Extended Mileage in Someone Else’s Shoes: Ted Conover on Immersive Journalism

January 24, 2017

Ted Conover is an American journalist and author, known for fully immersing himself in the world of the subjects he covers. Conover writes about the people we understand the least by attempting to live their lives. Whether he’s riding freight trains with the homeless or navigating the ethical pitfalls of being a prison guard, he walks a mile in their shoes so we don’t have to.

His newest book is Immersion: A Writer’s Guide to Going Deep, and in this week’s episode of Point of Inquiry, Conover discloses to host Lindsay Beyerstein what some of the most difficult moments of his immersion-journalism career have been, and reveals some of the tricks of the trade for getting close to your subjects without losing yourself in the process.

This is point of inquiry, welcome to Point of Inquiry, a production of the Center for Inquiry. 

I’m your host, Lindsay Beyerstein, and my guest today is celebrated emersion journalist Ted Conover. 

Ted has been immersing himself in different cultures and communities since his college days when he hopped freight trains with self-proclaimed tramps and hobos trying to understand for himself whether these men were romantic rebels or economic victims. Since then, Ted is inhabited the rarefied worlds of prison guards, Aspen elites and human smugglers on the southern border. Ted is here to talk to us today about his new book, Immersion A Reporter’s Guide to Going Deep, which teaches journalists how to infiltrate other worlds and write about them. Ted, welcome to the program. Thank you very much. How do you embark on your career as an immersive reporter? 

You know, I think I’ve been fascinated for a long time in the question of how my life might have been different if I had been brought up differently. So if I’d been. Born to parents of a different class or different ethnicity or living in a different part of the world, I’ve always wondered how much of who I am would resemble who I am today. And when I was in high school in Denver, I was made by court ordered desegregation plan to go to a different high school where white people were in the minority. And I’m white. And the world looked a lot different from that angle. It actually turned out to be an excellent experience, a great part of my education and an eye opener to see how different life looks when you’re in the minority in a in a big way. And one thing or another led me to wanting to try more sort of experiments like that. Identity experiments, I guess you could call them. I did some study abroad in Spanish speaking countries in Mexico and in Spain, especially when I went back to Spain alone for a while. And by the time I was about to graduate from college, I was studying anthropology and thinking how how could I make this work with anthropology? And I thought of writing freight trains to do sort of ethnography firsthand by spending time with people who do that all the time or a lot of the time. And so, yeah, that was the first real serious immersion I gassin. And I’ve tried to have a few more since then. 

A concept that comes up a lot in the book is the idea of fitting end. Do you think that experience is like going to a different high school like you did? Made you conscious at an early age about what it takes to fit in and a two and a new context? 

I think so, yeah. I mean, nobody’s more sensitive to the opinions of other people, I think. Right. Than those in junior high or or high school. You’re you’re just exquisitely aware of how you fit in or don’t back then. And going to this new school made me self-conscious about a whole set of other facets of my identity, clothes I wear, music I listen to even you know, I drove a Volkswagen Square back at the time and had never really thought of it. 

But some of my new friends made me think I’m still drive a great car. But my friends in high school said that’s a white car. 

I don’t know if that’s true, but it raises the whole quality is kind of sure know that, you know, all these consumer choices have baked in identity statements. And so, you know, it really started me thinking about that and speech as well. You know, expressions you use or body language, how you introduce yourself. That was a real awakening to me when I met some of my first railroad tramps and and introduced myself in this bright eyed middle class way. 

I thought I should be forthright. I said, hi, my name’s Ted. I’d offer my hand and people would look at it like it was, you know, a claw or something. They were not interested in shaking the hand of a stranger in a world where, you know, false friendship or that sort of bonhomie that you might have in the business world. They’re just not into it. There’s too much to lose from people you don’t know who might take advantage of you, I guess. 

So what is the correct way to introduce yourself in a hobo? Can I do? 

Well, if you have tobacco, that would have been that. And that, in fact, was what I settled on. 

That’s a good way to join a group of people around. A fire or alcohol is always welcome. So I decided that wouldn’t be the best after, you know, a couple of experiences of people drinking more than I wish they had. I just think I decided ultimately it was best to have more gear than them so they wouldn’t be worried that I’d be potentially robbing them. And they were already worried about me because I was so young. These are sort of old school traps. It’s not the sort of younger punk and arcus kind of tramp you might find today. These were like older working class guys, Vietnam. That’s a few women. But, you know, nothing punk about them, more sort of marginalized workers put out to pasture or people who just couldn’t get along with other people. 

Was there a kind of balancing act, though, in terms of maybe not having too much stuff, though, and sticking out for that reason? 

Yeah, totally. You have to find some golden mean. If you have too much stuff, you yourself become a target. Right. So it’s all a sort of fine point of judgment. And I’ve had that repeated in different experiences I’ve had particularly working in prison. Know, I worked at Sing Sing for almost a year as a New York State corrections officer to write about what that was like. And every new officer, whether they’re secretly a journalist or not, has to figure out what kind of CEO they’re going to be. Are you going to follow all the rules and, you know, be a real strict disciplinarian or are you going to let things slide, will you? You know, you do favors for people. You let them do favors for you. How how much will you bend? And it’s a moral question. And it’s also sort of a personal psychological question, you know, figuring out what your style is. 

And when you chose a style, did you choose it thinking this is what’s going to make the best book or this is what’s going to make me the best person? What factors went into deciding what role you’re going to play when aspects of yourself you were going to put out there? 

Yeah. I was never so much in control of the situation that I could have thought, oh, I’ll I’ll do this because it’ll be the best book. 

I mean, I, I felt out of my depth most of the time. And truly, I was just trying to survive day to day without freaking out or having somebody punch me or or getting yelled at too, obviously by a sergeant. 

You know, I didn’t want to stick out. I didn’t want to be a pushover because you that can get you. I can help you negotiate things in the short term, but in the longer term, it’ll all come back and haunt. 

You can imagine you get yourself in way over your head by being too compliant. Oh, it’s your ass finitely. 

Definitely. And there’s always people trying to lead you down the wrong path. So now it was very instinctual. I just thought, I’m going to I’m going to enforce the rules, but I’m not going to be a jerk. And also, you know, your physical size works into it, because if if I were Charles Atlas, I could insist on these rules being followed 90 some percent of the time. But I’m not a big guy. So it meant I’d have to negotiate more often. I’d have to discuss and cajole and, you know. Yeah, it’s all part of it, too. 

I mean, I feel like also a lot of a theme that comes up in the book a lot is sort of you’re using aspects of your personality that they’re all the time and leveraging them for you for success like amiability and cheerfulness. 

Right. Like, you try to you try to start things off on a good note. You know, you try to crack a joke. 

You you try not to be too stiff or pretentious. Right. And I, I think as a as a journalist, it’s a real benefit to be able to sort of start chatting with people you don’t know and, you know, just to try to break the ice. 

And yeah, cause you have no power to coerce anybody as a journalist. You only have you can induce big impact. You can’t get the money. You can’t subpoena them. It’s all for some reason, I find it’s like I just have to be more entertaining than the work than the person would otherwise be doing. 

I agree with you because you have to give them a reason to want to talk to you. Right. 

Yeah. And if it’s more fun to talk to me than filling out forms, don’t talk to me. 

That’s a great point. I agree with you. 

What stuff have you learned about yourself from experiences like this? 

It’s funny, I was telling some friends of my son about what I do and one of them’s several. So you’re like an actor. And another said you’re like a chameleon. And I thought, well, they’re both right. A little bit, I guess, like an actor. I embrace a role. I’m going to be a corrections officer for the next year. 

I’m going to inhabit that mind set as best I can. But unlike an actor, it’s not just a couple hours a day when I inhabit this role. I suppose most actors probably are thinking about it longer than they’re on stage. But, you know, I spent probably 44 hours a week plus some mandatory overtime. And and so it doesn’t feel like a performance after a fairly short time. 

You just think, this is my life now and this is where all the decisions you’re making are real and have real consequence. 

Yeah, exactly. And so I’m just gonna try to get through it as best I can, but be mindful. I need to take notes. At the end of the day, I need to think how will this make sense as a story? That’s not stuff I could think about. Most of the day, because I’d be so busy opening selves, closing cells, persuading somebody to do something, trying to defuze situations. 

So, you know, it was more than acting. It’s it’s inhabiting in an ongoing way. And as you say, it’s a job with real life consequences. I remember the older prisoner who, like so many, told me he was innocent. 

He he’d been unfairly convicted and he’d been in for a long time, different prison sentences. And I I felt pretty sure he wasn’t wrongly convicted. 

I mean, he convicted everything. Exactly. But still, he was really interesting. 

He’d been at Attica in one wrongful conviction, could loom large, you know? 

Well, yeah, I would think one would be enough to make you pretty upset. And I went to visit him after I quit being a SEAL. He was at the geriatric unit of a different prison. And he still he wanted to talk about his wrongful conviction half the time. And and he had a pro bono lawyers going to get him out. She’s been working on. And it’s going to happen. I’m like, okay, that’s great. You know, I really hope it works out for you, et cetera, et cetera. Fast forward. 

I’m watching the news about six months later and the story says today the Innocence Project and Barry Scheck freed another prisoner on the basis of DNA evidence. And there he was. And I was. Astonished. 

And then I was guilty. I felt guilty because even though I was just a journalist, I had been part of his wrongful imprisonment. Right. I had locked him in. I had said, your shower’s over. Get back in your cell. And so it’s real and it has consequences. And there’ve been a couple people who are prison prisoner advocates, prison reform advocates, who take that so seriously that they think what I did is immoral. 

And I I think, you know, if you’re going to live in a world that has prisons, you need to support the people that society hires to work in them as long as they’re doing the job the way they’re supposed to. 

It seems like the last thing you would want would be individual prison guards deciding how to treat people based on their personal assessments of whether somebody is guilty. 

They’re great. And that’s why they don’t even want you to know what people did. They say you shouldn’t, you know, treat everybody the same, whether they’re a child molester or mass murderer, you don’t want to know. The problem is, if you’re like me, you do want to know. And then you’ll go home and you’ll look them up on the Internet. And that guy who told you he was an embezzler, in fact, is guilty of sodomizing somebody under 13 years old. And it changes your impression of them in a way that’s fairly profound. 

In general. You came into it with the belief that you being a prison guard is a right thing to do in general. But whether aspects of the job where you felt that you were going against your personal moral principles to do the job, whether any sort of Assab aspects of it. 

Oh, well, I never said it’s a good job. I’ve got to say, it’s it’s actually quite a terrible job. You know, when your whole energy during the day is managing people locked in small metal boxes, that I think hurts your soul. And it’s it’s a bad job. It’s an awful job. There are people who labor mightily to keep themselves home while they do it. And I admire that a lot. And I I tried to be one of them. I emulated those I thought were best at it. But, you know, it’s a it’s a terrible job. 

Did you meet people who seemed to genuinely enjoy it? I mean, people who weren’t sadistic but who just really found a lot of gratification in doing that job? 

It’s a really interesting question. I was it makes me think of that line from Apocalypse Now, from the guy loves the smell of napalm in the morning. It’s not as bad as that. 

But to love a prison job. I may it worries me if somebody loves a prison job too much. I mean, in American prisons anyway, there just is not a lot of energy being expended toward the supposed goal, which is turning people around. And so it’s kind of it’s hard to get behind that in an enthusiastic way. 

Did you make friends with people that you served with as CEOs? 

I did. I’m still in touch with several of them. Facebook been great for that prison system. Wouldn’t let me back in for some time afterward. But I went back to watch an inmate production of a few good men that play at Sing Sing. Three years ago and had to pass through the visit room and the metal detectors. And the sergeant in charge had been in my training class at the academy in Albany. 

And she saw me and she said, come on over and came out and give me a big hug. I felt it made me feel like a real VIP. 

And she know that you published the book and every. 

Oh, yes. So, you know, before it came out, I told those I’d worked with and gotten along well with that I had written about it and that, in fact, that had been my goal in getting the job. And I you know, I, I think Blossom didn’t fully understand that at first sight. 

Does not I’d made money from writing about my experience. But then I know. I think. A handful of New York CEOs I know who don’t like my book, but the general response from the rank and file has been, I think, respect, because I did the job and I don’t portray them as monsters, which is, you know, the sort of reflex for a lot of people who are concerned about prison is to just blame the guards. And my book says, well, maybe that’s short sighted. Maybe everybody in prison is acting out these prescribed roles. And change has got to come from higher up. 

How do you draw the boundary? In the book? You talk about sort of the distinction between friend friends, like people you call on your birthday. No. There would, you know, sleep at their house if you were in town and people that are your friends while you’re reporting on them. How do you how do you create those boundaries in the moment? 

That’s a really, really good question and a really hard one to answer. So in in emersion writing, a writer goes in and instead of just interviewing somebody spends the day with them or the week or visits them regularly or, you know, becomes a part of their life for some period of time. And my prison experience is different from most emerging writing because. Because it was surreptitious. Right. I didn’t tell everybody upfront, but normally people know you’re a writer. I’m writing about a veterinarian in Iowa for Harper’s and he knows I’m a writer. And I tell him what I’m going to need. 

The cow castrator guy. Yes, exactly. 

The book is an old fashioned veterinarian trying to make a living in a farm state where veterinarians are extremely specialized these days and they just work for poultry. They only work on hogs. They often, you know, are in an office away from animals, tweaking the feed chemistry and conducting tests. So it’s it’s it’s hard to be the kind of vet who still sees a lot of animals and goes to farms. And he does this and he said, yes, you can come talk to me. But once I arrived, he kind of suddenly realized, oh, my gosh, you know, this guy’s going to see me doing things like castrating or other, you know, dehorning things that cause cows pain and. And he said, why should I let you do this day after day? And I said, Well, I see you’ve got a lot to lose. I appreciate that. Let’s let’s go this way. Let me promise that every day will have 15 minutes and I will bring up everything I saw that disturbed me or gave me a question. And you can explain and you can’t read the article before it comes out because they don’t let us do that. But I’ll tell you what’s in it. And if you think I’ve got something wrong, I will. I will address that and I’ll make clear your reasoning. And I said, you know, it’s the best I can do. Other beyond that, it’s it’s public relations. I can’t write the article for you, but I find you fascinating and admirable. And I think you won’t be sad you did this. But then day after day, right. We’re sitting in his car. He starts, you know, when you’re with somebody that much, you start forgetting they’re the reporter and you’ll tell him this or that that the reporter knows shouldn’t be in the article because it’s too personal or. 

So you you you have to walk this line between your responsibility to the reader to make this honest and true and interesting and then your responsibility to the subject, which is not to sell him out for something that, you know, would be interesting to read, but which could mess up his life. 

Where do you drive the boundaries in terms of sharing stuff about your own thoughts and feelings and past, when when you’re just relating to someone in that kind of a situation and driving in the car and someone inside starts talking about their life? What are your roles in terms of, you know, saying, oh, yes, something happened to me when I was a kid or I talk about myself all the time. 

I want them to know who I am. And I kind of think that’s a main way people get to know each other is you can share things about yourself. I mean, I don’t do it cynically. I don’t think I do it. I try not to overshare. I don’t ever want these conversations to be mostly about me. I’m not the interesting one there. Does that answer your question? 

Is that what you ask? How do you know how you don’t have sort of hard and fast lines about saying, you know, your personal life is off limits to your subjects? 

No, not at all. I kind of think it shouldn’t be. I’m not going to spill my heart out to them as though they were a friend and expect them to be there for me if I get upset. I mean, that’s inappropriate. But no, it’s like I guess it is like a professional friendship is is the phrase I refer to in in emersion where the veterinarian says, you know, motel’s nice. But what? We’ve got a guestroom. You should stay with us. And I said, no, thank you. And I would have learned a lot about it, but about him. But it felt wrong. I want enough distance that he won’t be furious if I inadvertently say something in there that blindsides him. Right. Like, I welcome this person into my house and look what he did. So a little distance can be a good thing. And likewise, you know, I had dinner with his extended family several times. I’ve said to them, when you come to New York, let me take you to dinner. And I mean it when they come. I will. But will I invite them to sleep in my house? No, because that’s that’s for my nonprofessional friends, right? That’s. Yeah. My friend friends. So I do think you need to draw that line in your personal life. 

And with prison, do you ever get to a point where it’s like the story’s over? Now we can be friends, friends? 

Yeah, it it’s never happened. I’ve thought about that. I thought it would be great, but it’s never happened. 

What would you say are some of the most emotionally difficult things about doing this kind of work? Maybe that people wouldn’t necessarily guess from just reading what you’ve written? 

Sure. Well, the most emotionally difficult. Are the surreptitious experiences. I mean, it’s well known how when the FBI agent becomes a narc, she starts using drugs and it messes up her relationship with her boyfriend or her marriage and and her life falls apart. That’s kind of a cliché about undercover law enforcement work, but I think it applies in a lot of ways to sort of extended secretive immersion where you can. You’re in stressful situations. Your true friends who would support you during them, aren’t there. And, you know, you you have to be psychologically sound to endure months riding trains or you see some ugly stuff, or in a prison, you see some ugly stuff. Prison especially brought out at sides of me. I, you know, that were surprising that I had trouble dealing with. It was my my love relationship with my wife that really brought me through that. And without it, it would have been super hard. So the hardest the hardest parts of immersion are are the secrecy. The second hardest parts are being alone, because I think most effective reporting is a sort of solitary thing where you’re going out into a world that isn’t your own and where you don’t have a lot of people like you and you’re trying to figure it out and make your way and it’s lonely. So those are the I’d say the two big challenges right there. It’s the sort of the cost to me of knowledge, of learning things other people don’t know. 

Are you concerned about it? It seems the undercover reporting has kind of fallen off among reputable reporters. I mean, true undercover, deceptive, deception based reporting, you know, in the wake of Foodline and all those famous cases. But that it’s there’s got this efflorescence among the very worst kinds of political operatives like James O’Keefe. Yeah, that’s something that you’re concerned about. 

First of all, I don’t consider what he does journalism. I think it’s political activism. He he has enemies. He goes after he’s he’s a political operative. That’s different from being a journalist where you are going in to actually learn things. I think I think ethically justifying undercover journalism requires an important topic. I think prison is one. When I became a USDA food inspector, I felt the same, that the soundness of our food is important and worth becoming a food inspector to learn about. You know, Mother Jones ran a an account by Shane Bauer about a four month experience he had as a private prison guard last year. That got a lot of attention and I thought justified the secrecy. That was definitely it was solid undercover reporting. It revealed all kinds of bad practices and sort of safety violations for guards. And in yes, it casts light on the whole ethical on the whole corruption of private prisons where all these corners are cut. And so, no, I, I think it’s use needs to be judicious. There’s all kinds of crappy reasons to, quote, go undercover. But I also think there’s a big upside for important stories. So I don’t think it’s done. 

Do you think who are the people that you’re watching right now that are really pushing the envelope in interesting ways in terms of immersion journalism, huh? 

You know, every year there’s two or three or four pieces that strike me as great. A couple of years ago, it was Luke Moghuls, Susan’s piece in the New York Times magazine, about writing with a boat of refugees from Indonesia to Australia via Christmas Island. And they got in the boat and they went and it’s not under cover, but it’s immersive and and so impressive and really, really brought it home. Jennifer Pursey wrote a book called Demon Camp in which she got to know on a soldier with PTSD, an American soldier who’d been in Afghanistan on several tours, got to know him really well and sort of inhabited his his delusions in a experimental, but I think mostly successful way, you know, to show try to show readers what this was like. There’ve been a couple of sociologists, I’m sure you’ve heard of Alice Coffman’s book, Guess on the Run and Matthew Desmond’s book, Evicted. Both come out of just years of immersion in the lives of their subjects. Suki Kim. Her memoir about teaching English in North Korea is a wonderful book. Katherine Boo’s book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers about the Mumbai Slums is fantastic. So there’s lots of good work being done now. 

Ted, thanks so much for coming on the show. That’s all the time we have for today. It’s been a pleasure having you on. 

Fun to talk about it with you, Lindsay. Thank you. 

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Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The NationMs. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.