This time talking a bit more about my trip to Dhaka:
I am in a tiny steel cage attached to a motorcycle, stuttering through traffic in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In the last ten minutes, we have moved forward maybe three feet, inch by inch, the driver wrenching the wheel left and right, wriggling deeper into the wedge between a delivery truck and a rickshaw in front of us.
Up ahead, the traffic is jammed so close together that pedestrians are climbing over pickup trucks and through empty rickshaws to cross the street. Two rows to my left is an ambulance, blue light spinning uselessly. The driver is in the road, smoking a cigarette, standing on his tiptoes, looking ahead for where the traffic clears. Every once in awhile he reaches into the open door to honk his horn.
This is what the streets here look like from seven o’clock in the morning until ten o’clock at night. If you’re rich, you experience it from the back seat of a car, the percussion muffled behind glass. If you’re poor, you’re in a rickshaw, breathing in the exhaust.
Me, I’m sitting in the back of a CNG, a three-wheeled motorcycle shaped like a slice of pie and covered with scrap metal. I’m here working on a human rights project related (inevitably) to the garment factories, but whenever I ask people in Dhaka what their main priority is, what they think international organizations should really be working on, they tell me about the traffic.
It might not be as sexy as building schools or curing malaria, but alleviating traffic congestion is one of the defining development challenges of our time. Half the world’s population already lives in cities, and the United Nations estimates that proportion will rise to nearly 70 percent by 2050.
Of the 23 “megacities” identified by the United Nations, only five are in high-income countries, places with the infrastructure (physical, political, economic, you name it) to deal with the increasing queues of cars snarling up the roads. Mexico City adds two cars to its roads for every person it adds to its population. In India, the ratio is three to one.
Dhaka, the world’s densest and fastest-growing city by some measures, and its twentieth-largest by population, is a case study in how this problem got so bad—and why it’s so difficult to solve.
I realize that it’s problematic for a rich white foreigner to visit somewhere for a short period of time, then come back and start making sweeping generalizations about it. I hope this doesn’t come off gawking, like ‘look how fucked up poor countries are!’
I’m amazed when I travel for work how not-different the problems of developing countries are from our own, how the solutions we propose for their cities (‘build more roads y’all!’) would be considered simplistic and utopian in our own. I hope a little of that comes through. Or at least that I conveyed how incredible the traffic in Dhaka is. Because that shit is bonkers.
I have no idea how much Apartheid is taught these days, but American schoolkids need to know this shit:
Black townships in ‘white’ South Africa were kept as unattractive as possible. Few urban amenities were ever provided. Black businessmen were prevented by government restrictions from expanding their enterprises there. No African was allowed to carry on more than one business. Businesses were confined to providing ‘daily essential necessities’, like wood, coal, milk, and vegetables. No banks or clothing stores or supermarkets were permitted. Restrictions were even placed on dry-cleaners, garages, and petrol stations. Nor were Africans allowed to establish companies or partnerships in urban areas, or to construct their own buildings. These had to be leased from the local authority. Black housing was rudimentary, consisting of rows of identical ‘matchbox’ houses. Only a small proportion had electricity or adequate plumbing. Overcrowding was commonplace. In Soweto, the main black urban area serving Johannesburg, the average number of people living in each ‘matchbox’ house in 1970 was thirteen.
The disadvantages under which the African population laboured in the ‘white’ economy were legion. Africans were barred by law from skilled work, from forming registered unions, and from taking strike action. In industrial disputes, armed police were often called in by white employers to deal with the workforce. If Africans lost their job, they faced the possibility of deportation. A considerable proportion of the workforce received wages which fell short of providing the costs of family subsistence: An employers’ organisation, the Associated Chambers of Commerce, calculated in 1970 that the average industrial wage was 30 per cent below the minimum monthly budget needed for a Soweto family of five.
That’s a clip from Martin Meredith’s ‘The State of Africa: A History of the Continent Since Independence‘. And above that, a photo I took when I was in South Africa for work a few years ago.
I’m not sure why I’m so interested in South Africa, why I feel so strongly that this country’s history should be known and discussed more, why this shit gives me a double-gravity feeling in my stomach unlike anywhere else.
In college I got super into this political philosopher, John Rawls. Rawls’s big thing was that we should organize our societies as if we were doing so from scratch, like we couldn’t decide how or to whom we would be born into them. You might be the child of a poor Jamaican single mother or a hipster trust fund brat or an AIDS orphan. You might be tall or short or dumb or smart or have an alcoholic father or Down’s Syndrome or anger management problems. If you could enter a society with any of these challenges, goes his idea, you would design it so that they did not become your fate.
South Africa is the 20th century’s most extreme example of this principle applied in exactly the opposite way it was intended: If you were deliberately trying to disenfranchise an ethnic group, to make it impossible for them to achieve wealth or stability or well-being, how would you do it? You would start by denying them housing and medical care and political representation. You’d restrict their movement, keep them uneducated, erect un-jumpable hurdles to prosperity. You’d rig the rules so that no matter how hard they tried, they were breaking them.
By this point we’ve all read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Case for Reparations. It’s basically a biography of all the structures, from slavery to sharecropping to segregation, that prevented African-Americans from fully participating in America’s rise to become the world’s wealthiest country.
I’m not trying to be all ‘America practiced Apartheid too!’ The circumstances in both countries are unique, and arguments based on analogies, as Coates himself has pointed out, are usually meant to inflame, not to teach.
But why I think Apartheid should be regarded as a more important benchmark in the 20th century is that these structures, the ones facilitating prosperity or preventing it, exist in every society. It’s the deliberation with which they were established, as well as their outcome, that are extreme in the South African case, but every country’s state apparatus falls along the same spectrum, whether we admit it or not. I feel like Coates’s article, academic books like Why Nations Fail (with its talk of ‘extractive institutions’) and even problematic gen-pop shit like ‘check your privilege’ hashtags, represent a growing acknowledgement that this is the case.
One of the reasons we watch science fiction is to watch our societies exaggerated back at us. Sometimes we can do that without having to make anything up.
Today I’m on NPR’s ‘Snap Judgment’ talking about the time my co-worker died and what it did to our workplace afterwards.
I wrote about it for The Billfold last year, and someone at NPR saw it and they asked me if I could convert it into a monologue and I don’t really know what that means and so I read what I wrote into a microphone and now it’s on the radio. (And, um, no that’s not me in the photo.)
These are what I learned and think about this experience:
Recording takes ages. The 10 or so minutes you hear on the podcast took four and a half hours to record. I stood in a phone-booth-size room lined with padding and read my script into a microphone over and over and over. I did it sitting, standing, far from the microphone, close to it, loud, whispering, everything. Whenever my stomach gargled or I scratched myself or my shoelace-nub dragged along the floor, we had to redo the line because the mic picked it up.
Acting is hella hard, you guys. Every time I finished reading the script out loud, I got notes from the producer: ‘Do it again, but this time act like it’s really funny.’ ‘We need you to sound numb, but also in the moment.’ ‘Try it as Edward Norton in Fight Club.’
It’s super hard to keep all this in mind while still remembering to read at about 65 percent of your normal speaking speed, sticking word-for-word to your script and standing absolutely still so the microphone can’t hear any of your rustles.
So yeah, most of the reason it took so long was my rank amateurishness. ‘Can’t you guys fix this with Auto-Tune?’ I kept asking. And this was a script that I wrote. Describing something that actually happened to me. If I had this much trouble making it sound convincing, how are there people who can inhabit shit like ‘If I bleat when I speak, it’s because I’ve just been fleeced‘ or ‘They run as if the very whips of their masters are behind them‘?
I am not sure I should have done this. Writing is, by definition, at a distance from its subjects. Even in present tense, it’s still told by an omnipotent narrator, still filtered through one person’s voice and perspective.
Speaking something out loud is different: You have to decide how you’re going to sound when you describe something, not just the words you use. You have to give a voice, an actual voice, to all of your characters. They can sound like Alicia Silverstone in Clueless or they can be Condoleezza Rice, it’s up to you.
When I wrote this, I thought it was a story about how much of an asshole I am (everything I write is at least 60 percent that). How I tried to make my coworker’s death about me, how I failed to form any connection with my colleagues afterwards, how I let a chance for personal connection go by.
Reading it out loud, speaking about and as the people who were there, I’m afraid it becomes a story about how I’m less of an asshole than they were. That is unfair. And listening to it now, I fear I am not a good enough writer or speaker to have made it not that.
Ironic detachment is easy. I genuinely struggle with this. I don’t mean as a writer, but like as a colleague and a friend and a person. It’s easy to be numb, remote, to hide behind sarcasm, to deadpan the details. It’s harder to try. To make people real. To assume the best of them. To refrain from comparing my insides to their outsides.
I don’t know, I’ve been reading a lot of Gabe Delahaye lately. He has this post from a few weeks ago about the New York Times article where they interviewed people who spotted Philip Seymour Hoffman in the days before his death. Not friends or family, just random people who saw him at a restaurant or Starbucks or whatever. The whole story is just quotes from these people about how haggard and tired he looked.
OH DID IT? DID A HEROIN ADDICT’S SKIN LOOK BAD IN THE DAYS BEFORE HE OVERDOSED ON HEROIN?
If I have a point—and I am not sure that I do—it is that we do not have to give a quote to the New York Times just because they asked us for a quote. We do not have to write a Tweet just because we are waiting in line for the bathroom. We can spend entire days in silence if we so choose. You can keep your mouth shut. It is possible.
Standing still, reading your own words over and over again into a microphone, it makes you think about how you’re saying them. Once it’s finished, once you’ve decided, you’re left with the question of why.
On September 24, 2010, Mark Zuckerberg announced on Oprah that he was donating $100 million to the Newark Public School system. Zuckerberg wasn’t from Newark, he had no particular connection to the city. But he had become convinced—by the city’s great need, as well as its charismatic mayor—that his donation could have real impact there.
‘Schooled’, Dale Russakoff’s brilliant New Yorker story, describes what happened next:
More than twenty million dollars of Zuckerberg’s gift and matching donations went to consulting firms with various specialties: public relations, human resources, communications, data analysis, teacher evaluation. Many of the consultants had worked for Joel Klein, Teach for America, and other programs in the tight-knit reform movement, and a number of them had contracts with several school systems financed by Race to the Top grants and venture philanthropy. The going rate for individual consultants in Newark was a thousand dollars a day.
I’ve been working in international development for eight years now. It took me at least the first two to realize that money is not enough. Newark had a huge donation, passionate leaders, engaged parents, principals begging for more autonomy, teachers willing to compromise, a whole nation of expertise to draw from. And yet the reform effort stalled.
Improbably, a district with a billion dollars in revenue and two hundred million dollars in philanthropy was going broke. Anderson [the district superintendent] announced a fifty-seven-million-dollar budget gap in March, 2013, attributing it mostly to the charter exodus. She cut more than eighteen million dollars from school budgets and laid off more than two hundred attendance counsellors, clerical workers, and janitors, most of them Newark residents with few comparable job prospects. “We’re raising the poverty level in Newark in the name of school reform,” she lamented to a group of funders. “It’s a hard thing to wrestle with.”
School employees’ unions, community leaders, and parents decried the budget cuts, the layoffs, and the announcement of more school closings. Anderson’s management style didn’t help. At the annual budget hearing, when the school advisory board pressed for details about which positions and services were being eliminated in schools, her representatives said the information wasn’t available. Anderson’s budget underestimated the cost of the redundant teachers by half.
The board voted down her budget and soon afterward gave a vote of no confidence—unanimously, in both cases, but without effect, given their advisory status.
You can read this as a story of city leaders trying to circumvent basic principles of democracy and public participation to implement their own technocratic regime. Or you can read it as a story of entrenched interests protecting their own jobs and salaries and ideologies at the expense of educating children. Either way, it should make all of us careful about these sort of one-big-push reforms, the idea that all it takes to fix a broken system is a big fat stimulus and the political will for a reboot.
It’s not fair to blame Anderson or Zuckerberg or Cory Booker or Chris Christie. Laughing at their failure is understandable, our first instinct, but it’s only useful if it’s our first step toward learning from it. It sounds as if everyone involved—the teachers, the principals, the parents, the money—was genuinely dedicated to fixing the schools. It is depressing that all that, still, wasn’t enough.
Depressinger still is that this is a story that takes place in a developed country, with a functioning government, with the background already painted onto the canvas. If we can’t fix our own failing schools, what chance do we have of fixing them in countries without all that?
I haven’t spent enough time in developing countries to know them like I know my own, but what I’ve seen so far is that every society, rich and poor, contains intolerable failures, has already marshaled its own forces to fix and defend them. I do not know what it is that they need to solve their problems, but I fear it may be more than what we can offer.
One idea—microfinance, child sponsorship, LifeStraw, GiveDirectly—is not going to solve the problems of Zimbabwe or Peru or Papua New Guinea or any more than $100 million is going to solve the problems of the Newark public school system. I don’t want to say that international development doesn’t need your money, because it does. But more than that, it needs your patience.
The first thing you notice about HIV statistics is how slippery they are. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s AIDS surveillance says there were 46,268 diagnoses of HIV in 2010. The online Atlas provided by the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS says there were 46,043.
It’s the same in Europe. Each country reports its own HIV statistics independently, then they’re gathered and re-reported by the European Centers for Disease Control. The Robert Koch Institute (Germany’s equivalent of the CDC) says 3,034 people were infected with HIV in Germany in 2008. The ECDC says it was 2,850.
Last year at the Smithsonian, I saw this documentary on exoplanets. Rocks in other solar systems don’t emit light, so the only way we can detect them is their tiny pull on the light waves coming from faraway stars. I was—am!—totally stunned at how we can see something so remote, so invisible, with our meager little tools on our provincial little planet.
I had a bit of the same are you fucking kidding me wonder talking to scientists about how they track the AIDS virus, and I could have easily gone another like 2,000 words on methodology alone. Public health is one of those achievements of modern civilization that gets (deserved) credit for stuff like eradicating smallpox and preventing cholera, but we should also give snaps to all the work that goes into just tracking and reporting diseases, just knowing what’s out there.
The data isn’t always available for every country, and it’s not perfectly comparable across them, but I’m glad someone out there is looking at all these little points of light, waiting for one of them to wobble.
There’s this old friend of mine from Seattle who only contacts me like three times a year. Not to say how she is or to ask what I’m up to or to show me her pregnant selfies or whatever, but to tell me what I should be mad about. ‘A state senator compared homosexuality to alcoholism!’ ‘A soccer star told a journalist he doesn’t want his son to grow up gay!’ ‘A sitcom star established a foundation to defend same-sex marriage!’
They’re always like this, variations on ‘someone you’ve never heard of has beliefs you don’t agree with’, and I never know how to respond. I think I’m the only gay person she knows, and she’s sending me these dispatches in a spirit of solidarity and lets-make-it-betterness. But what should I actually do with this information? I guess I could boycott the companies or the states or the sitcoms where these un-agreed-with beliefs are coming from, but … I dunno, do I have to? It seems like kind of a big commitment to only buy stuff from people whose social beliefs I agree with. Do I have to like ask the guy who brews my flat white how he feels about transgender pronouns?
Which is why I don’t really know how I feel about the whole Donald Sterling episode. Obviously about the man himself I feel sheesh what a dick. But I’m still sort of amazed at how much time and energy we all spent reacting to this one guy’s dickishness. Now that some of the foam has subsided, I’ve decided that I think the following things:
- These episodes have a cycle to them, and this one has basically ended, but let’s take a second to remember just how big a deal this was for like two weeks there. In Zimbabwe I was watching CNN International in my hotel room and they interrupted some documentary on African entrepreneurs to go live to the NBA Commissioner’s press conference.
- We all know this is how the media works; I’m not going to pretend to be all shock-horror that we don’t subsist on a news diet exclusively composed of kidnapped Nigerian girls and Syrian civil war victims. Maybe we should be focusing more on instances of racism in our own country, maybe this is how it gets solved, I don’t know.
- But man, in the eye of the shitstorm, it was hard not to notice that Sterling got away with being racist for decades (denying housing to black people, treating his black employees terribly). We only went for our torches and pitchforks when he said something racist. I’m all for witch-hunts when prominent figures use their influence nefariously, but we need ways to find better witches.
- There’s also this weird thing where the shitty stuff he said wasn’t at a podium or some Rich People Event or in his official capacity as a sports owner or businessman, but in a private conversation, with his girlfriend, when he had no idea he was being recorded. I don’t want to be all ‘Sterling is the real victim here!’ Like I said, the dude sucks. But we are rocketing toward a society where we have the technology to record each other all the time, and we need to take brace positions for that shit.
- I was talking to a friend of mine the the other day who works at a speech recognition software company. I asked him how long it will be until our phones can record every conversation we have all day and send us a transcript every night, with stats about our word use, suggestions for follow-ups (‘John said he’s starting a new job on Monday. Ask him how it went!’), calendar reminders; Her without the romance. He said about two years.
- That’s probably optimistic, but I, as a person, am not ready for a society in which I’m being recorded all the time, where everything I say out loud becomes a searchable, Dewey decimaled record of my opinions and commitments. I don’t know that we, as a society, are either.
- But back to Sterling. Obviously what he said and thinks and did regarding race is deeply wrong. But even before this imagined panopticon future comes to pass, maybe we should think about what we do with and during these little outrage cycles. Twitter already feels like it’s about 50 percent ‘here is something you should be offended by!’ There are a million Donald Sterlings in the world. The next time some CEO announces or tweets or tells his girlfriend something we find repugnant, how much time should we spend chasing it down? What is a proportionate punishment for these statements and beliefs? Are the -isms the only sins for which we should demand penance? If Justin Bieber tells his Facebook followers tomorrow that he opposes the $15 minimum wage in Seattle, is that an unfollowable offense?
- Look, I am a member of a secular liberal society. I like our values, I think they are worth defending, I think people should be shamed and fired and lose business for violating them. I also, however, like my time and my energy and my attention, and sometimes I want to save them for things that make me happy. I am glad that someone is calling out Donald Sterling and Rush Limbaugh and that lady who made that mean joke on Twitter, but I’m not convinced that it needs to be me, that I have to jump into the pig pile whenever I hear something that, if a friend said it, they wouldn’t be anymore.
- Maybe that makes me part of the problem. Maybe failing to participate in the internet’s perpetual Intolerance Watch means that I am myself intolerant. Maybe I should be the next one pilloried on Twitter. Maybe I deserve it.
Last week, two friends of mine were turned down for an apartment in Berlin because they’re gay. ‘I’m a family man’, the owner told them, ‘and I want to sell my apartment to someone who will start a family there.’
This is obviously bullshit on a number of levels, least of which the fact that they’re actually starting adoption proceedings as soon as they buy an apartment.
‘Tweet that fucker’s name!’ I said, livid.
‘What’s the point?’ they said. ‘He’s allowed to. Homosexuality isn’t a protected ground for discrimination in services in Germany. It’s his house; he can sell it to whomever he wants. The law’s the problem, not this one guy.’
So I’m not publishing this dude’s name. But am going to tell my old friend in Seattle about it.
I majored in journalism. I worked at the student newspaper at my community college and then my real one, then did internships at two daily newspapers. Then I gave it up, I moved to Europe, I went to grad school and I ended up working at NGOs for the next eight years.
Since 2012 I’ve been sort of doing journalism again. Nothing serious, just little essays about stupid shit I did as a teenager or a friend of mine who was briefly a prostitute. Lately I’ve been getting slightly more ambitious, writing about foreign countries I visit for work and, this one time, how HIV is way worse in the US than in Europe.
If it’s not already obvious that I’m an amateur from my essays, it certainly is from the methods by which I produce them. I interview people too long, ask them stupid questions, forget to call them ‘doctor’, bug them with too many follow-ups. And I also, the biggest sin of all, send them drafts of my essays for comments before they’re published.
This is highly un-standard operating procedure. In journalism school the rule was, you could check direct quotes—i.e. the stuff in quote marks, not paraphrases—with your sources, and you could fact-check your numbers with them, but giving them actual excerpts from your story would compromise the independent, objective role of journalism.
The reasons behind this rule are obvious. Can you imagine an investigative reporter writing an exposé of a corrupt governor and checking it with him beforehand? Journalism is supposed to, like the old saying says, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Giving a source advance warning of your story, a chance to revoke their quotes or edit your conclusions before it’s published, profoundly undermines that role.
So I get why the rule exists. But not all journalism is political analysis or corruption investigations or public-figure profiles. In the last few years, the rise of ‘explainers’ (Ezra Klein, Nate Silver) and the general trend toward narrative-izing academic findings (Malcolm Gladwell, David Brooks, TED Talks) have demonstrated the utility—and the demand—for works of journalism that see their sources as collaborators rather than antagonists.
Me, I’m paralyzed-scared of getting anything factually wrong in my essays. As I mentioned the other day, for my HIV piece I read probably 150 documents and interviewed like 18 people. Many of these people and documents didn’t agree with each other, or emphasized different historical or demographic factors as the key to explaining the higher rates of HIV deaths in the United States (‘It’s the health care system!’ one of them would say. ‘The health care system doesn’t matter!’ says another ).
Weighing that up, then cinching it into a few thousand words, then trying to make it readable for people who are less obsessed with this topic than I am, there’s no way to do that without leaving some conclusions and explanations on the side of the road. The only way to make sure I got my conclusions right was to share them with the people who provided the basis on which I made them.
So I sent my essay to six of my sources. Everyone got back to me. All of them had comments and corrections, all of them were reasonable, and all of their changes got included in the essay before it ran.
Most of the corrections were related to terminology. ‘Your story says there were 15,500 people diagnosed with HIV in 2010,’ one of my sources wrote. ‘What you mean is infections, not diagnoses.’ That’s actually a pretty important distinction, and the kind that traditional magazine fact-checkers might not notice.
I also let them alter their direct quotes. I was a bit nervous about this, since In journalism school they taught us that anything in quote marks is sacrosanct. ‘I have you on tape with this exact wording,’ is what they told us to say when sources backtracked on their interviews. ‘You knew you were talking to a journalist.’
But what’s the point? Like the others, the changes in quotes they suggested were grammar and terminology and clarification, not self-preservation. One of my sources told me that when you’re on Medicaid it’s difficult to move ‘from one place to another’. She wanted me to change it to ‘from one state to another’. Should I have stood on principle on not changing the quote? Her suggestion is more accurate than what I had originally anyway.
Knowing I was going to send a draft of my article to my sources made me write it differently, made me work harder to fairly summarize what they said. It’s possible to get all your facts and your quotes correct and your conclusions wrong; having expert eyes on the full content, the tone and the structure and the corny jokes, made me think harder about what I was actually saying, not just the numbers I was using to say it.
There’s also the issue of courtesy. Academics, authors, people who work at AIDS clinics, they’re busy; the ones I spoke to spent unbelievable amounts of time, one-on-one, walking me through the basics of the field in which they are experts, my own little Socratic seminar. They sent me their academic work and their data and their annual reports, knowing that I was going to quote and paraphrase them without a chaperone. I paid them nothing for this, not even the guarantee of being name-checked in my article. The least I can do—as a person, if not as a journalist—is to show them in advance how I will represent them, give them a chance to correct what I got wrong or over-condensed.
I’m not arguing that every single piece of journalism should be checked with the subject of it. I was talking with a magazine editor the other day about this, and he said ‘whenever you write a profile of someone, they end up hating you. That’s how it works.’ No one wants to read a piece of propaganda, or be fed conclusions that have been vetted and authorized by the people they are concluding about. Fair enough.
But the ethical prohibition on sharing drafts of stories with sources comes from the assumed un-alignment of interests between the journalist and subject. The subject of a profile or a political story or business news has an interest in putting out a particular version of themselves—the hero, the victim, the striver, the successful startup, whatever. The journalist has an interest in telling the truth, or at least in finding the angle that’s going to get their story read and shared and talked about.
But in the case of explainers and science journalism and (some types of) feature stories, the interests of the journalist and the subject are aligned. Both want to bring the truth to a complex subject. Both want to bring attention to a field or a finding that was previously unknown. Both want to frame the narrative in a way that will get the general public interested. The bestselling Freakonomics was written through collaboration between a journalist and an academic. The documentary Food, Inc was created with the oversight of two of the subjects (Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser) interviewed in it. I think that adds to the credibility of the finished works, rather than diminishing them.
I didn’t share my HIV story with all of my sources. The CDC, who graciously provided me with Excel after Excel of estimates and back-calculations, and was generally lovely to work with, all they got was the figures from the story and an outline of my general points. Even I’m savvy enough to know that they have interests beyond the accuracy of the story.
Sometimes I think about this old Yogi Berra quote, about his relationship to the press: ‘You shouldn’t have printed what I said. You should have printed what I meant.’ (See, this is why you shouldn’t use direct quotes from memory. I can’t find it on Google. It might not have been Berra, and was probably phrased differently. Anyway!)
I remember reading it on a 365 Dumb Quotes calendar we kept on the kitchen table as a kid. These days, it doesn’t seem so dumb.
Right, so I have this story in The New Republic about how and why the HIV epidemic was so much more severe in the United States than Western Europe. It’s nothing earth-shattering, just me listing the higher prevalence, incidence and death rates between countries and giving some (pretty speculative) reasons for them. Standard statistical explainer-type stuff.
Except that this is the first time I’ve ever done something like this, and I spent the whole time researching and writing it absolutely stunned at how much work it was, and the bottomless amount of time it sucked out of my life for the last two months.
One thing I always knew, but didn’t like know-know, about journalism is how much time you spend just getting people to talk to you. One of the tropes of these kinds of stories is saying ‘I called up [name of incredibly prominent and busy researcher or author] to ask him about this’. If you ever listen to the Freakonomics or Planet Money podcasts, that’s always how they introduce their sources—‘I called up Ben Bernanke to talk about why my change gets lost in the dryer’ or whatever.
I now realize that those three words—‘I called up’—are a synonym for ‘I wrote an introductory e-mail to the media relations department describing my project and my publication, then spoke to them on the phone, then submitted a list of questions, then scheduled the call two weeks in advance, then had the call, then sent them the quotes to approve.’
And those are just the times when you get to the right person. The more typical response to one of these ‘can I talk to you about your work?’ e-mails is ‘this isn’t in my field of expertise, try my colleague’. Then the colleague goes ‘oh I actually don’t work on that anymore, try this former colleague’, but then their contact info is out of date and on and on and on.
And this is all totally understandable. Journalists have nothing whatsoever to offer their sources. People literally talk to me out of the kindness of their hearts. They’re busy, they’re doing much more important work than talking to me on my little Skype-machine. Large organizations like the WHO and the CDC have staff members divided into very specific subject areas—that’s how professional organizations work! The only one with an overview of the research on a particular topic is the department head, and he (understandably) does not feel like giving over a significant portion of his day to some random voice on the other end of the telephone.
Gmail tells me I sent 57 requests for interviews or data since February. I downloaded 170 academic articles, popular publications and NGO reports (not that I like read them all or whatever, but still). I had 18 in-person or phone interviews, lasting anywhere from 1.5 hours (thanks Dr. Sabin!) to 20 minutes (Chris Beyrer talked to me from a hotel room in Geneva at 8 in the morning, getting ready to chair a meeting at the WHO).
And that’s just the main sources. The data-hunting, the interview prep and transcription, the actual writing—you open your laptop on a Saturday morning, crack your knuckles and before you know it it’s dark outside.
I’m not saying this because I want to brag about how much work I did (on the contrary, I could—should!—have done way more), I’m saying it because these stories are all around us now, and no one seems to be making any money off of them, and one of the reasons they aren’t is because the work that goes into them is invisible.
In his memoir Palimpsest, Gore Vidal talks how, when they were making Ben-Hur, their funder almost backed out when he realized they would be shooting more than three hours of film. Film was super expensive at the time, and the funder, some George Soros type, figured, well, it’s a three-hour movie, so three hours of film ought to do it. When they told him they would need hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of film for all the extra takes, he freaked out: ‘What do you need all this film for if you’re just gonna throw it away?!’
Journalism has the same problem. What you get—4,000 words summarizing some historical and epidemiological stuff most people already know—is totally out of proportion to what it costs to make it. Part of the reason my piece was so ‘expensive’, to be fair, is that I’m an amateur. I spent days tunneling down into statistical rabbit holes that petered out, some of my interview subjects didn’t turn out to be all that relevant, I polished and re-polished sections of the article that eventually got cut. But no matter how good you are at this, a three-hour movie is always going to require more than three hours of film.
That, the extra footage, the outtakes and the failed experiments, can be reduced, but they’ll never be eliminated. And eventually, someone will have to agree to pay for them.
No, like a magazine-magazine. People will be reading me during takeoff and landing and in dental offices for days, son.
So I’m getting AIDS tested the other day in Berlin. I’m sitting in the waiting room and feeling like a Bad Gay, because I’ve lived here for three years and this is my first time getting tested. I’m surrounded by all these scared-straight brochures about HIV and AIDS in Germany. Prevalence rates, treatment options, prevention methods, names and addresses of support groups. “Since the start of the epidemic,” one of them says, “more than 27,000 people have died of AIDS in Germany.”
Wait, that sounds triumphantly low for a country of 80 million people. I pull out my phone and check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, which tells me that, in the United States, 636,000 people have died since the epidemic began. That’s 23 times higher than Germany, for a country with four times the population.
This makes no sense. Germany has big cities, it has gay men and sex workers and drug users, it has all the same temptations for them to be uncareful that the United States does. How could so many fewer people have died?
Maybe it’s a fluke. I visit the Public Health England website and it says 21,000 people have died of AIDS there in total. If the rates were the same as the United States, it would be 128,000.
The further down the Google-hole I go, the more mind-boggling the numbers get. Since the beginning of the epidemic, AIDS has claimed more people in New York City than in Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Switzerland combined.
The next day I start asking epidemiologists about this divergence. The first thing they tell me is that it is real, even accounting for differences in methodology. Scan the columns on the stats sheets—incidence, prevalence, deaths—and you find the United States with a two-digit lead going right back to the start of the epidemic. Still now, no matter how much we’ve learned about how to prevent and treat AIDS, the United States loses more than 15,000 people to it each year. Germany and the United Kingdom lose fewer than 800.
The second thing they tell me is why.
My editor at TNR was great—cool about the fact that I’ve never done this before, patient with my rank amateurishness and constant ‘you can’t cut that no please don’t!’ tantrums. I only know one way to write a sentence (Refer to self, item list. Refer to self, item list.), and he taught me at least like two new ones. The fact-checker was super nice, too. I got a lot of stuff wrong (C. Everett Koop is with a K?), and she had a way of pointing that out that didn’t make me feel like I was an idiot. Even though I sort of am. So thanks guys!
Before I even sent it to TNR, I got comments on it from friends and family. So Ian, Nathan, Lane, Alison, Mom, Dad: Thanks for being the people who told me that it wasn’t ready for the rest of the world yet.
And most importantly, I need to thank all of the epidemiologists and researchers and authors I talked to for the story. I interviewed about 18 people, some of them for more than an hour, and everyone was, without exception, patient and gracious and charming and fascinating, and I hope I’ve done justice to the great work they put into producing the information I’m stealing and paraphrasing.
I don’t do this for a living, so being published anywhere, anyhow, is really special for me. That someone would take the time to put something I wrote on actual pages, to ensure that I get my facts and my words right, to help and hope that I get better at this, it’s just, wow.
I’ll be posting some outtakes and further thoughts on the process and the article in the next few days. But for now, I’m going to take like six minutes to just sit here and feel super lucky that I got to do this. Then I’m going to start working on the next one.