Journalists Explain Technique of Reconstruction

When a notable event occurs, a journalist can typically be found at the scene of the crime, vigilantly taking notes and getting interviews with eyewitnesses or figures of interest.  However, sometimes a journalist will take on the task of covering an event in which they are not afforded the luxuries of witnessing first-hand what transpired, and must learn to concurrently become a historian and journalist.

Last Wednesday, UC Irvine’s School of Humanities hosted two distinguished authors, Samuel G. Freedman and Miriam Pawel, both of who are well-versed in the art of reconstruction. Titled “In Retrospect: How Journalists Reconstruct the Past,” the event was the latest installment of the “Conversations on Writing and Public Life” series and was co-sponsored by both the History and Literary Journalism Departments.

UCI’s Literary Journalism Director and Professor Barry Siegel moderated the discussion and asked Freedman and Pawel to elaborate on their experiences in reconstructing past events. Siegel reasoned that journalism and history are a natural alliance for one another, as both professions often reconstruct the past and tell stories, but also noted that they are not without their differences.

“The darkest temptation of the historian is plagiarism, of journalists, fabrication. The historians are the ones most skittish about using first person singular, the journalists are the ones most sunburned on the nose,” Siegel said.

Pawel, who worked as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times for 25 years, has recently been hailed for her latest book, “The Crusades of Cesar Chavez,” as the first definitive biography of the civil rights icon. Having never met Cesar Chavez herself, Pawel explained that she immersed herself in researching everything she could possibly find about him.

“I had the task of reconstructing the life of someone I had never met, but I went into this knowing that there was such a wealth of archival material that I was going to be able to do what I wanted to do, which was write the book from primary sources,” Pawel said.

Fortunately for Pawel, Chavez had the presence of mind to document and record nearly everything that happened since becoming the leader of the United Farm Workers Union, with all of them conveniently stored within the archives of a library in Detroit. Pawel said she literally had hundreds of recorded interviews, conversations and other documents to draw from in her research. It was much more difficult for Pawel to find information about Chavez’s early life as both his parents were illiterate, but she turned toward school and property records to find the information she needed.

Despite conducting several interviews, Pawel was extremely adamant in refraining from using any direct quotes, as she questioned the reliability of their memory. More often than not, she found that the recorded audio of meetings contradicted what was told to her by her contacts.

Freedman, on the other hand, is not as fortunate as Pawel. A New York Times columnist and professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, he described his work as involving “the history of below” – non-famous people who do not leave records behind. His latest book, “Breaking the Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Game and Changed the Course of Civil Rights,” centers around black life during the era of segregation in the South.

Several of the sources Freedman discovered were unusable, as racist attitudes led to severely lackadaisical and inaccurate stories on black football games. According to Freedman, reporters often had the wrong box scores and wrong players, and to further racist views, the newspapers only published crime stories involving black men or women. There was a small amount of archival information that Freedman was able to use, and much like Pawel, he veered away from using direct quotes from those he interviewed. In his search to acquire as much documentation of black football games as possible, Freedman recalled asking people what they kept in their shoeboxes and attics in hopes of finding documents.

Since firsthand sources were unreliable, Freedman and Pawel spent hours triangulating between people’s memories and documents in order to create a line of interpretation that was objective and reasonable. They said that hours of research in the archives typically amounted to only a paragraph or two in their more than 90,000 word books.

“To do this work, you have to love the hunt. If you don’t love being in an archive all day, if you don’t love looking at all the scraps of paper, if you don’t love that then this isn’t the work for you. If you love it, then there isn’t anything like it,” Freedman said.

To conclude, Siegel asked the two guests if they had ever been tempted to sacrifice the accuracy of their reporting for drama as storytellers. Both authors replied with a resounding no.

“It’s all about your credibility, you cannot compromise the accuracy of your narrative,” Pawel said.

“The most important readership to me when I finished my first book is the people who were in it. The fact that they and the other people who lived through this period said, ‘Yes, you got it right!’ was the most important thing to me.”