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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

A superhero can’t fix the debt crisis, but he can explain it

Captain America

Not even Captain America can bust through the debt ceiling. What’s a hero to do while the politicians quarrel?

Employ his superhuman powers of explanation, that’s what. For the last four weeks, National Journal reporter and newly minted columnist Major Garrett has channelled Captain America to explain the intricacies of the crisis. The Star-Spangled Avenger sets his shield aside and fields imaginary calls from citizens who are concerned about the prospect of imminent economic calamity. The transcripts of their “conversations” serve as detailed explainers.

“Because Captain America does care about the country and cares about his future, he has invested himself with a deep knowledge of treasury yields, the flow rate of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid payments, and the intricacies of the Gang of Six,” Garrett told me.

If you’re willing to suspend disbelief and imagine Captain America sporting a headset in a call center, it works. He is calm, authoritative, and hopeful, just as you expect him to be.

Here is an excerpt from the latest conversation, posted today:

Caller: So, this is what the abyss looks like?

CA: Actually, we’ve been in it for a while. The pressure’s just starting to get to you.

Caller: Me and everyone else. Is there a way out?

CA: There’s always a way, if there’s a will.

Caller: Hey, if I wanted a Hallmark card, I’d have gone to the drugstore. I need something tangible, something I can hold onto.

CA: So do markets from Tokyo to London to Wall Street. They’re still searching.

Caller: Can Speaker John Boehner’s bill pass the House?

CA: It doesn’t have the votes now. Grassroots GOP groups are divided, but Boehner’s gaining strength. That makes it a jump ball—with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor doing the toss (bet Boehner).

Caller: How many GOP votes can Boehner afford to lose?

CA: No more than 33. And that assumes he picks up 10 Democrats—a stretch since the stronger medicine, “cut, cap, and balance,” pulled only five Democrats.

Garrett said he has gotten a tremendous response both from Washington power players and ordinary readers — exactly the groups he had hoped to reach. National Journal delivers a print product for a specific, highly informed readership, but the material that makes it online reaches a much broader audience. “Straddling those two is a challenge,” he said.

In addition to explaining a complex story, the über-patriot Captain America stands as kind of a beacon of hope in hopelessly combative Washington. A commenter summed it up best: “It isn’t a mess too big for Cap. If he were real, he would do just what he did to the caller — inspire Americans. Captain America’s TRUE super power lies in his ability to be a symbol — a symbol of what America aspires to be, but perhaps isn’t yet.”

The series — which will continue until the world is saved — solves two problems for Garrett. One, it lets him tell an important but — let’s face it — boring story in a fresh and accessible way. And two, it lets him figure out how to become a columnist. He only got the column, “All Powers,” last month, and he’s searching for his voice. In his 27 years of reporting, Garrett has never had a column.

“The only way I could get over my writer’s block, and the sense of fear of doing it strictly in my voice, was coming up with this mechanism,” Garrett said.

“In one sense he’s a superhero to only one person, me. If he helps me get this column done.”

Photo by Andy Roth used under a Creative Commons license

                                   
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