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October 31st, 2007 · 2 Comments

So, I feel more than a little churlish picking on a publication that’s just run something I wrote, but the intro to this profile of Harry Reid in TAP is a sort of perfect storm of journalistic tics that set my teeth on edge.

Harry Reid loves movies. “I go to the movies every chance I get,” he says, sitting in a lavish conference room just off the Senate floor at the north end of the Capitol.

Now, this is a hair’s breadth from writing Harry Reid loves movies. “I love movies!” says Reid. And on face “I go to the movies every chance I get” is not so striking an utterance, either in its content or its form of expression, as to demand direct quotation. But I empathize: If I call ten sources for a story, my instinct is to find some excuse to quote every damn one of them, so you can see how diligent I’ve been. (“Show your work!” echoes Mrs. Buxbaum’s voice from eighth grade algebra.) So in case there was any doubt, here it is right up front: The author went and interviewed Harry Reid like a proper journalist, in person and everything.
It is noon on a Friday, and a narrow beam of sunlight shines in through the window and rests on one side of Reid’s face, making his right eye appear a little bluer than his left. In recent weeks, he says, he has seen The Bourne Ultimatum and hated it, and The 3:10 to Yuma and loved it. But it was In the Valley of Elah that Reid really enjoyed. “The acting,” he says, trailing off. “Tommy Lee Jones, and Susan Sarandon … and then that ugly woman — Charlize Theron, she added a little to it.”

Feature-Tron-3000-Jour-no-Circ-uits-Ac-ti-vate! Soft-Lede-Must-Con-tain-De-scrip-tive-col-or! Sure, these descriptive details may not illuminate anything about the subject (other than his right eye), or create a sense of place as setting for some further narrative purpose, or even paint an inherently interesting picture. And granted, something as quotidian as a fondness for mainstream movies doesn’t do much to flesh Reid out as a person. But it’s right there in the manual, page three: Narrative lede, second graf, descriptive color.
Reid’s unexpected injection of comedy (in October Esquire named Theron the “Sexiest Woman Alive”) causes Reid’s communications director, Jim Manley, to almost pop a vein trying to contain his guffaws.

Leaving aside what I can only assume is an idiosyncratic definition of “comedy,” the image of Reid’s majordomo desperately chortling at a hopelessly unfunny crack actually is a great bit of descriptive color. But it would be more at home in a hit piece.
Reid, animated now in a way unlike the dour, partisan man o’ war persona he shows in the Senate, keeps talking. “The Valley of Elah,” he says, “is where David and Goliath fought their battle.”

Human, all too human. Reconstruct for yourself the forced segue into Reid’s own battles in the Senate, where poor David is only slightly larger than Goliath.

I’m being unfair here, insofar as this really isn’t an especially bad piece. I wouldn’t have picked on it at such length if it were: Life is short, and the world full of bad articles. Rather, the stuff I’m kvetching about is all pretty common, probably because we all get so accustomed to reading and writing features that look and flow a certain way that it’s very easy to start painting by numbers. And hell, on a deadline, painting by numbers isn’t necessarily all that bad… until you accidentally tie-dye the sudoku page.

Tags: Journalism & the Media



2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Kevin O'Reilly // Oct 31, 2007 at 1:43 pm

    The journo-tic I absolutely cannot, cannot, cannot stand is the celebrity profile/interviewer where the writer spends paragraphs describing how nervous she is to meet the person for lunch, then what the celeb wore, what they ate, how they ate it, etc. — details that add zero to the story.

    Here’s a good profile that uses such descriptions to make a point:


  • 2 Barry // Nov 1, 2007 at 2:25 pm

    “Human, all too human. Reconstruct for yourself the forced segue into Reid’s own battles in the Senate, where poor David is only slightly larger than Goliath. ”

    Please note that (a) Senate rules privilege the minority, and that (b) the current political situation means that that minority can block things, leaving Bush with no check or balance.

    It ain’t Senate majority vs minority; it’s Senate majority vs minority + president.

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