The narrative selected for discussion by our first-ever Editors’ Roundtable is “The Real Lesson of the Tucson Tragedy” by David Von Drehle. Appearing in Time magazine five days after the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and so many others, the piece draws on reporting from six reporters who fed Von Drehle material from Tucson, New York and Washington. Michael Duffy, assistant managing editor and Washington bureau chief at Time, edited the story.
We’ve also done a Q-and-A with Von Drehle about how the piece came together, but in this post we offer our editors’ responses to the story. Comments appear in the order in which they were made, and editors with any relationship to Von Drehle have disclosed it in the opening of their comments. For full bios on the editors, see our post last week announcing the Roundtable.
Knight Chair professor, Missouri School of Journalism
Ah, the most challenging of subjects in the hands of a master. David Von Drehle does so much to learn from, and all on a crazy deadline.
Verb tenses are counterintuitive but effective. Present tense puts us back in the scenes of that day. Foreshadowing restores suspense to a known conclusion. Von Drehle never cheats on the news, but there is hope in his chronological retelling: Maybe things can be different. (A nice underscore to his whole theme.) Past tense breaks the narrative for background and commentary.
Voice has unapologetic authority but an engaging casualness. The opening line is colloquial and intimate. All the little come-alongs (ie: “Let’s consider…” “Note the date…” “Go ahead and cry.”) make it feel like he’s talking to me over coffee as we ponder this senselessness.
Pacing that weaves short and long sentences, maximizing the power of short.
Character revealed through selected details. I see those third-grade teeth, and the woman young Christina Green should grow into.
The really big wow? Focus. Von Drehle takes a subject everyone is writing about but chooses and sustains his core theme: the war on normal. Repetition of that word becomes a tool of structure, cohesion and theme-building. Even Christina Green as opening and ending: She’s not just the most innocent victim of one deranged man, but a metaphor for a better sense of America – Von Drehle reports it as a reality – under attack by “cabals” on both ends of a destructive screed.
Editor’s tweak: More sourcing written into the story or in an expanded byline box, rather than leaving so much to links. In the din of this screed, I want to know how reporters know what they know.
Finally, kudos to the reporters who provided the right raw material. Writing narrative means reporting narrative.
Managing editor, The Virginian-Pilot
Jacqui did a wonderful job breaking down all the great things about this story. The storytelling is really strong and the reporting that feeds it is tremendous, particularly on what I imagine was a tight deadline. Watching the events unfold was gripping, despite having read so many accounts of what happened. Which is why we love narrative writing.
What I struggled with was so much time and attention on the response to the shooting. For me, it was definitely a case of less would have been more. The point is to call all those crazy reactionaries to task for having jumped the gun. It’s almost ironic that the cabal gets so much undeserved ink.
Yes, the story is about the war on normal, but the strongest message becomes the positive you can take away – that in America, this doesn’t happen that often. We disagree and argue and vote people out of office that we don’t like and shots are never fired, unlike so much of the rest of the world. That point is made, no doubt, but it’s drowned out more than I would have liked by the attention on Palin and Moulitsas and Ruddy, etc. Again, a little would have gone a long way.
I really appreciate a story that takes a loud event and brings it down quietly and forces you to think about something that deserves attention. And that’s what I loved about this story; I just wanted not to dwell so much on the madmen on talk radio and TV but on illustrating the fact that this day was an aberration and some of these people at the scene were amazing in their reactions. That was the power of the story, punctuated by that last line.
What struck me was the sense of control. Jacqui’s right, focus is the triumph here, and Von Drehle is a master at focusing a story even on deadline. It’s not just that he declares a theme and carries it out. He controls every element. Look how elegantly he tucks attribution and other necessities into the middles of sentences, how he saves powerful images for the ends of sections and how he slows time to let a scene unfold.
Paragraphs that in other hands would serve as mundane explanatory material become devastating by his word choice. Sarah Palin does not argue, she implausibly argues. He knows what he wants to say.
He writes with an unapologetic point of view, directly addressing the reader throughout. “Pay attention,” he says. “Go ahead and cry.” This signaled to me that as a reader I was in good hands. He was taking me somewhere and he had a plan. I don’t know that we could or should get away with so much point of view in a newspaper. But as an editor I’m usually pushing for more authority and not less. More narratives fall short because a writer is at the mercy of the material than because the writer is too much in control of it.
The risk with this approach is that it can feel heavy handed. I didn’t feel that way here until the last paragraph. Christina Green is an irresistible symbol, but by the time I read this piece I was tired of seeing her used as a metaphor. That’s a comment on all the coverage, not on this story alone, but I felt a bit manipulated by it. So the last line fell short for me, but only because the spell was interrupted in the sentence or two before.
Senior editor for books and special projects, Star Tribune
I agree with the points made above – I love the urgency of present tense, the intimate voice, the pacing. I heartily agree that the reporting was stellar. And since so many positive points have already been made, I get to do a little nitpicking. I have four, but they are very small. Nit-sized nits.
Nit 1: Voice. It works so well through so much of the piece that when it doesn’t work, it’s startling. “Pay attention.” “How many times have we heard this story?” Those interjections worked for me. What didn’t work was when the narrator stepped too close, invaded my personal space.
“Go ahead and cry. … Feel the disgust rise up. … As any normal person would.”
If I don’t cry, am I not normal? These lines felt intrusive and presumptuous. They turned the focus from the story and onto me, and I didn’t like it.
Nit 2: I echo Maria’s observation about too much time and attention devoted to the cabals. What started as a great and gripping narrative took a jarring turn into a standard, almost shrill, opinion piece in the “Dramatizing the trivial” section and then, almost as jarringly, veered right back into great narrative when the section ended.
Nit 3: Sept. 11. That detail made me gasp when I first heard it, but because it was purely accidental that Christina was born that day, it almost immediately lost its power as a symbol. The ending would be as powerful – more powerful – without milking that date.
Nit 4: And, while this is completely unfair to Von Drehle’s great work, all of those hyperlinks drove me crazy. The last thing you need when you’re reading a powerful and engrossing work is a whole bunch of little clickable things that will take you out of the story. Let us remain immersed.
Sunday and enterprise editor, The Dallas Morning News
Here’s what I think writers can learn from Von Drehle’s powerful piece.
Structure and flow. Think of the narrative structure and flow as similar to a camera’s movement in filmmaking. We open with the camera on Christina Green, following her to the shopping center. We get a glimpse as to why Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is there. The camera turns to Jared Loughner as he walks up to Giffords. Then freeze the frame. We step out of the action for a moment and the narrator provides us with background on Loughner and the possibility of schizophrenia. Then “the first bullet strikes Giffords in the head,” and we’re back in the action, if just for a moment. Then pause again: The narrator takes us through a long passage of commentary (more on this in a moment). We don’t return to the action until Dorwan Stoddard “heard the explosions.” Pay attention to how Von Drehle moves the camera, then pauses it for explanation, exposition and commentary, then starts the camera again. It’s almost like a dance, the way the narrative scene and the exposition move back and forth.
Repetition to emphasize theme. Jacqui is spot on: Read the piece again and look at how Von Drehle repeats the phrases “war against normal” and “war with normal” and “war on normalcy” and, finally, “this is how normal fights back.” He’s doing that not only for the cadence and musicality of the piece, but to hammer home what the piece is about: “This is how normal fights back, by rejecting fear and choosing courage.”
Use of metaphor for instant understanding. The use of metaphors and similes is hard to pull off. I encourage writers, even veteran writers, to stay away from them, or use them very sparingly. Von Drehle is a master, though, and he uses two in a row that I found effective. “Elected officials in swing districts are always in danger of losing, and when one of them does, the creators of the target lists can boast of their fearsome power. It’s like standing on a beach as the tide turns and claiming to control the ocean.” And then another quick metaphor right after that: “Like the Wizard of Oz, the cabal’s entire authority hinges on this ability to exaggerate its power.” The trick here is that the metaphors need to be based on experiences and references that most readers will connect with immediately. If you have to explain your metaphor, then it’s not strong enough for your piece.
Risk-taking. Von Drehle takes huge risks here. This piece is a hybrid, a blend of narrative (the shooting scene) and commentary (what are we to make of the “cabal”). I haven’t come upon many examples of commentary that weave in the narrative. (Fellow Roundtable editors, help me here if you know of any.) I suppose some op-ed columnists do a bit of this, but not to the degree that Von Drehle is attempting here. I admire that. Like Kelley, I don’t think we could run this piece in our news section, though we probably could in our commentary section. And like Kelley, Maria and Laurie, I would have encouraged the writer to scale back on the commentary — the passage that starts with “What is not normal is the reaction of a relatively small but very loud and influential cabal…” and ends with “The events of the past week should awaken us to the danger of further indulging their delusions.” Still: At a time when we’re all struggling to engage readers, let’s push for more of this risk-taking.
Assistant managing editor, Sports Illustrated
Full disclosure: I’m a colleague of David Von Drehle’s at Time Inc. and a longtime fan of his writing. He and I have discussed working together on occasional pieces for Sports Illustrated.
I agree with Tom and others about the power of this story and particularly the effectiveness of the narrative of the shooting. Great deadline journalism, vivid and immediate. But I also agree with Maria and Laurie that the section on the response to the shootings is too long and too jarring in tone.
“Cabal” may not be the best word for a group of commentators with wildly different political views, and it seems contradictory to say the commentators are “very … influential” but actually have a limited audience and exaggerate their own power. The section comes off as a rant against ranting, a bit out of character with the normality being extolled.
Still, the writing in the narrative is moving and beautifully controlled, and I admire the clear, strong voice throughout the piece.
Full disclosure: David Von Drehle wrote for me when I edited Tropic Magazine and he was a Miami Herald staffer. He was also my roommate and hired me to work for him when he was Style editor at The Washington Post. I later hired him to write for the Post Magazine when I was the magazine’s editor.
To me, the major lesson here is the Big Picture. Von Drehle was wise enough to see what so many were missing, and smart enough to realize that he had an opportunity to point out the forest everyone else was completely missing for the trees. So much of the commentary and reporting after the shooting went directly to the presumably causative influence of the virulently nasty state of political discourse in the country. Then it went from there to the political fireworks around assessing the BLAME for the nasty state of discourse.
Instead of getting hung up in those weeds, Von Drehle was able to see right through them to an obvious truth most of the back and forth was completely ignoring: The shooter’s war was not the war the rest of us are fighting. It was his own private war, and it had nothing to do whatsoever with the nasty nature of political discourse. It was instead a duel to the death with reality – he’d lost hold of it. He was a man drowning in a sea of abstraction, thrashing about violently and a danger to anyone who caught his fragmented attention. The searing political query that prompted his fixation on his victim was not about abortion, immigration, or the size and intrusiveness of the government. It wasn’t about the right to bear arms or gays in the military, or any other culture war item. It was: “If words have no meaning, what good is government?”
It was about mental illness pure and simple, and if you wanted to throw it in, about how someone with extreme mental illness was able to buy and carry a semiautomatic weapon with an extended ammunition clip. Von Drehle also saw clearly that in all the noise about the name-calling and poisonous partisanship in Washington, all the pundits and pols decrying the status quo were perfectly mirroring and reinforcing the status quo.
To me, the real strength of Von Drehle’s piece was that his was the first and most eloquent voice saying, “The emperor has no clothes.”
Narrative writing instructor, Nieman Foundation
Such great points, all. The pleasant problem with being the last Roundtabler to comment is that by the end of the process the Y-incision has been made, the skin and muscle and soft tissue have been peeled away, the organs have been excised and examined and weighed. The autopsy is nearly complete. Nevertheless!
It’s super hard to write a deadline narrative, especially one that’s fact loaded and compelling and insightful and endeavors to be moving. You’re at the mercy of the reporting that comes in from the field and your own clarity of purpose/vision. In a story as widely covered as the Tucson shooting, you don’t want to rehash events, which so often happens on the fifth or seventh day, but rather to tell the story through some original prism. The shooting broke on a Saturday and this story ran five days later, which may sound like a long time but isn’t. Few can do it artfully. Von Drehle is one of the best. (His Hurricane Hugo narrative remains a model of deadline poetry and made the rest of us who covered Hugo see ticking-clock storytelling in a whole new way.)
He led us into the piece with a single-sentence lede meant to ease readers into difficult material. It’s a good reporter’s trick akin to the old stand-by: “To understand why (fill in the blank) is important, it’s necessary to understand (fill in the blank) .” In doing so he sets us up for what is almost a parallel narrative, and though we suspect the conflict will unfold as good vs. evil, it turns out to be swampier than that.
Which may be why the author chose to use directives: “pay attention” and “go ahead and cry” and “take a moment.” They serve almost as an annotation of the event/political climate, but were they necessary? Yes, they added texture and conversational accessibility, but it’s possible that they intruded on the narrative, even undermined it. Also, “note the date” was meant, I think, to locate the infancy of this particular wave of political ugliness, but does the paragraph achieve that goal? Did the author seek to show how much the rhetorical landscape has eroded since ’07? If so, we needed a beat more.
I appreciated how, instead of simply telling us about the virulence of the competing “cabals,” he deftly worked in the consequences of the warring by showing ours as a government that can’t manage to seat federal judges or reform programs. That’s important context.
Little tiny editing things:
In all the Tucson coverage it annoyed me to no end to hear/read people talking about Christina Green’s impending “career,” so I groaned out loud to see it here. She was nine. Nine.
Those “See this! See that!” links are on par with pop-up ads. And why on earth would we want anyone to click out of this story?
Some may want to cage-fight me on this point but I don’t think he needed “The ugly and twisted part comes next.” Maybe it exists for the sake of lede repetition but we already instinctively grasp the undercurrent of multiple-level gnarliness. Likewise, we don’t need, “He was an unhinged young man at war with normal.” At that point the conceit has been established, and the section would have ended powerfully enough on “…he wasn’t an expression of some dangerous new American norm.”
I experienced a wee reflexive cringe at “she entered this world as a ray of hope,” but whatever. Here’s a positive: Like Tom, I loved the ocean metaphor – that entire graf worked.
With regard to whether such a piece would be suitable for certain news pages, why not call it News Analysis and let it fly? R.W. Apple spent half his career doing just that for the New York Times and often helped me understand political nuance far better than a straight news story ever could have.
A final word from Storyboard Editor Andrea Pitzer:
Pondering the Roundtable approach, Jacqui Banaszynski notes that there are pluses and minuses to so many editors putting their fingerprints on a story. This kind of scrutiny is always a little unfair, as it can never take into account all the time and reporting pressures that happen in real life or the demands incumbent on a given newspaper or magazine. Our hope, however, is that seeing each editor’s take will help readers think about how stories work and ways to make them as good as possible.
Stay tuned for the next installment in early March. In the meantime, if you have a piece you’d like to see our editors dissect, please send it along to firstname.lastname@example.org. The story has to be already published, available online and strong enough to stand up to extended editorial tire-kicking.