After 1,250 Columns, The End
The first of 1,250 columns, nine years ago, spoke of a time that seems impossible now, of heady young tech moguls flush with money and drunk with possibility, instructing the chef at The Palm in Tysons Corner to spell out "Netscape" for them -- in crabmeat.
Today's is my last column, and as I scan the archives, I see stories of public arrogance and private foibles, but mostly, I see stories of people poking their way through life -- a quest I've tried to capture here a few times each week.
Those first columns covered topics that seem all too familiar today: police beatings, dreams of a trolley line from Bethesda to Silver Spring, schools that teach little more than cynicism. But other pieces feel like relics of another world: a journey with the mapmaker scurrying to keep up with the leading edge of sprawl, a visit with city kids who played baseball where dreamers thought there might someday be a major league stadium, an attempt to understand what drove angry college kids to shut down the city with protests against . . . well, it never was quite clear.
Those demonstrators didn't teach me anything about globalization, but writing about them did show me that the relationship between news writers and readers was changing forever.
For that column, published the day after the anti-globalization movement held its biggest demonstration here, I wandered around downtown asking protesters what they were so angry about. One young woman explained that her parents failed to see the root injustices of society: "They say, 'I like my VCR and my Saab, and I like medicine and fried chicken.' "
"Such terrible people," I wrote. "Imagine, liking medicine and food!"
The reaction to my description of "humorless bands of adolescents . . . searching for ways to upset their elders" was immediate: Thousands of e-mails poured in -- this was just as broadband was becoming commonplace -- most howling about how mean I was. The issue was fleeting, but what stuck with me was how the culture of the Web was shifting the relationship between writer and reader. People took a visceral interest in how the story was told. They wanted to know how I'd chosen whom to quote, what views I'd brought to my reporting. I'd always received letters, but this was new -- in the size of the response, in the unchecked venom, in the expectation that there ought to be a continuing conversation between news purveyor and news consumer.
There was something empowering about the new media, the digital technology that let readers speak out in the same format, the same time frame and the same space as the news that had hitherto been delivered from on high.
I loved the new battleground of ideas even as I lamented how opinion -- the laziest form of journalism -- was elbowing out the rigorous work of reporting. In this new world, it was so cheap to mouth off that the difficult and sometimes less-exciting work of ferreting out facts became too easy to discard or trim back.
On the first day I was given this space to play with, the great columnist Mary McGrory summoned me to her office with a note: "Come see me. I have three words for you."
I scurried over and presented myself. Mary looked up from her desk and said, "Three words: Cruelty is important." To do this job right, you must name and blame the bad guys. You must call it as it is. The minute you hold back, your credibility is shot. The second you stop reporting, you're just one more pontificating, pusillanimous pundit." (When my friend and colleague Marjorie Williams launched her column, she too received the gift of three words from Mary: "Subtlety is overrated.")
The beauty of a column is that you can dig up the story, then say it straight: You can expose the cynicism that leaves D.C. school kids worse off at the end of their education than they were at the start, then you can call that system a criminal enterprise. You can reveal the narrow-mindedness that threatens to put mentally retarded people out on the street, and then push until embarrassed officials do the right thing. You can keep hitting the same note until a school principal with a phony doctorate is removed.
But this work breeds humility and frustration, too: No matter how many times I wrote about the folly of zero tolerance policies, bureaucrats held dear to rules that treat kids like crooks and punish them as we never would adults. Reporters like to think that merely shining light on a problem will lead good people to solve it. Sometimes that's right, but often it's not: I wrote over and over about how to move homeless people into housing at relatively low cost, yet many readers found my energy misplaced, preferring to rely on the old canard about the homeless being on the street because they want to be. And readers consistently told me I was dead wrong about privacy issues, even when it was clear (to me, anyway) that rules supposedly designed to protect people were instead preventing the public from learning about wrongdoing (this comes up especially on mental health and crime issues, such as after the Virginia Tech shootings).
This gig was always huge fun. I staged stunts: Amid the security hysteria after 9/11, I walked along downtown sidewalks wearing a gas mask and crash helmet to see how people would react (to my joy, most got the joke). I took the Virginia and Maryland standardized tests that are inflicted on eighth-graders (I'm still lousy at math), I watched 24 hours of the D.C. government's self-promoting cable TV channels (I may have been the first customer to call the cable company requesting an outage).
In the column and on the Raw Fisher blog, which started in 2007, I have learned how deeply many of us crave community. The more atomized our lives become, the more we yearn to be part of something larger. Yet we also live in a time of great skepticism about the motivations of others. "Leave me alone" does constant battle with "hold me tight."
The daily newspaper, like TV news anchors and radio deejays, was for many years a regular visitor in most homes. Newspaper columns were an invitation to a relationship with a reporter who would take you to places and introduce you to people you might not know firsthand, but were part of the place you called home. That much hasn't changed: Readers taught me early on that while editors worried about whether we were writing about each locality in the Washington region, what mattered was the people and the stories. Even those who live miles away and take pride in never setting foot in the District would clamor for more on the city, because it is the central depot of our collective awareness. People want to talk about the great characters whose antics, agonies and achievements we all know, whether that be Marion Barry appalling us, Dan Snyder disappointing us, or Barack Obama stirring us.
There are a million stories in the naked city, someone once said, and I told 1,250 of them here, and another 1,200 on the blog. I heard from readers 250,000 times and I tried to respond to all of them. I could stay on this road for years to come, I love it so. But this path feels worn and familiar, and the challenge now is to hack out a new one.
Newspapers are in a fight to survive, desperately searching for new ways to reflect the world to an audience that is less trusting, more distracted and diffuse. For many people now, digital connections seem to trump geography as the central definition of home. But those electronic ties don't fulfill all our needs. Where we live still matters. Starting next month, I'll be putting together a group of writers whose job it will be to tell the truths of Washington in compelling and essential ways, combining traditional storytelling with new forms that involve and engage the people who live here.
The ideas are the same ones that drove this column: to figure out what connects us -- even when that something is paradoxically the very thing that divides us. To introduce readers to the characters whose stories tell us something about ourselves.
I'm grateful to the many who have come along on this ride, who have argued with me, fed me tips and steered me right. Thanks to all who shared their stories and even to those who splattered venom all over my e-mail queue. I'm off to expand my collection of funhouse mirrors and point them somewhere new.
Join me next Thursday, June 4, at noon for a farewell edition of "Potomac Confidential" at www.washingtonpost.com/discussions.
By Marc Fisher |
May 30, 2009; 11:55 AM ET
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