"Resurrect" the Federal Writers' Project?


You can't fault Mark I. Pinsky for dreaming. The award-winning religion writer was laid off from the Orlando Sentinel in July, and his essay for The New Republic was probably more of a vehicle for his frustrations than a sincere policy proposal (unlike some of the other people demanding big money from Uncle Sam's supposedly bottomless pockets). Either way, Pinsky's essay is worth reading in full despite its lack of a compelling argument:

Any federal effort to put back to work the hundreds of thousands thrown out of work in the nation's hard-hit industrial, construction, airline, and financial sectors should consider displaced news media workers--including those newly laid off from the publishing industry--as well….

The Federal Writers Project operated from 1935-1939 under the leadership of Henry Alsberg, a journalist and theater director. In addition to providing employment to more than 6,000 out-of-work reporters, photographers, editors, critics, writers, and creative craftsmen and -women, the FWP produced some lasting contributions to American history, culture, and literature. Their efforts ranged from comprehensive guides to 48 states and three territories to interviews with and photos of 2,300 former African-American slaves. These are preserved in the seventeen volumes of Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves….

Today, there are many dislocated "old media" journalists from newspapers, radio, and television on the street--here I declare my personal interest, as one of them--who could provide a skilled pool to staff a new FWP. But since these journalists represent only a fraction of the larger displaced workforce, it is fair to ask what the public benefit would be of money spent….

Gifted FWP alumni who went on to distinguished literary careers in literature include John Steinbeck, John Cheever, Nelson Algren, Saul Bellow, and African Americans Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and Richard Wright. The recent death of Studs Terkel-- a FWP veteran who went on to use the skills he developed in the program to chronicle the working- and middle-classes on his long-running radio show and in his Pulitzer Prize-winning books--is a reminder of how valuable this kind of experience can be. Ellison used his FWP research in Invisible Man, and Steinbeck and John Gunther relied on the FWP state guides for Travels With Charley: In Search of America and Inside U.S.A., respectively.

This time, the FWP could begin by documenting the ground-level impact of the Great Recession; chronicling the transition to a green economy; or capturing the experiences of the thousands of immigrants who are changing the American complexion. Like the original FWP, the new version would focus in particular on those segments of society largely ignored by commercial and even public media….

How would it work? Administering the new FWP as an individual grant program through community colleges and universities could minimize bureaucracy and overhead. In consultation with the Obama administration--perhaps through the National Endowment for the Humanities--and Congress, guidelines could be established and a small staff assembled in Washington to oversee the projects, in the form of grants, rather than hourly wages. Projects could be pitched locally to colleges, or suggested and posted by them, vetted preliminarily and then approved or rejected by the national staff.

Pinsky's policy prescriptions are ambiguous and take a lot for granted: What if Barack Obama can't "stimulate" several million green jobs? And where's the money going to come from for the additional FWP jobs, many of which wouldn't be green? And who's going to make up the objective panel of project reviewers? (Pinsky's concession that such a massive program might fall prey to bureaucratic abuses is a laughable understatement; his conviction that there's a way to circumvent the bureaucrats is, at best, wishful thinking.)

That leaves the historical elements of the essay (it's hard for me to say anything bad about underwriting greats like Bellow and Ellison) and Pinsky's opinion, which he shares with many journalists, that the government can't "just do nothing" while the media industry goes through a period of creative destruction. As someone who works at an alt. weekly, I won't deny that I'd like a little more job security. On the other hand, I'd rather join the growing ranks of PR writers than pitch my porn reviews to some stuffy, government pencil-pusher. (And let's not forget that a government-backed medium would be even less adept than a privately-owned dead-tree paper at keeping up with "citizen journalists.")