But it’s the story as a story that is just plain unforgettable: It has pace, tension, a narrative arc, and most of all, character. Granted, Dasani is exceptional in many ways: complex, vulnerable, tough, innocent, and wise way, way beyond her years. But that’s rather the point of the series. She is, but so are the other 22,000 homeless children in New York (the highest number since the Great Depression; we have the highest child poverty rate of any developed country outside of Romania [!?], etc.). But the supporting cast is also compelling, including her mom, Chanel, and stepdad, Supreme, both complicated, troubled, and in their way, striving; and most memorably for me the public school figures, her teacher, Faith Hester, and principal, Paula Holmes. Here’s a snippet from one of the many occasions Dasani is called to Holmes’s office for clashing with other kids:
“Please don’t call my mother,” Dasani whispers.
Miss Holmes is seated in a rolling pleather chair held together by duct tape. She stares at the anguished girl. She has been at McKinney long enough to know when a child’s transgressions at school might bring a beating at home.
The principal slowly scoots her chair up to Dasani and leans within inches of her face.
“O.K.,” she says softly. “Let’s make a deal.”
When Chanel doesn’t come home after an arrest on a drug-related charge, we get a sense of what it’s like to be a kid rousted in the middle of the night:
When Chanel did not return that night, Dasani felt something in the air. There was a knock at the door. Dasani shushed the kids. They pretended to be asleep. Then the door opened as an Auburn supervisor and Homeless Services police told the children to get dressed.
And so on.
The notes don’t say how that particular scene was obtained, but it’s typical of the intimacy the series achieves. It’s remarkable. It’s impossible, for instance, not to both pull for Dasani and get that sinking feeling after a chance encounter with a self-help celebrity gives her what appears to be the chance of a lifetime. Reading how it all goes wrong, one gets an inkling of the myriad of things that still have to go right even to make even a lucky break pay off in real advancement.
It’s this mountain of detail—not to mention the enumerated structural issues and policy choices that contribute to this family’s wanderings—that overwhelms crude, paint-by-the-numbers arguments from the peanut gallery about personal responsibility, such as those made by the New York Post’s editorial board. Sorry, but it’s complicated.
Cynics might say this is Pulitzer season, when newspapers roll out their big projects to meet year-end prize deadlines, and they’re not wrong. But for me, that says more about the value of prizes than anything else. If that’s what it takes to get this kind of work done, what’s the harm, exactly?
Sometimes it’s a case of credit where it’s due.
Alex Jones published his book back in 2009, but I’m not sure the figures he mentions have changed all that much. Sure, there is much to be said for new digital entrants and their growing list of achievements. But we’re talking, as I’ve said, about the difference between journalism done on an artisanal scale and an industrial one.
Not all investigations are great; not all of longform is worth the space. But when I wrote about the decline of major newspapers’ longform writing (including and especially at the WSJ), including this graph…
… this is the kind of work—investigations undone, public knowledge lost—that’s at stake.
And here’s a coda:
Last week marked the passing, too young, of Bob Kramer, a master of the stakeout and probably the greatest investigative reporter that the Providence Journal ever produced. Among other achievements, he exposed the organized crime ties of a Rhode Island supreme court chief justice, leading to his impeachment.
In a Facebook post among Journal ex-pats, a colleague remembers a tip that Kramer gave on the best way to stake out targets from a car: Sit in the passenger seat; that way passersby will think you’re waiting for the driver.
This is the kind of reporting capacity, all around the country, that we should be aiming for.