Popular Culture Journalism (JOUR494): Class recap for Oct. 24 — television without pity

Busy class on Wednesday. We finished up critiquing the personal essay riffs: Dustin on “Lost”; Cody on “The Gong Show” reruns; Ashley on “Supernatural” and boy bands; Allison on “The Office’s” Jim & Pam romance; and Carli on loving the ’80s, even though she missed the ’80s entirely. Good discussions.

Then we talked about progress (frustrations, too) on scene stories. Sounds mostly good; some are still casting about for the right scene to go cover. Not quite time to panic yet — still about 10 days to figure it out, report it out, and file by Nov. 7. Somehow we still managed to talk for half an hour about who/what/where/when/why/how and pitch some more ideas. Come by and see me if you’re having problems.

That didn’t leave us nearly enough time to discuss David Finkel’s classic work of pop-culture journalism from a 1994 issue of the Washington Post Magazine, called “Group Portrait with Television.

This 5,800-word piece originated with an urge (by Finkel, who pitched it to his editor) to write about a family’s relationship to its TV set — a family that would represent, in demographics and total hours spent watching, the average Nielsen household. The idea changed and grew from there. This is one of those times that Finkel’s preference to write about people in the “middle” — that is, people who represent the everyday, the average, the statistical mean, and NOT the extremes on either end — did not come to pass. Instead he found and wrote about the Delmars: Steve and Bonnie and their children, Ashley and Steven, and their unapologetic addiction to TV. In the piece we follow them through some typical days spent watching a lot of TV, always on, in practically every room of the house. (The children were 6 and almost-8 at the time; they are older now than today’s college seniors.)

The Delmars were unusually candid, quotable and thoughtful, but Finkel is also unusually adept at getting people to open up and share their lives with him.

The story hit like a bomb when it ran — in the era before online comments and retweets. Anonymous rage back then was still old-fashioned; some people called the Delmars’ house and told Bonnie she was an unfit mother.

Some things that came up in class discussion:

How to spend enough time with people to get this level of narrative, and how do you know when plenty is enough?

How did Finkel find them? (Hard work and near-exasperation, it turns out — no surprise there.)

How does he work in the feelings of people who think excessive TV is harmful? (Look for that section.)

Does Bonnie’s life story come in too late? (And did anybody in the class bother to look up Red Skelton? No.)

Where are they now? (Brooks Johnson did what I did — tried to find the Delmars online, via Google searches and Facebook, etc.)

And, something to really think about: What would this story look like if you wrote it now, almost 19 years later? (It would be “Group Portrait with SCREENS.” Phones, tablets, laptops and, maybe for Dad, the TV. If anyone’s game to try a sequel-like homage for their long narrative — due Dec. 3 — go ahead and start looking for a family now!)

I feel like we have a little more to discuss about how this story works as a narrative and what we can learn from how it’s structured. We spent too much time talking about watching television and not enough time talking about the craft of long-form journalism. So bring it back and we’ll talk more Monday, Oct. 29.

Also: No reading assignments for Monday.

But it’s never too early to start reading the assigned chapters from Gene Weingarten’s The Fiddler in the Subway, for our class discussions on Nov. 5 and Nov. 7. These chapters are:

Introduction; The Great Zucchini; The Ghost of the Hardy Boys; The Armpit of America; Tears for Audrey; Doonesbury’s War; None of the Above; and The Fiddler in the Subway.

AND, it seems many of you will be reporting your scene stories this weekend, so get to it.


  1. jim williams on October 26, 2012 at 11:48 pm

    Glad to find this site!

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