When Journalism Becomes Art
By Walt Harrington
“How can we know the dancer from the dance?”
— “Among School Children” William Butler Yeats
I first met Mike Sager twenty five years ago when he was a smart punk-ass kid newspaper reporter who wanted to grow up to be like Tom Wolfe or Gay Talese or Hunter S. Thompson. Back then, a lot of kids wanted to be like Tom Wolfe or Gay Talese or Hunter S. Thompson someday.
Today, the smart punk-ass kids want to grow up to be like Mike Sager.
Why that happened to him, and not the thousands of other aspiring young literary journalists of his generation, is a lesson for those kids. Sager spent six years at The Washington Post learning the craft of journalism—working seven days a week whether he was paid or not, getting the facts right, never suffering from writer’s block, cranking out his best on bad assignments, learning his way around police reports, financial statements and court documents. He made himself at home in neighborhoods, bars and towns that were like foreign countries to this suburban doctor’s son. He labored to blend discordant bits of quote, fact, sight and sound into compilations that got people to read the first sentence, then the second and the third, that grabbed people by the collars and kept them reading, made them feel … something—anger, fear, sadness, joy, whatever.
Anything to reach readers where they lived.
Anything to take readers where other people lived.
“Master technique,” Sager once said in giving advice to young journalists, “and then listen to your heart.” That, in a nutshell, is the idea at the soul of his work.
Mike Sager wasn’t long for The Washington Post. His fascination with the contradictions of respectability, his obsession with unpleasant truths, and his stronger and stronger personal voice doomed him even at America’s best newspaper. The glossy magazines, with their hip, young-adult readers, became his home. He wrote for Washingtonian, the now-defunct magazines, Regardie’s and Manhattan, inc., then Playboy, Rolling Stone, GQ, and, finally, Esquire, where he has been a writer-at-large for years.
Revenge of the Donut Boys is a collection of Mike Sager articles exploring the confusing state of American life–its values, virtues, fantasies and hypocrisies, circa 2000. This anthology follows an equally compelling earlier collection, Scary Monsters and Super Freaks. These two books, along with another planned anthology coming later, will finally make available the two-decade body of Sager’s artful journalism, which is rooted in his boundless reportorial and story-telling gifts, his eye for meaningful detail, his ear for the rhymes and rhythms of unfolding life–and his unflinching belief in the beauty of humanity at its most noble and most silly, shallow and self-absorbed.
Roseanne Barr electing to reveal that she has Multiple Personality Disorder. The human’s-eye view inside one of California’s worst-ever wildfires. The charmed day-to-day life of a stunningly beautiful woman. A 17-year-old suburban boy who, for reasons unexplainable, has figured out the meaning of life. A freshly minted dot.com billionaire in the first weeks of his transformation to entrepreneurial master of the universe.
The satanic-tinged band, Slayer, as its evil players color-coordinate curtains and couches for their suburban condos. Struggling, neurotic actors as they suffer on the cusp of almost-fame. The toughest, most decent, honorable Marine colonel in the U.S. infantry. The young and rebellious rapper Ice Cube, from the beginning, yearning to join the American parade. A wise and dignified manservant to the richest of the rich.
A man struggling to stay confident while out of work, caring for the kids, and living off his wife. The handsome, muscled, vapid gods of the California beach volleyball circuit. Middle-class couples swinging their way to marital harmony. Football’s Mike Ditka in love with his life. A 92-year-old man who realizes he has been old longer than he has been anything else. And all the other people in America who are named Mike Sager.
A weird mix of disparate stories bound together only by Mike Sager’s sensibility.
Journalism is portrayed as a craft. Learn to get the facts correct, in proper sequence, appropriately weighted and balanced for fairness and multiple perspectives, write in clear and plain language, and you don’t need the unique intelligence, insight or inquiry of a reporter/writer, because the stories will tell themselves. It is an industrial logic: Send any hundred journeymen journalists out on a given story, and they will come back with just about the same tale, because they are workers on a professional assembly line.
That has always been a silly notion. Doing anything well is mostly craft—hitting a five iron, putting a basketball through a hoop, writing a poem, building a bridge, cooking a meal. Of course, anybody can read a recipe. Yet, for reasons mystical, a few people cook a meal better and differently than most everybody else. These people are artists.
What else to call them?
They take the same raw material available to everyone and make something fresh of it: Tiger Woods curving a golf ball around a tree, Michael Jordon passing to himself in mid-air, the cadence of a Robert Frost poem, the majesty of the Golden Gate Bridge, the luxurious sensuality of a gourmet meal. The people who create the best in their fields know their recipes, sure, but they add to the stew their own intelligence, insight and intuition. Ask them why they are so good at what they do, and they often cannot tell you.
They have become artists—dancer and dance, indistinguishable.
Mike Sager is an artist of journalism.
Read his story on the stunningly beautiful woman, and you are in her living room, laughing with her and her friends about penises. You can see her and smell her and taste her. Mike Sager shows you the world through her eyes, yet he never loses himself–or you–in the reverie. Always, we are reminded without words that her world is the reverse of our world. She is special because we who are not beautiful grant her special status. As we create her, we diminish ourselves. But we can’t help it; beauty has power over us.
Read his story on the old man, and you will feel guilty for all you did not know about your aging mother and father. And, suddenly, you will know what is in store for you.
Read his story on the Marine colonel in the field with his soldiers and, no matter your politics on the military, you will love this man, his commitment to honor and valor and country that is absent any vainglorious pretense. And, for the moment, you will know what it is to love your country in that blind, unquestioning way.
Read Mike Sager’s articles and you are taken on an ethnographic journey through the mysterious ordinary realms everywhere around you and to which you are oblivious. The stories reflect and evoke our times, yes. Yet they also reflect their author’s generosity of heart and his empathy and compassion for all human beings. More than anything, these stories ask that you set aside your biases, even your deeply held beliefs, and enter the minds and worlds of others.
Although these stories are about the widest range of people, they are all really about Mike Sager, who sees in others what he yearns to see in all of us. Through his lens, we forever glimpse hope, which makes his stories not only about himself and his subjects but about all of us: Author, subjects, readers—indistinguishable, dancers and dance.
The craft of journalism raised to art.
Walt Harrington is the Head of Journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a former staff writer for The Washington Post Magazine, and the author or editor of six books, including The Beholder’s Eye and The Everlasting Stream.