Tuesday, January 12, 2010

write thin to win?

Want to improve journalism? Get out the scissors. Metaphorically, that is. Michael Kinsley rants about the excesses in daily journalism in this post from the Atlantic.

Pet peeve No. 1: long and cumbersome leads full of background that can only serve the reader who just woke up from a coma:

Take, for example, the lead story in The New York Times on Sunday, November 8, 2009, headlined “Sweeping Health Care Plan Passes House.” There is nothing special about this article. November 8 is just the day I happened to need an example for this column. And there it was. The 1,456-word report begins:

Handing President Obama a hard-fought victory, the House narrowly approved a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system on Saturday night, advancing legislation that Democrats said could stand as their defining social policy achievement.

Fewer than half the words in this opening sentence are devoted to saying what happened. If someone saw you reading the paper and asked, “So what’s going on?,” you would not likely begin by saying that President Obama had won a hard-fought victory. You would say, “The House passed health-care reform last night.” And maybe, “It was a close vote.” And just possibly, “There was a kerfuffle about abortion.” You would not likely refer to “a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s health care system,” as if your friend was unaware that health-care reform was going on. Nor would you feel the need to inform your friend first thing that unnamed Democrats were bragging about what a big deal this is—an unsurprising development if ever there was one.

And another: "well, duh" quotes that are not only self-evident, but are shorter than the identifiers. As in:
“Now is the chance to fix our health care system and improve the lives of millions of Americans,” Representative Louise M. Slaughter, Democrat of New York and chairwoman of the Rules Committee, said as she opened the daylong proceedings.

(Quote: 18 words; identification: 21 words.)

Meanwhile, Republicans oppose the bill. Yes, they do. And if you haven’t surmised this from the duly reported fact that all but one of them voted against it, perhaps you will find another quote informative.

“More taxes, more spending and more government is not the plan for reform the people support,” said Representative Virginia Foxx, Republican of North Carolina and one of the conservatives who relentlessly criticized the Democrats’ plan.

(Quote: 16 words; identification, 19 words.)

Finally, he rails at the wink-wink practice of reporters quoting random Joes to get across the reporter's own opinion -- and voila. Objective journalism it becomes. why not just cut out the middleman, Kinsey wonders, rather than dredging up quotes from the likes of Jesse M. Brill, who was quoted in an NYT story on the current financial crisis:

Those are 56 words spent allowing Jesse M. Brill to restate the author’s point. Yet I, for one, have never heard of Jesse M. Brill before. He may be a fine fellow. But I have no particular reason to trust him, and he has no particular reason to need my trust. The New York Times, on the other hand, does need my trust, or it is out of business. So it has a strong incentive to earn my trust every day (which it does, with rare and historic exceptions). But instead of asking me to trust it and its reporter about the thesis of this piece, The New York Times asks me to trust this person I have never heard of, Jesse M. Brill.

Of course this attempt to pass the hot potato to a total stranger doesn’t work, because before I can trust Jesse M. Brill about the thesis of the piece, I have to trust The New York Times that this Jesse M. Brill person is trustworthy, and the article under examination devotes many words to telling me who he is so that I will trust him. (By contrast, it tells me nothing about the reporter.) Why not cut out the middleman? The reason to trust this story, if you choose to do so, is that it is in The New York Times. What Jesse M. Brill may think adds nothing. Yet he is only one of several experts quoted throughout, basically telling the story all over again.

1 comment:

Broc Romanek said...

Unfortunately, you repeat the same mistake as Mr. Kinsley. If either of you spent 2 minutes googling Jesse Brill, you would see that he and his CompensationStandards.com resource has been the primary source for practical guidance about how to rein in excessive CEO pay and instill responsible pay practices for years.

Those "in the know" recognize Jesse as such and his annual conference on responsible pay practices are widely attended by most in the executive pay design industry. Jesse's writings are one of the main drivers for the SEC to overhaul their pay disclosure requirements in 2006, etc. The NY Times did not pick Jesse out of a hat.