The Digital Journalist
Tell Me a Story
September 2007

by Peter Howe

During the 1980s, if you wanted to turn my brother from the even-tempered, easygoing individual that he normally was into a rage-consumed animal, all you had to do was to mention the two words "Margaret Thatcher" within his hearing and that would do it. At the time I felt that this was somewhat of an overreaction to someone who was merely a politician, albeit a controversial one. This was, of course, before having had the experience of living under the Imperial Presidency of George W. Bush for seven years. Now I understand and share my brother's almost psychotic aversion to politicians who blatantly and arrogantly disregard the wishes of the people at whose pleasure they serve. At least with Thatcher there was a level of thought and competency sadly lacking from our good ole boy, although I'm sure my brother would dispute even that.

For this liberal democrat the past few years have been as close to living under a dictatorship as I ever want to experience, with the erosion of personal freedom and the violations of the Constitution that have occurred with this administration. It has been a disastrous period for the United States, reducing us to a debt-ridden nation that has not one shred of international credibility left, and has become the object of scorn and derision of the rest of the world. Whether you approved of it or not Thatcher's warmongering garnered her a level of grudging respect from other nations that the Bushies have been unable to muster. Another effect of the excesses we have suffered through the rule of King George is that his relentless pursuit of power has been largely taken under the camouflage of the War Against Terrorism, and has defocused the nation's attention from other issues.

As a New Yorker who lived through the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center I would be the last to deny that international terrorism is a major problem, but I would also argue that compared to the difficulties we face in the areas of health care and education it is dwarfed into relative insignificance. The long-term destabilizing effect on our society of poor health and education is far greater to my mind than foreign fanatics of any persuasion could inflict. We have an infant mortality rate that, at 6.88 per 1,000 births, is the highest of any developed nation. The attacks of September 11th, 2001 murdered just under 3,000 people; according to the National Center for Health Statistics, in 2004 there were 27, 835 infant deaths in this country. If this was a reasonably average year that means that in the six years since the World Trade Center attacks over 160,000 babies have died, many of them because of another statistic that is equally shocking – over 45 million people in this country have no health insurance, and millions more have inadequate coverage. The crisis in education is characterized by a similar background of financial and ethnic inequality to that of health care. In New York State the dropout rate from high schools for Hispanic students is 31.9 percent, and for African-Americans it is even higher at 35.1 percent, this at a time when education is becoming a greater requirement for all jobs except the most menial.

Why haven't these problems attracted as much attention from the media and in the mind of the public as their gravity demands? One reason is that the immediacy of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq has grabbed the headlines and the awareness of the American people. The spectacle of a truck bomb in Baghdad is much more compelling than a six-hour wait in an emergency room, especially for the medium of television, where 30 seconds is a lifetime. The drama of military operations has an urgency that an overcrowded and decaying classroom lacks. And yet behind the crises in education and health care lie compelling personal stories that in their own way are just as engaging and even more moving. Recently a friend of mine was praising the book "A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini. He said to me, "A good novelist has a wonderful talent. I read all the articles about Afghanistan and saw all the news footage, and yet it was only through reading this book that it all came to life." For him the truth of the situation came not through reading the facts, but from a work of fiction, because a writer of Hosseini's ability can present reality through compelling storytelling. This has always been one of the strengths of photojournalism as well, showing reality by telling stories – not the fabrication of fiction, but by engaging the viewer through the emotional undercurrent that exists behind the statistics. This is also why art photography interests me not one whit; there's no story there.

If we are to regain perspective in this country, and address the systemic problems that afflict our nation, then bringing these stories to public awareness will be a vital part of the process. Unfortunately the flaw in this process is not the creation of the work, but its publication to a wide audience. There are already many photographers and videographers working on such issues, and not just the two that I have focused on, but also on infrastructure, immigration and many others. Much of this work has yet to see the light of day, but that doesn't mean to say that it won't. Ed Kashi and Julie Winokur proved that it was possible with their work on aging in America. One of the Amazon reviewers of their book on the subject says, "I laughed. I cried. I marveled at the beautiful and the ugly images that belong to the incredible world of aging. Each page brought the unexpected." Did their work change the way we look at the process of growing old in this country? I think it did, maybe not by itself on a macro level, but certainly as a part of the incremental ways that public perception on a topic shifts. I firmly believe in the "tipping point" theory, where, according to author Malcolm Gladwell, small things make a big difference. That's why, for all of the market reverses this profession has suffered in the past couple of decades, it's still, maybe more important that these stories get told.

For all of the intensity with which he despised Margaret Thatcher my brother kept it quite clear in his mind that it was her administration, not the people of Britain that were at fault. He loved Britain with a deep passion, which was the reason he was so dismayed by the way she governed for most of the 1980s, because he felt it dishonored the country. I feel exactly the same way about America today. I have traveled extensively in my life, and for me there is no other place that I would rather live than right here. There are no other people that I would sooner live amongst than Americans. They are forthright, creative, energetic, funny, compassionate and caring – not all of them, but enough to make living with them a rewarding experience. Despite the unholy trinity of Bush, Cheney and Rove, this country still has a lot to offer its citizens and the world, and that's another story that deserves telling.

© Peter Howe
Contributing Editor