Global Narratives for Local Audiences

By Doug McGill

The Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism
Harvard University
December 3, 2005, Cambridge, Mass


Let’s start with a joke:

A man died and went to heaven. As he stood in front of St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, he saw a huge wall of clocks behind him. He asked, “What are all those clocks?” St. Peter answered, “Those are Lie-Clocks. Everyone on Earth has a Lie-Clock. Every time you lie the hands on your clock will move.” “Oh,” said the man, “whose clock is that?” “That's Mother Teresa's. The hands have never moved, indicating she never told a lie.” “Incredible,” said the man. “And whose clock is that?” St. Peter responded, “That's Abraham Lincoln's clock. The hands have moved twice, telling us that Abe told only two lies in his entire life.” “Where's George Bush’s clock?” asked the man. “Bush's clock is in Jesus' office. He's using it as a ceiling fan.”

This joke arrived in an e-mail last week from a Chinese woman who lives in Hong Kong. I haven’t seen her since I left Hong Kong in 1999, but our relationship lives on thanks to an e-mail list that reaches her worldwide network of friends with funny stories, cute animal pictures, and such things. A mild tension exists in our relationship thanks to the endless clashes of our two governments. My Chinese friend by sending those e-mails eases that tension greatly, saying to me in essence, “Our governments don’t like each other, but you and I can still be friends.”

The global narratives I write for local audiences aspire to nothing higher than a similar sharing of jokes, useful stories, and any kind of compelling glimpse of reality that might evoke in my readers an experience of common humanity. It’s just a hope, and I have no grand expectations.

Writing at the rate of roughly one story a week over the past four years, without leaving the confines of southeastern Minnesota, I have interviewed Sudanese Lost Boys, Iranian-American doctors, Ethiopian freedom fighters, Cambodian monks, Kazakh artists, Lubavitch rebbes, Somali volunteers for Howard Dean, Chinese scientists, Lao lawyers, Indian hoteliers, Russian inventors, and a Mexican who survived two forced deportations back to Mexico, only to finally become a citizen and open a successful restaurant in my hometown. I’ve also written the stories of dozens of native-born Americans who have traveled abroad and returned with new knowledge and experience to share with their fellow citizens. And I’ve written about Minnesotans who have never set foot outside the U.S. but who have deeply imagined themselves abroad through the careful reading of novels, magazines, newspapers, and watching TV news. One such woman, who flies the flag of a different country in front of her house every day, has a way of watching the nightly news from Iraq. She keeps her attention not on the reporter standing in the foreground, but on the background where, she says, she can see more of the real life of Iraq.

As a focal point of my talk today, on “global narratives for local audiences,” I’ve chosen not the global or local spheres per se, but the great dividing border between those worlds, which we usually imagine as a virtually impassible chasm. “I feel for the earthquake victims in Pakistan, but what can I realistically do?” goes a familiar refrain. “I’d like to do something but I’ve got this settled life with my job and my husband and my kids.” Perhaps we fear – I have felt so many times -- that opening to the world’s suffering
will expose us overwhelmingly, blind us to our own friends and family, and suck us away from our safe daily orbits into the abyss of history’s chaos. There still be dragons beyond the borders at the edge of the known world.

II

I’ll begin with my conclusion. We make a mistake when we think of the local and the global as separated by a mega-barrier – the densest geographic, cultural, and ethnic brick and mortar border wall of them all.

This local-global barrier does not fundamentally exist, just as no other kind of border or barrier truly exists -- at least not for long.

National borders and identities are fictions that get us into trouble, because we hold to them with nostalgic attachment that blinds us to reality. That fact is that we are all interdependent, living within a single chain of causes and effects that pays no heed whatsoever to any such manmade border. A good journalism is a journalism that vividly highlights this fact. It serves the public need to understand interdependence as uncontroversial, and as the only ground on which truly safe and humane public policy can be made.

So when I write an article about a Bosnian refugee family that opens a restaurant in Rochester; or write about two Russian kids who score 800s on their SATs and get free rides to Harvard and CalTech; or about a Saudi 9/11 hijacker who lived in Rochester in the weeks before he flew United Flight 175 into the World Trade Center complex; I would say that I am writing articles that I hope are border busters, border dissolvers, and above all, border debunkers. In my journalism, fences are fictions.

III

Every foreign correspondent knows this experience. You fly into a new capital in the developing world. You elbow through the airport crowd, take the cab ride down the long wide boulevard lined with multinational company billboards, to your downtown luxury hotel. You check into your room in a gleaming marble lobby, and take the elevator to your air-conditioned suite on the 23th floor, with a king-sized bed and a minibar. It is 4:30 p.m. and hot as blazes outside. You look out your room window and see, 23 floors directly down, the hotel’s sparkling blue swimming pool. And then you lift your eyes and look out at the grey-brown slums of the city that stretch as far as the eye can see. And you ask yourself, where should I go now? To the pool? To the restaurant? Or should I go into the slums in search of a story? The pull of the restaurant and the pool is often stronger than the slums.

And then you feel it, that you have carried an internal border within you right across the geographical and customs borders, right to your hotel room. You feel a resistance to all the bother, the grit, and the suffering that lives out there in the slums. You look at your telephone – you could call the Interior Ministry right now and get some quotes. And there is a press conference at the ministry tomorrow morning, anyway. You look at the slums again, and at the pool, and again you feel that hard wall inside.

I feel that interior barrier in southeastern Minnesota when I go to a Somali political meeting that was called for 7 p.m., only to discover an empty meeting hall except for one Somali who mumbles something about “maybe 8 o’clock,” and “Somali time.” Or when I head into the second hour of an interview with a Mexican immigrant who is telling me in thick quasi-English his life story, only half of which I understand, and the other half of which I know I will never use. If my global-local stories from southeastern Minnesota have any meat on them, it’s because I stick with people through these long uncomfortable stretches, paying attention and keeping the faith.

IV

Let me give you an example. On the afternoon of December 14, 2003, at my home in Rochester, Minnesota, the telephone rang. It was a man named Omot, one of about 1,500 members of a black African tribe from western Ethiopia called the Anuak, now living as refugees in Minnesota. They began arriving in the state in the early 1990s as the result, they said, of a genocide being conducted against their tribe by the Ethiopian government.

Omot was stammering, and his message was shocking. He said that one of the Ethiopian army’s periodic massacres of the Anuak was occurring not only that very day, but at that very moment. He had just got off the telephone with a cousin who lived in the western Ethiopian town of Gambella, and through the telephone connection he could heard gunshots and the sounds of people screaming and crying, and soldiers yelling. He heard his cousin say on the telephone call, “They have come to my house! The soldiers are here! They have come to kill me!” Then Omot heard a crashing sound and another man’s voice yell, “Put that telephone down right now!” And then the telephone line went dead.

I heard the same story from several distraught Anuak who called me that day. At an emergency meeting of several hundred Minnesota Anuak refugees the following weekend in St. Paul, I heard it from dozens more.

Back in my office, I telephoned an Anuak man in Gambella who had survived the massacre by hiding in the house of a non-Anuak neighbor. He said that troop trucks carrying uniformed Ethiopian soldiers had driven into Gambella, and that the soldiers, carrying lists of the names of Anuak leaders, went house to house calling out the Anuak men and shooting them in the street. The man I interviewed in Gambella said that from his home he could still count dozens of Anuak corpses in the streets and at a nearby mass grave, and that his own son had been murdered by Ethiopian soldiers. He said that survivors had counted more than 400 corpses in the streets and graves.

A week after I received the first telephone call, I had done enough reporting to be convinced that the Anuak claims were real. The government of Ethiopia, officially a close ally of the United States in the Horn of Africa,
was targeting the Anuak for elimination. I published an article on my web site, The McGill Report, on December 22, 2003 titled “U.S. Anuak Refugees Fear 400 Dead in Ethiopian Massacre.” The repercussions of that article continue to this day. Greg Stanton, the president of Genocide Watch in Washington, e-mailed to say “You were the first to report on this and we're very grateful." Two weeks after my report, Genocide Watch sent a team to Ethiopia and confirmed that a genocide of the Anuak was underway and that the Ethiopian military had carried out the December 13, 2003 massacre.

About a year later, in March, 2005 Human Rights Watch sent researchers to Gambella and corroborated every detail of my original stories, adding that Ethiopia was committing “crimes of humanity” in a “targeted campaign” against the Anuak tribe. Today, in Addis Ababa, where more than 80 people have been killed by Ethiopian authorities while protesting parliamentary elections in May, the genocide of the Anuak has become a part of the opposition’s bill of complaint against the government. The Anuak have been suffering ethnic cleansing for the past 15 years, but it became a part of politics in Ethiopia only this year – because the Anuak genocide was uncovered by a blogger-journalist working in Minnesota.

The Anuak story offers a couple of good journalistic lessons about borders in today’s world. The Internet and cell phones not only made much of the reporting of the story possible, but made possible the instantaneous global publishing of the first story, followed by some 20 stories published over the next two years. With a week, the first article posted on my web site had elicited some 75 e-mails from Anuak secretly typing at Internet cafes in Ethiopia, and from Anuak diaspora groups all around the world in Canada, Egypt, South Africa, the U.S., Australia, Switzerland, and elsewhere.

Sometimes I define glocalism as “journalism that uses freedom of the press in the U.S. to help people around the world who don't have it.” American journalists can often write better stories about foreign countries than native journalists in those countries can, because American journalists don't fear getting a knock on the door at night. And thanks to the Internet, these stories can be widely read and distributed into those oppressive countries, as my two dozen Anuak articles have reached throughout Ethiopia.

V

Not all of my glocal stories have had the impact of the Anuak piece, and this is by design. Because I also like to tell softer stories that report on border crossings of another, very personal kind.

I once interviewed a man named Bill Adler, a health inspector in Rochester, who at age 50 wangled a leave of absence from the Minnesota health department to teach English in China. I met Bill in the lunchroom of his office, only a few weeks back from his China adventure. He was glowing like a flower, happy as a trout.

One of his stories was about a Chinese student who once asked him, early during his trip, “Teacher Bill, do you like beer?”

“I told the young man ‘yes,’” Bill said, “and he said back to me, ‘you’re fat.’

“At first I was really taken aback,” Bill said. “I didn’t know what to feel. But then I realized he was just trying to learn English. Those were the few English words that he knew, and he used them. So it was OK. I was so happy he had the trust in me to open up and be that direct.”

Sometimes the profoundest truths can slip right by us without our noticing.
Bill Adler’s, I believe, is one such story that, plumbed right, holds just such a profound key to improving communication across global, or for that matter, any other kind of border. Indeed it proves that borders don’t exist, even within oneself. Bill found a way beyond satisfying his needs for ego fulfillment and personal comfort, and discovered life’s meaning in serving others. To me, that’s the ultimate story, and I love telling it.

Sometimes people ask me why, after having worked as a staff reporter at The New York Times in New York City for ten years; and then as a bureau chief for Bloomberg News in Tokyo, London, and Hong Kong; I would choose at age 45 to return from a high-flying international life to a small rural town where I grew up, to live with my parents.

The main answer has to do with the borders and barriers that existed, or that I thought existed, between myself and my parents, and my desire to tear down those barriers while my parents were still alive.

Yet there was at that time another barrier that had grown very tall and dense within me over the years, separating me from my profession. Somewhere along the line I’d lost the joy of reporting and writing stories, of exploring the world in this particular way. So I was trying to break through that border and to reconnect with my original passion for journalism.

What is journalism really about, I was wondering then. What do I want to do with my skills as a journalist to tell stories, really? Having gone home to live primarily for the personal reasons I mentioned, I looked around me in southeastern Minnesota. Far from the cultural wasteland that many people claim to see in this so-called “flyover country,” I saw untapped riches of source material – a Yoknapatawpha County crammed with people, places, and ideas to journalistically explore. The food, music, religion, education, sports, medicine, computers, tattoos, dancing in local bars, and virtually every other aspect of local culture, I could plainly see, was no longer anything close to something purely American. Nor close, either, to the Scandinavian-American mix that Garrison Keillor, the radio host, celebrates each week on his Prairie Home Companion. Rather, Minnesota’s was now a truly global culture, with nearly equal streams of Asian, Middle Eastern, and South American influences. Wal-Marts stocked with Third World-manufactured goods were everywhere, and the two big businesses in town, the Mayo Clinic and IBM, each year relocated hundreds of the smartest medical and computer scientists from around the world to Minnesota.

My estrangement from journalism at that time traces to another main source, which was the collapse of my belief in the hodgepodge of conflicting professional practices known as “objectivity.” I had begun to feel this at The New York Times. For all its globe-spanning coverage and influence, I began to feel strangely cramped there, and eventually came to believe that the Times, and most journalistic institutions, suffer a narrow world view that is predetermined by how journalism envisions itself as a practice. And that is basically as a branch of the social sciences, seeking “objectivity” as its highest goal. This is much different from earlier forms of journalism where the individual journalist as a human interpreter of events took center stage.

A journalism that is based on approximating science is a journalism that is destined to reduce society to a jigsaw puzzle, presented to readers in the hushed tones of received wisdom from expert authorities, one tiny piece at a time. It is an ideal that encourages reporters to literally see borders and to celebrate them in countless ways, not least with the “he said, she said” formula that reduces every issue to a two-sided war fought with verbal missiles. It is a professional ideal that encourages reporters to cultivate a laboratory view, as opposed to a global view of the world.

VI

Of all the borders that don’t exist, one is the most stubbornly realistic of all.

This border is vividly on display in Jay Leno’s popular interviews with passersby in Los Angeles, whom he quizzes on geography and history. In one encounter, Leno asks a young man in blue jeans and frizzy blond hair, “Who was the leader of Germany in World War II?”

“Hitler?” the young man ventures.

“What was his first name?”

“Just Hitler, wasn’t it?”

“Hitler Hitler? He didn’t have a first name? Was it Robert?”

“He was just known as Hitler. Like Cher.”

Ah, the border of human ignorance, the mother of all borders, and a deadly mother it is too. Because it’s doubly dense, with core ignorance usually wrapped inside of a shielding ignorance – the ignorance of one’s own ignorance. Together, almost impossibly dense object, like a planet. Leno interviewing that frizzy-haired man is like a circus clown driving his toy car into the backside of an elephant. That’s the black humor of it. Leno’s smart, but he’s a fly compared to the massive force he is up against -- the oblivious elephant of reality that could kill us all by simply sitting down.

VII

Lastly, to Chernyshevsky’s question: “What is to be done?”

I suggest three things to be done which, for what it’s worth, are the guiding tenets of the global-local journalism I write from Minnesota.

First, the essential fact of the interdependence of all parts of nature, including human society, which was long ago accepted as common knowledge in ecology, geology, meteorology, and other earth sciences, needs to be incorporated quickly and widely into the public realm where journalism works. We need explicit stories of global interpenetration, interdependence, cooperation, and collaboration. This is not a call for writing more “good news” instead of “bad news” stories. It’s a call for giving equal time to stories that describe the way things fundamentally are, as opposed writing more of the same old sensational, rigid, determinist narratives about people shedding blood to defend their cherished fictions.

The global spread of AIDS, SARS, flu, and other viruses; border-crossing terrorism and fundamentalism; global warming; and economic trends like globalization and outsourcing; all illustrate the interdependence of the world we live in today. Yet notwithstanding humanity’s interdependence across borders as an objective fact, our ‘‘objective’’ journalism doesn’t really underscore this point much, even when a crisis hits. It could do better.

Second, our essential impermanence as individuals, societies, and nation-states is one of those consciousness-altering ideas that, if it were more fully integrated into journalistic practice, would help us write better stories.

We may build walls and borders in society, but through history’s eye they quickly are seen to dissolve, reconstitute, and dissolve again. Nation-states themselves merely bloom and fade like everything in nature does.

“The release of atomic power has changed everything except our way of thinking,” said Albert Einstein. “The solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind.” I am making a heartfelt suggestion today that while living our daily lives, and while writing our society’s cherished stories as journalists, we should remain guided by this time-lapse picture of the everlasting whirl that is nature’s true essence. Nature has no patriotism or other rigid fictions. It is never as hard and fast as an ideology, a religion, or any identity-fixing narrative dividing “us” from “them.” Underneath appearances, all is one great whirl of change. Navigating between this absolute fact and our relative world is the essential skill of the future.

Journalists can help us to learn that new way of thinking, working, and living. It’s critically needed because we must live according to the way things really are, and not according to our fictions, or we will cease to be.

Third and lastly, and speaking of elephants, I feel there is one in the room, as there is in every room where human beings gather. It is rarely, for good reasons, pointed out, but because this particular elephant is the world’s most powerful border-buster and border-debunker, I would like to go ahead and name it now. You may be surprised. It is human suffering.

How much of our subject as journalists is human suffering! Of all the Pulitzer Prizes awarded every year, how many are stories or photographs of people struggling, people in horror, people in pain? If we removed every story whose subject was human suffering from our magazines and newspapers, how much paper would be left? Not enough to wrap a fish.

Yet how much do we as journalists really know about this, one of our most frequent and, for our readers, most popular subjects? How responsibly do we as journalists handle the topic of human suffering in our stories? Do our stories on the whole mitigate or augment human suffering? Can we responsibly deal with a subject about which we have no expertise beyond what, perhaps, we have experienced personally ourselves? But even in our own personal cases, have we handled suffering well? Or do we still acknowledge that on a personal level, we still have a great deal to learn?

If we are not such experts on human suffering, how come we stride into the public square with such confidence day after day, to interview people and then publish long narratives made out of pieces of their pain?

VIII

There is an old reporter’s trick for getting good quotes in interviews, which is to keep silent during that awkward pause after a person has answered a question and is waiting for you to ask another question. What happens, as often as not, is the person blurts something out at that awkward point, just to fill the vacuum in the conversation. It’s not usually something he or she planned to say in the interview, which is exactly what makes it a good quote. It’s often self-revealing in a way the person never intended to be.

It is profoundly the right thing to do, of course, to listen carefully to what our sources tell us. That often means not jumping in with a new question but rather to spend time, instead, to reflect and to some extent empathize with what you have just heard. But if it’s right to listen and empathize, is it right to grab the juicy bits a person blabs out in these unguarded moments, and publish them? How exactly should we use the unguarded self-revelations we pride ourselves on extracting from our sources? At what point are we extending suffering, or cheapening suffering, instead of using our reflections and empathy with our source’s suffering in more responsible ways?

Nature abhors a border. When you stay silent after a source asks a question, you are creating a border, and you are creating the impulse in your source to cross that border and thus come flowing into you, your ears and your soul. As often as not, what comes flowing into you are stories of suffering.

Maybe, just as we delay responding to a question in order to elicit better quotes, we might also delay writing and publishing our stories a little bit. We could take that time to process the stories of suffering that our sources tell us, and to reflect on our role as journalists in the great chain of global causes and effects of which we are a part. We might then write better stories.

This is not impractical advice, I believe. The most successful, widely read, and positively helpful local-global story I’ve published in the past four years – the uncovering of the Anuak genocide – happened because in the very first instance, I sat through many hours listening to Anuak refugees in Minnesota tell their stories of suffering. At first I could hardly understand them, through their strong accents and primitive English. Then, their claims of genocide seemed so outrageous as to be impossible. But if one thing was always clear, it was that the Anuak were suffering, so I stayed with them.

It paid off for me in purely journalistic terms.

The best medical training for doctors includes lessons on how to deal with the suffering of patients. This helps patients play a more active role in their recovery. The best training for police, hospice workers, and social workers -- other professions that put their practitioners in regular contact with human suffering – includes similar kinds of lessons. Because journalists also meet people typically at crisis points in their lives, maybe journalists should spend some time, just as doctors and police and social workers do, learning how to handle that suffering in a compassionate and helpful way.

Now that would really bust some borders.

Copyright @ 2005 Doug McGill