A pettifogging journalism critic refuses to back down



Mies van der Rohes Farnsworth House in Plano: The details are crucial.

As Mies van der Rohe said, "God is in the details." But is God in every last petty detail? As Mies might not have said, but just about everybody else has at one time or another, "Picky, picky."

I smugly practice what might be called the "broken window theory" of journalistic criticism. It holds that today's misdemeanor, if unaddressed, could lead to tomorrow's felony. So I address it. Last summer I cited the Tribune for careless grammar. The violation was use of the familiar, but blundering, "one of those who is" construction. "No matter how many times you read it in the Tribune and other fine publications, it's wrong," I said. "It's wrong because it's ungrammatical, and what is lost in grammar isn't gained in brevity or clarity."

I had plenty of examples. The Tribune was a constant offender. A spokesperson blamed an editorial "blind spot" and "human failing." I was led to believe reform was in store. When it didn't come quick enough I wrote a second Bleader post.

These posts received a fair amount of comment, and many readers didn't agree with me. Some simply failed to see the problem. Others thought there was no problem. One or two struck a snarky tone that I only enjoy when I'm the one striking it: "Is this one of those columns that seems to happen on slow news days?"

(What if it is!)

It's risky sweating the small stuff—sometimes the small stuff is so small you make yourself look ridiculous. For instance, Stephen Sondheim's Finishing the Hat is a terrific discussion of the tradecraft of composers and lyricists, but in my view he went over the line discussing Lorenz Hart. Hart was composer Richard Rodgers's first lyricist; Rodgers's second was Oscar Hammerstein, who was Sondheim's mentor. And in Finishing the Hat, Sondheim allows that while Hammerstein collaborated on some extraordinary songs, sometimes his lyrics were pretty awful.

Sondheim throws up his hands at the familiar line from South Pacific, "When the sky is a bright canary yellow / I forget every cloud I’ve ever seen." Sondheim muses, "When is the sky a bright canary yellow? As far as I know, only in the eye of a hurricane. If the sky were a bright canary yellow, I’d run to the nearest storm cellar."

My theory is that for Sondheim to be so honest about Hammerstein, whom he reveres, he had to really lower the hammer on Hart. After all, a lot of people hold Hart above Hammerstein as a lyricist and maintain that Hart collaborated on Rogers's best music. Sondheim can't allow that.

But his case against Hart tries a little too hard. For instance, Sondheim rips into this lyric from "My Funny Valentine": "Your looks are laughable / Unphotographable / But you're my favorite work of art." Sondheim comments: "Unless the object of the singer's affection is a vampire, surely what Hart means is unphotogenic. Only vampires are unphotographable, but affectionate '-enic' rhymes are hard to come by."

Give me a break! That's a wonderful lyric. The instant we hear it we know what Hart meant by unphotographable. It's an old galosh of a word that stretches a little, slips on easily, and makes a snug fit. It suits the song in a way the clinical unphotogenic cannot—not even if a million other words rhymed with it.

But "everybody knows what he meant" is a dangerous argument for me to make because it can so easily be applied to the kind of verbal illogic I like to complain about. The other day I wrote a Bleader post objecting to a Tribune story that said "four times smaller" when the writer meant "one-quarter the current size." The Tribune's language, I held, was numerically incoherent, but a couple of commenters disagreed. One commented tartly, "If you can't figure out that when they say 'four times smaller' they mean one-fourth the size, being 'numerically illiterate' isn't as bad as whatever semantics problem you have."

The other fretted, "The meaning seems implicit. The more mathematically inclined would argue that if one times smaller means 100 percent smaller, then four times smaller would drop you into negative territory. But language is more flexible than math."

In other words, the meaning wasn't communicated literally but it was communicated. So what's the problem?

I insist there is one. I think a thought stated precisely always beats the same thought stated clumsily, and no one should take that more seriously than a newspaper, which is in the business of quick and clear communications. Unphotographable isn't clumsy; bright canary yellow is. Perhaps that's because the first is poetically true, and it's buoyed by the felicity of the rhyme it's part of—while the second simply makes no sense.

At any rate, I read the papers Monday morning and spent most of the day asking myself, "Should I just let it go this time?" By nightfall I'd decided that I have to do what I have to do. Which is to report, with regret, fresh evidence that there has been no reform at the Tribune, and that, moreover, the New York Times has become just about as bad.

Here's what I spotted in Monday's papers:

The Tribune: "Only a small number of smartphones, tablets and other portable devices sold in the U.S. market now feature the technology . . . The iPhone 5 is among the devices that doesn't."

The Times: "Mr. Scheib has inserted himself onstage, wielding one of the cameras that films the drama." (The same construction was repeated in a photo caption accompanying the article.)

Shame on both papers! If a newspaper has trouble stringing together four or five words that follow each other logically, how can we trust it to think logically about war, crime, or the future of Chicago? I tingle with superiority as I write this.

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