One morning last year, not long after the publication of my first book, Absolute Convictions, I paid what turned out to be an ego-deflating visit to Amazon. I went there to check the latest fluctuation in the ranking of my book, which, alas, had yet to land on the best-seller list. But the true source of disappointment lay elsewhere, in a review posted by a reader that was now on prominent display for all potential customers. Its author was not a professional critic but a pro-life advocate who’d apparently tracked down a copy of my book after hearing it described as an evenhanded, narrative account of the abortion controversy. Don’t be fooled, the review warned—I was anything but a neutral narrator.
Since I don’t subscribe to the notion that journalists can ever be entirely neutral, this was not a charge to which I could offer up much of a defense. I also doubt anyone would have accepted such a claim in this instance even if I were a believer in neutrality. The subject of my book is the abortion conflict that raged for several decades in Buffalo, New York, where I grew up and where my father, an abortion provider, found himself on the frontlines of the battle, weathering a wave of sit-ins, death threats, pickets, and mock funerals, followed by the actual funeral of a colleague of his named Barnett Slepian, who was murdered by an anti-abortion zealot in 1998. To pretend to narrate these events with equal sympathy for the people who’d supported my father through the years and the people who’d vilified and harassed him would have been preposterous.
Why, then, did the review on Amazon gnaw at me? In part because, like most reporters, I aspire to reach people on all sides of the issues I write about, including ones as polarizing and incendiary as abortion. But there was something else the review stirred, a feeling that the grounds on which my credibility as a reporter had been dismissed were unfair. The review on Amazon didn’t take me to task for drawing simplistic caricatures of pro-life activists or failing to incorporate opposing viewpoints, criticisms that, had they been lodged, I could have potentially rebutted. It tried to undercut me by questioning something more basic—my identity, the fact that my relationship to my father rendered me, by definition, biased and untrustworthy. The problem was less what I’d said than who I was.
There is something unseemly about judging the work of any writer on such terms, I felt. Yet the more I thought about the review, the more it occurred to me that maybe such a judgment isn’t always misplaced; that maybe there is something natural about trying to determine whether a story is colored by a writer’s identity—and not only when, as in my book, the familial and the reportorial are tightly intertwined.
Journalists like to imagine they are endowed with the magical gift of transcending the limits of their personal loyalties and sectarian beliefs, gliding with liquid ease across freighted cultural boundaries regardless of who they are and how much—or how little—they may identify with their subjects. It’s a heartening conceit. But is it true? Isn’t it more likely that, as with most people, a reporter’s identity does play a role in determining what gets noticed and overlooked—and where the line between empathy and critical detachment is drawn? Perhaps not when the subject is, say, the hedge-fund market or the fashion world. But what of polarizing issues in which identity often does serve as an accurate gauge of a person’s loyalties? Or when the writer is a participant-observer directly entangled in the story being told? Shouldn’t journalists come clean about how such entanglements may slant their work? Or are assumptions on this score less warranted than the surface labels may suggest?