Feb 5, 2010

Take me to the general store

After the Bigfoot hoax I would, with some regularity, get these calls asking for help or information for someone doing a big story. Almost without exception the idea for the story seemed to be rooted in a deep misunderstanding.

The worst was from a documentary film maker with an accent who'd won some award he was wielding like a codpiece. He wanted me to help him in exchange for some percentage of points in his system, which he couldn't quite explain and which seemed vaguely ponzi-like. He kept presuming I would help him and would be honored to work with him. Like a salesman pitching hard, he went straight to trying to set up my meeting with his advance man, Fabio. Fabio was going to get some preliminary footage to sell the idea of the documentary to investors and I was gonna be the guide.

The man who'd won the award kept asking questions like could I take Fabio to the woods, so we could see the woods where the men found Bigfoot.

And I would say, "we don't really have woods," but he didn't seem dissuaded.

"The general store," he said, "you take Fabio to the general store ..."

"This is metro Atlanta. We don't really have a general store."

"... and you interview the villagers. We get the villagers, we ask them about Bigfoot," he said.

"I don't think you understand."

"... the villagers, they have seen this thing? They think they have seen this Bigfoot ..."

"Look," I said, "this story didn't happen here. It happened on the internet."

"You take Fabio to see the villagers ..." he said.

It seems like such a simple fact, a straightforward thing -- where a story happens. But it's really not.

I was struck by the weirdness of this the first time I went to a murder victim's vigil, where the family and friends were holding candles and saying prayers. When I got there they were standing in a half circle. The other half of the circle was for an audience that wasn't there. There was me and one guy from TV, supposedly covering an event, witnessing something that was happening, but finding ourselves sort of making up half of the prayer vigil circle: barely filling the void but acting, in some way, to complete the event. Later, I looked at my pictures and watched the 30 or 40 seconds of the vigil that made it on to the nightly news, and there it just looked like a circle of people praying. We made the circle hole.

So where did it happen, this vigil? Where were the prayers prayed? What should the dateline on a story like that really read?

A lot of events you're assigned to cover at a newspaper feel like half events. Press conferences and political announcements especially have this feeling, like a stage is set for an audience that won't be coming. In the This American Life Story, "Politics," Michael Lewis says that when he had a camera with him during the Bob Dole campaign, on the Bob Dole plane, everything changed. Suddenly people were talking to him -- but not to him, but to the void where he stood, to the blank lens of the camera, to the second half of a dialog that was happening somewhere, but which felt, right there, like a one-sided conversation with an absence.

I guess this is the media equivalent of the fourth wall. And because the fourth wall can't be broken, we, in the audience, get to think of ourselves as just observers, and as passive. The fourth wall saves us, preserves us in our idea of our own passivity. We're just watching. This happens to journalists too, where you think you're just a witness, as if your presence didn't change things, as if the details would have been arranged the way they were arranged in your story even if you weren't there to pluck them up, seek them out, elicit them and make them narratively meaningful. We imagine this wall between us and what we see, but we're involved in the constitution of the stories -- not just as witnesses but also as authors, not just audiences but also participants, the other half, the ones necessary to complete the scene.

We are, in this way, our own villagers.