Submersion Journalism: a review

Eleanor J. Bader Mar 6, 2009

Submersion Journalism: Reporting in the Radical First Person from Harper’s Magazine Edited by Bill Wasik
The New Press, 2008

The 15 essays in Submersion Journalism, all previously published in Harper’s Magazine, cover a lot of ground and range from the chilling, to the entertaining, to the pointless. The heavily male collection—Barbara Ehrenreich is the only woman whose writing is included—is intentionally subjective. It’s journalism-as-personal-essay, centered on an ‘I’ who is both actor and director.

‘A Mammogram Leads to a Cult of Pink Kitsch,’ for example, is Ehrenreich’s  travelogue through her own breast cancer treatment.  Along the way she skewers the corporate-sponsored movement that urges consumption of pink-ribboned goods over investigation of environmental causes of the disease. She also outlines the downside of women’s support groups and argues that they have unwittingly “transformed breast cancer into a rite of passage—not an injustice or a tragedy to rail against, but a normal marker in the life cycle, like menopause or graying hair…You can get so busy comparing attractive head scarves that you forget to question a form of treatment that temporarily renders you bald and immuno-incompetent.”

‘Their Men in Washington: Undercover with D.C’s Lobbyists for Hire,’showcases Ken Silverstein’s attempts to find a public relations firm willing to shore up Turkmenistan’s reputation as an up-and-coming democracy, rather than a brutally- oppressive, dictatorial regime. Donning a fake name, Silverstein purports to be from the fictitious Maldon Group and not-surprisingly, finds several Beltway firms willing to bolster Turkmenistan’s image—for a price.

Jeff Sharlet’s ‘Jesus Plus Nothing’ is a creepy look at The Family, a 73-year-old Christian men’s collective in Arlington, Virginia that wields tremendous power within government circles. “We prayed to be nothing,” Sharlet writes. “We were there to soften our hearts to authority.” At the same time, he recalls participants being told that “You guys are here to learn to rule the world.” Among the lessons: “The belief that God’s economics are laissez-faire.”

The book’s most entertaining chapter is Jake Silverstein’s ‘What is Poetry? And Does it Pay?’  an account of his participation in a Famous Poets Society convention where would-be authors compete for a $25,000 cash prize. Also amusing, in an unsettling kind of way, is ‘My Crowd,’ anthology editor Bill Wasik’s reportage on flash mobs, a concept he created to bring technologically-linked hipsters to random locations for quick, if meaningless, choreographed actions. In one incident, hundreds converged at a Times Square Toys R Us, entered, and together genuflected before a huge, plastic dinosaur. His goal? To update Stanley Milgram’s psychological experiments on conformity and obedience for the 21st century.  But Wasik does more than this, describing the eventual cooptation of flash actions by Ford Motor Company; his account suggests how easy it is for even tame insurrection to become mainstreamed.

Other entries chronicle the work of undercover narcs on the U.S. – Mexico border; the marriage market that allows U.S. men to go on orchestrated bride hunts in Eastern Europe; a look at security concerns of U.S. journalists living in Baghdad; and the organizing of a bizarre—and ultimately self-indulgent—art installation at the Queens Museum, among them.

Harper’s believes, writes Editor Roger D. Hodge in the book’s introduction, that first person reporting is key to curing the despair and cynicism that pervades American life. While that seems more than a little overstated, Submersion Journalism is an often-witty and engaging collection, proof positive that there are still reporters who  prod, dig and poke. Not content to be embedded or press-release-driven, these journalists exemplify what it means to be intrepid investigators and inquisitors of power, whether personal or political.

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