Giant Golden Buddhas and the Importance of Data Journalists

In the 1980s the Internal Revenue Service underwent a controversial rebirthing. Turning away from its paper-laden, human-eye examiners, it looked to become a more automated, “noncompliance-seeking” (read: for-profit) outfit. The process, termed “the Initiative”, serves as the backdrop of Dave Foster Wallace’s self-described nonfictional memoir, The Pale King[1].

It’s also a fitting case study of why we need data journalists and good data designers.

According to DFW, the system-wide restructuring of the IRS was, obviously, massive. It affected every American and held great repercussions for business and the role of the state. But as Wallace reports, the Initiative was never investigated deeply by journalists.

Why? Despite the Initiative’s far-reaching impact, the actual material recounting the IRS’ changes was never read. But not because an extensive public record wasn’t available (it was). Rather the written proceedings, in their mountains burocratese, were so utterly mind-numbingly boring that no one could bear plowing through them. The public record was solid rock.

…one of the GS-11 Chalk Leaders in our Rote Exam group, a man of no small intuition and sensitivity, proposed an analogy between the public records surrounding the Initiative and the giant solid-gold Buddha statues that flanked certain temples in ancient Khmer. These priceless statues, never guarded or secured, were safe from theft not despite but because of their value—they were too huge and heavy to move.

This is a brilliant insight. As DFW argues, we shouldn’t underestimate government’s reliance on this very strategy, the intentional opacity of the public record to discourage journalistic investigation. Secrecy invites curiosity and scandal — yet monumental dullness will pass unexamined.

It’s striking how relevant this chapter is to the world of open data and journalism today. More and more data is being created and released. More and more journalists are expected to have data literacy. But without tools that support sensemaking and parse databases, the public record will remain unyielding and under-reported.

[1] Footnote HT to DFW.  Mid-book, he slips in an author’s forward that counters the boilerplate disclaimer publishers are legally obliged to include: “all characters and events in this book are fictitious”. Instead, Wallace asserts that nearly all of the book’s content is true, documented from his year in exile at an IRS examination center in the Midwest. You get in a nice tangle trying to sort whether his statements about the book’s authenticity, which occur after the disclaimer, are in fact subject to the blanket disclaimer about everything in the book being fiction. And so on. “Believe nothing, O monks, merely because you have been told it,” says Buddha.

Image: The Buddha King of Angkor Wat by Stuck in Customs / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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