May 10, 1998, Sunday
Section: Magazine Desk

Word & Image; Scene but Not Heard

By Max Frankel

Grazing among the frilly anecdotes, readers may need forbearance to the find the day's instruction.
Have you noticed the battle of style versus substance on the front pages of newspapers these days? It is a struggle for your attention atop many of their best articles.

The substance faction stands with old-fashioned editors who think readers gulp information with their morning coffee and want every article to quickly disclose its point and purpose. In the other, growing faction are journalists who want to make their mark as artists by drawing pictures, painting scenes and zooming only slowly toward the heart of their reports.

The old school, for example, would have begun a recent report in The Times with this swift delivery:

Many districts across the country have eliminated recess in elementary schools as a waste of time that would be better spent on academics.

Those words actually appeared not too far down in the tale, but only after the writer had set the stage with what a Hollywood director would call ''establishing shots'':

Sitting in a kindergarten classroom filled with story books, colorful drawings and dazzling computers, Toya Gray was daydreaming about playing outside in the sunshine.

''I'd like to sit on the grass,'' she confided in a whisper of angelic conspiracy, ''and look for ladybugs.''

But there is no time for such lollygagging.

The question is: do readers really have time for such colorful scene-setting -- and for looking up ''lollygagging''? (Lol-ly-gag: to waste time in trifling or aimless activity.) Do readers really want their information coated, like distasteful medicine, with anecdotal capsules?

I am skeptical and feel aged and fogyish, but not entirely alone. Some readers of The Washington Post recently carried a similar complaint to the paper's ombudsman, Geneva Overholser, who took up their cause after she found these five opening lines on a single front page:

The school in this [Mexican] mountain village has been closed for weeks. . . .

As the election season began gearing up in late 1991, President George Bush got an unsettling bit of front-page news. . . .

The approach of 1998 found Susan McGlohn looking to bring new order to her life with the start of a new year. . . .

It was cold on the New Year's Eve holiday, so Jung Seung Yong was bundled up in a flannel jacket with a portable heater at his side. . . .

The Market Day grocery store on Connecticut Avenue, purveyors of truffles, Kalamata olives, arugula and other trendy provisions, has gotten picky about which of its customers can pay with a credit card. . . .

That, of course, was the morning after a mighty slow New Year's Day. And I confess that in other dull seasons, I wrote and edited my share of cinematic feature stories. But slice-of-life yarns with not much news have an obligation to advertise their flimsiness and skippability. If an anecdote leads a report of major significance, it bears a heavy obligation to busy readers to encapsulate the very essence of the report.

Perhaps because so many of them were reared by television and think screenplay when writing, the current generation of reporters prefers to tease the reader with throat-clearing trivia. The more elaborate and serious their investigations, the slower their disgorging of theme and fact.

Thus I was recently asked to accompany a frustrated couple for quite a few paragraphs as they hunted for an affordable apartment before I learned the point of the article: that the prosperity of the 1990's had raised the cost of Manhattan apartments by 30 percent. Another Times dispatch prepared me for the news of an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases -- as serious in some American cities as in many developing nations -- by exposing me first to a woman ''tearfully dabbing a crumpled tissue behind thick red-framed glasses'' as she recalled the day she learned about her syphilitic infection.

Before I could learn that China has relaxed restrictions on its citizens' overseas travel, I had to pass through Nong Nooch Tropical Garden in Thailand and watch camera-toting tourists ''riding elephants adorned with red-and-green silk saddles.'' And to learn about the growing risks of food contamination, my journalistic journey began ''at the dusty elbow of a ragged road named Lovers Lane [where] sits a corrugated tin barn, dull gray and green against the dun-colored hills of central California.''

Oddly but typically, the colors of eyeglasses, saddles and barns and most other adjectival adornments appear only in the opening anecdotes of such slow-moving newspaper stories. It is as if the reporters themselves have only a passing interest in the anecdotal style but assume that their editors are eager to decorate the front page with vivid prose.

Some years ago, when such artifice last threatened to drown out news at The Times, the trend was swiftly mocked out of fashion. J. Russell King raised the consciousness of his fellow editors with a wickedly satiric rendering of some famous events, like this one:

Elvira Brown's aging face seems almost to be a map of the parched, weatherbeaten Texas countryside that has been her home for 83 years. Through the eyes that squint in the harsh sunlight, she has seen Dallas grow from a tiny cowtown into a midland capital. The street outside of her tiny house used to be nothing more than a dust trail in summer and a mudhole in winter.

Years ago, she would sit on this porch and watch cattle drives pass. Today, a procession of quite a different sort passed along the now-paved course.

It was a motorcade. It flew by at top speed on its way to Parkland Memorial Hospital. Top speed because, it seems, the President of the United States was inside. And he was dead.

And so, I had hoped, was an annoying newspaper affectation.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company
May not be reproduced or transmitted without permission.
This copy was purchased from the NY Times on-line service for $2.50.


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Word & Image; Scene but Not Heard, by Max Frankel
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Edited by: wilkins@mps.ohio-state.edu on Friday, 01-Sep-2000 18:16:16 EDT