Gallows humor is one of the most traditional and least savory elements of esprit de corps. For cops, doctors, soldiers, social workers—anybody whose job site is the miserable human heart—gallows humor puts the “against the world” into us-against-the-world. In a Venn diagram of “jokes cops post in online forums” and “civil rights violations,” a lot of material would fall in the overlap area. Emergency-room abbreviations like CTD (Circling the Drain) or FDGB (Fall Down Go Boom) cauterize the emotions, triaging competence at the expense of empathy. When gallows humor enters journalism it’s often dehumanizing without the excuse of necessity: I’ll always love the tabloid style, but one day I realized that HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR describes the death of some mother’s child.
In this hard-bitten landscape, the journalistic experiment in empathy Cracked.com has embarked on is an outlier. Cracked, which started out as MAD Magazine’s kid brother, now looks more like a punk version of the Washington Post.
In its “personal experience” articles, written by a team run by Robert Evans, one of the site's editorial managers, Cracked has created a unique blend of hard news, in-depth profile, memoir—and crude, bleak humor. In an era when everyone’s trying to invent some new kind of journalism, Cracked may have actually done it. “Five Disturbing Things I Learned in Scientology’s ‘Space Navy,’” “Five Terrible Things I Learned as a Corporate Whistleblower,” “Six Insanely Post-Apocalyptic Realities of the Ukrainian Revolt”—these are pieces which use gallows humor to provoke empathy from outsiders. They take readers inside experiences we usually see as abstractions in a news report or comments-box jab. Stock villains (“Five Terrifying Things I Learned as a Drug-Addicted Nurse”), victims (“Five Things You Learn Growing Up In (And Escaping) North Korea”), and punchlines (“Five Ways You Don’t Realize Reality Shows Lie,” a genuinely horrifying look behind the scenes at “The Biggest Loser”) become human beings again.
The personal-experience articles differ from the standard Fifth Estate profile, in which a New York Times reporter jets to Appalachia and tells you what a New York Times reporter thinks people in Appalachia think and feel. Evans and his team receive a tip, or seek out someone they’d like to interview, and then do in-depth interviews via email or Skype. (The Ukrainian piece took about 10 interviewees and 20 hours on Skype.) Evans says the writers work to make the final articles “feel like Cracked articles”—and there is a distinctive Cracked voice, self-deprecating and crass and humanistic.
But the subjects maintain control of their story. Cracked publishes two types of personal-experience stories. The first kind, Evans explains, “are more like traditional pieces of journalism where we’re just quoting multiple sources, like the North Korea article.” The other kind are focused on a single person and are more narrative oriented. “When we do a personal experience as a narrative," he says “nothing gets published that the source has not signed off on. We make that promise from the interview stage, that we will not put an article out in your name based on this interview unless you’re okay with it. We’re not out to ‘gotcha.’”
This first-person style is not exactly Columbia School journalism. “It humanizes in a way that’s very positive,” Evans says, “but I don’t think anyone here would feel comfortable if we weren’t giving people a chance to see how their stories end up.” The humor seems to make this promise all the more important. Most journalists do their best to avoid putting words in someone’s mouth: Evans and co. have to make sure they don’t put tasteless jokes there. Cracked has pulled articles because a subject was unsatisfied with the final result. Evans says the most common concern is that an interviewee won’t be able to remain anonymous. “We did an article with someone living in an area of Mexico dominated by the cartels,” he notes, “but as much time was spent anonymizing the source as writing the article.”
Cracked will back up subjects’ claims with statistical evidence where available. Evans says, “We verify the identity of our sources—at the very least verify that the person was in the position to have the experiences.” So if you were a soldier in Iraq, for example, Cracked can’t verify that a firefight happened exactly the way you said it did, but they can verify that you served where and when you claimed, and they can research whether your descriptions are plausible. Evans adds, “There are times we’ve rejected pitches or interviews because what the source said was wildly out of place with anything else we could read on the matter, and the person did not provide any corroborating evidence.”
We often hear that people are weary of ideological arguments, and we should all just sit in a circle and “tell our stories”; but our worldviews shape our stories. They shape not only our choices, but how we interpret those choices and their results. So it would be easy for Cracked’s personal-experience articles to become a forum for special pleading, sneaking in ideology under the cover of “it’s just one person’s story.”
I’m impressed by how rarely that happens. While Evans notes that he gets a lot of pitches from “disgruntled employees at companies like Comcast, for instance, who have a lot of unpleasant things to say about their employer,” he argues that the editorial process helps to weed out resentniks and fakers: “Our editorial team lives all over the United States and has a pretty wide range of political and religious views.” So any one of them, he says, may throw out an objection like, “I don’t think this person is coming from an unbiased side.” “It’s not just reliant on me thinking this person has an agenda, it’s a whole team,” he says.
And so far I’ve only read one personal-experience piece which I found pushy and self-justifying, Cedric Coleman’s “7 Horrifying Things You Didn’t (Want to) Know About Prison.” Coleman, a former prison guard, marshals what I do not doubt are real evidence and real experiences, but the piece is organized around the idea that the guards are the truly powerless ones behind bars, that the prisoners make the rules and the problems. If the guards are the real victims, why are verified reports of guard-on-prisoner abuse ubiquitous? The piece points out that prison rape is rarer than audiences familiar with The Shawshank Redemption might guess, but does not mention the fact that most of the reported sexual abuse which does happen is committed by prison staff. When I mention this piece, Evans acknowledges the possibility of bias on the part of his source. He also agrees that “there’s certainly more to the issue of prison rape” than could be covered by one man's experience, and says that if he were to pursue the topic of prisons again, he would “prefer to have a couple of guards and a couple of inmates as sources.”
But the vast majority of the pieces, even ones whose subjects might not immediately seem simpatico to the readers of a boob-joke website, strike me as honest, raw, and fair. Whether it’s “8 Things I Learned as an American Governor in Occupied Iraq” or an undercover Homeland Security agent making the case that “Ending the Drug War Is More Complicated Than You Think,” Cracked lets people explain, eloquently, the worldview behind their actions.
It’s not all heavy stuff—one of my favorite personal-experience pieces is “Six Things Nobody Tells You About Working at Disney World,” which sharply increased my own empathy for Disney-worshipers without diminishing my belief that the cult of Disney is creepy. But Cracked does a startling amount of what the goo-goo types call “journalism in the public interest.” It published a harrowing exposé of abusive “teen treatment” centers and a hopeful piece on an IRA terrorist turned pacifist.
The biggest limit to Cracked’s journalism is the stories it doesn’t tell. I asked Evans about stories too hot for Cracked. He recalls, “We had an article submitted about a guy who was a registered sex offender, and there were some interesting things to say about that, but ‘Things I Learned as a Sex Offender,’ that’s a tough title. And it’s difficult to get people to be sympathetic.”
I also suggested that the area of contemporary American life which gets most noticeably under-covered at Cracked is non-abusive religion. There are a few pieces by people who have suffered from religious repression or cruelty (“Five Insane Lessons from My Christian Fundamentalist Childhood,” for example) but I said I’d love to see a piece like, “Five Things I Never Expected About Becoming a Buddhist Nun.” “I would love to do an article about crazy aspects of life as a Buddhist nun. No one has come forward to share their experiences with us.” It would take an unusually daring director of priestly formation to sit down with Evans for, say, “Six Things I Learned Helping Men Become Catholic Priests”—and there might be some delicate negotiations about the picture captions—but I would love to read depictions of traditional religion in the Cracked voice, for the Cracked audience.
Put together, Cracked’s personal-experience journalism is panoramic and haunting: snapshots of a world beyond satire, but not quite beyond hope. May their urgent, throbbing insights penetrate deep into our hungry societal vagina metaphor.
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