Patterico's Pontifications

2/26/2006

Another Angle on the Inside Story

Filed under: Books — Patterico @ 1:48 pm

In a Romenesko post titled Why can’t we embed reporters with teachers or bus drivers?, I ran across this column by Washington Post columnist John Kelly. Kelly complained that he had tried to get everyday access to workers at “a semi-governmental organization, an organization responsible for operating a public attraction that I dare say most of us have visited.” Kelly says he was stymied by the P.R. people, who refused to give him anything but prearranged interviews — not what he was looking for. Kelly asks:

We embed journalists with military units in Iraq. Why can’t we embed reporters with, say, Metro, or the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, or Fairfax County public schools or Freddie Mac?

The answer is: we can. I don’t know exactly why Kelly was denied access at the particular “semi-governmental organization” he wanted to write about, but it’s quite common for book authors, at least, to gain extraordinary access to all sorts of governmental institutions.

I have read several books by authors who managed who get themselves “embedded” in places like public schools, courtrooms, police stations, juvenile halls, and penitentiaries. These books are categorized as narrative nonfiction. They have made for some of my favorite reading over the years, and I’m pleased to recommend some of them to you. Just off the top of my head, you should check out:

  • Homicide by David Simon (Baltimore Police Homicide Unit)

I find it a little odd that Kelly would think it unlikely that reporters could be “embedded” at a public school, since it has happened so many times before. Many of my favorite narrative nonfiction books are set in public schools, such as:

Of course, most of the above authors had to talk themselves into being allowed access; they had to convince the relevant officials that it would be in their best interest to allow them access, while still demanding independence. It’s a tricky task, but all of these authors managed it. Maybe Kelly should check out some of the books above and learn some of the tricks of the trade.

3 Responses to “Another Angle on the Inside Story”

  1. My guess is he wanted to get into the Postal Service and they wouldn’t let him because they can’t guarantee his safety!

    Stephen Macklin (4ea65b)

  2. Ted Conover is the author of the very good Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, but he was refused by the authorities and had to actually get the job.

    Agricola (c302b4)

  3. I agree that this is a great genre. Writers like Dickens and Steinbeck, two of my favorite fiction writers, were just on the other side of the f/nf line, but doing something similar.

    I assigned a few chapters of the Hume book to a public defender clinical class (I was the TA but came up with about 2/3 of the readings). It was one of the bits I thought best captured the extralegal perspective of the juvenile system without drifting into straight polemics or sociology. It was well received by the class.

    biwah (f5ca22)


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