In defense of screeds: Frank Bruni's misguided pining for journalism's good old days

Times columnist tries to turn his paper's poor handling of Jill Abramson's firing into a critique -- of the media

Published June 3, 2014 2:43PM (EDT)

Frank Bruni             (AP/Yanina Manolova)
Frank Bruni (AP/Yanina Manolova)

There are few things better than a well-crafted, justifiably outraged screed. I say this with no small amount of self-interest as someone whose career to date has been marked by more than a few screeds. The word tends to have a negative connotation, and I’ve definitely used it as a pejorative in the past, but man oh man … I love a good screed.

Even when they fail, they’re worth reading. There’s something inherently amusing about watching a pitcher slowly pace the mound, take his time digging in, shake off pitch after pitch, go through an elaborate wind-up, and then throw the ball in the dirt. The same goes for a badly delivered screed.

But screeds, even the good ones, have a bad rap, thanks to people like New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, whose piece this weekend on the state of the media ("Full Screed Ahead") bemoaned the supplanting of “traditional news gathering” with “grandstanding,” which is “more easily summoned, more cheaply produced.”

At first blush, Bruni’s column appears to be yet another example of a journalist pining for journalism the way it used to be, before Twitter and various other social media platforms corrupted it. “We no longer have news. We have springboards for commentary. We have cues for Tweets.” He lays out the problem as one of terrible hastiness:

Something happens, and before the facts are even settled, the morals are deduced and the lessons drawn. The story is absorbed into the agendas. Everyone has a preferred take on it, a particular use for it. And as one person after another posits its real significance, the discussion travels so far from what set it in motion that the truth – the knowable, verifiable truth – is left in the dust.

If you go back and search for that era of journalism in which facts were nailed down concretely before interested parties co-opted the story for their own purposes, you’ll find that it doesn’t exist except in the gauzy reminiscences of mid- to late-career pundits.

This culture of reverence for the Good Old Days that never were is particularly strong at legacy media outfits like the New York Times, which long enjoyed the capability to dominate news coverage -- both in terms of what was covered and how it was covered – before people started writing things on the Internet. The loss of control over the narrative is what Bruni is really upset about, which becomes clear as his column transitions to critiquing the coverage of the firing of New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson.

It’s hard to overstate how badly the Times handled the Abramson situation. The first female editor of the paper, she was abruptly and unceremoniously canned, her departure announced by publisher Arthur Sulzberger at a staff meeting at which she was not present. No cause was given, no explanations tendered. It was, of course, Sulzberger’s prerogative not to elaborate on personnel decisions, but when the woman running the nation’s most prominent newspaper is suddenly and mysteriously fired, it’ll raise a few eyebrows.

Confronted with an information vacuum, reporters tried to fill it. Enter Ken Auletta from the New Yorker, who wrote a piece the day of Abramson’s dismissal reporting that her salary as executive editor was significantly less than that of her predecessor, Bill Keller, and suggesting that her firing was due in part to her insistence on closing the pay gap.

Bruni writes that Auletta has subsequently “revis[ed] the narrative,” and other reasons have emerged for Abramson’s dismissal, but that didn’t matter, writes Bruni, because the screeds had already been written:

But most striking of all was the distance between the chatter and the uncontested facts. That chatter turned a profoundly sad and particular set of circumstances into a parable about female executives’ inability to be both tough and loved, a referendum on all women in the workplace, a report card on the newspaper’s efforts to innovate, a harbinger of its sustained relevance. The event buckled under the weight of the significance piled onto it.

And …? All those themes feel like legitimate topics for discussion when one of the most powerful female executives in media is fired and the New York Times makes a major change to its leadership. The episode sparked some inane “chatter” but also some great writing and thoughtful ruminations on powerful women in the workplace. Bruni talks about the “profoundly sad” nature of Abramson’s firing as if we’re all expected to maintain the respectful distance accorded to family members of the recently deceased.

The one common thread linking all the themes Bruni brings up is that they are precisely the opposite of how the New York Times wanted the story to be discussed. They lost control of the narrative from the get-go, owing largely to Sulzberger’s terrible handling of the situation. Bruni has the insider’s perspective, arguing that the problem wasn’t with the Times, but with the rest of the media, which just couldn’t accept that the paper would rather not make too big a deal over this, thank you very much.

Therein lies the value of a good screed. Stridency of opinion and a willingness to venture slightly beyond the official story line can be effective at shaking loose information from people who would rather sit on it, or draw them into a conversation they’d otherwise happily avoid. Even a bad screed can be useful as a jumping-off point for the target of said screed to correct the record.

This is the stuff of media and politics -- the never-ending quest to demonstrate that the other guy is wrong. Screeds are a part of that process, less a bug than a feature. The only way for the screed to disappear is for people to stop being terrible, and since that will never happen, it makes more sense to embrace them rather than pine for a return to the mythical era of genteel journalism.

By Simon Maloy

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