Observer Editor Forrest Wilder on the importance of good longform storytelling.
This editor’s note originally appeared in the October issue of the Observer.
I’ll admit it: for the last couple of years, I’ve paid little attention to Ken Paxton’s criminal troubles. I knew, of course, that the Texas attorney general had been indicted (who could forget his grinning mugshot?), and I could probably give you a reasonable accounting of his alleged felonies. Beyond that, though, I’d just tuned out the slow drip-drip of news about the criminal case. I’m in good company: Most Texans are likely not even aware that Texas’ top law enforcement officer, who’s on the ballot this November, could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Part of the problem is that Paxton and his legal team have used their political and financial muscle to bring the case to a virtual standstill. And some Texans may be distracted by the much-easier-to-understand heartlessness of Paxton’s actions, including his court fight to rob millions of their pre-existing conditions protections.
Another issue: It’s easy to lose track of complex, slow-moving legal machinations, especially because daily journalists tend to go hard on what’s new (it’s “the news,” after all) and less so on context or What It All Means. That’s not a knock on the daily reporters on the Paxton beat — we know what’s going on only because they’re reading the filings and interviewing the parties. But there’s a flaw with this model. We get the story but not The Story. We see the trees, but not the forest.
Our cover story, “Stand By Your Man” by Mike Barajas, was borne out of frustration with how the Paxton saga has faded into obscurity. Much of the story covers the facts of the case. But it also brings in new reporting, rich context and critical perspective. By pulling together the political and legal strands of the case, Mike weaves the tale of how the GOP machine in Collin County rallied to protect their hometown boy. Considered in depth, Paxton comes across as even more of a villain.
“Checkpoint Nation,” by Melissa del Bosque, is another example of the power of magazine storytelling. Two years in the making and co-published with Harper’s Magazine — the first-ever co-publishing deal in its 168-year history — Melissa’s 5,000-word story goes deep into one of the more subtle, and troubling, trends in immigration enforcement, a phenomenon that’s been building for decades and has only in recent years manifested in dramatic infringements on civil liberties. The backbone of the piece is the disturbing tale of an El Paso woman forced by Border Patrol to undergo a humiliating, unlawful body cavity search at a hospital. Melissa conducted the first and only interview with the traumatized survivor. But part of the magic of the story is giving name and shape to a heretofore hidden reality — Border Patrol is increasingly exercising its policing powers up to 100 miles into the interior.
As a reader, both pieces produced an “aha” moment for me. What was fuzzy — why have Ken Paxton’s problems faded from the news? how can Border Patrol operate checkpoints many miles from the border? — snapped into focus. Great longform stories make us see the world more clearly.