I’m collaborating with two other journalists to bring you a special series on the clothes we wear while reporting. Last week, I wrote about bras and booze and it was one of those subscriber only emails. Today, is Anne Helen Petersen. AHP is one of those journalists I read and study and try to emulate. Her reporting and profiles and books are fascinating and insightful and she does the work. I hope you enjoy her words. And if you do, you can always sign up for her newsletter here.
If you’ve been reading the newsletter for any amount of time, you’ll know that I appreciate anything that demystifies the reporting process, but I actually think that “demystifying” is a highfalutin word here — it suggests that there exists some complicated journalism alchemy, the sort of thing that gets taught in journalism classes. But the stuff that Lyz talked about, and that I’m going to talk about and Molly’s going to talk about, are not mystical. They’re just intentionally invisible.
These are the ways we learn how not to get the shit kicked out of you, how not to get thrown out of an establishment, how not to have some guy follow you to your car and ask if you want to follow him back to your place. They’re safety advisements, but because we’re professionals, they’re also tips on how we do our jobs. How we get people to talk to us about their lives and things that are going on in them, and the cities that buttress them, instead of fearing us or stigmatizing us or calling us fake news for all to hear.
The first time I wrote a reported story about the West, I still had my Idaho driver’s license. I’d moved to New York, but had been a grad student and/or transient academic for years before, and I never wanted to give it up. So when I went to very rural Idaho to report on a school that was arming teachers in the classroom, I used that license like a passport. It was one thing to tell people I was from Idaho. It was another to get ID’d at the bar and pull out the one issued to me the last time I was passing through my hometown in the Northern Panhandle.
The school district hadn’t wanted me to come. They’d told me they wouldn’t talk to me if I did. I showed up anyway, and they decided they had to. I met with the superintendent, some teachers, the guy who spearheaded the initiative on the school board that put it through. Everyone was very cordial. The thing that made me stick out was my knee-length puffy-jacket, a staple of East Coast climates that just isn’t done in the frozen portions of the West, no matter that the temperatures are just as/even colder.
There was microbrew on tap at the bar in town, but no one ordered it. Regulars just went back to the fridge, grabbed a Coors or a Bud Light, popped the top, and signaled to the bartender. I’d buy a bottle for $1.50 and tip at least $5. Two bottles, tip $10. The bartenders were eager to talk, introduce me to others. If someone talked to me for awhile, I’d buy him the next Coors. I wasn’t recording. I was just getting the lay of the land. If they wanted to talk the next day, we’d meet in a place that wasn’t filled with Coors and other people’s observing eyes.
I have a lot of stories like that at small bars. If it’s not in Idaho, telling them that’s where you’re from still serves as a recommendation. Same for currently living in Montana. For the time when I lived in New York, I was always careful to talk shit: “I live in New York now, can you believe it.” Most people from the West don’t just dislike New York but actively have no interest in going there. The hassle! They’re not wrong. It’s easy to prove your bonafides by describing, for just one minute, the experience of entering the Brooklyn Trader Joe’s.
I’m making this sound simple but it isn’t. I spent so much time thinking about what to wear to gathering of women who’d fled from a polygamist sect, and what to wear during the subsequent week when I was just in town, absorbing life, trying not to be a conspicuous outsider. What do you wear in the summer when you go up to a conservative county to talk to people about the rise of the far right? Cut offs and a tank top isn’t professional, but my twee Anthropologie dresses will just me look like a fool. What do you wear when you’re hundreds of miles into the Navajo reservation, away from the tourist sites, the only white face for miles? How do you draw less attention to yourself than you already are? How do you make yourself as small as possible?
When Molly and I first started tweeting about this, a male journalist responded that the only uniform he’d ever worn was a different sort of reporting lanyard. Can you even imagine.
At Trump rallies, I usually wear overalls and a flannel, not because overalls signify anything (they don’t, anymore) but because they have many pockets for stuffing things. I’ve attended Bundy/anti-government rallies. I wear something similar. I never wear anything with a Patagonia label, even if that’s the garment needed. Someone at a Bundy event outside Modesto once told me that he could always tell the reporters in the crowd because they were the only ones whose boots weren’t shined. I laughed and didn’t shine my boots, but still wore them. There’s a way to dress where you’re not trying to be someone you’re not but you’re also not trying to be something flagrantly in opposition to who they are. That’s what I go for.
That applies to church, too. Like Lyz, I’ve gone to a whole lot of reporting church. To be honest, it makes church much more interesting (in my case!) if you’re approaching it from that anthropological perspective — which isn’t to say Christians are foreign, or exotic, to me. They’re not. Which is part of why it’s so easy for me to attend these (almost always very white) services. I know the Lord’s Prayer. I know the doxology. I know how to pass the peace, and how not to be awkward in the opening greeting when you’re supposed to shake hands with attendees. I know how to roll with the punches when a church decides to go crazy and dip the host in the juice, instead of serving separately. I can sight read a hymn. I figure out appropriate dress, which is usually nice jeans and sweater, but can sometimes (and especially on Easter) require modest dress with slight heels and/or sandals.
Lyz quoted a passage from Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah profile of Dylann Roof, in which she made the act of reporting the story part of the story itself: This black body of mine cannot be furtive, she writes. It prevents me from blending in. I cannot observe without being observed.
In many situations, my white body it permits me that furtiveness: that ability to observe, untroubled. To do my job. We privilege that sort of untroubled observation, consider it pure, somehow. But that’s a fantasy, and one that favors the bodies that can achieve it. Because no observation is neutral; neutral observation itself is not always “best” or most true. Sometimes you need a style like Eli Saslow’s, who ability to efface himself from his reporting has yielded some of the most compelling portraits of life in America in today. But not always.
In his writing on cinema verité — a style of documentary filmmaking intended to offer the unbiased, “fly on the wall” perspective — filmmaker Werner Herzog declared that it “plows only stones.” Yields nothing but hard rock. That’s a very Werner Herzog thing to say, but I think about it constantly. In reporting on Roof, Ghansah could not become furtive. But that reporting also won a Pulitzer Prize. People oriented themselves to her differently. Her presence made them uncomfortable, made them feel observed, or accountable, or any number of other things that made them speak to her the way they did. That discomfort was the route to a much larger truth. Herzog would call it “ecstatic truth” but I’ll just call it sufficient to render the essay canonical.
Writing this makes me think of how much time I’ve spent in my life trying to fit in: not to become invisible so much as not become a problem. Sometimes I wonder how much better my reporting could be if I had the gumption to be a problem — to ask people harder questions, the type that would piss them off, infuriate them, tell me truer things. Why don’t I do it? Because I’m not brave enough? Good enough? Trained enough? That’s the heart of all this, isn’t it? How do we balance the primary impulses of the job with the fundamental impulse towards self-preservation? I don’t know the answer to that. But I do know that it’s only getting harder.
This week’s things I read and loved:
Outdoor Voices has been micro-targeting me for months and I loathe the two items of clothing I purchased from them so reading Jia’s profile was very therapeutic
Lindy West’s beauty uniform
On “snowplow” parenting
On Beto, on women candidates, on what kind of candidate even gets to be “cool”?
This week’s just trust me
As always, if you know someone who’d like this sort of thing in their inbox once a week-ish, forward it their way. You can subscribe here. And please forgive any typos or weird sentences — the slight imperfectionism is what allows me to make the mental space to get this done every week.