“Thing is, nobody here cares about the military, and nobody here knows anything about the military,” said New Yorker Editor John Bennett

Every so often you see something – some small fact – that nails shut a belief that you’ve held for a while and turns it into something solid you can truly take a stand on.

I have claimed for some time – along with many others – that the cultural gap between the media class and our military class was too large, and that the media persist in their devaluing of the military because of this gap.

Via local journalism blog LA Observed, I was brought to a series of tweets by New Yorker staff writer Dan Baum, describing his firing from his staff consulting writer gig there – but also describing how he’d been hired.

Still, the New Yorker is the New Yorker, and my next question to John was, “What can I do next?”

As any writer knows, editors almost never suggest stories. Generating story ideas is the real work; researching and

Writing them is the easy part. In one of our conversations, though, John let drop a real jewel:

“We have this sense that we should be paying more attention to the military,” he said. (This was now early 2003,

as the country was getting ready for war in Iraq. “Thing is, nobody here cares about the military, and nobody here

knows anything about the military.” Well, I certainly didn’t know anything about the military but I did find it

interesting, so I piped up, “I can do that!” I wasn’t worried about my lack of experience or knowledge in the field

of arms. Tom Wolfe is right, I think, when admonishes young writers to ignore the old advice about “writing what

you know,” and instead write about what you don’t know. If you have to learn about something from scratch, he

argues, you don’t bring any lazy preconceptions. John said I was welcome to give it a try. “Think about trying a

process story,” he said, using a term I’d never heard. “It’s a New Yorker standard,” he went on. “You simply

deconstruct a process for the reader. John McPhee was the master. It makes for a simple structure.”

By that time the improvised explosive device was the weapon of choice in Iraq, and limb loss was the signature

Wound of the Iraq war. So I followed one soldier from the moment he left his job at Wal-Mart in rural Wisconsin

To join the Army to the day he returned to speak to his high school without his leg. John Bennet gave me another

Great piece of New Yorker advice: “This is the New Yorker, so you can use any narrative structure you like,” he said.

“Just know that when I get it, I’m going to take it apart and make it all chronological.” Telling a story in strict

chronological order turned out to be a fabulous discipline. It made the story easy to write, and may be why New

Yorker stories are so easy to read. Of course, the magazine does run everything through the deflavorizer, following

Samuel Johnson’s immortal advice: “Read what you have written, and when you come across a passage you think

Is particularly fine, strike it out.”

My wounded-soldier story ran as “The Casualty” and can be found here:

Next I pitched a story about what killing does to soldiers, psychologically, and how the Army is ill-equipped to deal

With the damage that killing does. That proposal can be read here:

That piece, “The Price of Valor,” won the Medill School of Journalism’s 2004 John Bartlow Martin Award, and can be read here:

Now I was three stories in to the New Yorker, but I wasn’t about to let die my relationships with other magazines.

I’ll poke around in his proposal and other documents a bit and suggest that you do as well. It’s a very rare chance to lift the hood on modern high-end journalism.

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4 thoughts on ““Thing is, nobody here cares about the military, and nobody here knows anything about the military,” said New Yorker Editor John Bennett”

  1. _”If you have to learn about something from scratch, he argues, you don’t bring any lazy preconceptions.”_

    Sometimes.

    The thing about modern journalism is that the one subject you can never study is modern journalism. Self-introspection is dead, which explains how we get all these hysterical Kinsley Gaffes.

    A person with a true measure of introversion and self-examination would wonder WHY you don’t know anything about a subject to begin with. Therein lies the hugest lazy preconception of all- chances are you don’t know anything about a subject because you find no value in it.

    And if you really hit the self-examination tri-fecta, you would come to realize there are certain things your dont _want_ to know anything about because you suspect the truth would upset your worldview. It takes a special kind of hypocrite to ignore information in order to remain intellectually honest solely with the information at hand. It has a lot in common with a crooked prosecutor that buries exculpatory evidence.

  2. If you have to learn about something from scratch, you don’t bring any understanding of what the field’s key questions or problems are, either.

    Which means you’re much more likely to end up focusing on trivia or symptoms, rather than being able to convey what’s going on and why. Or being able to see larger trends early. Or knowing what to ask. Or whom to trust. Or where to look.

    That is journalism’s consistent record in the modern era, which is why they are accumulating a quality problem that resembles American carmakers in the 1970s. Most of it traces back to this idiot editor’s attitude, which is widespread.

    Dismantling that attitude is the first step to restoring quality journalism.

  3. Again I’m reminded of an article I read in The Atlantic years ago that claimed Merkava tanks are equipped with powerful magnets, so that when they’re in convoy each tank can magnetically pull the one behind it, saving fuel.

    Somebody had fun with that reporter’s lack of lazy preconceptions.

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