Saturday, January 25, 2014

Question What You Read—and Write

We have to read in a state of wide-awakeness, to use a term popularized by educational philosopher Maxine Greene. By wide-awakeness she means personal reflection, judging carefully and not accepting premises, methods, and results at face value. This idea so also applies to writing, which isn’t only about sentence fluency and grammatical correctness. It’s more importantly about objective analysis and sound thinking, and some of the most respected publications make serious blunders in these areas.

Case in point: The New York Times on January 23, 2014, printed an article about JPMorgan Chase Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon getting a raise. Two flaws immediately surface in the article. Before mentioning them, I want to make clear that I am not taking sides with the man or the company. I am interested only in an equitable handling of facts regardless of the subject.  

The first occurs in the title: "Fined Billions, JPMorgan Chase Will Give Dimon a Raise." The article presumes to be a hard news story, which calls for an objective style. Yet it spews its opinion before the first sentence. Most semiconscious readers will have already formed an opinion of the company and its leader just from that headline. Even though the fines did occur under Mr. Dimon's watch, this rhetorical strategy is unfair. It is also true that the company's stock rose 22% in the past 12 months, so why didn't the headline read "A Year after Excellent Returns, JPMorgan Chase Will Give Dimon a Raise"? The answer must be that the newspaper has an ax to grind against the company and its leader. So much for objective analysis. An unbiased headline would have dropped the first two words. 

The second error arises toward the end of the article, which describes confrontational meetings pitting a minority of board members against giving Dimon the raise with a majority of board members in favor. The authors write, "During the meetings, some board members left the conference room to pace up and down the 50th floor corridor." Where's the sound reasoning here? Was the urge to pace the reason that they left the meeting? Did they simply want to vent? Were they satisfying a desire to get some exercise? Or were they pacing while talking to strategists on their mobile devices? Or trying to broker a deal with their adversaries? Instead of asserting that the board members had the intention of merely pacing a corridor, perhaps the reporters could have written, "During the meetings, some board members left the conference room, pacing up and down the 50th floor corridor, as they tried to reach an agreement." Better yet, the entire sentence could have been deleted.

So if we have to read in a state of wide-awakeness, how much more so when we write.