Short and sweet

“I”ll be brief,” said the guest presenter for a film screening I attended several years ago. He followed with a good 20 minutes of exposition on the topic at hand, after which he released us, exhausted, to finally enjoy the movie.

Clearly, some people have a different notion of “brief” than others. As a journalist, I understand the value of brevity in a vocation that demands it. I take great pleasure in paring four sentences down to two and dismissing five colorful but unnecessary words in favor of the essential one.

So imagine the consternation a couple weeks ago when Twitter revealed it was expanding, on a limited test basis, some users’ character limit from 140 to 280. Twitter is a favorite social media tool among journalists because it demands brevity and rewards word efficiency. You want description and clarity, but you also need to get to the point, and fast. It is a practiced art that few of us will ever master, but it’s a lot of fun to try. It forces good writers to be better and bad writers to… well, stick to Facebook.

There are greater problems in the world than Twitter’s character limit, and we’ll individually adjust if the change comes to pass (I suspect many of us will start out by voluntarily restricting ourselves to the original 140). But it’s worth entertaining a discussion on the value of brevity across the creative spectrum.

Ernest Hemingway famously challenged writers to think not only in terms of what they’re saying but what they’re not. Most of us know his famous six-word short story (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”), but here’s an excerpt from “The Sun Also Rises” that’s a little less provocative:

I walked away from the cafe. They were sitting at the table. I looked back at them and at the empty tables. There was a waiter sitting at one of the tables with his head in his hands.

That’s an interesting observation of a person (the waiter) we don’t encounter anywhere else in the novel. Is he distraught? Annoyed? Tired? Amid 247 pages of drunken carousing, it’s what Hemingway doesn’t say that captivates the reader.

Let’s look at pop music. In the transition from vinyl to CD (and later digital iterations), recording artists found themselves free from the constraint of five 3-to-4-minute songs, per side, offered by vinyl records (or cassette tapes). As a result, we got 70-to-80 minute CDs and now, virtually unlimited packages of official releases dressed up with alternate takes, out takes and other assorted recordings. So what’s lost? The need to curate. It’s fascinating to read about decisions that went into the production of vinyl releases, and how musicians and their labels negotiated what made the cut and what had to be left out. When artists are forced to assess and prioritize the quality of their work, you tend to get their best.

Let’s move on to cinema, where the supposed gold standard is the feature-length (90 to 120 minutes) fictional narrative. Yet recently I saw the French short film “Uncanny Valley,” set on a World War I battlefield, that was shot entirely in stop-action photography. It was an interesting, if experimental tactic that worked well for its 13:30 running time, but there’s no way it could have been sustained for an hour or two. Feature-length is not always the ideal format, yet at the Oscars or Cannes, those are the only films anyone talks about.

Let’s go back to our guest speaker. It’s a conceit in academics that more words equal more information, but anyone who has sat through their share of college lectures knows this isn’t always true. Even in politics, we’re taught that any speech of significance like the president’s State of the Union can’t be great unless it’s at least an hour long. But consider that one of the greatest political speeches in our history, Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, weighed in at 271 words and was delivered in less than 3 minutes. That was a man who knew how to get to the point without sacrificing eloquence.

It’s unfortunate that we live in a world that equates “more” with “better.” An all-you-can-eat buffet will always turn more heads than a small plate of fine cheeses, and that view is widely shared among the arts. Still, our guest presenter’s “I’ll be brief” tells me he understood the audience expectation for his opening remarks. The next time we just need to hold him to it.

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Defying convention

There was a time when television news was boring. When stone-faced, gray-haired anchors soberly announced, without any particular flair, the events of the day and then signed off. No commentary. No punditry or analysis. Just the facts.

It was not a particularly lucrative model for networks. In fact, it was a money loser but considered a public service duty as a condition of their FCC licenses. Johnny Carson and Dick Van Dyke brought in the profits, while the evening news was essentially a charitable write-off.

Today, television news is dominated by highly profitable cable networks who have developed a model that presents news as entertainment through a variety of programming innovations. We see younger, more attractive anchors. The coverage leans toward more sensational topics. And less sensational topics are presented with a sense of urgency (“BREAKING:”) that overhypes the subject. And finally, with 24 hours to fill each day, networks devote an increasing amount of airtime to reflection, analysis and debate. These three activities, and particularly the last, have given birth to what I’d call the punditry class — a group of people, typically ex-politicians, military leaders, scholars, authors, minor celebrities and other public figures who bring whatever expertise they have to the discussion at hand. And watching them hammer away at each other adds a uniquely entertaining flavor to what is otherwise an academic exercise.

The punditry phenomenon didn’t emerge as an epiphany from the offices of brilliant cable news executives. But you can bet they were paying attention when it was so skillfully demonstrated, long before the advent of cable, during the 1968 presidential campaign. It was then that relative news neophyte ABC, in a money-saving move, eschewed gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions and instead staged debates in what is now the classic left-vs.-right format.

Representing each side were the preeminent political thinkers of their time, William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, who agreed to a series of televised debates as a way of digesting the convention coverage. Featured in the 2015 documentary “Best of Enemies,” the conservative Buckley and liberal Vidal were intellectual giants, unmatched in any forum, until they met each other. Their hubris and arrogance was self-righteous at best, insufferable at worst, earning them devotees and critics alike who were all too happy to see either of them knocked down a peg on national TV.

The premise must’ve seemed tempting for viewers accustomed to the mindless minutia of a political convention, but the appeal only grew as the personal hostility between Buckley and Vidal became sharply evident. Throughout the summer the debates devolved into shouting matches of a particularly vindictive and, amazingly for such great minds, childish nature. Viewers became spectators, tuning in for knockout zingers rather than a succession of mental thrusts and parries. It all boiled over when Buckley, goaded by Vidal’s “crypto-Nazi” taunt, countered with a vicious tirade punctuated by a homosexual epithet and physical threat. The stunned network shut down the show, but as the lights came down, the smirking Vidal, presuming himself the winner, quipped to his still flushed rival that “we gave them their money’s worth.”

And that’s what it was all about. The debates earned ABC derision among its established, “proper” competitors, but the network got the last laugh. The experiment effectively ended gavel-to-gavel coverage of conventions, and plans for the 1972 campaign included enthusiastic nods to the Buckley-Vidal model. It was cheaper, less labor intensive and, most importantly, a ratings winner.

That’s the model cable networks have picked up on and what has since largely dominated television news. Is it a win for the viewers? Few of the pundits on the air today have the intellectual chops of a William F. Buckley or Gore Vidal, and with the substance of the discussion often getting lost in the shouting, the scale tilts heavily towards entertainment at the expense of information. But it’s not boring.

Power to the people

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to punch the editor who fancied himself a latter day Lou Grant or Ben Bradlee with this quip. We get it, boss. It’s an important, if dated, maxim by which good journalists operate.

It’s something worth remembering as the furious post-election scramble for moral superiority playing out on social media promulgates information that is misleading, out of context or flat-out false.  And any social media user would be wise to consider the benefits of checking it out, if for no other reason than saving themselves some embarrassment at the Thanksgiving dinner table.

Why I am telling you this? Be assured it’s not to lecture anyone. Throughout my career, there have been more occasions than I care to admit when I’ve gotten it wrong. It’s a horrible feeling. Yes, it’s annoying because I have to correct the record, my ego takes a ding and it’s likely to come up in my performance review. But what bothers me more is the damage I’ve done, not only to my news organization’s credibility, but to the aggrieved parties named in the article or headline I’ve edited. It cannot be undone, and it’s a responsibility I take very seriously.

But in a greater sense, I’m speaking to you as fellow journalists. That’s right. In whatever capacity you engage in social media, you are — despite the objections of those sticklers in “traditional” media — as much a journalist as I am. You have to power to retrieve and distribute information that has no small role in influencing the decisions of the friends, family, colleagues and anyone else who follows you. Through their (hopefully) positive personal association with you, your recommendations can carry more weight than the New York Times or Fox News.

Don’t believe me? Several years ago, I was stunned to hear colleagues relate a new phenomenon of people whose sole source of news and information was their Facebook feed. That’s not to say traditional media wasn’t part of the mix, but their diet was restricted to however they chose to set up the feed. If we weren’t on it, they weren’t reading it. It was a purely anecdotal observation, so I was skeptical. But it got me thinking about the possibilities. Isn’t it plausible that people inform themselves exclusively via social channels?

Why wouldn’t they? The internet offers an incomprehensible volume of information and ideas available to anyone interested in any topic. Thanks to Google, you can find the ones that fit you. And thanks to social media, you can eliminate the ones that don’t. It’s an incredibly seductive place — a place where you pick and choose the information you like, and you never have to be wrong. The temptation to operate at this level becomes evident during highly politicized times such as an election year, when we find opposing sides beating each other over the head with different sets of facts. It’s what we’re seeing play out now as winners and losers from last week’s election desperately try to buttress their cases with supporting documentation scoured from the depths of the internet. For all of our legitimate concerns over proper vetting and verification of source material, this is the new marketplace of ideas. It’s how — and where — people are choosing to engage each other. Social media is leading the discussion, while traditional media, still brooding over how it so badly misread the electorate, plays catch-up. The public forum has migrated, and in the process transformed into myriad microforums.

Let’s be clear: We aren’t going to step back from this experiment and return traditional media to its gatekeeper role. Those days are over. Somewhere in the last decade, the balance shifted irrevocably. Traditional media isn’t going away, but despite what critics from the far left and right say, its capacity to influence public opinion is severely diminished and probably has been for some time. My suggestion for our industry is to stop thinking of ways to fit social media into what we do, and instead work on how the things we do can fit into social media. There will still be a place for our content, but it will be increasingly at the discretion of social media users to share or dismiss as they see fit.

So while news organizations lick their wounds from a brutal election cycle, let’s accept their limitations in an arena they no longer dominate. Conservatives convinced of a perpetual liberal bias can rejoice (although the victory is bittersweet for radio host Charlie Sykes). Liberals who once demanded “power to the people” now have an opportunity to seize it. From any perspective, it’s a seismic shift of Jacksonian proportions. The floodgates have opened. The power once vested in the Fourth Estate now belongs to all of you, my fellow journalists. Use it wisely.