A waste of valuable space

The front page of the Sunday New York Times is probably the most valuable journalistic

real estate in the world. It’s where the Times puts its biggest investigative

pieces, in the knowledge that people are much more likely to have the time and

inclination to read long-form journalism on a Sunday than they are on other


Tomorrow, the Times is putting violins on its front page, in a story headlined


Violin’s Value, and What to Pay the I.R.S. Fiddler". It carries no

fewer than three different bylines, including that of David Cay Johnston, the

newspaper’s tax-dodge expert. It even has a juicy news hook: Herbert Axelrod,

who sold a collection of strings valued at $50 million to the New Jersey Symphony

Orchestra, has now fled to Cuba, just before he was going to be indicted on

federal tax fraud charges.

The story, however, is a complete and utter mess. The journalists’ investigations

clearly turned up nothing: there’s actually no news at all in the whole piece.

What we’re left with is essentially three different feature stories, all of

which are painfully incomplete, stitched together into a Frankenstein’s monster

of a front-page article.

First of all, of course, there’s the Axelrod story. Apparently the tax fraud

charges are "related to the sale of his publishing company," but we

never learn anything about that. This piece is much more interested in his donations

of string instruments, and how he may or may not have inflated their valuations

for tax purposes. The donation we learn the most about is the one to the New

Jersey Symphony, which paid $18 million for its 30 rare instruments from the

17th and 18th centuries. If Axelrod valued the strings at $50 million for tax

purposes, then he could claim what the Times calls "a big tax deduction"

on the difference. How big, however, we’re never told.

Then there’s a parallel story, about a previous Axelrod donation of four Stradivaris

to the Smithsonian. Apparently that, too, was valued at $50 million, despite

the fact that my own quick web search comes up with no records of any string

instrument ever selling for more than $3.5 million. That’s a factoid you won’t

find in the article either: there’s no speculation at all about how much the

Smithsonian Strads are worth, and in fact only the vaguest hand-waving when

it comes to the true value of the instruments in New Jersey.

Encompassing both of these stories is a broader one about donations which carry

inflated valuations for tax purposes. Apparently the chairman of the Senate

Finance Committee is unhappy about the status quo, as is the person who reported

Axelrod’s donations to the IRS and hasn’t received the $2.5 million reward he

thinks he’s owed.

But the IRS didn’t comment for the story, and the only hard number that the

reporters could come up with in order to help indicate the scope of the problem

is that "about one in 11 reward claims is paid by the IRS," which

apparently decreases any incentive to report suspicious activity. Since most

reward claims are surely unrelated to overinflated donation valuations, however,

the relevance of that statistic must be pretty low.

Then, to mess up matters even further, a completely different story is interwoven

among the tax-fraud stories, all about how rare violins nearly always go up

in value over time and how that "is leading players to consider newly made

ones". Again, we get no hard numbers: no indication of what top violins

are actually selling for these days, no idea of how fast violin prices are rising.

Everything is anecdotal, and the piece ends with the story of "Christian

Tetzlaff, 38, a German violinist regarded as one of the best of the younger

generation of players," who used to play a Strad and now plays a Greiner

violin built in 2001. This, of course, is completely irrelevant to the Axelrod

and tax-fraud stories, but seems to have been thrown in just for the hell of


Reading the article is an exercise in frustration: it piques your interest

with one story, then moves on to another, and another, and another, and never

really cleans up on any of them. It’s like reading a sentence where successive

parenthetical comments keep on being opened up but never closed. What it is

doing on the front page of the New York Times? I have no idea, but my suspicion

is that a front-page editor somewhere had the bright idea that if you amalgamated

three or four mediocre stories, you could get one really good one. Well, a good

friend of mine is a front-page editor elsewhere, and I’d like to show this article

to him as a prime example of how that simply doesn’t work.

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