Monthly Archives: June 2004

How’s your “shorthand” ?

“Sports columnists have forever used the phrase “hitting to all fields” to introduce pieces that cover a variety of subjects. Unlike the best of them, who work a different story into every sentence, I can manage only three swings. Conveniently, I’ve aimed one to right field, one to left and one straight up the middle. “

So begins Daniel Orkent’s latest, The Report, the Review and a Grandstand Play But why are sports metaphors needed at all? Or is “mainstream” journalism now a sport?

“Stretching across four columns of the front page, the June 17 headline “Panel Finds No Qaeda-Iraq Tie; Describes a Wider Plot for 9/11″ caused some readers, including Vice President Dick Cheney, to accuse The Times of “outrageous” (Cheney’s word) distortion of the 9/11 commission’s staff report.”

No surprise there. Vice President Dick “Go Fuck Yourself!” Cheney has expended countless man hours spoon feeding propaganda to select NYT reporters, and is consequently quite put out when the help fall down on the job.

“I don’t buy “outrageous,” but “distortion” works for me – specifically, the common newspaper crime of distortion by abbreviation. The staff report was largely concerned with attacks on United States soil, whereas the headline bore no such qualification. The headline also leaned on two of those words whose brevity makes them dear to all newsrooms: the resolute “no,” and the imprecise “tie.” Assistant managing editor Craig Whitney, who oversees the front page, argues that “tie” in the headline is “a correct shorthand summary” of the report’s conclusion that there appeared to be no “collaborative relationship” between Al Qaeda and Iraq.”

And he’s right.

>”That’s the problem with shorthand: If it’s not written in your own hand, it’s very hard to read. Headlines also pose two conundrums. The more complex the story, the more likely you are to get a headline that oversimplifies it. And the more complete the coverage associated with the headline, the less likely readers will find their own way to the gist of it. “

But that was the gist of it. There were no ties between Saddam and Al Queda.

Hell, that’s not just gist, it’s News !

” The main news section on June 17 contained eight separate articles on the staff report, consuming nearly 550 column inches. Unable to wander through all these glades and thickets of prose, many readers rely on headlines to provide as much of a summary as they are prepared to absorb.”

Well now that’s truly presumptuous. And insulting. The NYT offering “all the news that’s fit to print” clearly courts a conscientious reader more than willing to wander through glades and thickets to get to the bottom of a story. Is Okrent telling such readers not to bother? That their “betters” will pre-chew the truth for them?

“While headlines may be short, their impact is large. Willful distortion? I don’t see it. Misstep? Sure. Is an apology needed, as Internet columnist Bob Kohn, one of the paper’s most forceful (and, often, most incisive) critics on the right, demanded by e-mail? No. Good reporting and careful presentation are what’s needed. If out-of-tune headlines required apologies, the newspaper business would soon turn into a cacophony of confession.”

Bring it on!!!!

“Chief book critic Michiko Kakutani’s review of Bill Clinton’s “My Life,” published in last Sunday’s paper, was brutal. For any author, it would have been the review from hell, the one from which a career (much less the book at hand) could never recover. Of course, Bill Clinton isn’t just any author, and early reports indicate that “My Life” might be the fastest-selling nonfiction book in United States history.

That a far more positive take on the book by novelist Larry McMurtry will appear in next Sunday’s Book Review says more about reviewing than it does about “My Life.” (It’s already posted here.)

It says that realizing a grave error the Times corrected it.

“McMurtry and Kakutani didn’t read different books; they’re just different people,”

VERY different people.

“who appear to agree only on the book’s sporadic wonkiness. But Kakutani’s review came first; it ran on the front page; and it featured a vocabulary of critical invective that might have knocked the breath out of even a Clinton hater.

Needless to say, Clinton supporters were displeased. “

And here Okrent adds some “shorthand” of his own. To object to Kakutani’s review makes one a “Clinton supporter”?

In what way?

“Some wrote to say the review was another ambush in a Times anti-Clinton vendetta that began when “Whitewater” referred just to rafting conditions. Many wondered why Kakutani was allowed to include in a review her judgments not just of the book but of the Clinton presidency itself. Others chastised her for failing to mention the book’s criticisms of The Times. And quite a few took her to task for the reference in the review’s closing sentence to “Lies about . . . real estate.” They argued that the failure of the Resolution Trust Corporation or the Office of the Independent Counsel to charge either of the Clintons with any Whitewater-related deceptions proves that the “lies” comment is a calumny.”

When it’s really just “shorthand,” right? Since Bill Clinton lied about Monica then the fact that other charges weren’t proven doesn’t clear him of them in Kakutani’s Gertrude-Steinesque eyes: “A lie is a lie is a lie.”

Even when it isn’t.

“Shorthand” like that can be so useful.

“I don’t buy the vendetta charge; it suggests that the different parts of this newspaper operate in sync, when my seven months here have convinced me that the various departments are as carefully coordinated as Manhattan traffic in a thunderstorm. “

It suggests nothing of the sort. Persons with common interests and outlooks don’t have to skulk around like the characters in Fritz Lang’s The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse . They’re all of the same elite fourth estate class.

“Kakutani herself doesn’t seem party to any kind of Kill Bill campaign, as she demonstrated last year in her evisceration of
Nigel Hamilton’s full-frontal attack, “Bill Clinton: An American Journey.”

Save for the fact that (if you consult her review) that while discounting Hamilton’s feverish wingnut fantasizing she continues to push the “lie” meme as before.

“I can’t for the life of me come up with a rule that would limit what a reviewer should be allowed to comment on in a review, and I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t keep personal opinions of a presidency in mind while reading the president’s memoirs.”

But if that were the case, and Kakutani’s A-OK, then why call in McMurty?

a fortiori, why send out a memo to all and sundry that the McMurtry review was coming?

“The other two complaints about Kakutani’s review – failure to mention criticism of The Times and reference to real estate lies – would be absolutely appropriate to a news story. But critics exist to have opinions. Short of committing factual inaccuracy, libel or other major sins, they are free – must be free – to say what they wish. To my knowledge the R.T.C. and the O.I.C. never concluded that one or the other Clinton did not lie; the two offices found that they had committed no offenses that justified prosecution or taken any actions that would subject them to civil penalties. Thankfully, in the United States justice system, the threshold for establishing criminal behavior or a civil liability is much higher than the threshold for your opinion, my opinion or Michiko Kakutani’s opinion.”

In other words Bill Clinton should be thankful he had Ken Starr to deal with rather than Michiko Kakutani.

“But it was a different threshold that this review crossed: the sanctity of the front page as an opinion-free zone. Executive editor Bill Keller told me that “the voice of a brilliant critic was something we could add to the coverage that was uniquely ours.” As far as I know, the only other time the paper put a book review on A1 was almost exactly a year ago, for Harry Potter. But Bill Clinton is no Harry Potter; his role in the ever intensifying political debate remains substantial, and in some ways might even be determinative. The front page is the home for news, and arguably for analysis, but if it’s also the home for unbuckled opinion about figures on the public stage, then you could argue that editorials belong there, too. “

Or you could argue that a bit of editorializing “slips in” now and then.
Take for instance another page one item an interview with Ken Lay. It goes without saying that an interview with the head of the “energy” Ponzi scheme, “Enron” is news — especially as he hasn’t been heard from for quite some time. But what’s even bigger news is the fact that the Times – and only the Times — had an opportunity to talk with him for six hours.

Six hours of self-aggrandizing justification to be sure. But why not a press conference. Because it’s the Times that matters. The Times confers prestige and importance. It sets the pace for others. Or at least it did until very recently when Pravda scooped it on Dick Cheney’s potty-mouth.

“Managing editor Jill Abramson believes that the review “was every bit as interesting and newsworthy as the front-page stories disclosing its contents.” But if Michiko Kakutani’s opinions are news, it would be just as logical to write a story about them, or about especially strong columns by William Safire or Maureen Dowd. And that’s a logical step too far for me.”

What about Our Miss Brooks? How’s his “shorthand” these days?

“I asked both Keller and Abramson whether they would have run the review on Page 1 had it been an unqualified rave, suspecting as I do that anything overly sunny and positive might seem almost promotional in so prominent a position; both said they would have.
I’m sure they believe it. I’m not sure I do.”

And countless Times readers certainly don’t – which was why McMurtry was called-in so ostentatiously.

“Now up the middle. In my June 13 column on anonymous sources, I ended with the admonition “Stay tuned; this is a complex issue, and I intend to explore it further in a future column.”

“Complex” doesn’t begin to describe it. Readers, journalists, interview subjects and one chronically off-the-record “senior aide” had much to say about the issue, and the gradations of their views are as finely calibrated as a microscope. “

Oh not really.”

“I do plan to explore these complexities at some later date, but for now I’ll stick to the one point on which there was near unanimous agreement: that “background briefings” of government and political figures are an affront to journalistic integrity and an insult to the citizenry. Even my senior aide (not in the current administration, nor particularly active in the current campaign, but a past master of the background briefing) doesn’t like them very much.”

Well “doesn’t like them very much” is considerably milder than an “affront.”

“So let me offer a blatant, grandstanding challenge to the five largest American papers and The Associated Press. Newspapers are by nature competitive rather than collaborative, but the very existence of the cooperatively owned A.P. demonstrates that concerted action can be good for journalism. Therefore: will the chief editors of USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and The A.P. jointly agree not to cover group briefings conducted by government officials and other political figures who refuse to allow their names to be used?
If I hear from any of them, I’ll let you know.”

You be sure to do that, now!

In the meantime we’ll be brushing up on our “shorthand.”