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.