You can risk offending people. The third graders featured in Tested were a particularly nasty bunch. Quite often they didn’t seem to want to learn, and they carried a lot of anger with them from home; it was hard to imagine children so consistently mean to each other holding a job one day, no matter how well they did on their math tests. So I said that. I also explained, in ways I knew never would be allowed into the Post, where their parents fell short. When I reported long ago for the Post about the growing behavior problems of elementary schoolchildren, everyone I interviewed, from the teachers to the administrators to the social scientists, implicated parents in some way, a point of view I passed along in the story. My editors let me know that I was being “too hard on parents,” and that part of the story was excised considerably.
You can be sarcastic. “You’re not going to be a scientist if you can’t read,” I quote a superintendent as saying, in defense of a pared-down curriculum. Well, I respond, you can’t be a scientist if you never learn science either; you can’t be a lawyer if you don’t learn critical-thinking skills; you can’t be a politician if you never get to speak in front of a group. When the principal went to a conference and heard about one way to build enthusiasm among her staff, I wrote, “I couldn’t wait to see the look on Miss Johnson’s face when she would be told to ‘clap fireworks’ when a colleague presented a good idea.” About the Bush administration’s inclination to call anyone who criticizes No Child Left Behind a racist, I wrote, “One suspects that if you suggested 90 percent might be a more reasonable proficiency goal than one hundred, you’d be asked why you hate 10 percent of America’s children.”
At a newspaper I probably would have had the benefit of an editor who would know a lot about education issues, who would talk deeply with me about content and language, who would challenge me in ways that surely would have improved my thinking. I would have had hundreds of thousands of potential readers, the barrier to entry being thirty-five cents and not twenty-five dollars. But I would have had to omit all those snarky cracks, which I imagine would have made it a far less engaging read, and far less fun to write.
I suppose newspapers could permit reporters to engage in more sarcasm, be looser with the rules, take up more space. Then fewer reporters would feel the need to leave, temporarily or permanently, to write books. I don’t think that’s the right way to go, though. The standards that would have made it impossible to write Tested at the Post, the dignity that comes with the territory, are a huge reason journalists are proud to work there, and why they can be trusted in the looser world of book publishing. They don’t leave that discipline behind in the newsroom. Carried away, blended with some freedom, it can make for some pretty good books.