Wednesday, December 15, 2004


Have I developed a late-life case of ADD or have the editors of the New York Times lost it? (Yes, I recognize those possibilities are not mutually exclusive.)

The ledes (aka first paragraphs) of a growing number of stories in the Times consist of labyrinthine constructions of dependent clauses and phrases that force a reader to stop short, back up and take a second running plunge into the rhetorical thicket. Sometimes, it takes two or three attempts to navigate the treacherous tangle of comma-laden asides, qualifiers, and attributions. This is the top of the story that set me off yesterday:

In June 2000, two months before Bernard B. Kerik was appointed police commissioner, New York City's top investigative agency learned that he had a social relationship with the owner of a New Jersey construction company suspected of having business ties to organized crime figures, city documents show.

Back when I was a lad, the goal was to keep the lede to 30 words (or less) and to construct it as a simple, declarative sentence pointing up the significance of the subject at hand. The lollapalooza quoted above, which is not necessarily the longest and most tortured construction of the day, weighed in at 46 words (minus the B. in Bernard B. Kerik). Here's how to make the point in 30 words (including the B.):

Two months before Bernard B. Kerik was appointed New York's police commissioner in 2000, an investigation found he had a relationship with a man suspected of ties to organized crime.

The thing that makes this astonishing/amusing/ironic is the fact that the Times prides itself on being an "editor's newspaper" employing prides of green-eyeshade guys to ensure unimpeachable quality. From the looks of things these days -- especially, it seems, since the Jayson Blair unpleasantness -- the quality-control crew is grinding the bejesus out of the writing.

The alternative to an "editor's newspaper," as you might surmise, is a "writer's newspaper." Here's the difference:

At a "writer's newspaper," the editing of articles is kept to a minimum, with stories checked for cohererence, balance, spelling, punctuation and, insofar as possible, facts. Best case, stories written by good writers and edited by good editors are left pretty much intact, conveying their spontaniety and clarity. The downside: With checks and balances kept to a comparative minimum, bad work can make its way into print. Sort of like what happened with Jake the Fake at the NYT.

An "editor's newspaper" like the Times enforces a higher degree of quality control by submitting an article to a many-tiered hierarchy of newsroom elders, who -- increasingly removed from the action, the story and the writer -- exercise the sort of objectivity, rigor and distance that we wish Merck had applied to Vioxx and the Times had applied (despite urgent alarms by my astute friend, then-metro editor, Jon Landman) to Jake's fake stories.

I got a glimpse of life at the Times several years ago, when I was kindly invited for a job interview. They had editors upon editors upon editors, each engaged in an all-day, half-the-night orgy of nitpicking and second-guessing the reporter and each other. "This is an edited paper," said the Senior Editor who was my host for the day. "We make no apologies about it." I never was seriously tempted to join in the fun, but my decision went platinum when I was told by another Senior Editor: "We want to hire the kind of people who would be willing to jump out that window if they could just work at the New York Times."

Look before you leap.


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