Politics & Media
Dec 18, 2017, 10:07AM

The New York Times Talks in a Funny Voice

A couple of examples.

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Newspaper prose is mostly bad and often pompous. From The New York Times: “The tableau of Mr. Trump working at cross purposes with his populist allies was awkward.” Tableau, huh? One might say “sight,” as in “the sight of.” Or one might say, “The primary caused an awkward split between Trump and his populist allies.” Instead we have “tableau.” Was everybody holding still? Or perhaps long-building tensions had made themselves starkly evident, in contrast to mere hints that had been dropped before—that might justify “tableau.” But no and no. The word’s fancy, that’s all.

Also from the Times: “His words have also become an accelerant on the playing field of sports, in his public criticism of black athletes he deems to be unpatriotic or ungrateful.” The sentence just before said Donald Trump’s comments were “inflammatory,” and now there’s more flame with “accelerant.” But pursuing a metaphor isn’t the same as putting together a thought. Take the accelerant sentence at what it says, and it appears that Trump began exacerbating racial division in sports when he started mouthing off about the NFL and its take-a-knee protest. Until then he hadn’t been talking about black athletes’ patriotism or gratitude level. But Trump weighed in on the knee controversy this fall, and the article tells us that his name had been cropping up in sports incidents early this year and before. So his words were already an accelerant on the playing field of sports, which is a hell of a way to put things even if the sentence were accurate.

Translated, the sentence means this: “We have to mention Trump and the NFL here because this paragraph is about all the things Trump has said that have encouraged angry whites to get nasty about race, religion, or immigration status, and the previous sentence left out the NFL.” That previous sentence did cover a lot of ground (“the man whose comments about Mexicans, Muslims and undocumented immigrants”) before collapsing into a heap with em-dashes sticking out. The dashes are there because somebody noticed that Charlotteville hadn’t been mentioned, and that had to go in. Then somebody noticed the NFL was missing, so the follow-up sentence got wadded into existence. I suppose what we see here is layers of editing, or maybe one person was this full of after-thoughts and contrivances.

The wadded sentence, that tacked-on thing, is bound to obtrude. Some might keep the sentence simple and brief. But our top national dailies don’t think that way, and the Times least of all. Importance is something the Times keeps on tap in its mile-long basement distillery. If a sentence must be justified, it can be pumped up. A stranded sentence ought to bulge; then it looks like it belongs. Elaborate means worthwhile. The Times believes this, so our indispensable paper has always struck me as kind of daffy.

—Follow C.T. May on Twitter: @CTMay3


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