In defense of ‘Dasani’

The NYT series transcends the Pulitzers and the second-guessing

Columbia’s Bill Grueskin tries to explain why the Pulitzer board dismissed The New York Times’s “Invisible Child” series about Dasani Coates, the 11-year-old homeless girl whose life was so vividly captured by Andrea Elliott in December.

The Audit (Dean Starkman and I) is among those who were baffled that the series wasn’t even a Pulitzer finalist, much less a winner, in the feature writing category in which it was submitted.

Dean called the series a “masterpiece” in December and “one of the great newspaper series of any kind that I can recall.” We think so highly of it that we’re putting an excerpt into the next edition of our Best Business Writing anthology (yes, we define business and economics journalism broadly).

But we’re not on the Pulitzer board (and have nothing to do with it, despite our affiliation with Columbia University, nor does Grueskin, despite his), where the judges were so unimpressed with this year’s feature writing that they didn’t award a winner at all in the category. Clearly they didn’t think “Dasani” was one of the greats.

And yet it was, in our opinion.

Grueskin writes about an informal survey he took in December of 50 “journalists, scientists, lawyers, faculty members and a few former and current Columbia students” about the series, some of whom loved it and some of whom did not. He writes about those who did not.

None of the criticisms really hit home. These are dried peas pinging off a battleship. The Times didn’t use Dasani’s last name, for one. Seriously? The story was too long, for another. Unless accompanied by suggested cuts, that complaint can be made against anything long, or anything period. The Times gave this story the space it needed. It was very long, but it was deeply reported and vividly written. It worked.

That complaint is almost contradicted by this one: “The relentless focus on narrative.” That’s like saying, “The story was too well-written.” The fact that it was a gripping narrative, with one cliffhanger after the next (how will her big break in the fitness team go wrong?), one memorable scene after the next (being rousted in the middle of the night; heart-to-heart talks with the school principal) in fact kept the story from feeling too long.

Others are just complaints that the Times wrote this story and not some other story.

Take these two: “[T]he Times left largely untouched the bureaucratic jujitsu that has bedeviled homeless policy for years” while the critics say the story really went astray by giving us a “single story”:

In journalism and at Columbia Journalism School, we see a lot of stories in search of characters. That is, editors first decide what the story is, and then reporters search for people to fit the tale that we’ve already constructed.

The biggest risk in these kinds of stories is that they become caricatures of larger and more complex issues…

Dasani became the prism through which many New York Times readers view homelessness, poverty, income inequality, and/or the efficacy and empathy of the Bloomberg administration. But no 11-year-old girl, no matter how courageous, no matter how eloquently her story is told, can turn into the vehicle for such complex and difficult issues.

Sorry, but the Times told the story of a young girl up against horrible odds. And it was gripping. That’s why we’re still talking about it.

Business Insider spent 22,000 words on Marissa Mayer last year as a vehicle for complex and difficult issues like women and power, and long profiles of mediocre business and political leaders are a journalism staple. No one seems to have a problem with those.

Journalism has a long and storied tradition of zooming in on an individual or a family to illustrate larger issues. James Agee and Walker Evans did it in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men to great effect, as did J. Anthony Lukas in Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families (which won a Pulitzer, by the way), and Alex Kotlowitz in There Are No Children Here: The Story of Two Boys Growing Up in the Other America, etc.

Truth is, Dasani’s story does say something profound about homelessness and poverty, income inequality and Bloomberg policies, and it does so in a way that draws attention to and humanizes the people affected by those issues. But nobody’s pretending that her experience explains everything or even most things about these issues. It’s a profile of a young child scratching, clawing, progressing, and backsliding in her bid to overcome the deep poverty and dysfunction into which she was born. The larger issues, including those having to do with Bloomberg administration, the bureaucracy, and public policy more broadly, are effectively context.

The bureaucratic jujitsu and policy questions are important context in this profile, not the heart of it. Are critics looking for more length? Or just a different story? Don’t get me wrong, criticism is valuable, and we obviously do a lot of second-guessing ourselves. But I think the criticisms of “Dasani” don’t really hold water.

To say that, “Dasani became the prism through which many New York Times readers view homelessness, poverty, income inequality,” for instance, recasts the story into something other than the profile that it was.

Of course no one 11-year-old “can turn into the vehicle for such complex and difficult issues” as homelessness and poverty. Of course the story will be “incomplete.” How many 11-year-olds would the story have had to include to become a vehicle for all those issues, and when the story was “complete,” what would it look like?

Was Dasani’s young life worth all that trouble? Of course it was. And that’s the point that the Times implied and left for us to intuit: So are those of the other 22,000 homeless kids the Times didn’t write about.

Too bad the Pulitzer board didn’t agree.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum. Tags: , , , ,