Journalism

A John McPhee Coincidence by Brandon

One winter morning two years ago, I visited my favorite bookstore. It was -- past tense, as it closed that spring -- a cozy place that struck just the right balance between old and new, rare and common, the sort of place you visit to just be around books. Every few weeks I'd go in the hopes of finding something I'd overlooked on all my other visits … which, inevitably, was the case.

On this morning I was looking for books by John McPhee, my favorite writer. I've read most of his works, but they happened to have a copy of Coming Into the Country, his account of life in Alaska, which I'd borrowed from a friend, lost, and consequently never read.

I lingered by one of the shelves as a young woman brought her selections to the counter. One of the books was of the mountaintop-air-crash-saga-of-survival genre. I don't remember the author, but Ginger, who never let a customer go unedified, remarked that he was very similar to John McPhee. The girl replied that she loved McPhee and was a journalism student at the University of Maine, where her class had recently participated in a conference call with him.

What a lovely coincidence, I thought! As she left, I gave Ginger my own McPhee find, and she said it was $30. Why so much, I asked? It was a signed copy, she said. I looked at the inscription and it read:

"For the Spider Lake Lending Library and the Redcoat Air Force with an appropriate salute from the other John McPhee, October 1978"

Spider Lake is deep in the north Maine wilderness, not far from Allagash Lake, where John McPhee, floating in a canoe just after ice out in the 1970s, received a float plane visit from a certain state game warden who'd written him several years earlier, lamenting the inconvenience caused by the author's now-famous name -- since his own name, too, was John McPhee.

"His uniform jacket was bright red, trimmed with black flaps over the breast pockets, black epaulets. A badge above one pocket said "STATE OF MAINE WARDEN PILOT." Above the other pocket was a brass plate incised in block letters with his name: JOHN MCPHEE. I almost fell into the lake.

He was an appealing, friendly man, and he did not ask for my fishing license."

McPhee memorialized McPhee in a New Yorker essay entitled "North of the C.P. Line," describing this alternate-universe version of himself who in so many ways lived a life he wished for himself: immersed in nature and wise to it, rescuing hunters and catching poachers, keeping track of fuel by instinct rather than dial, calling moose and catching brook trout.

The "Redcoat Air Force" was, I believe, a nickname the plane-flying wardens had for themselves. How did the book end up in my hands? The unfortunate, inevitable end to every story, perhaps -- much of Lippincott's library came from estate sales -- but I like to think some karmic hand reached down and graced that great coincidence with one more.

In Defense of Objectivity by Brandon

It's become customary in some circles to dismiss the principle of journalistic objectivity. It's considered impossible, misguided, even cowardly; at best, it's ancillary to transparency.

To an extent these criticisms are a valuable corrective against objectivity taken to grotesque extremes, but they miss a fundamental point. Objectivity is not supposed to be an outcome. It's a process -- one that, in journalism, is historically rooted in skepticism and humility.

Truth is often difficult to pin down. Multiple perspectives may be valid. Bias is pervasive; and people, including reporters, must work hard to grasp more than a fragment of the whole. Journalistic objectivity -- i.e., thorough reporting, a recognition of one's own biases, a reluctance to jump to conclusions, and a willingness to challenge those conclusions -- is a methodological response to this challenge.

Objectivity doesn't require the suspension of judgment. Far from it. If anything, informed judgment demands the process of objectivity. In its absence reign prejudice, instinct and orthodoxy. While transparency reveals these, it can't fix them on its own.

Image: Columbia School of Journalism, ca. 1910, from the Library of Congress

Why the WikiLeaks Address Won't Be Found Here by Brandon

In calling on citizens to Tweet the digital address of WikiLeaks, civil liberties activist John Perry Barlow was right to declare that an infowar is on, and online citizens its soldiers. But the WikiLeaks army is not one I will join.

Many people I respect, including my Editor in Chief Evan Hansen, want WikiLeaks to receive the First Amendment freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution to the press. Like any freedom, however, freedom of the press inevitably conflicts with other values, and has never been absolute. It exists only to the extent that people and institutions respect it, and is shaped by ongoing negotiations between principle, consequence and expedience.

In a string of landmark Supreme Court decisions on press freedom -- New York Times Co. v. United States, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., Near v. Minnesota, Food Lion v. Capital Cities, Nebraska Press Assn. v. Stuart -- a common theme emerges: The press can legitimately justify claims to free speech, even when they intrude on claims of national security or due processs or privacy, because of its own care in excercising those freedoms.

Sometimes the Court -- Supreme, or that of public opinion -- upholds them. Sometimes it curtails them. But even curtailments are narrow, and press freedom can be defended in good faith against powerful, often legitimate criticisms because the press acts carefully, with thoughtfulness appropriate to the implications of their freedom. The Pentagon Papers, to use a popular example, were published only after exhaustive editorial reflection, balancing potential harm against potential good.

With freedom comes reponsibility. The New York Times and Washington Post fulfilled their end of the bargain. Against executive and military pressure, the Supreme Court upheld the speech of grown-ups. Julian Assange's intentions are noble and his courage inspiring; should he be charged with crime by the United States, I hope he walks away free or escapes from jail. But to receive the protections of a free press, he must accept the responsibilities of a free press. He has not.

Instead he's avoided them. Many of the latest WikiLeaks documents benefit the public, or could, and many could result in great personal harm; rather than weighing the consequences, document by document, he released them all, and absolved himself of any further duty or obligation -- of any practical conscience -- by invoking his own ideological absolute good, transparency. The ends justified the means.

Much about WikiLeaks is right. But so long as its operators refuse the moral duties incumbent upon a free press, it can't expect to be free.

Image: The New York Times on Sunday, June 13, 1971, via PBS.

Note: I subsequently wrote a gallery for Wired.com on science- and environment-related leaks from the diplomat document release, which felt more than a little hypocritical. On the other hand, since the information is out there for anyone to see, shouldn't it be covered. My final answer to this dilemma was to donate the money I received to Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom organization that's condemned Assange's irresponsibility but fought to keep WikiLeaks online. That seems just about right.

Bat Request by Brandon

I've always tried to keep this site separate from my work, but there's an exception to every rule.

Right now I'm working on a story about White Nose Syndrome, a disease that's killing cave-dwelling American bats at a pace unprecedented in known animal history. The work will be published on Wired and is being produced through Spot.us, a service that allows citizens to directly support journalism they care about -- journalism that is, sadly, dwindling in a time of free content and pageview-driven metrics and general economic catastrophe.

If you've happened to stumble across my site, I invite you to read my pitch on Spot.us and consider donating. If money's tight, you don't even need to give from your pocket; right now you can earn money for the story just by taking a poll. Your help will make this story possible.

Thank you,

Brandon

Image: A northern long-eared bat.

Notes on Science Writing by Brandon

Science writer J.R. Minkel recently asked journalists "how you handle the pressures of the job and what motivates you to get up in the morning." Below is my response, originally posted in my outtakes catchment. Though I try to keep this blog separate from my work, I'm making an exception here, because the answer touches on issues that are deeply important to me.

The opinions expressed are entirely my own, not those of my employers. I've included a lot of links, partly out of vanity but also to give a sense of what my work involves. More of my stories can be found here.

***

I wake up in the morning happy to go to work — most days, at any rate — in part because I enjoy thinking and writing, and am lucky to do it for a living. And I write about science in part because I think I can contribute, in some small way, to the sum total of good in this world, whether by providing knowledge that's either immediately useful — don't expect your genome to answer all your medical questions; parse John McCain's stem cell rhetoric carefully — or adds to the richness of everyday experience: maple seeds ride tornadoes, birds see magnetic fields, evolutionary dynamics act on complex molecules as well as organisms.

At any given moment, I'm at some level advocating a principle. Even writing about the unusual physical properties of granularity reflects a belief that contemplating them is worthwhile, and that pleasure derived from watching streams of grains behaving as a liquid is an essential good. Sometimes the principle is more abstract: knowing that chromosome topography could explain some of what genetics alone cannot, that artificial intelligence might be used to tease patterns from otherwise-impenetrable networked interactions of genes and proteins,  may not lend itself to obvious practical application; but in some way I believe that individual wisdom and the public sphere's health is nourished by the spread of this knowledge. The same goes for discussions of genetic selection, cognitive overload or evolutionary theology.

Sometimes the advocacy is more overt. If researchers are right about certain cetacean species having a level of personhood comparable to our own, if industrial husbandry practices accelerated the emergence of swine flu, then there are decisions — from shipping speed policies to dietary choices — that can and should be considered. At moments when my advocacy is more pronounced — or when a topic is particularly sensitive, as with the evolution of religion — I take special care to be as thorough and responsible in my reporting as possible, and safeguard against my own biases. Obviously I try to apply these standards at all times, but some stories require them more than others.

For the most part, I'll stand by how I handle the responsibilities and pressures of my work. For the last two years, this work has mostly been writing for Wired.com — first as a traditional blogger, and then as a daily news writer with content published on a blog. Recently I went half-time in order to pursue longer-form stories and book projects, but I'm also happy to be freed from the daily grind of writing one full news story and one brief story nearly every day. This is extremely hard work, especially when one wants to be truly thorough — doing that third interview, or fourth, looking at back literature, fully understanding mechanics and context rather than waving my hands around them. I like to think I've managed this as well as possible, most of the time, given the constraints; but I know I've often fallen short.

Sometimes, of course, just one or two interviews are necessary. Making that judgment is a necessary skill, and I'll sometimes go for the easy story rather than one that will  have me working until bedtime. At other times I'll pass on a story because I know I won't be able to do it justice. Drug development is especially noteworthy in this regard; I feel more comfortable covering early-stage research — where I might be able to talk about a novel approach that's noteworthy in itself — than a Phase II or III trial which has generated reams of data that almost certainly can't be evaluated in the four-to-six hours allotted for reporting and writing a story, might be skewed, or invokes an economic or social context that can't properly be contained in a 700-word article. In short, I don't want to hurt anyone, or waste their time, and that'd be easy to do in this genre.

These cautions apply to many health and medicine stories, though there are some that I've been able to  cover consistently over time — the death during a gene therapy trial of Jolee Mohr; the development of sirtuin-targeting "anti-aging" drugs. And there are some types of stories — one is exemplifed by a group of studies being published Wednesday in Nature — that I've consistently ignored as a matter of principle, because knowing when something is not news is a pressure unto itself.

Finally, I don't report from press releases.

Image: Marc Smith

Aw, Shucks (Blushes) by Brandon

Just to strut my peacock for a moment, Bruce Sterling -- cyberpunk pioneer turned futurist turned viridian green turned design wonk turned every which way, and a minor personal hero to boot -- gave me a shout out yesterday. A little old shout implying that he sees me as the sort of journalist from whom one expects wild and crazy technosciencethings. Which is kinda like the Pope saying you're a stoutly devout Catholic. So, woohoo! I is truly be flattered.