Tuesday, June 23, 2009

NPR and the glories of "vivid writing"

There's no improving on Glenn Greenwald's fabulous point-by-point takedown of NPR Ombudsman Alicia C. Shepard's defense of NPR's refusal to call torture "torture." I'm also really happy he linked to this blog I wasn't aware of until now, NPR Check , which has also been writing stellar stuff about this. The blog's creator says he started it up because "it made more sense than yelling at the radio;" as someone who spends an inordinate amount of time doing just that (also throwing pillows at it) I am overjoyed to find it.

So just one thing to add re. my favorite infuriating bit of Shepard's piece:

A basic rule of vivid writing is: "Show, Don't Tell." An excellent example of using facts rather than coded language was a 2005 piece by former NPR reporter John McChesney. It gave meticulous details of tactics used against an Iraqi detainee at Abu Graib who later died.

Ah yes, "Show, Don't Tell." I have lovely memories of my freshman creative writing instructor pressing that advice on us all. Here's the kind of sentence that "rule" is designed to deal with: "John is a big jerk." ("Can you show us John is a jerk instead? What might be some jerky acts readers could see John undertaking?") That doesn't mean that readers' experience will then be somehow damaged if the story also uses the word "jerk." Is Shepard actually, seriously arguing that a piece on torture (one that involves the detainee dying) becomes more "vivid" if it studiously avoids the use of the word "torture"? Is that true for stories on rape, too? Terrorism? Murder? I'm pretty sure that when the writing instructors say "show, don't tell," they don't mean "use smarmy circumlocution tactics to avoid calling things by their proper names," or "employ obfuscating and euphemistic language whenever possible." Good writing -- and we're talking about journalistic writing here, not mystical verse or something -- usually involves using plain English. To stick with our friend John the big jerk, would Shepard think it constituted more "vivid" writing for us to refer to him as "John the tempermentally challenged individual"? Come on. This is proposterous. And for God's sake, "torture" is not "coded language" for torture. "Enhanced interrogation techniques" is.


Greenwald is continuing to update on this issue, and check out Digby's post on the abuse-of-the-English-language aspect of all of this called "Examining the Runes."

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