposes to buy its company from public shareholders, using massive amounts of borrowed money. Critics of this procedure called it stealing the company from its owners and fretted that the growing mountain of corporate debt was hindering America’s ability to compete abroad. Everyone knew LBOs meant deep cuts in research and every other imaginable budget, all sacrificed to pay off debt. Proponents insisted that companies forced to meet steep debt payments grew lean and mean. On one thing they all agreed: The executives who launched LBOs got filthy rich.
“The wolf is not at the door,” Johnson said. No corporate raider was forcing him to do this. “This is simply the option that I think is best for our shareholders. I believe it is a doable transaction, and it can be done at prices much higher than the present stock price. We’re not far enough along this road to make firm conclusions or make a proposal at this point, though.”
Johnson stopped a moment and looked at each of the directors: mostly current and retired chief executives, their median age was sixty-five. They had given him a free hand running RJR Nabisco, and hadn’t objected when he wrenched it from its century-old North Carolina home and transformed it into a monument to nouveau-riche excess. But they had struck down his predecessor for lesser transgressions than the one he was now committing.
“I want you to understand one thing,” Johnson continued. “You people will have to decide. If you think this isn’t the answer or there’s a better idea, there will be no hard feelings. I just won’t do it. There are other things I can do, and I’ll do them. We’ll sell food assets. We’ll buy back some more of our stock. I have no problem walking right back upstairs, going to work on plan B, and no hard feelings.”
Vernon Jordan, the civil rights leader cum Washington lawyer, was the first to speak. “Look, Ross, if you go ahead with this thing, there’s a real likelihood this company is going to be put in play. Somebody might come along and buy this company for more than you can pay. You might not win. I mean, who knows what could happen?”
—From 1989’s Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco by journalists Bryan Burrough and John Helyar. Their bestseller followed the multiple players involved in the 1988 bidding war for the tobacco and food giant, which resulted in its $25 billion leveraged buyout, at the time the largest in history.
In our latest Longreads Exclusive, Kiera Feldman and Tulsa-based magazine This Land Press went deep into the downfall of the Oral Roberts family dynasty—how Richard Roberts went from heir to the televangelist’s empire, to stripped from his role at Oral Roberts University.
Feldman, a Brooklyn-based journalist, and This Land Press have worked together before—her story “Grace in Broken Arrow” was named our top pick for Best of Longreads 2012, and it explored another scandal inside a religious institution, sex abuse at a Tulsa Christian school. I exchanged emails with Feldman to discuss the making of the Oral Roberts story, and her start in journalism.
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One great problem with financial journalism, especially in the decades leading up to the crash, has been that it’s often written in an argot understandable only to the already highly financially literate. Andrew Ross Sorkin doesn’t usually employ such specialized language. This has led to the mistaken belief that he’s explaining the industry to regular people. In fact, he is a dutiful Wall Street court reporter, telling important people what other important people are thinking and saying. At the same time, he is Wall Street’s most valuable flack. He isn’t explaining finance to the people—you’d be better served reading John Kenneth Galbraith to understand how finance works—he’s justifying it.
The modern finance industry is at a loss when it comes to justifying its own existence. Its finest minds can’t explain why we wouldn’t be better off with a much simpler and more heavily circumscribed model of capital formation. Sorkin likewise can’t make his readers fully grasp why the current system—which turns large amounts of other people’s money and even more people’s debt into huge paper fortunes for a small super-elite, and in such a way as to regularly imperil the entire worldwide economic order—is beneficial or necessary. But the New York Times and Wall Street each need him to try.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Mary Pilon | Longreads | August 2015 | 10 minutes (2,724 words)
“Why wait until the next story about coagulated fat in sewers comes along when you can read this one now?”
“All the world’s Grape Nuts come from a dirty-white, six-story concrete building with steam rising out of the roof here in the San Joaquin Valley.”
“With a WeedWacker under his arm, Dan Kowalsky was at work trimming the median strip of U.S. Route 1 in suburban Westport, Conn., when he was asked, above the din: Why not use a scythe?”
For 43 years, this is how Barry Newman has opened his stories. As a staff reporter at The Wall Street Journal, Newman developed a niche as the “King of the A-Hed,” the front page, below-the-fold feature story that had become one of journalism’s more peculiar corners since its inception in the 1940s. On a front page filled with the dryness of the bond market, the gravity of war casualties or the enduring egotism of Wall Street, the A-Hed was an homage to the ridiculousness of the world, a favorite among readers, reporters and editors, its existence constantly under threat. Read more…