Davis "Buzz" Merritt, retired editor of the Wichita Eagle and a leader in the civic journalism movement, tells this true story:
There was a big fight over a proposal to dam a river in the Flint Hills of Kansas. Ranchers wanted the dam so they could have water for their cattle. Environmentalists opposed it because of the threat to a certain variety of fish found in the stream.
"I sent a reporter out to talk to the people about it," Merritt recalled the other day, "and he came back initially with our usual approach to these things: the three points the ranchers insisted on and the three points the environmentalists insisted on, and so forth. But neither of us liked doing it that way, so we sent him back to talk to more people.
"And that's when he came across a rancher who was also an environmentalist -- and the story we told through this man's ambivalence was fairer, more helpful and far more insightful than anything we might have done following the old approach."
Merritt thinks the story illuminates the problem with much of today's journalism -- and not just the televised talking-head shouting matches. I think it also says a good deal about the journalistic analysis (including my own) of the recent presidential election.
It has become routine for reporters to look for typical partisans in every fight and to tell our stories through their irreconcilable arguments. It is a tendency that plays us false more often than we care to admit.
We acknowledge from time to time that the red state-blue state paradigm we use to describe America's almost evenly split electorate leaves out the voters whom Sen.-elect Barack Obama of Illinois characterized as blue people in red states and vice versa. The fact that in all but the two states that apportion their electoral votes a scant electoral college majority is enough to turn an entire state red or blue tempts our analyses to these oversimplified images, even when we know that the states are all varying shades of purple.
But perhaps worse, it tempts us to think of the electoral majority in each of those states in equally oversimplified terms. We imagine that we know what particular voters in Massachusetts or Mississippi think on any number of issues. It seems not to occur to us that any member of that majority might have cast an agonized vote, drawn one way by one set of considerations and the other by a different set.
Like that Flint Hills cattle rancher and environmentalist.
"I believe there are a whole lot of environmentalist ranchers out there," Merritt told me, accepting my use of the term in its more universal sense, "but we as journalists don't want to hear them. Ambivalence is just not all that exciting."
But neither is it all that rare. Scores of public controversies are reported as to-the-mat battles between unyielding opposites -- in part because our journalistic habits send us looking for these irreconcilables. What, we ask ourselves, is the point of seeking out a minister who believes that gay and lesbian couples should be treated fairly, even sympathetically, but who draws the line at church-ordained marriage? And it's a cinch such ambivalent people won't seek us out.
We ridicule people who insist that, on one issue or another, they are just a little bit purple. And yet I dare say most Americans are just a little bit purple on most issues.
Acknowledgment of this fact -- in our politics and in our journalism -- might go a long way toward the healing our country clearly needs.
Buzz Merritt doesn't even remember how the Flint Hills fight turned out -- he thinks the dam wasn't built. But he knows he likes the way the Eagle's journalism turned out.
"I thought it was a story that wound up not merely describing the gulf between the sides but also illuminating the possibilities for resolving it," he told me. "That's what ambiguity does."