February 10, 2010

And newspaper articles are too damned long.

Says Michael Kinsley in an article in The Atlantic which he sure as hell better not expand into a book.

(Thanks to Freeman Hunt for linking to that in the comments section of the post about books that are inflated versions of articles that ran in The Atlantic.)

Kinsley says:
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.
Oh! That should hurt. It's not just padded. It's padded with cheerleading for the Democrats. No wonder we feel such revulsion.

31 comments:

Peter V. Bella said...

No wonder the NYT is going broke. No wonder investors are demanding the publisher/owner's head on a plate.

Original Mike said...

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.

If they didn't add all that padding, how would they impose their viewpoint, their bias, on the piece? If they stuck to just the facts, they'd have to resort to outright lying.

EDH said...

I think news articles like this one are written and edited by people who, if asked, romantically imagine a reader 100 years in the future pulling a yellow, frayed newspaper from a library stack to learn "what happened 100 years ago today?"

As in, "tell me grandpa, not just what happened, but what was it like to be you, a fabulously literate observer of the time"?

rhhardin said...

AP story first line Army Tests Soldiers in Alaskan Extremes

DELTA JUNCTION, Alaska -- The Humvee's headlights shone incredibly bright, casting daylight clarity on a line of spruce trees, every needle standing out in stark contrast to the dark night of Alaska's interior.

That means you can settle in for a bout of creative writing.

knox said...

I read articles all the time, and am left with the thought, "Why do people become journalists nowadays?? They seemingly have no inclination to seek out or to even report real news." The lack of skepticism or just plain curiosity is perplexing. You can routinely read stories that leave major questions unanswered--even totally apolitical stories.

So, yeah, you keep reading, hoping to get some info, which never comes... and then the further insult is the cheerleading.

Joan said...

I love how Kinsley said straight out that it is the reporter's job not to have an opinion. (Contrast this with all the J-school grads who went into journalism to "change the world"...)

Subsequently I was disappointed when Kinsley said that the NYT earns his trust every day. There seems to be a disconnect there. He's seeing the trees alright, but somehow they don't add up to a forest.

Lem said...

Back in 96 the NYT published a profile of the Unabomber with 15,962 words.

It was a goddamn book.

Scott M said...

Let me get this straight. The pros in this line of work are just now figuring out that people want who/what/when rather than nuances, feelings, and oblique editorializing inside hard news stories?

(Gasp)

ironrailsironweights said...

In most cases, reading the first two paragraphs of a news story is all you really need to do in order to understand it.

Peter

raf said...

ironrailsironweights said...
In most cases, reading the first two paragraphs of a news story is all you really need to do in order to understand it.


And knowing that this is common practice among readers, the "persuasive" stuff is loaded into the first paragraphs and the inconvenient facts follow in paragraph 15 on page 28.

E.M. Davis said...

It's amazing how much more straight-forward and 'hard news' oriented sports reports generally are. They basically tell us what happened, with very little flourish or opinion.

Now, sports magazines and special-interest pieces that revolve around sports are another animal.

garage mahal said...

After inventing Whitewater on it's front pages, I wonder how many words were written about it in the Times about that dirt road parcel. 10 million? How many words printed on the exonerating report from Pillsbury, Madison, and Sutro law firm? Zero.

Jeffrey said...

As an ESL teacher here in NYC, I teach students basic news article forms and conventions. Every week we examine the same story covered by the three local newspapers, the Daily News, NY Post, and the NY Times.

On Decemeber 16, 1999, a elderly man named Dennis Heiner, upset for religious reasons, spread paint over a painting in the Brooklyn Museum of Art. The next day, all three papers covered the story and here are the lead paragraphs:

A 72-year-old man who prays to the Virgin Mary daily breached security and smeared white paint over a controversial painting of the Madonna at the Brooklyn Museum of Art yesterday. (NY Daily News)

An angry 72-year-old man spread white paint over the controversial, dung-daubed Virgin Mary painting in the Brooklyn Museum’s “Sensation” show yesterday – while guards merely stood by, witnesses said. (NY Post)

A painting whose elephant dung and pornographic touches have incurred the wrath of Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and stirred a religious, cultural and political furor in the city was attacked at the Brooklyn Museum of Art yesterday by a man who smeared paint on it but did no permanent damage. (NY Times)

There are some immediate differences, one of them being the use of active voice in the first two lead paragraphs and passive voice in the third, reflecting a change in focus. We have fun getting into a detailed analysis of the three newspapers -- linguistic, stylistic, as well as content -- and how they typically cover stories. Which of the three do you prefer?

*

ricpic said...

Reading the Times is like watching a gussied up Ivory-Merchant soap opera disguised as an art film. But at the end of the day it's still a soap opera. The key to the Times flowery prolix prose is that the stupid the beautiful people lap up has to be pretentious stupid.

Sarah said...

Jeffrey - I'd go with number 2 as being superior. I just get lost in the third one about three lines in, and the first doesn't have enough information. While "dung-daubed" isn't the most elegant adjective, it certainly condenses things down quickly. That's all I need to know which painting it is and all the various opinions about it.

Sounds like a fun assignment for your class! I wish my teachers had done something like that in high school.

-Chan

Jeffrey said...

ricpic,

The NY Times uses a very formal register, and its lexical choices force my students to return to their dictionaries more often than the other newspapers. In the article on Mr. Heiner, the words that jump out are "incur," "wrath," and "furor" -- very Merchant-Ivory, as you say. Also the passive sentence has a really long opening noun phrase and you have to wait a long time before you hit the verb phrase, "was attacked." More Merchant-Ivory? Last Year at Marienbad?

*

Ralph L said...

Kinsley is one to complain, considering all the extra syllables he spewed nightly on CNN.

/cheapshot

WV - poloptin - dreaded receptacle used during bad colonoscopies.

Ralph L said...

you have to wait a long time before you hit the verb phrase
How many of Cedarfud's Progressive Jews came from Germany?

Jeffrey said...

Sarah / Chan,

Both the Daily News and the NY Post, in my experience, feature very controlled lead paragraphs that stick to the basics, while the NY Times already begins expanding the context -- and often editorializing -- in the lead.

By the way, I teach that course for college-age ESL students from around the world, but I could certainly see a lot of value in using it with high-school students, too. After a semester of articles, it becomes pretty easy to recognize each paper's style and to read between the lines.

*

Lem said...

After inventing Whitewater on it's front pages, I wonder how many words were written about it in the Times about that dirt road parcel.

Garage Susan McDougal preferred to be jailed on contempt rather than testify in open court about the Clintons.

Where there is smoke there is fire.

David said...

You know what they never mention? The number of the Bill, so you can go look it up and read it.

Iapetus said...

"you keep reading, hoping to get some info, which never comes..

Sometimes the info eventually does come, of course. Perhaps the writer assumes the reader shares his prejudices and can be enticed by the lead-in to scan the entire article to get the hard information. This style of writing reminds me of the TV "mystery" shows that use filler to inflate a tiny story into a full hour by revealing the plot line a bit at a time, always hoping viewers won't abandon the show at the next commercial break. It also is very similar to the placement strategy that supermarkets use when they put milk and dairy items at the back of the store, so that shoppers have to pass by other higher-profit items the store really wants to sell.

Robin said...

Jeffrey, I agree about choice 2, but in 1, that "prays to the Virgin Mary daily" meaning is unclear. Is it in the "Hail Mary, full of grace..." sense, in which case he joins a few million other people, so why it is notable? Or is it that he actually believes her to be a deity, like God, which would be weird?

Also, I gotta give it to "dung-daubed" over "controversial"!

Jeffrey said...

Robin,

The Daily News and the NY Post refer to the Virgin Mary in the lead because the painting in question, by British artist Chris Ofili, is called "The Holy Virgin Mary," on which Ofili used elephant shit and cut-out close-ups of vaginas to cover the painting. Basically, they were priming the reader for what was to follow later, I guess.

From the Daily News and the Post, the reader can assume that Mr. Heiner is Christian. In the NY Times lead paragraph, one cannot do that. I'm not saying one way is better or worse; it's just different.

*

Jeffrey said...

Robin,

Oh yeah, "dung-daubed" is funny. I guess "shit-smeared" would really have been pushing it. Both use alliteration, but the second is perhaps even a bit too earthy for a tabloid reader.

c3 said...

And that's why we have Google News

bagoh20 said...

With any long article, just read the first paragraph and the last two paragraphs, then forget the first cause that part was a lie.

Nora said...

Newspapers have to make the readers believe that they are in news/opinoin business (and not a vehicle of advertising, i.e. that they sell news and opinion to the readers rather than selling readers to advertising) by producing volume of material that balances the volume of advertising, while keeping expenses down. Hence, there is prolifiration of verbose articles with literary pretences, especially in the publications that target the [would be intelligentsia] middles classes for advertising.

AJ Lynch said...

Kinsley is part of the problem. He is not the type of person I'd choose to fix the MSM.

Like Knox said..Why don't journalists ask the obvious questions? Perhaps because they are more of a stenographer [dutifully cutting and pasting the press release from some govt official or pol] than a news reporter.

Jeff said...

The clearest problem with the NYT version is that it implicitly links Guiliani's wrath with the painting being attacked.

Translated
"Stupid republican stupids (NYT leaves it unsaid that this is redundant for their readers) caused this stupid attack."

mariner said...

Robin:
Jeffrey, I agree about choice 2, but in 1, that "prays to the Virgin Mary daily" meaning is unclear. Is it in the "Hail Mary, full of grace..." sense, in which case he joins a few million other people, so why it is notable? Or is it that he actually believes her to be a deity, like God, which would be weird?

It doesn't matter. The point is that he was one of those (spit) Christians (spit).