Distillation = Context + Compression

Columnists have some lessons to teach writers on the straight side

Columns are a great place to discover a technique that eludes many long-winded news and feature writers: distillation. Those of you stuck with tasks like summing up a controversial redevelopment program may feel alienated by [or jealous of] the stylistic tricks columnists employ, but they can provide inspiration if you read them with an open mind.

Distillation = Context + Compression

Distillation = Context + Compression

Here are three examples published on Sept. 18. In no case could a newswriter write with the sensibility of these pieces, but in many cases a newswriter could push himself to more quickly create a context for the reader, slash through the secondary or tertiary material, and employ an engaging tone. None of these techniques can dominate a news story, but all of them can help carry a reader through the piece. All good stories, no matter how dull the subject, can benefit from showmanship. Behind the showmanship in the following three pieces is the holy virtue of distillation.

First, the NYT’s Nicholas Kristof, limited to 802 words by the one-column layout of the paper’s Op-Ed page. He basically does his own Q-and-A, asking and answering seven bold-faced questions about John Kerry’s military history. With certain modifications, you could apply this structure to, say, that redevelopment program:

So is John Kerry a war hero or a medal-grabbing phony?

Each time that I’ve written about President Bush’s dalliance with the National Guard, conservative readers have urged me to scrutinize the accusations against Mr. Kerry. After doing so over the last week, here’s where I come out:

Did Mr. Kerry volunteer for dangerous duty? Not as much as his campaign would like you to believe. The Kerry Web site declares, “As he was graduating from Yale, John Kerry volunteered to serve in Vietnam – because, as he later said, ‘It was the right thing to do.’ ”

In fact, as Mr. Kerry was about to graduate from Yale, he was inquiring about getting an educational deferment to study in Europe. When that got nowhere, he volunteered for the Navy, which was much less likely to involve danger in Vietnam than other services. After a year on a ship in the ocean, Mr. Kerry volunteered for Swift boats, but at that time they were used only in Vietnam’s coastal waters. A short time later, the Swift boats were assigned exceptionally dangerous duties up Vietnamese rivers. “When I signed up for the Swift boats, they had very little to do with the war,” Mr. Kerry wrote in 1986, adding, “I didn’t really want to get involved in the war.”

Did Mr. Kerry get his first Purple Heart for a self-inflicted wound? That’s the accusation of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, who say that the injury came (unintentionally) from a grenade that Mr. Kerry himself fired at Viet Cong. In fact, nobody knows where the shrapnel came from, and it’s possible that the critics are right. It’s not certain that the Viet Cong were returning fire. But the only other American on the boat in a position to see anything, Bill Zaldonis (who says he voted for Mr. Bush in 2000) told me, “He was hurt, and I don’t think it was self-inflicted.”

Did Mr. Kerry deserve his second and third Purple Hearts? There’s not much dispute that the second was merited. As for the third one, the Swift Boat Veterans’ claim that he received it for a minor injury he got while blowing up food supplies to keep them from the enemy. But documents and witness accounts show that he received a shrapnel wound when South Vietnamese troops blew up rice stores, and an injured arm in a mine explosion later that day.

Did Mr. Kerry deserve his Bronze Star? Yes. The Swift Boat Veterans claim that he was not facing enemy fire when he rescued a Green Beret, Jim Rassmann, but that is contradicted by those were there, like William Rood and Mr. Rassmann (a Republican). In fact, Mr. Rassmann recommended Mr. Kerry for a Silver Star.

Did Mr. Kerry deserve his Silver Star? Absolutely. He earned it for responding to two separate ambushes in a courageous and unorthodox way, by heading straight into the gunfire. Then he pursued one armed fighter into the jungle and shot him dead. According to Fred Short, a machine gunner who saw the event, the fighter was an adult (not the half-naked teenager cited by the Swift Boat Veterans) who was preparing to launch a grenade at the boat. “Kerry went into harm’s way to save the lives of the guys on the boat,” Mr. Short told me. “If he hadn’t done that, I am absolutely positive I would not be here today.” Mr. Kerry’s commander said he had wanted to give him an even higher honor, the Navy Cross, but thought it would take too long to process.

Did Mr. Kerry exaggerate his exploits? Yes. For example, he has often said over the years that he spent Christmas 1968 in Cambodia as part of the secret war there. Others who served with him confirm that on Christmas Eve 1968 (not Christmas Day) he got very close to the border, and possibly even strayed across it. But it doesn’t seem to have been, as Mr. Kerry has suggested, a deliberate incursion into Cambodia.

What do those who served with him say? Some who served on other boats have called Mr. Kerry a hypochondriac self-promoter. But every enlisted man who was with Mr. Kerry on various boats when he won Purple Hearts and Silver and Bronze Stars says he deserved them. All praise his courage and back his candidacy. “I was there for two of the Purple Hearts and the Bronze and Silver Stars, and he earned every one of them,” said Delbert Sandusky, in a typical comment. “He saved our lives.”

The bottom line? Mr. Kerry has stretched the truth here and there, but earned his decorations. And the Swift Boat Veterans, contradicted by official records and virtually everyone who witnessed the incidents, are engaging in one of the ugliest smears in modern U.S. politics.

Second, a longer piece (1,115 words) by Tim Rutten, who specializes in writing about the news media, in the LAT. After reading or watching scores of reports on the CBS forgery mess, I welcomed the distillation this column performed. Write this equation on your arm: Distillation = Context + Compression. Certainly, there is opinion here that would be outside a newswriter’s purview, but you’ll notice the transcendent value of the way Rutten both squeezes out the irrelevant and places the CBS incident in historical context.

Watching Dan Rather unravel over the past week has been something like watching a train wreck unfold: You know it’s all going to end badly, but you just can’t look away until you’ve seen how many cars ultimately go off the rails. Well, now we know, and there’s not much left to do but wave at the caboose as it careens over the side.

A little more than a week ago, the CBS anchor presented a “60 Minutes” segment produced by Mary Mapes, alleging not only that President Bush used his family’s influence to get special treatment from the Air National Guard but also that he defied an order to take a physical examination required of pilots and lost his flight status.

Over the years, there have been lots of stories about Bush’s apparently fitful service with the Guard. What made this one different was its reliance on what Rather said were previously undisclosed memoranda substantiating the allegations and purportedly written at the time by Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, Bush’s squadron commander, now dead. Where the alleged documents may have been all these years and who provided them to CBS remain a mystery. In less than 24 hours, questions were raised — first on the Internet and, quickly, in the mainstream media — about the documents’ authenticity.

Since then, the “60 Minutes” segment has gone from sensational revelation to controversial report to utter debacle.

The weight of expert technical opinion is that the documents are forgeries, probably the product of a contemporary word-processing program rather than the IBM Selectric typewriters in use at the time. But there is no need to descend into an arcane discussion of how many kerns can dance on the head of a microchip to sort this out. CBS has admitted that it never has possessed or seen the originals. In other words, the credibility of its report turns on photocopies provided by an anonymous source.

No reputable document examiner will authenticate anything from a photocopy — they simply are too easily manipulated. This is not complicated. Rather and Mapes, therefore, are in the position of having broadcast a report based on documents whose authenticity they cannot establish. It doesn’t matter whether the contents are genuine or not, because nobody — not even “60 Minutes” — can prove it from photocopies. You do not report what you cannot prove. This, too, is not complicated.

None of this kept Rather from repeatedly going on the air and defending the memoranda’s authenticity. One might have thought that his defense reached a low point when he aired an interview with Killian’s 86-year-old former secretary in which she said she did not believe the documents were authentic but that they did accurately reflect what was happening with Bush at the time.

Truth through forgery — now there’s a novel concept.

Rather, meanwhile, told the New York Times on Thursday, “This story is true. I believe in the authenticity of the documents.”

And there you have it: faith-based reporting.

Inevitably, bad things happen to good news organizations. The test of a serious journalistic enterprise is how it reacts to internal crisis.

The Los Angeles Times had its Staples Center scandal; the Washington Post Janet Cooke’s fabricated Pulitzer Prize-winner; the New York Times had Jayson Blair; and USA Today, Jack Kelley. In each instance, the organization immediately and exhaustively investigated what had gone wrong and put the findings in their entirety before their readers. CNN did precisely the same thing after its so-called Tailwind scandal, as did NBC in 1992, when its “Dateline” newsmagazine was caught broadcasting staged events.

Thus far, no such action has been undertaken by CBS executives, which is worse than inexplicable.

The real danger here is that a preoccupation with CBS’ initial bumbling and subsequent malfeasance will keep people from asking a more fundamental question about the media’s performance in this presidential campaign. Over the past weeks, we’ve watched the candidates seesaw in the polls — from tie to substantial Bush lead and, this week, back to a virtual dead heat. There is seldom one cause for shifts such as these, and certainly the successfully managed Republican National Convention gave the incumbent a larger-than-expected bounce in popularity, which simply may have dissipated.

But it also is true that Sen. John F. Kerry’s decline in the polls generally coincided with the high-water mark of the phony Swift boat controversy. Similarly, the president’s plunge occurred while false documents concerning his military service were getting a daily airing.

The Swift boat nonsense had the effect it did because the serious news media were too lethargic and self-absorbed to overcome a collective distaste for the story and quickly expose the people behind the ads as a sloppy bunch of soreheads who had become the willing tools of a tiny cabal of moneyed Republicans. If the dissemination of forged military records now has diminished President Bush in the public’s eyes, it is because CBS broadcast a report that turned on recklessly incompetent journalism and then fled from its responsibility in the matter.

All the noise from the snarling, sweating partisans on both sides of the ideological divide notwithstanding, the real media story of the 2004 presidential campaign may not be bias but incompetence.

Attaching that adjective to CBS is a melancholy obligation. This, after all, is the house that Edward R. Murrow built. Anyone mindful of the legacy that keen and fearless man left to his network would want to make a tragedy of all this — with Rather, Lear-like, roaring on the moors. But it isn’t that; what CBS has spun out over the last week is not drama but shabby farce. Rather and his network’s executives resemble nothing so much as the doddering, penniless inhabitants of some crumbling old pile, lurking behind curtains and muttering increasingly incoherent excuses to the bill collectors pounding at their door.

CBS’ initial report on President Bush’s National Guard service was an embarrassment to Murrow’s legacy. But the implications of that mistake pale alongside the potential consequences of the network’s continuing refusal to do what the situation now demands: to forthrightly admit error, to undertake an independent inquiry and, then, to give a clear public accounting of how this happened. If the current custodians of CBS News willfully refuse to keep faith with their viewers, they will have disgraced Murrow’s memory.

Finally, a piece that anybody who has to write standard news will find revolting: David Brooks’ 743-word Op-Ed piece in the NYT about the myriad consultants the Kerry campaign has brought in. This is written in absurdist style because the writer believes he is describing an absurdity — Kerry’s inability to define himself, and his hiring of an endless parade of experts to help the campaign find a message.

The lesson lies in what Brooks decided not to do: He didn’t use the first names of the dozens of characters he cited. He didn’t worry about whether you knew who they all were or not. With his space limitation, there was no way to explain. The greater good, stylistically, was to write a pseudo-fable in which the rush of names would show you how unstable and unprincipled the Kerry campaign has become. It’s a devastating piece of political journalism, and my challenge to every City Council reporter out there is: Find one trick in this piece that you can apply to your own work on the straight side of newswriting. You won’t find a direct trick you can steal; you’ll have to daydream and noodle and curse and fuss and get mad at me for being unrealistic…and then it will come to you; you’ll find a way to make the straight side more interesting. But I’m babbling. Read on:

Across the wine-dark sea they come, honing Kerry’s message. They come from Harvard, K Street and the studios of CNN. “Once more into the breach!” they cry, as they join the conference call of thousands.

Look at them, these great, unhuddled masses, yearning to wear White House badges. They are consultants, flacks, spinners, strategists, Knights of the Palm lunch table. And yet they come as one, from all corners of the Democratic world, to figure out what John Kerry, age 60, should believe and say.

Into the valley of hope ride the 600, the inner ring of Kerry confidants. A year ago, there was just a small and hearty band. There was the campaign manager Jim Jordan. There was Gibbs, Cherny and Mellman. But under their reign, the message was not honed. The candidate did flounder. The quest for a Kerry conviction was not fulfilled.

And so the great accretion began. The call went out to pollsters, wonks and wandering wordsmiths to come gather and fill the void of Kerry’s core. Brave souls emerged from the Land of Ted – the Kennedy brigades led by Cahill and Cutter are now abetting the mighty Shrum.

Boldly they rode and well, into the morass of Kerry’s mind. Through the thicket of equivocations they ventured, across the paradoxical plains of Kerry’s prose – all in the quest for a conviction.

Policy committees gathered. Of domestic policy councils there were 37. Of foreign policy councils, 27.

And in each of these councils resided faculties and think-tankers by the score. On the justice policy task force there were 195 members, lawyers brave and strong. On the economic council, more than 200 economists did search for a conclusion. When these groups did meet, so long was the line of approaching Volvos that it was visible from outer space.

Yet still the message was not honed. King Kerry still did equivocate, hedge and reverse. Of flip-flops there were more than a few. He still did Velcro his principles upon the cathedral door, and change them by the hour.

The apparatus grew again. Elmendorf from the Land of Gephardt was hired, along with Lackey from the House of Edwards. Teams of de-equivocators gathered. And still the fog spread.

And so the age of nymphomottomania did begin. Suddenly it was realized what was missing. A theme! A slogan! The muses were mobilized to find that motto, which would give shape and precision to the cause. Over the weeks “A Better Set of Choices” begat “Safer, Stronger and More Secure,” which begat “The Real Deal,” which begat “Change Starts Here,” which begat “Let America Be America Again,” which begat “Hope Is on the Way.”

Night and day the serial sloganators did work. And the seasons did turn and the conventions did come and go. Kerry’s speeches were shortened, and parts of his life were edited out of his story (adulthood, for example). And yet there was still wailing in the House of Kerry for the message was still unhoned.

Kerry himself pinpointed the problem. Of advisers, there were not enough! So this month yet more were brought in, mostly from the camp of Clinton. There is McCurry, Lockhart, Carville and Begala. There is Greenberg and Wolfson.

And so it came to pass there are no swing voters left, because they’ve all been hired by campaign Kerry. They form a great and mighty leviathan, dedicated to the proposition that John Kerry should believe in something. The flow chart is as clear as can be. Sasso reports to Lockhart, Devine, Sosnick, Cutter and Cahill, while Cutter reports to Devine, Mellman, McCurry, Shrum and herself – except on weekends, when Devine reports to Mellman and Sosnick and Cahill reports to McCurry and Sasso. Lockhart handles strategic response, McCurry daily response, Cutter tactical response and Cahill metaresponse.

Vast is the empire crafting Kerry’s creed. Immense is the army of Michelangelos trying to sculpture the melted marshmallow of Kerry’s core. And the seasons do turn and the polls do shift and the rending of garments gives way to the sunshine of hope and back again.

And tumultuous is the cry of the strategists, and loud are the furies of the campaign, but in the center there is a silence. For in the beginning all was vacuum and a void, and while all the king’s horses and all the king’s men do build this grand and mighty structure, the sound of their hammers echoes limitlessly in the hollow within.