Monday, June 06, 2011

Broken taillights and bad writing

Hyperbolic writing is often the broken taillight on a truckload of 100% unadulterated Colombian hyperbolicaine, headed straight for the veins of Our Kids and Teens. The copy editor's job isn't just to slap a hed on the thing and wave it through because it has the friendly face of a columnist; it's to take things apart and see if they make sense. So let's explore this analytical sidebar to the Old Reliable's Saturday coverage of the Edwards affair with that in mind.

It was in courtrooms like the federal building in Winston-Salem that a country-boy-on-the-make that everyone called Johnny began carving out his legendary law career.

Who knew back in the 1980s that it would lead to a string of million-dollar verdicts, to the U.S. Senate, to two runs for president, and to the Democratic vice presidential nomination?


The "it" in the lede isn't a problem, but what is the one in the second graf supposed to be referring to? The law career or something wider?

Or that in the blink of an eye, it would all come crashing down upon John Edwards, not only dispatching his political career to the dust bin, but leading on Friday to a criminal indictment and his name on an arrest warrant.

Since we already don't know what "it" could lead to, it seems a little uncharitable to throw yet another "it" onto the fire. Which is convenient, since according to the paper's own timeline, the "blink of an eye" in question lasted somewhere between one and three years.

...  ready or not, North Carolina is about to get a full immersion in the Edwardian scandal -- weeks of testimony about an illicit affair, a love child, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of hush money passed in a box of chocolate.

Is there something particularly Edwardian about this scandal, or should we stick to the bounds of what we know and are prepared to demonstrate? (Well, and to the guy's name, which after all is Edwards, not Edward?)

The trial will likely be a media circus unlike the state has ever seen.

I think you mean "unlike any the state has ever seen," but grammar aside -- are you kidding?  It's going to outdo Jim Bakker being dragged out from under his lawyer's sofa? Granted, media-fueled buffoonery is different from national prominence (Wilmington 10, Bobby Garwood, "acid is groovy, kill the pigs"), but either way, you need to account for the obvious competing claims if you want your own assertions to be accepted.

It will make the criminal proceedings surrounding former House Speaker Jim Black (sentenced to prison) and former Gov. Mike Easley (who accepted a plea bargain) look like traffic court. Think the Rod Blagojevich trial on steroids.

This is the sort of prophesy that hopes against hope to be self-fulfilling. Predicting the thrills-n-spills value of a trial in advance has all the journalistic value of predicting the excitement level of a basketball game. Don't do it, whoever you are.

With the Edwards trial this year, and the national Democratic convention next year, political reporters from Japan to Finland will be setting their GPS to Interstate 85 during the next 16 months.

This may be one of the silliest false ranges on record. Does it mean reporters from Japan, Canada and a small part of northwestern Europe or (going the other way) Japan, a corner of China and a vast expanse of Russia? But that risks overlooking a bigger problem. Edwards was an unsuccessful major-party candidate for vice president in 2004. He dropped out of the 2008 contest at the beginning of 2008. Why would his trial on a point of campaign finance law be of any interest to political reporters covering the 2012 election for Canada, Russia and a corner of China? (Or, to be fair, Germany, Brazil, the UK, Japan, Egypt, Mexico or any other country that sees itself as having a stake in US politics?) Most grownup countries have their own sex scandals, and expecting them to be obsessed with this rather mundane one is -- I don't know, sort of like serving Miller LiteĀ® and Duplin County wine to your visitors from the continent.

There's little or nothing else of interest in the column, and if you're now wondering whether any of it was worth page 1A, you should be. A genuinely obnoxious ex-politico is headed for trial. That's a reasonably big story, and it's certainly a big story in his home state. But putting such a story into context doesn't mean screaming about it at the top of your voice. It means looking at the sort of claims writers make and asking how they intend to support those claims. If the claims don't hold up, you -- and your employer -- should think twice about inflicting the story on innocent readers.

(Does that mean copy editors don't have friends? Certainly not.)

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