So Say Something  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    TOP OF THE REVIEW    
From AJR,   November 2001

So Say Something   

Too much writing in America’s newspapers is awfully bland.

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


I would rather read Christopher Hitchens on a subject I care little about than most writers on subjects close to my heart. Considering that Hitchens is a literary provocateur who has, among other things, gleefully skewered Mother Teresa, Princess Diana and Henry Kissinger, you might call this a guilty pleasure. All I know is that when I see his byline, I will get something frightfully intelligent and erudite, leavened by humor and a certain self-deprecation. Whatever you think about Hitchens or his politics, the man has style.

Recently I was a judge in the national writing contest sponsored by the American Association of Sunday and Features Editors, which I am pleased to say is affiliated with Maryland. Our group was judging entries not from the nation's largest papers but from the next circulation tier, mostly regional metros. In other words, the work was fairly representative of mainstream newspapering today.

There were of course some riveting pieces, and the standouts collected their hardware at the AASFE convention last month. Mostly, though, the hundreds of entries were just...bland. They weren't bad, they weren't irrelevant, they weren't (entirely) uninteresting. They simply weren't anything special. They were stories without strong narratives or writerly voices, cranked out in the competent, bloodless way that I'll call American Newspaper English--the literary equivalent of Wonder Bread. It is especially troubling that dozens of reasonably experienced writers, and presumably their editors, thought this was contest-worthy work.

I have long maintained that one of the unintended consequences of our post-Watergate crusade for "fairness" has been a deadening of language in newspapers, as trigger-happy editors zap any words that might smack of taking sides. The decline of competition has contributed, too; a monopoly paper doesn't need its own personality to distinguish it from anyone else. The result has been a flattening and homogenizing of individual voices. That's why in an age when the education, professionalism and reporting abilities of the nation's press corps have never been higher, the writing has never been duller.

Mind you, plenty of journalists think they are writing, but it's writing the same way Jon Lovitz's old "Saturday Night Live" character was Acting!!! It's a sure sign of faux style when details are dropped in to no real purpose ("He eyed his rigatoni pensively") or when introspective passages surface but go nowhere. But actual narrative? Almost never. Character development? Please. Use of quotes is generally bad, and even ostensibly substantive pieces have a thinness that betrays how little time actually went into them.

Good stories do take time to develop, of course, and we all know time is a rare commodity in today's newsrooms. But you'd think it wouldn't be too much to ask of a metro paper to arrange to publish at least one memorable story a day--the story a reader would clip out or mention to a friend. The one that would restore his hope and bring him back the next day.

Alas, there are signs the blandness we have brought to newspaper language is beginning to infect the reporting. An egregious collective example was on display in August when North Carolina's Jesse Helms announced his impending retirement from the Senate. The first wave of news reports portrayed Helms as a kind of redneck Andy Rooney--the cranky but cuddly curmudgeon. It wasn't until the following week when such observers as columnist David Broder and The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg provided the missing darker context, calling Helms the race-baiting bully he was. Broder, dean of the political press corps, chided his colleagues for "being circumspect to the point of pussyfooting."

Helms' ugly political legacy is not a matter of opinion but of well-documented record. For the press to ignore it was as unfair to the truth as it was to the many victims Helms has left in his wake.

Now, I realize that as columnists and essayists, Hitchens, Broder et al. have special license. I am not suggesting news reporters soak their copy in opinion, nor am I in any way advocating the horrifying kind of "SportsCenter" attitude that somehow passes for wit today.

I'm just saying that within the bounds of good news writing there is plenty of room for intelligence, style and personal voice. And God knows there is a need for strong stories. It can be done. Ask Edna Buchanan. Ask Maureen Dowd. Ask David Maraniss.

When we brood about the many reasons people are becoming disenchanted by their newspapers, from breaches of trust to bottom-line fixations, we would do well to remember why we call them "readers" in the first place. They want interesting stories to read.

Are you writing them?

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