Tsarnaev beat: Mainstream journalists love writing novels!

MONDAY, APRIL 29, 2013

In this case, the facts didn’t fit: Mainstream journalists love to create novelistic frameworks.

On the front page of Sunday’s Washington Post, Marc Fisher constructed a familiar novelized framework, this time concerning the Tsarnaev family. But his novelistic framework pretty much didn’t make sense, given the facts of the case:
FISHER (4/28/13): America, the golden door, had already welcomed two of his brothers when Anzor Tsarnaev crossed the ocean with his family in 2002. Anzor's brother Ruslan, who had immigrated just a few years earlier, already had a law degree and was on his way to an executive job and a six-figure salary.

And at first, Anzor, his wife, Zubeidat, and their two sons, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar, seemed as energetic and brimming with initiative as their relatives had been. Anzor, a mechanic, fixed up cars. His wife turned a cut-rate apartment in affluent Cambridge into an improvised salon, offering facials at attractive prices.

The boys—who authorities believe are the Boston Marathon bombers, responsible for killing four people and injuring more than 250—took to their new home with gusto. The older one, Tamerlan, was sociable, even showy, dressing sharply, honing his body to become an Olympic boxer. He married an American WASP, daughter of a well-to-do Rhode Island family.

The younger boy, Dzhokhar, was almost instantly as American as they come: He fell for a blond beauty and won her over. He made the high school wrestling team and was popular and empathic enough to be named captain. He partied hard and studied when he had to.

But over the past four years, even as members of their extended family found their piece of the American dream, the Cambridge Tsarnaevs' experience in their new land curdled. Money grew scarce, and the family went on welfare. Zubeidat was accused of stealing from a department store. Anzor's business, never prosperous, faded.
That’s a familiar novel. At first, the new family was brimming with hope and was doing quite well! Then, things began to go sour.

Unfortunately, the facts don’t seem to fit the simple-minded framework into which Fisher tries to force them. To state the obvious, fixing up cars and offering facials “at attractive prices” (i.e., at low prices) doesn’t lead to six-figure incomes, the implied contrast offered by Fisher. There is no evidence that Anzor and Zubeidat were ever “as energetic and brimming with initiative as their relatives had been” in any relevant sense.

(Later in this piece, we learn that Uncle Ruslan was earning $216,000 per year—and that his brother Anzor had been earning $10 per hour. At no time was Anzor on Ruslan's track.)

Meanwhile, Fisher makes it sound like Tamerlane was still on track when he “married an American WASP, daughter of a well-to-do Rhode Island family”—that the experience only curdled later. Given the widely-reported chronologies, that seems to be a rather shaky characterization too.

This 4400-word report is full of information. Fisher couldn’t resist a tired old impulse: As he started, he tried to make the story more simple-minded and familiar than it actually is. He formed a simple-minded framework, the kind you might meet in a romance novel, or in a Lifetime movie.

A great deal of what passes for news is constructed this way. Journalists decide to cram complex facts into simple-minded, novelized frameworks. The journalist gives the reader an easy ride, thus ceasing to be a journalist.

That long report is full of facts. The opening framework created by Fisher pretty much doesn’t fit them.

On the other hand, don’t miss the photo.


  1. The only thing that could make that photo more depressing is if they were sitting at a newspaper draped table with a plate of beets.

  2. Agree completely with the basic point here, but want to suggest that comparing this journalistic habit to novel-writing is problematic. Go ahead and compare it to writing dime-store novels or cheap romance novels.... But not to novel-writing tout court. Historians tell stories. Journalists tell stories. Novelists tell stories. The best find their stories (or try) in the truth and not in some cheap and easy, preconceived, potted plot. The best historians, journalists, and novelists discover and relate their discoveries in and through a good story. Nothing wrong with that.

  3. The narrative humanizes the terrorists (inaccurately). Once upon a time, journalists would focus on humanizing the victims, rather than the perps.

    If the perps were conservative nut-cases rather than Muslim nut-cases, I wonder if the media narrative would include so much humanizing of the perps.

    1. Good question, the answer of course being "no, it wouldn't."

    2. There's rarely anything exotic or intriguing about conservative nutjobs.

  4. Wow, that photo really is great. So sad. Baby Tamerlan could hardly have been more adorable. Awful.

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