Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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January 21, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

BLOGS vs. NEWSPAPERS....Via Robert Tagorda comes this story about Wesley Clark from the Manchester Union Leader:

Retired General Wesley Clark yesterday noted he stayed with the U.S. Army through the Vietnam War, setting up a contrast with White House foe John Kerry, who left the military and became a war critic.

I stayed with the military all the way through, Clark told reporters after rallying volunteers at his headquarters. I stayed with the United States Army through Vietnam. I was company commander there. I fought and I was hit by four rounds.

Kerry, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1966-69 and won Mondays Iowa caucuses, has climbed slightly ahead of Clark in some New Hampshire polls leading up to Tuesdays Democratic Presidential primary.

Im only saying I stayed with the United States armed forces. Im proud I did. Lots of us did, said Clark, answering a question about his and Kerrys military service.

I was just talking with my mother about blogging vs. mainstream journalism and I was having a hard time verbalizing something that I think is a real problem with straight news reporting. Let's see if it makes more sense if I use this story as an example of what I'm talking about.

One of the problems with print journalism is that there are certain stylistic constraints on how stories are written, and this one is a good example: in order to sound like professional writing, it weaves around the story in an oddly circuitous way, starting with a quote fragment, then an opinion, then a longer version of the quote, then an aside about Kerry's Vietnam service, then another piece of Clark's statement, and then finally a passing reference to the question that this was a response to.

This is typical of news writing, in which it is somehow forbidden to just flatly get to the point and explain exactly what happened (a problem, by the way, that is especially acute in any story with numbers in it). If this had been a blog post, it would have gone something like this:

We were talking to Clark after a house party and someone asked him [fill in text of question here]. Here's what he said:

Complete text of Clark's response here.

Then one of the reporters followed up and asked [fill in text of question] and Clark said blah blah blah.

The difference is pretty obvious. This kind of writing seems perfectly natural in a blog post but is completely out of place in a professionally produced piece of newspaper writing. And yet it's the blog style that actually does a better job of giving you the context for the quote.

Does this make sense? I'm not sure it does, so consider this v1.0 of my thesis. I'll keep thinking about it and see if I can nail it down a little more precisely.

In the meantime, though, I want to know what Clark was asked, I want to know what the context was, and I want to know what his full answer was. Blogs, partly because of stylistic differences and partly because of mundane typographical advantages, seem better able to provide this. More later.

UPDATE: Just a quick note: don't interpret this as some kind of blog triumphalism. Bloggers wouldn't exist without mainstream journalists who do original reporting and I'm emphatically not trying to say that blogging is an inherently superior medium for disseminating news. Still, there's something about the standard style of news reporting that seems almost designed to confuse otherwise straightforward stories, and it's independent of inverted pyramids or specific editorial policies or anything like that. But I haven't quite put my finger on it yet....

Kevin Drum 3:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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