Monday, September 06, 2004

How Not to Tell a Story

This isn't about bias, but it is about how the dino-media manages to be boring and irrelevant. And how I almost got fired, again.

Friday night, when Hell broke loose in Beslan, I was working the wire desk. I had to find one story to lead the paper, and the New York Times had the best collective reporting.

On Friday night, this story had two compelling elements: the horror of the scene -- blood-spattered naked children, weeping mothers, burning school with paper flowers still pasted to the windows, anguished faces of rescuers. And the numbers: how many dead? How many terrorists escaped? What was the timeline? It was a story about real people brutally attacked, and about the scale of the disaster.

But the New York Times, being "big media," had to prove its chops by collecting quotes from all the authorities. From Putin's office, and the regional governor, and the school officials, and President Bush. And none of them knew very much or said very much worth quoting. So the story bogged down in boilerplate expressions of outrage, from men whose names and titles took 15 words apiece to list. But the Times has to get them high up in the story, because, well, the AP and the WaPo will have them, too, and you don't want to be the only big media not to have a Putin quote -- even if it says nothing and drags the story out of focus. You want to prove you asked the question.

And then it had to throw in a ton of "background," which really added next to nothing to the story. What other terror attacks have happened lately. Putin's political situation. International relations between the U.S. and Russia in the wake of Sept. 11. Sure there's a place for that, but not when the bloodstains still darken the floor.

The wall of the first-floor math classroom, decorated with figures from Russian fairy tales, was splattered with dark stains that appeared to be dried blood, and an overpowering stench had not been removed with the corpses. On top of a record player was a rotting, blistered piece of flesh guarded jealously by a few flies. Next to the record player was a multiplication table and assorted arithmetic workbooks. More flesh lay on the floor. [WaPo]

To make it worse, the Times followed another journalism reflex that kicks in when you've got a ton of copy. They broke their coverage into story-plus-sidebar. And the usual way to do that is to have "news" as the main story and "scene" as the sidebar. That left all the useless authorities' quotes in the main story and put all the gripping material, the wailing of parents, the tearful reunions, into the sidebar. Yet the sidebar had no news context.

So I jammed them together. Put the anguished mothers back in the news story, stripped out the "we don't know what happened" quotes from the authorities, left the New York Times tagline on it, and if I do say so, made the frigging thing sing. Every word of it was theirs, but I stacked it up differently and left the dull stuff till the end, where most of it got cut for space.

I didn't tell the editor on duty that night what I had done. But as he was reading the Page 1 proof, he said what a great New York Times story it was. The Big Boss reveres the NYT and everything about it. Lucky for me, he was on vacation last week and not reading the news wires. I expect he would have reacted to what I had done the way Christians reacted to learning that Thomas Jefferson had knifed out the passages of the Bible he disliked.

I said at the top it wasn't about bias, but I don't know that. The way the story came through initially is the way you'd tell it if you didn't want people to get too worked up about it, or to feel the natural surge of hate for the kind of person who would kill hundreds of children to get attention. But I really think it was just a lazy media doing paint-by-numbers reporting.