Journalism is like making chicken broth. As a reporter, you take our notebook full of interviews, a mound of clips and printouts and proceed boil these thousands of words into an 800-word story. It's a reductive exercise.
The ability to take a complicated world and make it understandable is one of journalism's great strengths. Of course, it is also its weakness. The line between simple and simplistic is highly permeable. In telling both sides of the story, we fail to recognize that stories can sometimes have three, four, five or more sides. We demand squares, when real-life situations can resemble hexahedrons or octagons.
Take the reduction of
So, let's give three cheers to a journalist and a political scientist who are working hard to get us - the public and the media - to take at least one step back and look at the nation with new eyes,
Journalist Dante Chinni and political geographer James Gimpel are co-authors of Patchwork Nation, a book that uses demographic data to present a new picture of that red vs. blue graphic - and state of mind. To see an example, go here.
Chinni, a reporter who works with PBS and the Christian Science Monitor, is the first to admit that their book is a reductive exercise, too. Chinni and Gimpel have take the nation's 3,141 counties and broken them down into a dozen distinct types.
In Patchwork Nation, for instance,
But, you catch drift.
Chinni and Gimpel will be in town tomorrow (Thursday, Nov. 11) to talk about their book as part of the First Person Arts Festivals. (See below for details).
My interview with Chinni brought up memories of frustration in my years as a political reporter: the tendency to oversimplify and have the label stick - ala James Carville's famous observation that Pennsylvania is "Philadelphia one on side, Pittsburgh on the other and Alabama in between." That wasn't true then and it is not true now.
The truth is more complex, but Carville's quote satisfies our desire to make that complexity understandable. The ability to come up with a good line trumps reality.
Chinni and Gimpel are on a mission to get us out of that rut.
"The biggest thing I want people to take away is to understand the place where you don't live," he said. "We have to get beyond the clichés. People not only live in a different place than you, but they live in a different reality. Even if you don't agree with them, understanding them is critical. It is about the lives they live."
For instance, it is hard for us in the big city to understand the lure of Sarah Palin. But, if you read about Tractor Country and
Chinni and Gimpel settled on counties being their guide because that's where the data is.
They toyed with the idea of going deeper down - to cluster by the zip code - but realized that would be too much. It's one thing to slice the nation by 3,000-plus counties; another to slice it by 40,000-plus zip codes.
Chinni's hope is that political reporters will take the book to heart and use it as a tool to go report on
The marketing experts at these firms would laugh at the Red-Blue distinction the media seems to demand. They've known for years that ours truly is a patchwork nation.
Chinni and Gimpel will speak about their book at on Thursday (Nov. 11) at The