About Barry Siegel's Journalism
This essay, written as an introduction to Barry Siegel's 1992 collection Shades of Gray, explains his style of journalism, and his unique assignment while at the Los Angeles Times.
Virtually all of these pieces appeared originally, although in somewhat different form, in the pages of The Los Angeles Times. They grew out of a proposal I presented in late 1979 to Bill Thomas, then The Times's editor. What I had in mind was a roving national correspondent's assignment that involved no fixed beat as to subject or site, no relation to breaking news and no time or space constraints. By then I had been working as a Times staff writer for three years, and it's fair to say I'd grown restless with daily newspaper journalism. I admired and enjoyed the energy and immediacy of newspapers, but I wanted to write about events without telescoping information or rushing to judgment.
What interested me most was not what had happened—legislators passing a law, townsfolk adopting a policy, jurors reaching a decision—but rather, how it had happened and why. There were people behind these events, after all—some triumphant, some anguished, some puzzled. Exploring what they'd been through, and the ideas with which they'd wrestled, seemed as illuminating and intriguing as even the most penetrating report of the outcome. I did not at all mind the notion of coming late to an event, even by a matter of weeks or months, for people then were much more willing to talk and hand over documents, and I was after what was enduring, not immediate. I regarded such stories as a form of continual, subterranean news about how people and communities actually lived and functioned day in and day out, so I thought they merited a place in the newspaper.
Trying to describe this to Bill Thomas one morning, I felt wary, for I knew he was prone to telling people they were talking nonsense when that was his opinion. At one point, studying his expression, I thought he was about to hustle me out the door. Instead, when I finished, he shrugged and growled out his blessing. This response wasn't altogether surprising, to tell the truth. Although it is unusual for a daily newspaper to accommodate the type of articles I was describing, both because of their nature and their length, The Times over the years had always provided an imaginative and encouraging environment for all sorts of writers.
So at the start of 1980 I found myself casting about for something that I could only vaguely describe to others. I wanted to find stories that weren't so conventionally newsworthy that they already were being well covered. I wanted to find stories about people caught up in conflict and wrestling with provocative ideas. I wanted to focus on individuals who should be well known, rather than those who were. Above all, I wanted to begin with the particular—a specific event or circumstance or conflict—rather than with an abstract notion or theme. Beyond that, I could not say.
A good many of the stories I was after emerged from scanning the back pages of small-town newspapers and obscure journals, where all manner of news briefs fairly screamed for amplification. A one-sentence item about the monetary value the Environmental Protection Agency placed on a human life in its cost-benefit analyses set me in search of the specific EPA risk manager who makes the choice between dollars and lives. A one-paragraph report about a federal research vessel plying the waters off the coast of Peru, studying an unexplained one-degree rise in water temperature there, raised the question of why one degree would matter so much. A short item about an odd petition drive in southern Georgia aimed at impeaching three federal appellate judges led me to ask just what had made those people so angry.
Questions like these took me to all corners of the nation and beyond—from the dirt-poor towns of Donalsonville and Willacoochee in Georgia to Callao, Peru, and Rio Frio, Costa Rica; from Charleston, South Carolina, to the Amish region of southern Indiana, from New Orleans to the Pacific Northwest, the gulf coast of Florida, the upper peninsula of Michigan and the farm country of southern Minnesota. The more I traveled, the more intrigued I became with how things worked. I also began noticing how often critical events appeared to arise out of random twists of fate or petty jealousies or raw ambition. A young, inexperienced defense attorney forgets to subpoena a witness and a man is sentenced to Death Row. A scientist tries to head off a competitor and inadvertently is led to a luminous discovery. More than once my flagging interest has been revived by someone who interrupts an extended explanation of his accomplishments to deliver a sly, halting confession about a particularly egregious piece of nastiness or foolishness he'd committed on the way to his triumph.
The more complex the story, the better. Two sides to a conflict or two levels to a tale were not enough—I wanted three or four or five. Only then did I sense I was getting it right. Most situations have nuances, after all, and most people are a shaded mix of qualities, and most issues yield several understandable points of view. Stories that did not reflect such layers left me suspicious. When a prosecutor insists that the accused murder is "evil incarnate," my eyes glaze over. On the other hand, when a neighbor allows that she sort of likes the defendant even if she's guilty, and thinks there's good in the bad people she knows and bad in the good, I sit up straight. There is a necessary and understandable pressure in daily newspaper journalism to boil it down, to get to the point, to characterize what has happened or will happen, but I can't help wondering whether a "stunning victory" will look like a "crushing defeat" from a perspective of time and distance. Is it really the mood of the country or the thoughts of the three guys next to me in a bar? Is it a national trend or a sociologist's study decorated with half a dozen anecdotes? Is it malfeasance or human fallibility?
My favorite stories offered more than complexity, though—they left me feeling torn by the issues they raised. A federal judge hostile to corporate American once returned my phone call by pretending to be a representative of the oil lobby. "Why do you want to talk to that judge?" he snarled, before finally identifying himself and setting me to chuckling. He was a judge to cheer, for he was insisting upon justice for unfortunate victims in a situation where his brethren had failed to act. After burrowing into his tale, however, it seemed clear that he was achieving his goal by disregarding certain valuable, fundamental principles of the law. What if he was pursuing a less honorable cause? Did the end justify his means?
Questions without clear answers were the topics I most warmly embraced: Ambiguity, not absolutes. Most of these stories are about people who have had to make choices amid uncertainty, or find design amid disorder. I do not think such experiences are rare. In pursuit of them, I found myself returning time and again to matters of law, medicine and science, and the natural world. This happened not by design, but simply because courtrooms and laboratories offer much the same attractive elements: intriguing characters, twisting plots, subtexts, ambivalent issues and a very human search for transcendence. Where the lawyers pursue justice by means of a sometimes brutally unfair adversary system, the scientists reach for order and meaning through an often petty and ruthless competition. Best of all, though, such stories offer—hidden within a mountain of transcripts, reports, journals and exhibits—a wealth of detail.
Details are wonderful things. They are more interesting than opinions, and they thoroughly cripple ideology. Details reveal how something really is, not how we want or believe it to be. A Death Row inmate finally comprehends his fate when authorities come to measure him for his burial suit on the night before his scheduled execution. An unconventional scientist shuns the society of others, preferring to sit alone in his darkened living room or practice tae kwon do, the ancient Korean martial art. A disabled man planning to kill himself collects canes in a brass urn by his bedside so as to mask the rifle hidden there. I was forever looking for items like these. Whenever I interviewed people I asked mainly for memories of where they sat and what they told the other fellow and just how they figured it out. Armed with the answers to these questions, I felt certain there at least would be a tale to tell.
And that, finally, was what mattered most—a tale to tell. It would be misleading to suggest that I began to work on each of these pieces because they fit a grand, preconceived scheme. The truth is, sometimes I jumped at a story simply because instinct said it was worth pursuing. The only lure necessary was the hope that I'd find people wrestling with something interesting—something that lifted a curtain on how they lived or how their communities worked.
Such stories matter even if they are not individually important in an obvious way. In deciding to break up a family, to help a relative die, to abort a deformed fetus, to punish a passionate judge, to reward an ambitious scientist, to rescue or condemn a Death Row inmate, people are laying down some rules about what's right and wrong. And combined, these choices send signals about our values, signals that guide and empower the institutions that most affect our lives—governments, courts, legislatures, schools, corporations. Most of the time, prosecutors, regulators, politicians and directors of marketing tread only where they sense the public will allow them to go. Although I would not want to describe these pieces as anything but good yarns, I don't think it goes too far to say that in them, individuals are wrestling with something important. The moral choices we make and the meanings we impose on events, after all, taken together form the character of our communities.
© Barry Siegel