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Monday, July 11, 2022

July 11, 2022: Investigative Journalists: Fanny Fern

[This coming weekend we’ll celebrate the 160th birthday of one of my favorite Americans, Ida B. Wells. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of fellow investigative journalists, leading up to a special tribute to the inimitable Wells!]

On a journalistic series that isn’t perfect, but is pretty darn impressive nonetheless.

I’ve written many times about my love for Fanny Fern, most especially in this Saturday Evening Post tribute. In place of the first paragraph here I’ll ask out to check that column out if you would, and then come on back here for more on Fern’s most striking example of investigative journalism.

Welcome back! Toward the end of that column I mention Fern’s 1858 series of columns on Blackwell’s Island, calling it a “long, imperfect but important look at the forgotten women housed in that fraught space.” Imperfect Fern’s Blackwell’s pieces certainly are—if we look for example at the one hyperlinked above, which I believe was a follow-up reflection on the series itself and which there is republished in her 1872 collection Caper-Sauce, we see the way in which Fern consistently contrasts “our sons and our daughters” with the women imprisoned at Blackwell’s (officially all convicted prostitutes, although as I mention in my Sat Post column that was a frustratingly capacious category). It’s certainly understandable that she wouldn’t want to think of her own children as part of such a category or community, and likewise that she imagines herself writing to audiences in similar positions and with similar perspectives. But there’s no reason to think that the women at Blackwell’s wouldn’t have the chance to read Fern’s columns—and in any case and more importantly, there’s every reason to remember that they are just as much “our daughters” as any other women.

But as I hope every day on this blog (and everywhere else I write and talk and teach and work and live) makes clear, I’m very much not in favor of making the perfect the enemy of the good, and there is a great deal that is good about Fern’s investigative journalistic series on Blackwell’s Island. Most especially, I would reiterate something I also mentioned in my column—that by this time Fern was already the highest paid newspaper columnist in America (and had been for three years). I suppose you could argue that that position gave Fern license to take risks, but in my experience the opposite is much more often the case: that achieving success and stability (especially after years of painful instability such as those Fern had experienced) makes authors, artists, activists, all of us more likely to do what we perceive as safe and smart enough to keep that position. Whereas Fanny Fern, having experienced a multi-layered version of some of the worst of what could happen to women in 1850s America (abuse, neglect, abandonment, widowhood, single parenthood, extreme poverty, and more), decided to investigate a community featuring women in even more desperate shape, women whom (as she notes in that hyperlinked reflection, and more importantly demands that her audience recognize) the rest of society was all too willing to ignore and forget. Seems to me that’s a profoundly impressive and inspiring moment and way to use investigative journalism indeed.

Next journalist tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other investigative journalists you’d highlight?

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