Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Why Hamilton Nolan is wrong.

I love Hamilton Nolan's work. It's always incisive commentary on the media world, and more often than not, I find myself nodding along in agreement as I read one of his acute -- and accurate -- digs against mainstream media, whatever that means today.

Today, I rarely, but respectfully, disagree.

Nolan writes today that, simply, "Honorifics should be banned." You know, the "Mr." and "Mrs." and all those titles that are used most frequently in national newspapers of record, such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

He writes:
We're the first to stand up and say that the honorifics-using NYT and WSJ are much, much better newspapers than the plainspoken masses that don't use honorifics.

But they would be better newspapers if they stopped the honorifics, and with the other outdated tropes of journalism that do nothing but throw up an unnecessary wall of language between the reader and what the newspaper is trying to communicate.

Reporters know damn well that all of the little tricks they use to make their stories sound authoritative are exactly that—tricks, which make the news look pleasing to editors but which obscure from the reader exactly how much of reporting is guesswork and summation and inference.
While I agree with the sentiment here -- journalists often try to obfuscate thin reporting with time-honored traditions such as "sources say," and generally attempt to create an air of authority through the tone of their reports -- I disagree with the proposal.

The way I see it, honorifics are indeed used to separate the publication from the readership to create an air of authority. But for those publications that still use them, that "air" -- call it "style" or "tone" or whatever you like -- is essential to the publication's brand.

The brand, of course, trumps everything.

You see, the use of honorifics by local daily tabloid newspapers would indeed be an awkward juxtaposition.

Imagine the following beneath a New York Post headline that read, "AMERICA'S NEXT TOP SEX PERV":
Mr. Jon, a recent guest designer on the reality show "America's Next Top Model," is already serving 59 years to life in prison in California for assaults on seven victims.
A bit passive-aggressive, no?

But the Times and Journal and other similar publications position themselves as papers of record. The official and final say on world events. The kind of proof-read, deliberate document you place into a time capsule -- even though these publications must co-exist and compete with more ephemeral online publications for eyeballs on a day-to-day basis.

My point here is that honorifics in these publications are used to convey the overall publication's tone. They are among an array of tools not to keep a reader at arm's length for the sake of it but to offer a sense of authority consistent with the publication's brand. This is why these publications exist -- for the long-term play.

This is also why Gawker, Nolan's publication, does not use them. Gawker isn't the official on stage -- it's the loud-spoken audience member throwing tomatoes. As with any publication with that kind of tone, using honorifics would create dissonance on the page (well, screen) -- and in this case, would be taken with a dash of sarcasm.

My take? I don't care whether a publication uses honorifics so long as usage is consistent -- even in the sports pages.

So when Nolan says it would be silly to use honorifics in the following sentence -- "Mr. Griffin then dunked on Mr. Mozgov, balls dangling harshly on Mr. Mozgov's chin" -- I'd agree.

But I'd also say the Journal or Times should never print a sentence like that in the first place. It's a conflict of style.

(By the way, the actual Journal wording about this event: "Then, of course, came the dunk—when Clippers rookie Blake Griffin took to the air in Los Angeles with Mr. Mozgov standing near the basket and slammed the ball as if he wasn't there." Sounds about right to me.)

1 comment:

Jack said...

Good column, Andrew. But I have to tell you: The Journal just announced it is no longer using honorifics in the sports pages. Jason Gay explains: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704476604576158543603040876.html