H.G. “Buzz” Bissinger
Nieman Class of 1986
Bissinger authored the critically acclaimed narrative nonfiction book Friday Light Nights, which inspired the long-running television series by the same name. He also published a memoir, Father’s Day, and other books including A Prayer for the City and Three Nights in August: Strategy, Heartbreak and Joy Inside the Mind of a Manager. Before moving into books, he was an accomplished newspaper reporter: In 1982, he was a Pulitzer finalist in feature writing, for a St. Paul Pioneer Press story about the near crash of an airplane. In 1987, he shared a Pulitzer with two Philadelphia Inquirer colleagues, for an investigative series about corrupt courts. Bissinger has also written for the New York Times, the former TV series NYPD Blue and Vanity Fair. Last year, in a talk at the Nieman Foundation, he said, “The key to reporting is to zig while everybody else zags.” You can find that conversation, with curator Ann Marie Lipinski, here.
—A Prayer for the City, his book about Philadelphia and Gov. Ed Rendell. Excerpt:
Less than twenty-four hours before the new job became his and the grace of speculation gave way to crisis, David L. Cohen was ensconced in a suite of offices on the second floor of City Hall doing what he always seemed to be doing: sorting out the mess that had been unceremoniously handed to him by someone else. He was quite brilliant at it.
Municipal government in Philadelphia had never been known for the hum of its efficiency. It was Lincoln Steffens, in his oft-cited quote, who had once described the city as “corrupt and contented.” But even this sight seemed more peculiar than normal, as if occupying forces, finally realizing the futility of the war, had staged a midnight evacuation. Rooms that should have had furniture in them were barren. What few desks did remain had been emptied so that nothing was left, not even a paper clip. In the aftermath of the upheaval, a few items had been left behind. A half-filled bottle of wine lay inside the drawer of one file cabinet, and given the fortune at the end of the administration of the city’s outgoing mayor, W. Wilson Goode, it seemed remarkable that the contents hadn’t been downed in one merciful gulp. A pile of binders in pale blue covers had been unceremoniously dumped on top of another file cabinet, as if whoever had put them there just hadn’t gotten around to throwing them into the trash. They seemed innocuous enough, binders that might contain press releases announcing ribbon cuttings and holiday street festivals and other events that so often had passed for earth-shattering milestones in the sputter of a city on the brink of bankruptcy. But as David Cohen thumbed through the binders, he discovered they contained something else altogether: the executive orders that Mayor Goode had enacted during his tenure. Many of them were still in effect. They still had a significant impact on the 1.6 million people who lived in the city …
—Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team and a Dream, his iconic narrative nonfiction book about high school football in Odessa, Tex. Excerpt:
In the beginning, on a dog-day Monday in the middle of August when the West Texas heat congealed in the sky, there were only the stirrings of dreams. It was the very first official day of practice and it marked the start of a new team, a new year, a new season, with a new rallying cry scribbled madly in the backs of yearbooks and on the rear windows of cars: GOIN’ TO STATE IN EIGHTY-EIGHT!
It was a little after six in the morning when the coaches started trickling into the Permian High School field house. The streets of Odessa were empty, with no signs of life except the perpetual glare of the convenience store lights on one corner after another. The K mart was closed, of course, and so was the Wal-Mart. But inside the field house, a squat structure behind the main school building, there was only the delicious anticipation of starting anew. On each of the coaches’ desks lay caps with bills that were still stiff and sweat bands that didn’t contain the hot stain of sweat, with the word PERMIAN emblazoned across the front in pearly thread. From one of the coaches came the shrill blow of a whistle, followed by the gleeful cry of “Let’s go, men!” There was the smell of furniture polish; the dust and dirt of the past season were forever wiped away.
About an hour later the players arrived. It was time to get under way.
Nothing in Charles Lane’s 15 years of journalism, not the bitter blood of Latin America, nor war in Bosnia, nor the difficult early days of his editorship of the fractious New Republic, could compare with this surreal episode. On the second Friday in May in the lobby of the Hyatt hotel in the Maryland suburb of Bethesda, near Washington, nothing less than the most sustained fraud in the history of modern journalism was unraveling.
No one in Lane’s experience, no one, had affected him in the eerie manner of Stephen Glass, a 25-year-old associate editor at The New Republic and a white-hot rising star in Washington journalism. It wasn’t just the relentlessness of the young reporter. Or the utter conviction with which Glass had presented work that Lane now feared was completely fabricated. It was the ingenuity of the con, the daring with which Glass had concocted his attention-getting creations, the subtle ease with which even now, as he attempted to clear himself, the strangely gifted kid created an impromptu illusion using makeshift details he had spied in the lobby just seconds earlier—a chair, a cocktail table, smoke from a cigarette.
It all seemed increasingly bizarre to Lane, who had brought Glass to the Hyatt, the supposed setting for one of those bogus stories, to see if the young man could explain it all away somehow. What was behind Glass’s behavior? Why did he do it? Lane didn’t know then that Stephen Glass had always been good at such risky business. Exceptionally good.
He didn’t know that, in 1990, as a high-school senior in the North Shore Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Stephen Glass—a theater-lover—had served as a technical director of Stunts, a group of talented students who produced their own work. (One production involved a Washington journalist caught up in a web of conspiracy and corruption.) The yearbook pictured Glass, directing the movements of the cast through a headset. “Stephen Glass,” read the caption, “peruses the script, ready to call the scenes, sets, and props.” Not that many years later, Glass would present other elaborate orchestrations of made-up scenes and characters, this time passing them off as journalism.
The Featured Fellow series highlights Niemans who have distinguished themselves in narrative journalism and other artful storytelling, and honors the founding of the Nieman Foundation, which turns 75 this month. For more installments, go here.