July 22, 2007

Slamming the Trunk

IT'S ALWAYS SWELL when the tranquility of a nice Sunday afternoon is shattered through reading something so patently stupid it boggles the mind. Sadly, I myself experienced this just a short while ago when I discovered a silly and wretched commentary from Mrs Penelope Trunk, a business journalist who wrote an essay entitled, "It Doesn't Matter That Journalists Misquote Everyone." As Loyal Rant Readers might imagine, this essay sent my blood pressure through the roof and I spent a good ten minutes pacing around my living room in a state of intense agitation.

So what was it about Mrs Trunk's column, you ask, that got me in such a state? Well, there were two things in particular that annoyed me. The first was the column itself, which amazed me with its breezy stupidity. The second was that Mrs Trunk, who is a financial journalist in only the most generous sense of the phrase, has no business lecturing real reporters about how we go about our trade. For that matter, I doubt she has any business lecturing business people how to go about their work.

Before we get to the meat and potatoes of this thing, let's review Mrs Trunk's qualifications. According to her biography, she spent ten years as an executive in the software industry. This sounds impressive until you consider her work was in marketing. She then founded two companies, although the names and eventual disposition of those companies is unclear. Mrs Trunk was then able to parlay this -- and for this I give her credit -- into syndicated columnist work.

Mrs Trunk's column appears in more than 200 publications. This sounds impressive until you consider how much syndicated columnists get for each column they write (hint: it ain't much). She is also a careers columnist for The Boston Globe and Yahoo! Finance, and has written a book called "Brazen Careerist: The NEW Rules for Success." As Mrs Trunk's book is presently ranked No. 8,864 in terms of sales on amazon.com, I give Mrs Trunk credit for writing a book that people want to buy, as I approve heartily of writers making money. This does not, however, take away from the fact that her work is the business-journalism equivalent of soft-core pornography. Sure, it's fun to read and people like it, but it also doesn't require a lot of mental energy and it covers stuff that people intuitively know already.

Speaking of mental energy, I would invite readers to peruse Mrs Trunk's brief biography on The Huffington Post's Web site, where her essay appeared. Whether she wrote it herself, or allowed through her own inaction for it to appear as it does, she should be ashamed:

Penelope Trunk is that author of the book Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success (Warner Business 2007). She is a career columnist at The Boston Globe and Yahoo Finance. Her syndicated column has run in more than 200 publications. She writes a blog called Brazen Careerist that receives about 350,000 page view a month. Earlier, she was a software executive, and then she founded two companies. She has been through an IPO, an acquisition and a bankruptcy. Before that, she played professional beach volleyball.

Let's see -- one, two, three, four, five, SIX errors in seven sentences. Mrs Trunk is "the author," not "that author;" she is a careers columnist, not a "career" columnist with lifetime tenure; her syndicated column runs in more than 200 publications; and "page views" is the proper plural. Errors five and six involve comma placement; there should be a comma after "Warner Business" and arguably no comma after "executive." What's that? So the last two are quibbling matters. I don't care. Six errors in seven sentences, folks. This is not exactly a confidence booster here, particularly for someone who makes a living telling people how to win friends and influence people.

But I digress. Back to Mrs Trunk's column, the column that aggravated me so. The first few sentences rather annoyed me.

As a journalist I hear all the time from people in business that they are misquoted. And you know what? People need to get over that, and I'm going to tell you why.

Now, one might think this lede is actually sympathetic to journalists, particularly business journalists. But here's the thing. Journalists have an obligation to get their quotes right and their stories right, and to present what people say accurately. Sources shouldn't have to "get over" it if a reporter screws things up. Sources, who take time out of their day to help reporters on deadline, deserve better.

I'm certainly not going to deny people get misquoted in the press. This is because reporters are human and, from time to time, screw things up. However, there's a difference between "I didn't like the story the reporter wrote" and "the reporter screwed up what I said." It's sloppy for Mrs Trunk to breezily lump the two together. Sure, people sometimes tell others they got misquoted because they didn't like how the story turned out, and it's a useful face-saving measure. But if a reporter screws up in expressing the views a source has stated, the record needs to be corrected.

Mrs Trunk continues:

The reason that everyone thinks journalists misquote them is that the person who is writing is the one who gets to tell the story. No two people tell the same story. ...

Journalists who think they are telling "the truth" don't understand the truth. We each have our own truth. When you leave out details, you might leave out what is unimportant to you but very important to someone else, and things start feeling untrue to the person who wishes you included something else.

Recruiters, by the way, know this well. If I get fired from three jobs but I only report that during that period I taught dance lessons to toddlers, I am not lying. I am merely telling the part of the story that I want to tell. No one can tell every part of every story. The details are infinite. But in this case, the fact that I left off the details most important to the recruiter makes the recruiter feel like it's lying. But it's not. I'm telling my version of the story.

So everyone feels misquoted because people say 20 or 30 sentences for every one sentence that a journalist prints. It's always in the context of the journalist's story, not the speaker's story.

Here's my advice: If you do an interview with a journalist, don't expect the journalist to be there to tell your story. The journalist gets paid to tell her own stories which you might or might not be a part of. And journalists, don't be so arrogant to think you are not "one of those" who misquotes everyone. Because that is to say that your story is the right story. But it's not. We each have a story. And whether or not someone actually said what you said they said, they will probably still feel misquoted.

How Mrs Trunk got to write a column on anything is absolutely amazing.

One barely knows where to start in condemning this milquetoast, limp-wristed wreck of a column, so we'll start with the idea of objective truth.

Although it is fashionable these days for people to claim that truth is relative, this collegiate idiocy does not tend to stand up in the business world, where numbers are numbers and facts are facts. If I report that Company X has paid $Y for Building Z, then I'm putting it out there as the truth. Either I'm right -- and I nearly always am -- or I screwed up and I'm wrong. If Company A lays off B number of employees and does so for reason C, and tells me as such, there's the truth right there.

So the truth here isn't all that difficult to understand. It is in fact out there. It's not all that difficult to report. So for a glorified marketing consultant to tell me that truth is relative is downright ridiculous.

It's also downright ridiculous for Mrs Trunk to suggest, as she does, that selective recall somehow allows one to present "the truth" when it does not paint a complete picture of a situation. Lying through omitting crucial details is still lying, whether Mrs Trunk wants to admit it or not. If a reporter wrote a story about a business deal, and purposely left out crucial details so that Situation A was presented as reality when it was in fact Situation B, then the reporter has committed a fraud upon his readers.

What really gets me, though, is that Mrs Trunk -- despite existing at the margins of journalism -- has the audacity to tell others in her field they ought not arrogantly assume they don't misquote sources. Leaving out instances of human error, real reporters who deal with real business matters work very diligently to make sure they get the story right. For this dilletante to suggest otherwise is brash and insulting.

The real frustrating thing about Mrs Trunk's column is that it again reinforces the idea that journalists are hopelessly biased and spend hours each day trying to think up ways to screw the God-fearing American public. Consider, over at Dean's World, writer Dave Price's reaction:

Sadly, such notions of rigorous intellectual honesty and absolute truth don't even rate lip service from our media, thanks to attitudes like this. Instead of being a reliable source of objective, factual news, the media forces anyone seeking truth to de-filter the narrator's bias from every "story" -- often with extremely troubling consequences.

See what I mean? Journalists have enough problems without people like Mrs Trunk making things worse. Then, there's Mr Esmay's comment to Mr Price's response. Mr Esmay writes:

The most obnoxious example of this sort of press behavior is the "reports" they give on poll results. Newspapers are especially notorious about this: instead of printing the questions exactly as they were asked, and then just giving the numbers, they "interpret" the poll for you. That's where bogus things like "most Americans believed Saddam was behind 9/11" bullshit stories came from, just for example.

As someone who has written a few "poll" or "report" stories in his day, I've always worked to summarize the poll or report as opposed to interpreting it. It's just data, after all, and the readers are more than capable of intrepreting the data themselves. The important things to summarize are the poll results, its methodology, its margin of error -- and of course, where the readers can find a copy of the whole thing if they're interested in learning more. That's not to say there's no place for intrepretation -- after all, the data may show trends and those trends are worth reporting -- but again, data is data. There's only so much reading of the tea leaves one can do, and if reporters must go all out looking for deeper meaning, they should get other sources to do the interpreting.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at July 22, 2007 06:44 PM | TrackBack
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