My least favorite professional liars: PR people, speechwriters, and scientists

There is a very scary article in the Feb. 10, 2014 New Yorker, about a scientist (Tyrone Hayes) who discovered in the late 1990s that the herbicide atrazine, made by a company called Syngenta, grossly disrupts the hormonal systems of amphibians. Other researchers have since argued that groundwater contamination from atrazine poses a severe risk to the development of human fetuses and children, as well as to the health of adults.

The article is apparently free-for-view, rather than behind the magazine’s firewall. I urge you to check it out for yourself.

Atrazine was in fact banned in 2004 by the European Union for these potential health risks. Unsurprisingly, however, it is still the most widely used herbicide in the U.S. But the widespread use of such a damaging chemical, all in the name of profit, is not what scares and angers me. That is business as usual in our economy and we support it all the way to hell and back (although the “back” part is becoming increasingly unlikely) with our lifestyles. No, what scares and angers me is the perfectly legal, but morally unsupportable campaign waged for years against Tyrone Hayes, the scientist, in an attempt to discredit him by any means possible.

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Journalistic convention: Why the New York Times conflated the Norway shootings with Islamic terrorism

Yesterday’s New York Times carried a deadline report of the killing just outside of Oslo, Norway, of “at least 80 people” by a lone gunman who walked into a youth political camp and began shooting. The story carried the information high up that police had arrested a 32-year-old Norwegian man, reportedly a right-wing extremist, as the only suspect in the massacre. You can read the story here. (I’ve permalinked it so as to preserve more or less the original version.)

The story was a group effort by several reporters (as is typical for deadline pieces about shocking disasters) and was for the most part soberly factual. And yet, strangely, the last seven paragraphs managed to twist the incident into a peculiar and unsupported vein of speculation: the actions of this lone Norwegian gunman, the Times asserted, were somehow proof that Al Qaeda and similar groups were either now, or would be soon, upping the scale of their attacks on Western countries. Here are the key paragraphs that carried this assertion:

Terrorism specialists said that even if the authorities ultimately ruled out Islamic terrorism as the cause of Friday’s assaults, other kinds of groups or individuals were mimicking Al Qaeda’s brutality and multiple attacks.

“If it does turn out to be someone with more political motivations, it shows these groups are learning from what they see from Al Qaeda,” said Brian Fishman, a counterterrorism researcher at the New America Foundation in Washington. “One lesson I take away from this is that attacks, especially in the West, are going to move to automatic weapons.”

How could an otherwise straightforward news story, reported and carried by one of the most respected news organizations in the U.S., deviate into an ugly fantasy that made no sense in the context of the facts? And which might strike some observers as likely to stir up anti-Islamic prejudice without reason? These questions become especially pertinent—indeed, ironic— in light of the fact that today’s story in the Times carries further reports that the killer was not just right-wing, but “a gun-loving Norwegian obsessed with what he saw as the threats of multiculturalism and Muslim immigration.”

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Rewriting “The Piano Teacher” for stronger scenes

The Piano TeacherYesterday I came to the end of The Piano Teacher by Janice Y. K. Lee. It’s an intriguing read, and highly suspenseful—but among other things, it has reminded me of John Gardner’s injunction that actions in a scene should nearly always be described in chronological order.

This is a point of craft I regularly teach to my nonfiction writing students at NYU. Gardner’s argument is that getting the sequence right avoids jarring readers out of the dream state that makes good fiction so compelling. I make the additional argument that even with nonfiction, correct sequencing helps with clarity, allowing readers to understand what’s going on the first time through a passage.

And now I have found still a third reason: it makes the action not only clearer, but far more dramatic—especially if the scene is already a good one.

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My favorite ellipsis

Last night in the essays class I teach at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, the subject of ellipses came up. In a story, an ellipsis consists of leaving something out. The “something” can be anything from a few words to entire events. Unless we are reading quite technically, we usually only notice an ellipsis when it goes wrong—when the gap seems awkward or omits information we’re looking for. But when an ellipsis goes right, especially at the level of a sentence or a phrase, it can produce prose that is wonderfully economical and far more enjoyable than if the writer had told all.

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Samuel R. Delaney on doubt in writing

Reading the excerpt below makes me think of how difficult yet rewarding it must be to peel and eat a durian, that strange fruit found only in southeast Asia, and guarded by not only a foul odor but a thick husk of thorns. The excerpt comes from an essay by the science fiction writer, literary critic, and teacher Samuel R. Delaney; the title is “Of Doubts and Dreams” and it can be found in a thorny volume by Delaney titled About Writing.

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Writing Memoirs and Reportage: Camera, or Participant?

If you’re writing a memoir or other form of first-person nonfiction, you must decide from the outset: do you want to be a camera, or a participant? If you’re a camera, you’ll see everything that happens and relay it to your readers in great detail—yet at the same time, you’ll play down or even conceal your own role in all this. As a technique, this allows you to make your version of events and persons as one-sided as you like, without any need to take responsibility for your involvement, whether then or now.

If you’re a participant, on the other hand, you’ll have to admit that yes, in fact you participated actively in the story you’re telling: not only did you see what went on, but you made decisions, you had choices. And this will apply not only to back then, but to the here-and-now as well—a place where you as the flesh-and-blood writer have feelings and thoughts and opinions about what you’re telling us.

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How to combine story and idea in an essay

Why write a personal essay? One reason is that few other forms allow a writer to combine story and idea, action and thought; in short, to not only relate incidents from your life, but to muse about the implications.

The question is, how to do this so that it works? You might think that an easy answer would be to write a story, than divide it into scenes; then, in between the cracks of the scenes, insert your musings. Asterisks or white space or some other visual device can be used to signal the transitions. This is certainly what I thought, in making my own first attempts at thoughtful essays.

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Essays by Grossman and Pamuk

Not really book reviews, just quick notes -

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