If you are an alien who has descended from outer space and taken on the appearance of an American citizen but actually have no idea what “America” means or is, you have no doubt been closely following the Washington Post’s ongoing series, “The Definition of Ponderous Pulitzer-Seeking.” Excuse me. Fact-checkers tell me the series is actually named “Looking for America.” The real description of this journalism project, printed right there in the Washington Post, is “What’s happening in America? What does it mean to be an American? These are questions defining a campaign unlike any other. For nearly 35 days, we crossed the nation looking for answers. This is what we found.”
This pitch might be attractive to, say, a recent immigrant cramming for a citizenship test at the very last minute. For the rest of the Washington Post’s audience—made up primarily of Americans—the questions, “What’s happening in America? What does it mean to be an American?” are not incredibly compelling, given the fact that, as an American, you can look out your window and see what’s happening there (in America), and you can ask yourself, “Hey, American—what does it mean to be me?”
There is little need to have these questions answered by journalists hoping desperately to be awarded with a prestigious award later this year.
In the name of journalistic solidarity, I read the many thousands of words contained in all four installments of this Very Long and Weighty Series. It has some good anecdotes as well as keen observations! In deference to the reporter, Robert Samuels [update: and David Maraniss, co-writer of the series], who clearly put in a good deal of work over the course of months to write it, I will not spoil it for you. I will simply offer you this accurate summary: “He follows the candidates around and talks to a bunch of people about politics.”
There is nothing inherently bad about newspaper series like this, save for one thing: they have at their very core a dishonest premise. They imply they will tell you something real about the essence of America. In fact, when you strip away the many paragraphs of self-importance that gird these sorts of projects, what they tell you is: what happened when one reporter went around America talking to some people about politics.
Unless you interviewed a statistically significant portion of the electorate, it doesn’t really tell you anything for sure.