Howell Raines, the former editor of the New York times, recently said that
the biggest threat to US journalism was news pieces which betray a political
point of view, the way things are done in Britain. (The story was reported by
the FT, which now requires a subscription to read it; if you have one, you can
find it here.)
Raines was brought down by the Jayson Blair and Rick Bragg affairs –
the two were both star journalists who were deft at purple prose and who therefore
got their pieces on the front page without the scrutiny their work deserved.
And one of the things which I think Raines should have spent much more time
doing – and which his successors ought to be doing as well – is
thinking about the very American idea that front-page stories should be long
and elaborately written, rather than simply reporting the news.
Look at a front-page
story today, about the fact that the official death toll from the World
Trade Center attack is now 2,752 rather than 2,792. It’s an interesting fact,
and I can certainly see why the Times put it on the front page. But once that
decision was made, it seems that they needed to gussy it up a lot, since a just-the-facts-maam
approach would have been too boring.
The headline – "A New Account of Sept. 11 Loss, With 40 Fewer
Souls to Mourn" – is portentious, and the article itself is worse.
It starts with this:
The sun inched across a cloudless sky yesterday, the breath of October rustled
trees, and the number of people killed in the World Trade Center disaster
dropped by 40. Just like that: 40 fewer souls to imagine rising from the dust;
40 fewer people to include in nightly prayers.
Eight hundred and eighty words later, it ends with this sentence: "The
fewer the better, perhaps; the fewer the better."
Of course, since the story is so long, it can’t all fit on the front page.
Most people, it is well known, don’t read past the jump, especially when, as
in this case, the rest of the story is on an inside page of a completely different
section of the newspaper. So the last thing that most people will read of the
story is this:
But what do we do with this information — this 2,752, down from 2,792?
Do we grieve less? Are we happy? What does it mean?
"The question is, does it make it any less tragic?" said Jonathan
Greenspun, the commissioner of the
Five questions, no answers. One assumes that Greenspun goes on to answer his
own question, but many of us will provide our own answers – mine would
be "yes, about 0.18% less tragic, assuming that the degree of tragedy is
proportional to the log of the number of victims".
By that point, we’re 268 words into the story – more than enough space
to put the whole thing on the front page if you’re anybody but the New York
Times. But given all that extra space, the writer, Dan Barry, actually contrives
to add literary ambiguity to a very simple story. Look at that first sentence
again: "the number of people killed in the World Trade Center disaster
dropped by 40".
This is the kind of reporting you’d never find in the business section. If
the US government thought that the economy grew at 2% in 2002 and then gets
new data showing that in fact the real figure is 1%, you’d never find the Times
saying that "the 2002 US growth rate fell to 1% from 2%". But in order
to accommodate Barry’s extravagant riffs, the front page is perfectly happy
making it sound as if the number of people killed that day has actually changed.
What’s more, Barry is a lazy writer. Most accounts of September 11 start off
with a description of the beautiful cloudless sunny day that morning, and so
today we have to slog our way through suns inching across equally cloudless
skies. It’s a completely random and pointless way to begin a feature; it has
no place whatsoever in a news article.
This week, the Times appointed its first ombudsman, Daniel Okrent. Speaking
to the New York Observer, Okrent said that "I’m not going by whether
those people are good journalists, whether they write well." This, I am
sure, is a failing, and I would urge Okrent to change his mind.
If Okrent takes his job description this narrowly, he will end up skirting
some of the most important questions about how journalism is practiced at the
New York Times. At the moment, it is clear, there is very much a culture of
overwriting front-page stories. Since a byline on A1 is a key sign of success
at any newspaper, there’s a strong incentive to follow in the footsteps of Bragg
and Blair, writing stories which read like cheap literature rather than simply
giving us the who what when why where how. It is that incentive, and not opinions
finding their way into news stories, which is the real threat to journalism
at the New York Times.