By Jeffrey Page
More than 2 million people without power in the northeast over the weekend. Nine people (later raised to 21) dead, including one man who was electrocuted on a downed wire. Phones not working. Trees down all over the place. And some reporters at The New York Times decided to write a cutesy weather story focusing on the colors of autumn and the first snow’s effect on Halloween.
Saturday’s trivialization went like this:
“October, said the calendar. Before Halloween. And the 2.5 million trees occupying New York City’s open spaces confirmed it was fall – not winter – with glorious canopies of leaves stretching along their boughs.
“Yet snow was falling,” the second paragraph went on. “Not a light, mischievous form of precipitation, but heavy wet flakes.”
How could a reporter write such drivel at a time of great human suffering. More important, how could an editor allow it?
The Times story eventually reported that 2.5 million people from Pennsylvania to New England had no electricity. Which sounds like lead material, but the Times made us wait for the third paragraph. Then, in the fourth, we learned that 750,000 people in Connecticut alone had no power. The ninth paragraph – the ninth! – noted that this was a nor’easter with winds as high as 60 mph. Still, the top of the story was devoted to glorious canopies of leaves in the time just before Halloween.
Sunday’s storm story led with concern about Halloween costumes.
“Is it timely? Is it clever? Does it fit?” the Times fluffily began.
Second paragraph: “From New England down to Maryland on Saturday, revelers heading to weekend Halloween parties added a new criterion to choosing a costume: How would it fare in a northeaster?”
Through the next 24 paragraphs – 24! – you came across no mention of costumes, leading one to suspect that the hunt for the right outfit was more a conceit in a writer’s head than anything witnessed in the streets.
This Times treacle made me recall the advice I got as a cub from a great city editor, the late Marty Gately: Don’t be cute; be clever. I also did some checking in the Times’ library.
Some outstanding New York Times leads have been short: “Houston, Monday, July 21 – Men have landed and walked on the moon.” (Think of all the green cheese, man-in-moon and moon-June clichés that might have popped up in this story if it had been written this week and not in 1969.)
And some outstanding Times leads have been long: “Hijackers rammed jetliners into each of New York’s World Trade Center towers yesterday, toppling both in a hellish storm of ash, glass, smoke and leaping victims, while a third jetliner crashed into the Pentagon in Virginia. There was no official count but President Bush said thousands had perished, and in the immediate aftermath the calamity was already being ranked the worst and most audacious attack in American history.” (The reason you read right past the clichés in that one is because there are none.)
By Monday morning, the Times got the snow story straight, though readers might have wondered why the paper reported that 12 inches of snow had fallen on Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Conn., but failed to include a word on conditions at JFK, Newark, LaGuardia and Stewart.
Still the Times couldn’t get away from its idiotic Halloween fixation.
“It was a storm of record consequence, disrupting large swaths of the Northeast in ways large and small: towns were buried in dense snowfalls, closing down streets, schools and even, in some cases, Halloween celebrations.”
This Times story contained eight consecutive paragraphs about the ruination of Halloween. In fact, four of those paragraphs were about a town official cancelling Halloween and then relenting – in Hollis, N.H.
In the Times newsroom, I guess they call it journalism. What do you call it?