Thursday, July 1, 2010

James Taranto

James Taranto has the laid-back look of a George Wendt (Norm Peterson in the “Cheers” television comedy):

But looks can be deceiving.

Mr. Taranto is a gifted editor and columnist. He provides us with a daily jewel in The Wall Street Journal Opinion and Commentary section. His column is titled “Best of the Web Today”.

Best of the Web Today” analyzes content published on the Internet, with examples of writing that demonstrates the proper use of metaphor and headline. While this sounds a little on the dry side, Mr. Taranto works in mischievous fashion, and entertains and instructs while enticing a collective smile from his readership.

I enjoy the section titled, “Everything Seemingly Is Spinning Out of Control.” You have to understand the context of the expression, but once you do, you will find this segment to be hilarious.

Mr. Taranto’s writing has a serious side. My attention was drawn to his column of 6/29/2010. It had commentary on an obituary written of Senator Robert Byrd. Here is Mr. Taranto’s analysis:

Compare and Contrast
The men who rank first and third in the list of longest-serving U.S. senators, Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, both died this decade. That's not the only thing they had in common. Both began their careers as segregationist Democrats but later repented and supported civil rights legislation. Both had obituaries in the New York Times written by Adam Clymer--but therein lie some differences:

The Thurmond obit, published June 27, 2003, was headlined "Strom Thurmond, Foe of Integration, Dies at 100."

The Byrd obit, published today, is headlined "Robert Byrd, a Pillar of the Senate, Dies at 92." (The early online headline said "Respected Voice" rather than "Pillar.")

The Thurmond obit mentioned the senator's opposition to civil rights in the third paragraph.

The Byrd obit, doesn't get to his opposition to civil rights--and his membership in the Ku Klux Klan--until paragraph 16, the topic sentence of which is, "Mr. Byrd's perspective on the world changed over the years."

Now it is true that Thurmond ran for president in 1948 as a "States' Rights Democrat," so that he was a more important figure in the reaction against civil rights than Byrd was. On the other hand, compare and contrast these details from deep in the two men's obits:

Byrd, paragraphs 17-18: "Mr. Byrd's political life could be traced to his early involvement with the Klan, an association that almost thwarted his career and clouded it intermittently for years afterward. In the early 1940s, he organized a 150-member klavern, or chapter, of the Klan in Sophia, W.Va., and was chosen its leader."

Thurmond, paragraph 16: "In 1940, he called on the grand jury in Greenville to be ready to take action against the Ku Klux Klan, which, he said, represented 'the most abominable type of lawlessness.' "

There was one other big difference between the two superannuated senators: Whereas Byrd remained a Democrat until his death yesterday, Thurmond became a Republican in 1964. That may account for the somewhat different treatment they got from Clymer.
Mr. Taranto might attribute Mr. Clymer’s bias to flawed journalistic skills. (Reporters, after all, are expected to be objective and accountable.)

I don’t think that is quite right. I would attribute the bias to our anti-Republican culture: Mr. Clymer is simply writing with a perspective that is … expected.

So what is the point?

Our school system teaches us to be wary of opinion. If we are sourcing a writing assignment, we learn that news stories can be treated as “objective”, but opinion columns are typically “slanted”.

And that is the takeaway…

Mr. Clymer’s work is classified as “News”.

Mr. Taranto sets the record straight and his work is “Opinion”.

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