Lincoln Kirstein on journalism

From Thirty Years (the expanded edition, published in 1978), by Lincoln Kirstein:

The temptation of journalism is always to say something for the way words sound, rather than analyzing what actually happens.

The book recounts the background, founding, and progress of the New York City Ballet. If you’re unacquainted with it, see my entry at Goodreads for a short account. In the paragraph in which that line occurs, Kirstein is talking about critics, mainly those in dailies and weeklies. But he was the kind of careful writer who always said what he meant, and he was an acute observer. The remark I’ve quoted is possibly the most trenchant assessment of journalism as a whole that I’ve ever seen.

I notice that, in saying so, I’ve fallen prey to the syndrome that Kirstein diagnoses. Let me correct myself and say this instead: Kirstein’s comment on journalism struck me as true when I read it, in 2004, and it still does. I see the problem frequently in my work as a copy editor and also in my reading. The influence of marketing is detectable here. Our words must sell themselves, we believe, and everybody now wants to say something that sounds big, bold, appealing, memorable. This presents a challenge for critics and other writers. If you can’t make, or don’t choose to make, fine distinctions in the way you present something, readers are apt to get the wrong impression. If we misunderstand the world, isn’t it in part because, when we talk about it, we keep pumping up the volume? We aren’t TV cooks; not everything needs to be kicked up a notch.

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2 thoughts on “Lincoln Kirstein on journalism

  1. I’m not sure it’s so much market-driven — the urge to say something both definitive and melodious — as artistically sanctioned. Writers want to make something memorable, which often means pushing the limits, perhaps beyond the point where they have evidence to support their assertions. One wants to sound authoritative, not wishy-washy. The Kirstein quotation also suggests that crafting a line of beauty becomes an end in itself, accuracy and insight here being sacrificed for surface charm. Speaking from experience, I do agree that this is a temptation we writers struggle against. Honesty, cold reason may be at war with the desire to please and the passion (hard to distinguish from sentimentality) that we bring to issues we care about.

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  2. Thanks for the comment, Lisa. The basic challenge, as I see it, is that of capturing in words the thing itself. Being memorable, creating beauty, conveying one’s passion: those matter too, but in journalism the first aim (first among equals, if you wish) is doing justice to one’s subject. Often it’s a matter of detail.

    I recently jotted an example from my magazine work. A writer who was describing German chancellor Angela Merkel wrote, of some incident fairly early in her political career, that “Merkel’s infamous caution had already manifested itself.” This conveyed that Merkel soon became known for a cautious approach and that not everyone admired this, but it went too far in characterizing the quality as “infamous.” Though common usage is diluting its sense, the publishing industry’s standard dictionary (what we refer to as “Web11”) still defines the word in strong terms:

    1: :having a reputation of the worst kind :notoriously evil <an infamous traitor>
    2: :causing or bringing infamy :DISGRACEFUL <an infamous crime>
    3: :convicted of an offense bringing infamy

    I proposed to the story editor that he change the word, and he altered it to “notorious,” as I recall.

    A couple of other examples (though I doubt they’re needed): “must-see” plays or movies, and “must-read” articles. Golly! If a critic tells me in his opening paragraph that X is a must-see show, it’s got to be a pretty impressive thing, and what’s more, the critic must be a real authority if he’s able to dictate that I should see it.

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