Anyone who reads this site regularly knows how much it relies on The New York Times as source material and as inspiration to write. It’s because the Times is comprehensive, yes, but not necessarily because it’s brilliant; it’s just that reading the Times every day leaves little time for reading much else.
Well, the Times has inspired another posting. It’s even providing the source material. Unfortunately, it’s a speculative piece that could have been called (if I didn’t want to spoil the surprise) “Is The New York Times put together by idiots?”
Thanks to the miracle of packaging, and synchronicity, the Times today gives us partners in appalling on page A12 -- “State Department Report Shows Increase in Terrorism” and “Book by C.I.A. Officer Says U.S. Is Losing Fight Against Terrorism” -- and, for dark comic relief, dual dryly witty headlines on page A11 -- “Wolfowitz Testifies Pentagon Misjudged Iraqi Insurgency” and “Seoul Says Killing Won’t Alter Plans for Iraq.” (Actually, that last one is only funny out of context, but it’s sure fun to play with: “Seoul Says Plans Won’t Alter Killing For Iraq”; “Seoul Says Won’t Alter Killing For Iraq Plans”; “Seoul Says Won’t Alter Plans For Iraq Killing”; et cetera.)
There is also page A15, with “Toxic Release Increase In 2002, Study Says” and “Kerry’s Long Flight To Say ‘Aye’ Runs Into a Storm of GOP Delays.”
What’s the match, you ask? Fumbled stories. Missed opportunities. The worst tendency in journalism -- to raise questions by dutifully getting each side’s version of reality then end the article without analysis, leaving the reader to wallow in uncertainty.
In the “Toxic Release” story, officials say an increase in emissions is mostly due to “one large copper-smelting operation in Arizona” and mining operations that “should not be, according to a 2003 Federal District Court decision,” included in the figures. Environmentalists say that, in fact, emissions of dangerous materials are underreported, so the problem is actually far worse than the report says, copper-smelting in Arizona or federal court decisions be damned. In response, a U.S. environmental official says her agency “had seen no evidence of systematic underreporting.” A refinery official also criticizes the environmentalists. Five paragraphs later, the story ends.
There is no examination of what the environmentalists say, no explanation of their methodology, no suggestion of the validity of their statements.
The John Kerry story is about the presidential candidate flying in for a U.S. Senate vote on veterans health care, only to find the vote put off by, as the headline says, “G.O.P. Delays.” In the last paragraph of this 16-paragraph story, Sen. Tom Daschle states his belief that Republicans delayed the vote just to frustrate Kerry. Then Sen. John Warner, a Republican, disagrees and says the vote was delayed by “procedural glitches.” Then the story ends.
At 24 inches of copy, one could reasonably wonder: If this issue is raised and ignored in the very last paragraph of the story, what the hell is the rest of the article about? Good question. It’s about whether Kerry bothers to show up for votes or not and how people feel about it across the the political spectrum (which includes the colors black and white).
The Times can spend a combined 41 inches on these stories and say a hell of a lot without actually saying anything -- sort of the journalistic equivalent of getting painstaking, turn-by-turn directions to an address and finding, when you finally get there, that whatever you were looking for has been removed. If you’re lucky, you can return and say you’ve found nothing, but chances are you’re just going to be told to try again tomorrow, with another painstaking, turn-by-turn set of directions.