In journalism classes at the College of Idaho, I talked about the pitfalls of covering politics. I told my students those pitfalls came with sharpened, feces-smeared bamboo stakes at their bottoms.
"Really?" they would ask.
"It's a metaphor," I would say. "But that doesn't mean you can write about politics and come away with cherished bits of your anatomy intact."
Then I'd get specific:
Politicians gain office by following rules. Then they take delight in enforcing the rules they once had to follow. Don't expect to get through to them by pointing out that the rules might be insane, unjust or harmful.
In spite of the above, tell the truth. Telling the truth takes priority over getting through to your audience. If you have to sweeten the picture, it's not worth it, even if you lose all those readers who think the picture should consist entirely of high-fructose corn syrup.
In politics, the truth is always relative. Postmodern literary theory says truth is a construct tied to language, tribe and class, and is a tool of social oppression. Postmodernists, thinking they were freedom-loving revolutionaries, showed how to use language to destroy the dubious "truths" of hierarchy, patriarchy and oligarchy. Then reactionary politicians discovered postmodernist theory and used it to steamroll anything that got in their way.
Here's New York Times writer Ron Suskind writing about Bush adviser Karl Rove in 2004: "[He] said that guys like me were 'in what we call the reality-based community,' which he defined as people who 'believe that solutions emerge after your judicious study of discernible reality. ... That's not the way the world really works anymore,' [Rove] continued. 'We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality--judiciously, as you will--we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study, too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'"
We all know what kind of reality that godawful language resulted in. If you spend your life in the political arena--even as a reporter--you will have lived in an entirely artificial world, one you might think you can change arbitrarily because it was arbitrary in the first place. You may decide you can ignore the laws of physics or mathematics or forgo common decency. Don't do that. There's an objective reality out there that you can perceive if you're careful and humble enough.
George Washington warned his countrymen against the pathology of party politics. Whether it was good advice for politicians we'll never know, but it's good advice for journalists. If you call yourself a Republican or Democrat, or Green, or Tea, or Green Tea, you won't be as good a journalist as you would be if you don't identify with a party at all. If you resist this idea, write the phrase "A Pox on All Your Houses" 50 times in your reporter's notebook.
If that doesn't work, try imagining elected officials as lizard-people from Uranus. Think of their lofty language as coded alien arguments about how best to divvy up humans as a harvestable protein source.
The world really is being run by lizard-people. That's because we all have, under our neocortex, a lizard brain--one that springs into action when we run for office.
Lust for power always comes wrapped in noble rhetoric. Remember Lord Acton's dictum that "Power Corrupts, and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely." Writers have so little power that we usually choose less glamorous paths to corruption, but sometimes we shrink the world to fit the scope of our power. Then we have to watch our tendency toward corruption just as much as if we were ambitious congressmen or Lockheed lobbyists. The lizard brain is always waiting to act, no matter how small the arena.
Some language is designed for lies--for example, the language of bureaucracies and press secretaries. Truth is not a construct. It's turning up the light in a room where the spots on the carpet are slick, squishy and disgustingly mobile. Choose language that exposes rather than obscures. Your shoes will thank you.
We live in a typical dying empire. We've hocked the future to maintain an unjust status quo. We've spent blood and treasure on wars that have put our enemies in power. We've turned our currency into one vast unsecured derivative. We're not educating our children well. Our churches have become mighty fortresses of oppression and greed. Presidents morph into their predecessors. Any decision comes with huge unintended consequences. The cost-benefit ratio of government has gone into the toilet, and passionate arguments about the trivial have become the stoop de jour. Politicians have come to prefer deniability to truth, which means they will co-opt journalists at every opportunity.
It takes deep courage to be a writer. It takes deep faith in your perceptions. There are strong taboos against writing down what you see. Most of us have had those taboos burned into our frontal lobes by families, schools, political parties and religions. They are designed to keep us happy, but also in the shallows. Neither state is where you want to spend your writing career or your life.
A career in journalism requires a desire to make conscious the dark things that happen in this world and in human hearts. Not everyone takes satisfaction in putting those things on page or screen, but you should. In the end, it's the only thing that will make objective reality a well-lighted place, with a clean carpet.
Adapted from John Rember's MFA in a Box blog, mfainabox.com.