Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Adult supervision required

God knows one should not kick a man when he's down, and no one is downer these days than the old-fashioned print journalist.

Still, it is hard to read even the old-fashioned New York Times these days without cringing at stories filled with slipshod and overheated writing, tone-deaf colloquialisms, and patently obvious questions left begging for answers and contradictions left unexplained.

I'm not talking about lapses in the kind of persnicketty points of grammar and usage that everyone loves to play gotcha discovering, and then arguing over ad nuaseam, and which are generously featured in the Times's own weekly roundup of mea culpas in its "After Deadline" blog (typical specimen: "There are many ways to go astray in using 'like,' and we are unfortunately familiar with all of them. Herewith a few new examples of the two most common missteps: using 'like' as a conjunction, which is colloquial at best; and using it (as a preposition) to compare things that are not grammatically or logically parallel . . . ").

I'm talking about entire stories that leave one wondering if the editors went out for a smoke and never came back, or perhaps were simply cut as a cost-saving measure along with free coffee for the employees.

A case in point was today's feature story about a town in Nebraska that chose to build a very large sign with the town's name on it. Aside from the remarkably condescending tone of the entire article towards what was described in the lead as "a blink-and-miss-it place called Hooper" (further helpful explanations about this quaint part of the country: "You pronounce Hooper not with a HOO, but with a kind of HUH"; "You can get your hair cut at Don’s barber shop, where the Farm Journal — or is that Playboy? — is made available"), the writing was almost comically bad in a way that left me wondering if it had been originally conceived as an entry in the Bad Hemingway Contest: a multiplicity of single-word sentences ("They feared being missed. Bypassed." "Unnoticed. Unknown.") and even one single-word paragraph: ("Still."); metaphors right out of Introduction to Creative Writing class ("The Lions Club, which donated the neon marquee, no longer roars"); and this expressive use of capitalization: "They resolved to erect a sign beside the bypass to remind people of Hooper. Not just a sign, but a SIGN."

Okay, we GET it.

Purple prose is as old as newsprint, of course; one of my colleagues at U.S. News used to regale us with stories of his city editor at a small paper where he had once worked, who would rewrite every crime story to include the phrases "a fusillade of bullets" and "even grizzled detectives blanched when they saw the body." (The editor had briefly been at the Hearst paper in Chicago, which apparently explained this.)

And I'll never forget (as much as I try) the front-page series the Washington Post ran on Ted Kennedy in 1979 when I had just moved to D.C., one installment of which featured a lead which began (I'm relying on memory but it was either this or very close) "Chappaquiddick. The name thunders like the bass line of a Bach cantata." (Or yeah? Which one, buster?)


There's something of desperation in the overwritten prose that seems to be on the rise in the Times's feature writing these days (I wasn't aware until today's news analysis story on the history of liberal disillusionment with Democratic presidents, for example, that John F. Kennedy was a "hipster"). And don't even get me started on Sam Sifton's restaurant reviews ("It tastes of funky sophistication, illicit rides in late-night cabs . . .")

More worrying, though, there's something of distraction in the stories with leads buried two-thirds the way down floundering in convoluted explanations and crying out for one of those editors I used to know and love whose chief purpose was to help the reader but whose only slightly lesser purpose was to save writers from themselves. God knows they need it.