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From Treme to the 9/11 Commission Report: index as story

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Treme's Wendell Pierce

Sunday night’s Treme debut found a companion in Monday morning’s Times-Picayune: “HBO’s Treme Explained.” The New Orleans paper will offer a weekly encyclopedic post explaining culture and geography from each episode of the show—drilling down into everything from the “second line” to the Crescent City Connection and the all-too-real damage Katrina inflicted on the city. It’s an interesting case of a newspaper providing nonfiction context for what’s likely to become a cultural touchstone.

Reference works that straddle the line between journalism and literature have been around at least since The Devil’s Dictionary. Compiled a century ago by Ambrose Bierce (editor-in-chief of the magazine Wasp), that dictionary provided a satirical take on the standard Webster’s and included definitions such as:

“POLITICIAN, n. An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared. When he wriggles he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice. As compared with the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive.”

But the value of these kinds of reference tools is not limited to satire or providing real-world information linked to the fiction of Treme. Last week, print journal n+1 reposted “Toward an Index of the 9/11 Commission Report,” which it had originally published in September 2004. Following up on an idea from writer Caleb Crain, a dozen people tried their hand at starting an index for the 585-page report.

Their work ends up showing the possibilities of “index as story.” Staffers pull out page references to 9/11 players like Attorney General John Ashcroft and would-be hijacker Zacarias Moussaoui (whose code name, apparently, was “Sally”). They even make an attempt toward the journalistic imperative of “follow the money” (see “dollars”). Out of the massive report, they extract the kind of details that would be used in a traditional narrative piece, if it were broken down to phrases and described in a voice not unlike Bierce’s. It was, editor Keith Gessen wrote to tell me, a call for political accountability before the 2004 elections. It reminds me in some ways of the “rating system” developed by the St. Petersburg Times’ Politifact.

Here’s the first part of the entry for Ashcroft:

Ashcroft, John
  before 9/11
  — acknowledges “steep learning curve” on taking his job, 209
  — receives warnings about al Qaeda, 255, 258
  — doesn’t want to hear about threats anymore, 265
  — assumes FBI is doing fine, 265
  — takes no action, 265
  — seeks new, explicit authorities for killing, 512
  — bad relationship with acting FBI director Thomas Pickard, 536
  — complains to Pickard that “nothing ever happens,” 536
  — 9/10/01: quashes FBI request for increased counterterrorism funding, 210

We asked the person who inspired the n+1 index, New Yorker contributor and author Caleb Crain, to comment on his idea. Crain says that the report initially lacked an index because it had been rushed into print, so he found himself having to take notes as he read in order to see if the report contradicted Bush administration statements about 9/11. Recalling that Spy Magazine once compiled an index to The Andy Warhol Diaries as a special supplement, Crain mentioned the idea to Editor Keith Gessen at n+1, who expanded Crain’s modest post intro into a larger piece.

“When I’m writing a big narrative journalistic piece, I always have to go through a phase of indexing my notes before I can actually start writing,” Crain says. “For every piece, I have this large document in my computer that’s basically just a big index.” The story, he explains, rises out of that index. “I print it out and then I annotate it further as I’m working. Often part of it is chronological, then there are topical indexes. So once I decide, ‘Okay, I’m going to tell the story this way,’ I can just sort of look at my index and go from there to notes.”

With digital opportunities to cross-reference and draw on existing pools of data, I was intrigued by a story skeleton sitting at some midpoint between a massive pile of research and a traditional, polished narrative. While the n+1 piece and Crain’s post on his own blog benefit from the sly tone of the excerpter’s voice, some other reference tools are so effective it’s hard to imagine them being improved by expansion. (See the index of last words from prisoners put to death in Texas, which has been written about many times but still feels most powerful to me in its original form.) Yet projects like the Times-Picayune’s blog encyclopedia and the n+1 9/11 index can themselves evolve into another kind of storytelling, one generated by an outside source but telling a new tale through meaningful reorganization and interpretation.




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