Thursday, January 14, 2010

A quote hanger

"This is part of a longer article that I read last night. It's written by Michael Kinsley a columnist for The Atlantic. His article, called Cut the story, said many things. Of that, this I thought would bring some violent nods from fellow writers...

Quotes from outside experts or observers are also a rich source of unnecessary verbiage in newspaper articles. Another New York Times story from the November 8 front page provides a good example here. It’s about how the crackdown on some Wall Street bonuses may have backfired. Executives were forced to take stock instead of cash, but then the stock went up, damn it. This is an “enterprise” story—one the reporter or an editor came up with, not one dictated by events. And the reporter clearly views the information it contains as falling somewhere between ironic and appalling, which seems about right. But it’s not her job to have a view. In fact, it’s her job to not have a view. Even though it’s her story and her judgment, she must find someone else—an expert or an observer—to repeat and endorse her conclusion. These quotes then magically turn an opinionated story into an objective one. And so:

“People have to look at the sizable gains that have been made since stock and options were granted last year, and the fact is this was, in many ways, a windfall,” said Jesse M. Brill, the chairman of, a trade publication. “This had nothing to do with people’s performance. These were granted at market lows.”

Those are 56 words spent allowing Jesse M. Brill to restate the author’s point. Yet I, for one, have never heard of Jesse M. Brill before. He may be a fine fellow. But I have no particular reason to trust him, and he has no particular reason to need my trust. The New York Times, on the other hand, does need my trust, or it is out of business. So it has a strong incentive to earn my trust every day (which it does, with rare and historic exceptions). But instead of asking me to trust it and its reporter about the thesis of this piece, The New York Times asks me to trust this person I have never heard of, Jesse M. Brill.

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