January 21, 2004
BLOGS vs. NEWSPAPERS....Via Robert Tagorda comes this story about Wesley Clark from the Manchester Union Leader:
General Wesley Clark yesterday noted he “stayed with the U.S. Army”
through the Vietnam War, setting up a contrast with White House foe John
Kerry, who left the military and became a war critic.
“I stayed with the military all the way through,” Clark told
reporters after rallying volunteers at his headquarters. “I stayed with
the United States Army through Vietnam. I was company commander there. I
fought and I was hit by four rounds.”
Kerry, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1966-69 and won Monday’s Iowa
caucuses, has climbed slightly ahead of Clark in some New Hampshire
polls leading up to Tuesday’s Democratic Presidential primary.
“I’m only saying I stayed with the United States armed forces. I’m
proud I did. Lots of us did,” said Clark, answering a question about his
and Kerry’s military service.
I was just talking
with my mother about blogging vs. mainstream journalism and I was having
a hard time verbalizing something that I think is a real problem with
straight news reporting. Let's see if it makes more sense if I use this
story as an example of what I'm talking about.
One of the problems with print journalism is that there are certain
stylistic constraints on how stories are written, and this one is a good
example: in order to sound like professional writing, it weaves around
the story in an oddly circuitous way, starting with a quote fragment,
then an opinion, then a longer version of the quote, then an aside about
Kerry's Vietnam service, then another piece of Clark's statement, and
then finally a passing reference to the question that this was a
This is typical of news writing, in which it is somehow forbidden to
just flatly get to the point and explain exactly what happened (a
problem, by the way, that is especially acute in any story with numbers
in it). If this had been a blog post, it would have gone something like
We were talking to Clark after a house party and someone asked him [fill in text of question here]. Here's what he said:
Complete text of Clark's response here.
Then one of the reporters followed up and asked [fill in text of question] and Clark said blah blah blah.
difference is pretty obvious. This kind of writing seems perfectly
natural in a blog post but is completely out of place in a
professionally produced piece of newspaper writing. And yet it's the
blog style that actually does a better job of giving you the context for
Does this make sense? I'm not sure it does, so consider this v1.0 of
my thesis. I'll keep thinking about it and see if I can nail it down a
little more precisely.
In the meantime, though, I want to know what Clark was asked, I want
to know what the context was, and I want to know what his full answer
was. Blogs, partly because of stylistic differences and partly because
of mundane typographical advantages, seem better able to provide this.
UPDATE: Just a quick note: don't interpret this as some kind of blog
triumphalism. Bloggers wouldn't exist without mainstream journalists
who do original reporting and I'm emphatically not trying to say
that blogging is an inherently superior medium for disseminating news.
Still, there's something about the standard style of news reporting that
seems almost designed to confuse otherwise straightforward stories, and
it's independent of inverted pyramids or specific editorial policies or
anything like that. But I haven't quite put my finger on it yet....
Posted by Kevin Drum at January 21, 2004 03:33 PM
but a corollary of this is that sully and instamoron
can write "that proves why i republicans rule and democrats drool" and
"thus i'm officially declaring it bogus", repectively, thus rendering
any perceived context null and void.
I thought almost the same thing about this piece, and posted it on my site (click my name).
Because the lede insinuates that Clark dissed Kerry for leaving the
Navy and then opposing the war. I doubt this is true because (1) It was
incredibly brave for Kerry to lead the anti-war veterans lobbying
Congress to stop the war, (2), he was right, and (3) I THINK (I sure
hope!) that Clark realizes that Kerry's position was the right one.
This article makes it seem like Clark wants to fight Vietnam all over
again (like Perle et. al. want to), when I'm sure that's not the case.
oh, and I'm not sure this means blogs rule and newspapers suck (even
if a lot of blogs do rule and a lot of newspapers do suck), but I think
you have a point there, as well.
As I Clarkie, I'm dismayed by the statements that Clark has made
comparing his military career to Kerry's. I think Kerry's behavior
during Vietnam was more appropriate than Clark's.
Meanwhile, Clark has also made comparisons between himself and Kerry,
noting that Kerry was only a Lieutenant. Thus, Clark has suggeste,
Kerry's foreign policy experience pales when set next to that of a
General. But, hello, Kerry has been a senator on the foreign relations
committee for like 15 years, which gives him lots of experience in that
A huge constraint of newspapers is column inches. When I write
letters to the local print media, I keep it under 150 words. This
discipline can be instructive in that it forces one to distill concepts.
But some subjects simply can't be treated in little fragments.
See a similar plaint here regarding today's Reuters story by Patricia Wilson
And yet it's the blog style that actually does a better job of giving you the context for the quote.
Not necessarily. You're assuming some special virtue on the part of
the writer -- honesty, accuracy, and so on. The blog style is open to
all kinds of abuses, quoting out of context, etc., just like any other
form of writing. Plagiarism. Misquotation. There are Jaysons and
Janets in the blog world.
And of course most blog posts are not primary source, but usually
quote of a news reports written by a (gasp) regular journalist --
there's a reason for this, most bloggers don't have the resources to be
on the spot-- a scoop! a scoop!
So they try to be the first to quote a news story and commentary. (a scooplet!)
But you are right about news style. The style has to do with editorial policies and space considerations.
I'd prefer to see news done in the style of Tom Wolfe's early work -- now that's reporting ....
Sean: I'm not very excited about Clark's statements about Kerry either, if they've been reported accurately.
Mark: but that's the funny thing. I think one of the problems with
newspapers is that they pad stories enormously. Telling this story in a
direct fashion wouldn't have taken more words. Probably less, in fact.
Degustibus: yes, definitely. Before anything else, everything
depends on the honesty and talent of the blogger and the reporter. And
there's no question that bloggers depend entirely on the original
reporting of mainstream journalists.
But there's still something offputting about the style of newspaper
reporting that's independent of specific editorial policies or space
considerations. Unfortunately, I can't quite put my finger on it even
though I'm well schooled in the theory and practice of news writing.
Anyway, I'll try to figure out exactly what I'm talking about and say more about it later.
If you see a quote from Clark when he was on CNN's Larry King Live, I
beg of you: don't buy it. Bob Dole attacked Clark out of no where,
saying that Kerry's win had just demoted Clark to a Lieutenant, and,
essentially, that he was finished. The panel had been softballing the
other candidates, but Dole hit Clark hard. He was also quite
unfriendly, and I found the whole thing strange.
A moment ago, I saw a segement of Clark saying (on CNN LKL) something
to the effect of, "If I'm a lieutenant, then he's a corporal" -- and
this made Clark look quite bad. I haven't seen other bloggers pick up
on this, and I haven't had the time to post about it myself.
This whole story is a replay of the whole episode of pundit-cluckery
over Al Gore's horrible, terrible, bad etiquette in not calling Joe
Lieberman before endorsing Dean.
NRO posted a CNN transcript of a live exchange between Clark and Bob
Dole. The New York Times followed up on this remark and added a
clarification from Clark.
DOLE: No, I think, you know, it's a tough -- you indicated it's a
tough business you're in. Looking at it from my perspective, it seemed
to me that John Kerry is a big winner tonight, not just in Iowa but also
New Hampshire. I know you can't worry about Kerry's campaign but just
as an observer I think he's going to benefit a great deal in New
Hampshire. Somebody has to lose. Now, of course, you don't want it to be
you but I think it may be you.
CLARK: Senator, let's be honest about this thing. The American
people want a change in leadership. They're looking for a candidate that
can lead on all of the issues. I'm the only person in this race who has
ever done foreign policy and I know all of the domestic issues, too.
It's one thing to talk about it, but if you think of foreign policy it's
like major league baseball. I'm the only person who has ever played it
and I pitch a 95 mile an hour fastball. I've negotiated peace
agreements, I've won a war. I'm prepared to help the country that's why
I'm running. I'm not worried about John Kerry or anybody else.
DOLE: We're not -- we're discussing here as friends but I think
just politically you just became a colonel instead of a general...
CLARK: Well, I don't think that's at all -- Senator, with all due
respect, he's a lieutenant and I'm a general. You got to get your facts
on this. He was a lieutenant in Vietnam. I've done all of the big
leadership. I respect John Kerry and I like him but what I'm going to
say it's up to the voters of New Hampshire, South Carolina, New Mexico,
Arizona, Oklahoma, all across this country, and that's what democracy is
about. It's your job to handicap the race. It's my job to go out here
and do the best thing I can do for the United States of America and
that's what I'm going to do.
So tell me. Just where is the "dissing" of Kerry in Clark's comment?
I didn't see a diss when I watched that. But it was weird--Clark got
real defensive, real fast. Dole wasn't really badgering him, at least
not as i could tell.
Kevin, I know what you're talking about, though I doubt I'm able to
articulate it any better. There are certain linguistic and
typographical traditions in newspaper writing that had a purpose --
perhaps they still do -- but by now just put me off. I can barely stand
to read a straight newspaper piece any more. It sounds fusty and
unnecessarily circumspect to me.
A blogger is a person. When you relay a story or opinion, it's like
you're talking with us. We have a sense of your personality and
temperament, and that alone gives us an enormous amount of context. I
know what I'm getting, and just as important, WHY I'm getting a
The journalistic style works for conveying straight news, I guess --
relaying an event, breaking a story, conveying a quote. But so often
these days it seems like news stories are trying to convey an
interpretation in a language specifically designed NOT to convey an
interpretation. Like the story you mentioned -- is it trying to say
that Clark is dissing Kerry over an inferior military record? If that's
what the author thinks, he should just freaking say it. If not, he
should just print the exact question and the exact answer. As it is
it's some sort of middling beast that offers no satisfaction on either
See, told you I couldn't articulate it any better. But I know what you mean.
To tie this back to Kevin's post: Why is this even a story? Kevin ends his UPDATE saying,
"there's something about the standard style of news reporting that
seems almost designed to confuse otherwise straightforward stories, and
it's independent of inverted pyramids or specific editorial policies or
anything like that."
I rarely disagree with Kevin, but this is one of those times. It's not the standard style of newswriting that's the problem.
The "standard style" is to find the most pertinent fact in a story
and explain it quickly and simply. However, far too many writers choose
to focus on trivialities like who said rude things about their opponent,
who wears a sweater, whose wife is doing her job instead of
campaigning, who's wearing earth tones, bla, bla, bla...
It's not the style. It's the content.
Hey, I know what you mean. It's even worse for a "feature" piece. I
find myself more and more skimming or skipping the first three or four
paragraphs of useless setup to get to the meat of the piece.
This AP story has a very different quote from Clark re: experience:
Clark, who didn't compete in Iowa, told campaign workers in
Manchester, N.H., that Kerry, a decorated former Navy officer, had a
military background "but nobody in this race has got the kind of
background I've got."
"It's one thing to be a hero as a junior officer. He's done that, I
respect that," Clark said. "But I've got the military experience at the
top as well as at the bottom."
Let's face it, if this quote was not taken out of context, Clark comes off as a real jerk.
I think Kevin is on to something if my hunches laid out in my first
post in this thread are true (that is, Clark really didn't diss Kerry
for leaving the Navy and opposing Vietnam even though this reporter
seems to be implying such).
Because if I'm right, and if the reporter isn't Ed Gillespie, then
the reason this paragraph reads the way it does is because the reporter
felt forced to input "context." The "context" being that Kerry left the
Navy and went on to oppose the war.
However, this "context," written as it was, only serves to confuse. A
blogger would see no reason to add the appositive remarks to describe
"John Kerry" as this reporter did, mainly because of the nature of
Then again, we shouldn't read too much into this. First of all, this
reporter could be Ed Gillespie (or an ally of him), or, more likely,
this reporter is not nearly as smart as Kevin and the other best
bloggers (Jesse, TPM, Matt Y, Delong, Atrios, etc.) and just wrote a
The real problem here is that it's just sloppy writing, I think. That parapgraph just shouldn't go in the middle of the quite.
Another difference is pure formatting: newspapers break up quotes
into many short paragraphs, because the columns are so narrow and
otherwise it's visually difficult to read. But once you're doing that,
and without a blockquote font, you want to put in the attribution to the
speaker more often.
I think this is a very insightful observation you've made. At the
heart of it I think this problem is a convoluted product of the tension
between two principles that guide mainstream journalism: the need to
write 'objectively', that is, as if no one particular person is doing
the writing, and the need to create a good headline - a particular
What do I mean? Well, I'm not sure. On one side, you have a
journalist who is more or less forbidden to write as if he were directly
learning the information and were simply relaying it. The premise -
vaguely - is that the information were 'seen from nowhere'. This
changes the style.
Combine this with the need for each story to have some hook -
something with a personal appeal, something bold and vital - and you
have two roughly incompatible forces guiding each story. In an effort
to make this hook seem like it comes from an objective point of view,
it's sliced up, padded, bracketed into bizarre contortions.
I haven't thought much about this so this makes little sense.
In what world is calling a guy a hero being a jerk.
You've got to be kidding me.
Newspaper stories are typically written in such a way that the
editors can cut it off after any given paragraph and it'll still make
sense. That's why you get that kind of spiralling-out vibe in them. Or
maybe iterative is a better word for it where it goes over the same
facts again and again in greater and greater detail.
Differences in headlines between papers and blogs are interesting
too. A newspaper headline presents the central fact of the story (or at
least purports to) while blog headlines are frequently used for
editorializing and making smartass comments.
The blog style is kind of like what you get when an anchor is talking
to a reporter who's in the field, and the reporter is speaking
extemporaneously in response to the anchor's questions.
If it's live, you get that sort of "Clark was asked blah, and
responded blah blah blah". If it's taped and edited, it's more like the
newspaper style you mention.
Let me try my hand at poorly articulating the difference between newspaper and blog journalism.
First, an side issue: when I read a story in a newspaper, there's a
good chance that I'll have forgotten in it five minutes. When I learn
about the same thing in a blog, I read the story, I read comments, and I
ponder possible contributions. By the time I've digested it
blog-style, the original information is firmly memorized.
Kevin, you're right about the article you cite. It fails because the
organization isn't ready for mental filing, whereas your chronological
revision fits the brain much better. Talk to cognitive scientists, and I
bet they'd have good insights.
Yesterday on Crossfire, Clark's communication director said something very similar (link here).
Key quote: "Well, look, Senator Kerry served very honorably in
Vietnam. But he decided, when he got back from Vietnam, to leave the
military. And General Clark made a difficult choice. Both of them were
war heroes. The difference is that General Clark stayed in the military
and rose to the ranks of four-star general, supreme allied commander of
Europe. His experience is totally difficult than Kerry's. John Kerry is a
legislator. And he's done a great job as a senator. But General Clark
is a leader at every level."
This leads me to think that this critique of Kerry comes from the
highest levels of the Clark campaign, and isn't simply a Clark gaffe or a
reporter twisting his words.
Clark is making the point that his military experience is much more
extensive than Kerry's. He's commanded men; he's commanded whole
armies; he's negotiated with heads of state. Whatever the value of
Kerry's military experience -- and nobody's denying it -- it is not on
par with Clark's.
Kerry has chosen to mention his military experience at every possible
opportunity. It seems perfectly legit to me for Clark to point out
that he's done military things Kerry never dreamed of.
"Let's face it, if this quote was not taken out of context, Clark comes off as a real jerk."
Clark is just saying "we're both decorated veterans, but I stayed in
the military, and have experience with commands of higher
Which is true. Kerry did heroic things, but his leadership experience
was at a fairly low level, ie, small groups under his command.
Clark did that level of command too, but also larger and more
complicated (and varied) commands, which might be better preparation for
the presidency than just commanding a river patrol boat in Vietnam.
Kerry did things that were more heroic, but Clark is vastly more
experienced, when it comes to the military and running large
Well, yes. Dean's "howl" would have been a complete non-story in blog format.
The candidate was talking to his supporters/operatives late at night.
He was clearly exhausted--punch-drunk--after a long and disappointing
day. And it showed. His humor was off, and he had no voice left at
Quite different from "dean howls at the moon."
I think the real issue is drama. The article is written to provide
tension, so it's exciting to read. I don't think there's 'tension' in
the news media at all, it's there to make a profit, and it gets profit
by the number of eyeballs that follow the story inside the paper and
find the ads cunningly placed there.
An article that tells you what you need to know in the first 2-3
paragraphs is a failure, because you're done and you haven't turned the
This style of journalism, where the story keeps dancing around the
point, 'heightens the tension' in the article and makes the reader keep
wanting to read more, because until the very end he hasn't been told
anything, just teased.
In short, I think it's marketing. Yet more of the postmodernist de(con)struction of our society.
Well, of course the Clark camp wants to differentiate their candidate
from Kerry. That, I imagine, is all they were trying to do with that
message. Sadly, the Laws of Unintended Consequences and awkwardly
written news stories screw up the mix.
The news story Kevin cites is pretty much nuts-and-bolts journalism.
It sets up a point with the first graf, substatiates with the quote in
the second and, in descending importance (roughly) fills out the detail.
What's missing is the context. How the topic came up? Why was Clark
even talking about Kerry?
Which may lead us to how journalism differs from blogging. A
reporter, generally, attempts to maintain observer status. Just the
facts m'am. In this case, the context of differences in military careers
of the two candidates is handled obliquely. We don't know what the hell
the writer is seeing or saying. It would have been better to have told
this thing straight. Or, better yet, not have written it at all, since
it is little more than an anecdote of the horse-race view of politics.
In blogging - or at least the good ones - context and facts emerge
simultaneously. The writer reports/opines and the readers add their
bits. The story continues until everyone has spoken.
I saw the exchange between Clark and Dole in real time and what
struck me was the uncomfortable defensiveness in Clark's reaction to
what was a gently framed question about whose New Hampshire votes the
resurgent John Kerry would gain. Also, the comment about throwing a 95
mile per hour fastball seemed overly immodest to these ears. I did not
perceive Clark to be dissing Kerry, but some media observers must be
itching for a fistfight between the two ex-military candidates. I've
been leaning towards Clark because his resume seems more electable, but
the thin-skinned critique of the general is starting to ring true.
I'm surprised nobody's mentioned this, but: Newspaper articles are
written the way they are so that editors can chop them to whatever
length is desired without having to rewrite the pieces. Go read that
article again, and notice that you could stop it after just about any
paragraph without the article feeling any weirder than it does.
when will the media begin comparing kerry's war record to bush's??
Blogs let you actually locate , identify and criticize the liars and scumbags who have been propogating idiocy as public policy.
After reflecting on this, I think there is something to be said for Kevin's view--the style does
cloud the facts. What I'm saying is this: this story, being in
"standard style," apes the form of news. However, the story has no
content. "Clark said something possibly impolite about Kerry."
Anyone who thinks this is a valid campaign story needs to go spend a few hours browsing Somerby's archives.
I agree with Realish, Armando, and Jon H.
Kerry is bringing up Vietnam every 30 seconds. Clark has every right to point out that
a) Clark was a war hero too
b) Clark has *also* commanded troops in an executive position, whereas Kerry was just a legislator
What Clark needs to do is mimick Kerry by getting people he saved to come and testify for him. Showing is better than saying.
Working in news and reading lots of blogs, I've been thinking about
this for awhile. It's been a bit uncomfortable as the anger towards the
media grows and grows. I feel like a lawyer. But I think part of what
Kevin's talking about comes from a tension in a journalist's head. On
the one hand, he knows every word he's written about whatever campaign
or issue he's covering. At the same time, he has to write for people who
he must assume know nothing about the issue. This loads up stories with
background (like the whole rundown of Kerry's Vietnam history). The
writing is done for people who know nothing, but the story selection
comes mainly from the part of the reporter's head that has sat through
every stump speech since September. Subtle shifts in message or tone
become news because they're deviations from the normal campaign stuff.
Add into this prohibitions on opinions and you get stories that
basically say "Something subtle happened today, but I can't come right
out and say I think Clark was taking a shot at Kerry, even though I've
heard every public word the man has uttered the last month, so here's
the quote and some background, nudge nudge wink wink."
I'm not going to defend the results, but it's a challenge on any
beat, from city hall to the campaign trail. Sorry for the long post, but
I've been trying to work this out in my head for awhile and Kevin
As Mike Koslowski said. You see this most clearly in sports reports,
which sometimes read as if they were written for the Star Trek aliens
who live in backward time. ("The Packers won on an overtime
interception. They had had a chance to win in regulation, but missed a
field goal. They had tied the score late in the fourth quarter with...
after the Seahawks had apparently taken command in the game with
I agree with Kevin's general premise and suggest that newspapers
weren't always this way. While browsing through old papers from the 50s
and earlier I have been struck by the verbatim capture of a
conversation between reporters and the object of the report; a much
different style than today's papers.
Whether this introduction of bias into reporting is any more
significant than that from media consolidation, general laziness, the
failure of he-said-she-said reporting, corporatism, and Fox-style overt
partisanship I couldn't say.
Well, one obvious point to make about blog posts is that they much
more resemble columns than news articles, and therefore of course are
dramatically different in presentation. Stories that are related in a
blog post are presented in much the same manner as they are in columns.
But the differences do I think go well beyond that. Unlike columns, a
blog post is basically part of a debate, obviously so when comments are
allowed, and more subtly when they are not. Even when comments aren't
enabled, the blogger feels obliged to respond to criticism from other
There's far more of the Socratic method in the blog than in any other
medium -- and this, I think, is its greatest contribution to political
and cultural discourse. Many such things, maybe most such things, can
better be understood via an authentic debate than by any other
With apologies to Plato: blogs are the Socratic method writ large.
Well, speaking as a journalism school graduate who gave up years ago
on reporting because of the lousy standards that have developed in
recent times, I have a theory about why the newswriting is so difficult
They are being deliberately obtuse.
In my humble opinion, every writer and his editor are, these days,
trying to inject analysis into every lede and then back it up with
selective reporting. There just doesn't seem to be any "straight" news
I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. And it depresses me because I
learned from the old dogs to whom accuracy, attribution and integrity
So, it's the American way. What else is new?
One thing I want to start hearing from both Clark and Kerry is that "I served in the US military...
AND REPORTED FOR DUTY EVERY DAY".
On the blogs vs. newspapers issue, I think frankly0's point is
important: bloggers receive direct feedback and can respond immediately,
so they can clarify things, correct misconceptions, or add relevant
supporting information right away. That's a big plus.
On the Kerry record vs. Clark record issue: like others, I think that
there's no problem with Clark touting his higher rank and longer
service, as long as it's in the context of an argument that his four
stars and NATO command contribute more to his credibility on foreign and
defense policy than does Kerry's military experience. That's a totally
On the other hand, there would definitely be a problem with an
implication that Kerry's earlier exit from the military demonstrates a
lack of commitment or patriotism. So, it's up to Clark to stick to the
former argument, and make it very clear that he isn't belittling Kerry's
service in any way - and judging by the article Kevin cites, I'm not
sure he's done that.
Unfortunately, the media's desire for conflict and their resulting
spin might hinder that kind of distinction, regardless of Clark's
This news writing style began during the US Civil War, the first to
be covered by war correspondents at the scene. Their stories were sent
via very fragile telegraph wires which could break during transmission
so the most important information had to be in the first paragraph. Less
important additional details followed.
As several others have mentioned, this spiraling style of increasing
detail is deliberate, so that the column can be pretty much cut off at
any paragraph and still make sense. Maybe it did originate with filing
articles via. telegraph, but it has persisted because the the decision
of how much an article is to be used can be very much a last minute
decision of the editor, based on sudden inclusion of other,
late-breaking news. "All the news that fits" is more than a joke, it is
a practical reality of how newspapers are prepared.
I agree, it stinks compared to the clarity of a blog post, with it's unforced length and infinite scrolling. Can you imangine Steven Den Beste in a newspaper? Sometimes he does not get to his real point until the last paragraph or so!
Kevin, you're spot on. The different is in how much control the author asserts on the point of view.
The journalistic style allows the writer to be in complete control.
It's really not about the speaker, though there is significant pretense
that it is. It's really all about the journalist's interpretation of the speaker. In essence, the quotation has been translated.
In contrast, the blog format completely distinguishes quotations from
the commentary. When we read the quote, we are able shift our point of
view considerably. We are asked to interpret the quotation ourselves,
in context of the commentary.
I think there is a straightforward cause for this. In a blog, every
quote -- EVERY quote -- is fully and immediately attributed. The full
context of the quote is a click away.
Blogging is a shared medium, and it makes spinning much less
effective. If a blogger doesn't provide enough context for us to figure
out the quoted viewpoint, we'll click through and often never return.
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