I am not a psychotherapist or a forensic linguist capable of detecting clues in the rambling text of a suicidal man intent on murder.
But I've read the so-called suicide manifesto of Andrew Joseph Stack III, the man who flew a small plane into a government building in Austin, Texas, on Thursday. As I analyze the text, which runs for about three thousand words, I see a compelling pattern that reveals itself in the first paragraph:
"If you're reading this, you're no doubt asking yourself, 'Why did this have to happen?' The simple truth is that it is complicated and has been coming for a long time. The writing process, started many months ago, was intended to be therapy in the face of the looming realization that there isn't enough therapy in the world that can fix what is really broken. Needless to say, this rant could fill volumes with example after example if I would let it. I find the process of writing it frustrating, tedious, and probably pointless ... especially given my gross inability to gracefully articulate my thoughts in light of the storm raging in my head. Exactly what is therapeutic about that I'm not sure, but desperate times call for desperate measures."
It must be said that the author of this rant could spell, punctuate, and adhere to the basics of Standard English. But while the grammar and syntax may hold together, what strikes me as remarkable is the author's diction. What I find is an emptiness, an absence of original language, an almost total dependence upon clichés and half-clichés, propaganda from the right and the left, slogans and empty phrases we have read and heard so many times before.
George Orwell wrote about the abuse of language and politics, most famously in his essay "Politics and the English Language." Orwell was not analyzing, I realize, the writing of a crazed man bearing a hundred grudges, but his essential thesis may be relevant to this case.
Modern political prose, Orwell argues, "consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house." Less of words, more of phrases. And phrases, to borrow another Orwell argument, that are all too familiar:
If you are reading this Why did this have to happen The simple truth it is complicated has been coming for a long time in the face of the looming realization there isn't enough ... in the world that can fix what is really broken needless to say could fill volumes in the light of the storm raging in my head desperate times call for desperate measures
The number of these empty phrases, cobbled together into a single paragraph, is so unusual that, ripped from its context, it could come off as a kind of parody. But good parody is full and pointed. The language here is empty and dull. Orwell, I imagine, would see in the text an example of a mosaic of dead language, what he calls a "substitute for thinking."
There may be something else going on in the language of this manifesto that cannot be dismissed as the mere rantings of a depressed and paranoid individual. To understand it, I invoke a theory of literary interpretation called "intertextuality." It goes like this: When I write a story, that story reflects the world as we know it in certain ways. The story is not the world but an imitation of the world, a reflection, however shadowy, of reality.
But my story is also a reflection of all the similar stories that have come before it. If I write a prayer, that prayer has some relationship to the tradition of prayers, perhaps the 23rd Psalm or the Lord's Prayer. If I write a mystery, the form I use may invoke or suggest everyone from Poe to Perry Mason. One text, if you will, interacts with others like it.
In this case, the language of Mr. Stack reflects the hyperbolic rhetoric of disaffected cranks at both ends of the political spectrum, a language that can be heard on cable television, that can be read in the feedback loops of bloggers on the far right and the far left, and sometimes in between. Consider this sample:
we in this country have been brainwashed a handful of thugs and plunderers can commit unthinkable atrocities time for their gravy train to crash like the vulgar, corrupt Catholic Church the monsters of organized religion the incredible stupidity of the American public they buy hook line and sinker the crap about their "freedom" no one gave a shit about all the young families street after street of boarded up houses abandoned by wealthy loan companies left me to rot and die bailed out their rich, incompetent cronies
On and on it goes, until the very end, where he says that he is ready "to stop this insanity," and then addresses his imagined enemies directly: "Well, Mr. Big Brother IRS man, let's try something different; take my pounds of flesh and sleep well."
The sick mind will distort the meaning of language, of course, even language that is noble in its intention and appreciated by most readers. "Big Brother" is a reference to Orwell and his novel "1984," a dystopia about the dehumanizing effects of totalitarianism. Applying it to the IRS, however a rational person may feel about the American tax system, requires us to equate our government to the despotic regime in North Korea.
And "pounds of flesh" refers to Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice," a play that insists on lending some humanity even to the despised usurer Shylock. The reference is as absurd as the news that the killer of John Lennon carried with him on his way to the assassination a copy of "The Catcher in the Rye."
I imagine that there is a diagnostic literature out there somewhere of the language and content of suicide notes. I came across one recently in a photo of the handwritten manuscript of the lyrics to "Heartbreak Hotel." In the lower left-hand corner, it notes that the song was inspired by the suicide of a well-dressed man who left behind this message: "I walk a lonely street." I guess it is possible to use language with power, even in such a note.
Televised confessions and apologies have become the modern equivalent of the pillories in the public squares of Puritan America. The sinner is exposed. Jeers and insults are hurled. He becomes not just an object of derision, but a cautionary tale for others who might be tempted by the sins of the flesh.
Friday morning will be Tiger's turn to stick his head into the stocks. Woods will, no doubt, apologize to those he has hurt or disappointed. He will promise to become a better person. He will say how much his family means to him. He will pledge to work as hard as he can to regain everyone's trust. I will be surprised if he cries. Then he will answer no questions.
This pseudo-event offers an opportunity to reflect on the coverage of Tiger's fall from grace. That coverage has come in many different forms, responsible and irresponsible. As you'll see, it's not necessary to choose between sensationalism and abstinence. There is a third way.
With social networks and blogs sending their alerts, with supermarket tabloids shining a spotlight, and with cable news programs hungry for extended soap opera narratives, the traditional press often feels pressured into a level and style of coverage in disproportion to a story's true significance. Such stories, like Tiger's, are always interesting, but are they important?
Editors at traditional news organizations may feel as if they face an impossible choice:
Follow the coverage of the tabloids.
Turn their backs on all aspects of a sleazy story, making their news organizations vulnerable to less scrupulous competitors.
I'm going to offer another path. For the sake of conversation and argument, I'll give that path a name: "collateral journalism."
In doing so, I walk in the footsteps of others who sought to reform journalism by adding an adjective to it. The most famous were the coiners of the "New" Journalism of the 1960s, even though it wasn't really new. Even practitioners of "investigative" journalism have tried to set themselves apart as an elite tribe devoted to a set of practices and story forms. Gene Patterson gave us the term "explanatory" journalism, which became a Pulitzer category. Pick your poison: "civic" journalism, "citizen" journalism, "computer-assisted" journalism, "online" journalism, "narrative" journalism, "hyper-local-granular" journalism and so on.
I've long joked with Mr. Patterson, one of my mentors, that although he coined "explanatory" journalism, he could neverexplain it. So, in an effort to heal myself, I'll try to explain the potential I see in the adjective "collateral." First, let me say that I almost rejected the word because of the near-cliché "collateral damage." But a quick trip to the American Heritage Dictionary revealed a set of definitions, most of them neutral or positive in their denotations and connotations:
side by side; parallel
of a secondary nature
pertaining to a pledge in support of a loan
coming from a common ancestor, but descended from a different line
Here, then, is my definition of "collateral journalism":
Any act of reporting or analysis that attempts to take a current story and frame it to view its higher social, political or cultural significance.
Of course this is not new. Any good nut paragraph achieves this effect in a particular story. Beyond the nut graph, an insight into the news can be so revealing that it might be called a "conceptual scoop," requiring more than a single paragraph. Maybe a nut zone.
Or perhaps I'm arguing for some variation of "contextual" journalism of the kind described by the Hutchins Commissionin 1947, that a free and responsible press must provide the public "a truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day's events in a context which gives them meaning."
I'm about to slide down the ladder of abstraction and bring you back to that moment in time when O.J. Simpson was acquitted of slitting the throat of his wife and her companion. In spite of Simpson's celebrity and the prolonged narrative of a sensational trial, who would argue that the story deserved the level of coverage it received?
At the moment of acquittal, something happened that we still talk about. A meta-meaning was revealed when some white folks and some black folks reacted to the verdict so differently. If you were to write about that higher meaning -- that white people and black people view the criminal justice system differently -- you would be committing collateral journalism. In what is obviously a generalization worth studying, white people see the police as protection; for many African-Americans, the presence of police signifies profiling and containment.
Remember Elian Gonzalez: Collateral stories described the alienation of a hard core of Miami's Cuban-Americans from much of the rest of America.
Remember Natalie Holloway: Amid the never-ending plot twists, a few collateral stories revealed a fear about what happens to our high school sons and daughters when they fly away from home to pleasure islands in the Caribbean.
Back to Tiger Woods. Once we were about three weeks into the story, it became clear that even the most trivial details of the scandal would be advanced by the bottom feeders, such as the paparazzi photo of Elin Woods caught without a wedding ring. More sordid were the inevitable profiles of the dozen or so mistresses who emerged after Tiger's auto accident, including a porn star who recently claimed that Tiger got her pregnant -- twice.
I've spent a lot of time, on the golf course and off, talking about the tainting of the Tiger. Public interest was as high as it could get. Does such prurient fascination require the mainstream press to cover the story in the most sensational ways? To tintinnabulate for the sake of titillation? My answer is no.
A better path is to explore the story for its higher implications, to help us get beyond the obvious and through the secret doors into American culture.
In the weeks since the scandal broke, I wish I had seen more stories that would qualify as "collateral," such as these:
Woods as a prototype of Barack Obama, an African-American with light skin and a proper accent (cf. the oafish Harry Reid), deemed more acceptable to white America.
A description of the gender differences revealed by the reaction to the scandal: how women focused on disloyalty, while men seemed more concerned with the stupidity and recklessness that resulted in his getting caught.
A story on race and gender focused on the reaction of African American women to Tiger's apparent obsession with light-skinned, light-haired women.
Whether or not a wealthy celebrity like Tiger Woods can find justice within the legal system. Does his status get him a pass? Or does it attract harsher penalties?
The extent to which a double standard governs cases of spousal abuse. What if it were the Tiger swinging a club at his wife?
It is not that hard to generate these collateral angles. Standard idea mapping strategies will do the trick. All you have to do is to get a chart pad and put the basic story idea in the middle: "auto accident reveals marital problems for Woods." Then, with the help of others, begin to draw spokes of meaning out from the hub. Even an hour of such work can reveal as many as a dozen stories and topics collateral to the main news. (I'll walk you through this method of mapping the next time an appropriate story breaks.)
All forms of reporting have certain dangers associated with them. For collateral journalism, that danger is over-interpretation. The evidence must be strong, and it must come from solid reporting.
I can anticipate the critics of my thesis, so I'll give them their advanced say:
"Why give it a fancy name? That's just good journalism."
"People don't have time to read your analytic thumb-suckers."
"You are simply justifying putting sleaze in the paper."
"This kind of thinking will lead to the death of newspapers."
But consider this: There is no way that a newspaper can break a story with the speed of a good blog or Twitter alerts; and there is no way traditional newspapers can out-sleaze their competitors. So what is left? Unless we prefer a form of cultural celibacy that ignores all temptations of the sensational, wouldn't it be better for us and our readers if we offered them a more thoughtful analysis of the news, those collateral concerns that try to answer the toughest and most important news question of them all: Why does it matter?
The Huntington News Jon Raymond reports the Herald has run box scores and short clips about Northeastern sports events, but it hasn't run full-length game stories on the Huskies since last November. Herald editors are miffed because they weren't notified of the press conference during which Northeastern announced the termination of its football program.
"To help Canada's speed skaters glide across the ice as smoothly as Frozone did while escaping the Omnidroid, there's a new bodysuit from Japanese apparel company Descente. More aerodynamic than human skin, it's made from Thin Fit fabric that's only 0.3 millimeters thick.
"The Zeal Transcend goggle, used by Canadian Olympic snowboarders, does a lot more than provide cover. Like Iron Man's heads-up display, the goggles contain a full-color LCD -- invisible while the wearer is gazing ahead -- that offers information about his or her speed, altitude, rate of descent, and jump length."
"They bring to mind the Speedo LZR Racer that roiled the waters at the 2008 Beijing Games, where swimmers not clad in the cutting-edge suit complained of being at a competitive disadvantage.
"There has been no such outcry over the Descente suits. But unlike in 2008, when swimmers like the American Michael Phelps wore the LZR Racer in competitions leading up to the Olympics, the Canadian skaters have yet to race in their new suits. They have been wearing them in practices this month, but will not unveil them to the world until the Olympic speedskating competition begins Saturday."
"I think we all understood that when you embark on something like this, it's not like you can go to a GAO report and read up on it quickly," David Barstow tells Greg Marx. "This is precisely the kind of story and precisely the kind of topic where having the resources and the time to go deep is not just a luxury, but really a necessity, in order to do a decent job explaining a movement that people are struggling to get a grip on."
As industry leaders and innovators converge on the Times Center in Manhattan for what paidContent is billing as its "first namesake conference," I'll be on the lookout for answers to several key questions:
Who has a handle on what is involved in creating the "new value" that is necessary to warrant new payment from users?
To what extent are news organizations (and entrepreneurs) imagining user interactions with news that can translate "paid content" into "paid experience"?
If payment from users is so critical to the future of journalism -- and I believe it is -- what are media executives doing to involve those users in deciding what they'll pay for?
One thing I won't look for is discussion of paid content as an established business model. As I concluded in the paper I wrote for my Shorenstein Fellowship, to be posted today on the Shorenstein site, the search for ways to sustain journalism is still a long way from the business model stage.
But it is possible, reflected in the bullets above, to establish a "user-first" framework for conducting the experiments that are likely to yield such business models in the long run.
My paper sorts dozens of user-first innovations into a typology of four categories: paid content, advertising, partnerships and new ventures.
As vendors such as Steven Brill's Journalism Online roll out their services with early clients, the paid content debate is moving from debate to actual experimentation.
Forrester Research projected spending on online content at about $3 billion for 2009 -- but very little for local news. (The report is not available online for free.) Forrester's Sarah Rotman Epps estimated that only 3 percent of Internet users in the U.S. have paid to access digital information; and such spending was done by a tiny slice of the population -- those with an average household income of nearly $100,000.
Forrester has found such payments flowing almost exclusively from niches -- work-related areas such as financial and government information, along with information relating to personal passions such as wine and sports. Forrester is expected to update its research with a presentation at Friday's conference.
Paid content is not simply about news and information.Media economist Robert Picard argues: "It is not enough to make content informative, relevant, interesting and believable. To gain loyal audiences willing to provide the financial support needed for the future, news organizations must provide engaging, pleasing and memorable experiences to their users."
So far, there are few examples of such "memorable experiences" created by news organizations. But I have seen some experiments that go beyond the blunt instrument of pay walls:
The Miami Herald's iPhone app for Miami Dolphins coverage. Rather than erect a pay wall in front of such coverage, the paper created an app and sold 13,000 of them at $1.99 last fall. More significantly, the move provided a framework for the Herald to create other apps for other Florida sports teams.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's PG+ service, which charges $3.99 a month (or $35.88 a year) for access to extra content, mostly focused on politics, music and life in Pittsburgh. Editor David Shribman hopes the service will appeal especially to the estimated 500,000 former Pittsburgh residents around the country and the world. He won't say how many subscriptions the paper has sold, limiting his assessment in a telephone conversation last year to: "We're making steady progress and we're not going to abandon it."
The Chicago News Cooperative's plans to charge $2 per week for membership in a co-op that founder Jim O'Shea, formerly with the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, hopes will include user participation in "news interest networks."
Reuters | Romenesko Memos Tribune execs write in a memo to employees: "During the next several weeks you can expect to see continued public posturing as negotiations [with creditors] continue. This is not unusual. As you have throughout this process, please stay focused on your job.