From dozens of articles, a portrait emerges of the ‘Times’ portrait

'Portrait of the Cardinal' by Toby E. Rosenthal. ()
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

In yesterday's quite fun piece about City Comptroller Jon Liu and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, reporter David Chen began with a very nice, obviously well-sourced anecdote about a trip the two took last year.

Within minutes of boarding his private jet last November, destined for Hong Kong, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg dispensed with the pleasantries and confronted his main guest, John C. Liu, the city comptroller: Why are you blocking a crucial city contract?

The two barely talked afterward, according to people briefed on the trip: not on the 21-hour journey, not during a conference on climate change, and not during a tour of a factory. (Mr. Liu returned on a commercial flight, which he had planned to do all along.)

A lot has been written about the Times' treatment of anonymous sourcing, which is de jure intolerant but de facto lenient enough (and no more lenient, in my opinion, than it should be) as long as a certain rhetorical exercise takes place in which the writer explains to the reader why a source has asked for anonymity and why the paper has decided to grant it. "People briefed on the trip" is nice and concise; sometimes they are much longer.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

But one rhetorical habit creeps in when a story with anonymous sourcing has as its main point an assertion about the character or state of mind of a subject who refuses or is unavailable (dead, incarcerated, or otherwise indisposed) to be interviewed; or worse, when they issue a wan one-line statement refuting the premise of the piece. "Write-arounds," as the industry calls them, often call for the Emerging Portrait treatment. Here:

Neither the mayor nor the comptroller would agree to be interviewed for this article. But a portrait of a distant and strained relationship emerged from interviews with more than two dozen aides, political consultants, union leaders and friends of both men, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to anger either man.

"A portrait emerged" is a bit of phrasing that is so distinctly Times-ian that it is used everywhere someone wants to project the gravitas of the Times. It's a style that's sui generis, and that commands authority and means something even when it means nothing at all. It's nothing against the Times at all: it's a testament to the trust that readers and writers place in their editors and their copy-desks that this bit of rhetoric can do so much with so little. There is nothing deceitful or underhanded about the "emerging portrait" story. It's just that when you see "emerging portrait," you are seeing the Times in a moment of self-reflection, or else you are reading a copycat.

A Nexis search on "portrait w/5 emerged OR portrait w/5 emerges" restricted to the Times brings up a ridiculous number of results. Instances of this cliché are opportunities to find the institutional insecurities and ideas, or more grandly maybe the ethos, of the Times. Sometimes it is deployed to congratulate the writers. Sometimes to scold them. Sometimes to hedge bets, to bring the voice of the story into the middle when it's obvious any sane person is firmly on one side. Sometimes it's used, self-immolatingly, to describe a sheaf of excellent reporting from which no clear portrait emerges at all without serious writerly intervention and interpretation, which depending on the instance is either entirely warranted or entirely unwarranted, but certainly not to be ruled out universally.

Remember in the summer of 2007, when the Times put a writearound profile of Chelsea Clinton on its front page? The writer, Jodi Kantor, wrote a "billboard" paragraph that read:

Many interviews with Ms. Clinton's friends followed the same pattern: requests not to be identified in the article, followed by warm descriptions of Ms. Clinton, then moments of anxiety that she would find out about the praise. Still, in more than a dozen interviews, a consensus portrait emerged, that of a sincere, serious woman who, consciously or not, has picked up a few politicianlike habits.

More recently, back in November, defense-department reporter Mark Mazzetti wrote an article about accused 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Here's the billboard graf:

A detailed portrait of the life and worldview of Mr. Mohammed, 44, has emerged in the years since his capture, filled in by declassified C.I.A. documents, interrogation transcripts, the report of the Sept. 11 commission and his own testimony at a military tribunal. And the most significant terrorism trial in American history will be a grand stage for a man who describes himself as a ''jackal,'' consumed with a zeal for perpetual battle against the United States.

For perhaps obvious reasons, there was no jailhouse interview for Mazzetti. Never mind that: there is a wealth of data and documentation, from which only a short, harmless jump takes us to a revelation about his character.

In the case of Tim Arango's excellent profile in late February of James Murdoch, lately the presumptive heir of the News Corp. empire, written on the occasion of the Murdoch family's troubles with wiretapping accusations in England, the emerging portrait paragraph is a way of dealing with the fact that the millions of people interviewed each provided only a small bite of the whole:

Through nearly two dozen interviews, on and off the record, with people who have worked directly with him or are close to him personally, a portrait emerges. It suggests an aggressive, ambitious executive who has cemented his stellar reputation in the pay-television business in Asia and Europe, who at times has made assertive plays for expanding his power base within the company, who has nurtured a brand of conservative politics that often puts him at odds with the profit center that is Fox News, and who has shown an eagerness to play in the corridors of power in ways noisier than his father's more subtle maneuverings.

But you have to follow that up pretty quickly with someone who will go on the record, however tenuous their connection to the subject, and however well-known they are among reporters for being able to give a pretty easy quote about anything. And so: "'There's an intensity to him,' said Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster, who has worked for James. 'The guy's got intensity wrapped around energy.'" Or mystery wrapped around an enigma.

No wonder Arango had to write that graph himself instead of leaving it to a source. The Arango case is one in which the "emerging portrait" trope synthesizes a whole that is right there in the reporter's notebook, but present in no single beautiful quote, unassailable anecdote, or piece of evidence. It is simply there in the reporter's mind; well earned but not, at least transparently to the reader, evidenced by any one thing but the reporter's own perfectly fair assertion. Then it serves as an apology not for the whole article, but just for the one necessary moment of writerly synthesis in which it appears.

At other times the now quite multifunctional "emerging portrait" language is reserved to highlight characterizations that are on the record and sharp, but contradictory. Last April, Al Baker and Karen Zraick were dispatched to make sense of parolee Robert Morales' alleged shooting of his parole officer, Samuel Salters, at a parole reporting station in Downtown Brooklyn.

"Meanwhile, as those familiar with Mr. Morales and Officer Salters absorbed what had occurred, differing portraits of their relationship emerged," the writers tell us.

In another story, "Several Portraits Emerge Of Engineer in Fatal Crash," from September 2008, Rebecca Cathcart writes under a Los Angeles dateline:

In the week since a Metrolink passenger train collided head-on with a Union Pacific freight train, conflicting portraits of the engineer, Robert M. Sanchez, have emerged. Mr. Sanchez, 46, who did not brake before the crash, died along with 24 others; more than 130 people were injured. Investigators are considering whether he might have been distracted by sending or receiving text messages at the time.

Neighbors found him cold, distant and forbidding; coworkers found him personable and warm. Either way, was his personality a key to finding out how he might have stumbled into an accident that would be the "worst California train disaster in 50 years"? Maybe, if police are right that he was distracted while texting young train enthusiasts before the crash.

Sometimes, then, the "portrait emerges" when no portrait emerges at all.

And sometimes, it really does seem as though you're reading along with the reporter, sharing in the felicity of, well, an emerging portrait: something that takes on the look of familiarity slowly, in real-time as it were, from out of the unfamiliar.

In an August Metro Desk feature by Trymaine Lee, "Black and Jewish, and Seeing No Contradiction," a portrait emerged from a single event, and the interviews the reporter conducted afterwards. The portrait, emerging in the course of the reporting, is presumably already emerged by the time you're reading; but the reporting process is a part of what Lee is talking about; the ineluctability of the story. In other words: My reporting elicited a portrait of a group you don't yet know about.

Here:

They are African-Americans and Orthodox Jews, a rare cross-cultural hybrid that seems quintessentially Brooklyn, but received little notice until last week, after Yoseph Robinson, a Jamaican-born convert, was killed during a robbery attempt at the kosher liquor store where he worked.

At his funeral and in interviews afterward, a portrait emerged of a small, insular but energized community that is proud but underpinned by a constant tug of race and religiosity.

The "emerging portrait" language is an old standby for Michiko Kakutani, and for arts writers in general, who sometimes want or need to be charitable to a creator of a piece of work who has either fuzzy or experimental powers of portrait-painting themselves. The main verbal action of many of the books Kakutani reviews is to passively birth a portrait by a process of emergence. It happens in Sarah Palin's "tell-all" memoir, Going Rogue. You can't get much more direct than that: A portrait is not really emerging there. Rather a person is telling you something in a book. Unless Kakutani means the book tells her something about its author that the author did not mean or want to say: then, the portrait really does only emerge, rather than simply stating itself plainly.

Here, it is precisely the opposite of other peoples' accounts, anonymous or otherwise, that allows the portrait to emerge. The portrait, in fact, emerges mostly from the mind of the writer.

Or the consensus of many writers. For the article, "From Prep School and Privilege To a Killing at a University Cafe," a portrait of a large reporting team emerges from the byline and shirttail: "By SERGE F. KOVALESKI and ALISON LEIGH COWAN; Reporting was contributed by Nate Schweber and Paul von Zielbauer in Middletown, Conn.; Al Baker, Alain Delaqueriere, William K. Rashbaum and Liz Robbins in New York; Ariana Green in Marblehead, Mass.; Martin Forstenzer in Colorado Springs; and Dan Frosch in Boulder, Colo."

The May, 2009 article, about Stephen Morgan, the gunman who opened fire at Wesleyan University in a seeming personal crusade of anti-Semitism, has this to say about itself:

As Mr. Morgan, 29, was brought into a Middletown courtroom Friday to answer to a murder that virtually paralyzed an elite college and a Connecticut town, an incongruous portrait of his life and movements emerged through police documents, public records and interviews. He came from a large churchgoing family and a privileged upbringing in one of Boston's nicer suburbs. He graduated from an elite Roman Catholic high school for boys before completing an unblemished four-year stint in the Navy.

But upon returning to civilian life in 2003, Mr. Morgan struggled, hopscotching from town to town and holding dead-end jobs, including one as a technician at a garage door company in Colorado Springs, and spending two semesters in 2007 as a nondegree student at the University of Colorado in Boulder before moving back with his parents.

A different kind of portrait—an unclear one, sort of Picassoesque, emerges here from well-documented primary source material. Perhaps the temptation to use the language emerged from a consensus of the 12-plus portrait writers that the portrait was, in fact, incongruous. But if that's the case, is it a portrait that emerged? I don't think readers of newspaper portraits are quite ready for Picasso. Or at least, the Times isn't quite sure of you on that point, yet.