The wrong phone call was the right call
On stumbling closer to the truth.
I was working on a story today and called a source for a second interview — the story needed a few more facts. To my dismay, I discovered that I had called the wrong person. My first interview was some time ago, and when getting ready for the callback I misread my notes in a way that confused two people. I apologized and hung up.
Then I thought for a moment and called back. I realized that the source I had called by mistake was someone I needed to talk with, though I had not known this before making the error. We talked for half an hour, and their information improved the story that I will eventually file.
I can’t say this episode was an anomaly. I often stumble into something useful that I could not, or at least did not, plan to find.
This happened on a recent reporting trip to Israel. My colleagues and I stepped out of the Tel Aviv airport and into a taxi, where the driver was intently studying social media and listening to the radio. When I struck up a conversation, he said he had just passed near a Hamas rocket strike, and was seeking information about it. He agreed to take us there. On the way, I asked how the war had affected him, and he said his daughter had lost friends in the Hamas attack Oct. 7. I asked how she was doing, and he said, You can ask her yourself—and called her right then on speakerphone. We had a story within minutes of our arrival that we could never have planned.
Loren Jenkins, a longtime international editor at NPR, once gave me advice for reporting in a place that was new to me: “Just get in there and thrash around.” See what you discover! This does not sound like much of a system, but it amounts to keeping your mind open to experience. That’s better than showing up somewhere with a preconceived notion of what the story is. A fair amount of journalism consists of reporters listening to press conferences or interviews for the sound bite that confirms the story they think they already know.
During book events for Differ We Must, people have asked about my research method. And I answered by quoting Loren Jenkins: “Just thrash around.” I explore archives, read books filled with letters, and visit historic sites; and while I am always looking for something, I often discover something else that is more interesting. The book tells Lincoln’s life story through sixteen meetings he had with people who differed with him—and the list includes several people I never heard of before I started the book—like Lincoln’s barber William Florville, or Mary Ellen Wise, a woman who pretended to be a man in order to serve in the army. In other cases I had heard of the person but not the meeting that was the heart of the chapter.
In several cases I had read brief accounts of the meeting in big biographies but had not really absorbed what it meant.
Probably my research would be more efficient if it were more systematic. Sometimes I discover a fact at the end that I wish I’d known at the start! But it’s worth keeping my mind open to the story in front of me rather than a story I have set myself up to find. It was essential when researching the most written-about figure in American history. I had read books about Lincoln all my life, had kept collections of his letters in my home for many years, and even had discussed him in two of my earlier books! Yet when exploring his story more deeply for this biography, I constantly found facts and insights that were new to me.
Thanks for reading Differ We Must, my companion to the book and my exploration of our divided times. You may judge for yourself if the things I turn up are new to you.
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