Bad Prose of the Day

It may seem as if I’m picking on the Deseret News, but then I do read the Utah papers every day because I live here. It’s not my fault that the DesNews tends to publish more egregiously bad writing than does the Salt Lake Tribune.

Anyway, yesterday Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas swore in Tom Lee as a justice of the Utah Supreme Court. It seems that after law school, Lee clerked for Thomas, and DesNews writer Jamshid Ghazi Askar’s article allows Lee to gush about Thomas and Thomas to gush about Lee. (I should say at the outset that I don’t know either man, and I’m sure Tom Lee is qualified to be a Supreme Court justice. My quarrel isn’t with the subjects of the article but rather with the writing.)

So, we start with a riveting headline: “New Utah justice has bond with U.S. justice.” Granted, this isn’t a headline that would attract a lot of attention, but maybe it was meant to indicate a low-key approach to the topic. I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Here’s the opening line: “Today, when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Thomas R. Lee face each other with right arms raised, the former will swear in the latter to the Utah Supreme Court.” Fair enough. That is how justices are sworn in, but then we don’t really need to know the mechanics of it (does anyone think they face away from each other, arms flailing?).

“In person and on paper, the two men couldn’t be more different.” OK, what the hell is that supposed to mean? The following paragraph explains, and it’s such a thing of beauty it needs to be appreciated one sentence at a time.

“A receding gray hairline caps Thomas’ dark brown face.” The contrast of colors is kind of nice, though Askar seems to want to say, “Thomas is black,” without actually saying so. And how can something that is receding “cap” anything?

“He is shorter than most men, even though at 62 years old vestiges of a powerful build remain hewn to his frame.” Oh, dear. I’m trying to imagine how a vestige can be anything but old. And how is a build “hewn” to a frame? Hewing refers to chopping or cutting, often to give shape to something. So, he’s telling us that Thomas’s build was chopped to his frame, which makes no sense at all. For that matter, what’s the difference between a build and a frame? I don’t know, but maybe if you hew a frame, you’re left with a build.

“His father abandoned him before he turned 2 years old; his lone surviving sibling lives in rural Georgia and soaks up hours of daytime television each and every weekday.” I love the image of someone soaking up soap operas and The Price Is Right “each and every weekday”; if he had written just “each,” I for one wouldn’t have guessed it was also “every weekday.” And one wonders what Thomas’s TV-addict brother does on weekends. Maybe he teaches at a university or plays a local blues bar.

But it gets better when Askar describes Lee. “In stark contrast, Lee looks like central casting’s version of a Nordic god: tall, pale, lean and angular.” OK, we get it: Thomas is black, short, and kind of pudgy, whereas Lee is white, tall, and thin (but does he look like a Nordic god to you? For comparison, this is the guy who will be playing Nordic god Thor in an upcoming film). Any “central casting” agent who hired Tom Lee to play a Nordic god would probably get fired in short order.

And then we get this: “His father, Rex E. Lee, blazed a trail to the pinnacle of prominence and lawyerly notoriety as the founding dean of BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School, solicitor general of the United States during the Reagan administration and the 10th president of BYU.” So much to digest: blazing trails to “the pinnacle of prominence” (lovely alliteration) and “lawyerly notoriety” before we actually hear what his accomplishments were.

Then Askar contrasts Thomas’s shiftless brother with Lee’s driven sibling: “Lee’s brother, Mike Lee, can often be found pounding the pavement out on the campaign trail as the heavy favorite to be Utah’s next U.S. senator.” So many hackneyed phrases: “pounding the pavement,” “out on the campaign trail,” “heavy favorite.” But Mike Lee is only campaigning “often.” I wonder what he does with his spare time? Maybe he watches The View with Justice Thomas’s brother.

“And yet, despite all their differences, Justice Thomas and soon-to-be Justice Lee share such a close bond that they’re practically family.” Ah, there’s the bond part, and it’s even “close.” And who would have imagined that too such different guys (the short but vestigially powerful “dark brown” man and the “pale” Nordic god) would be so close?

“The story of Thomas and Lee began back in 1993.” This sentence amounts to, “In 1993,” but our author is clearly not interested in introductory clauses unless they carry the rhetorical weight of “In start contrast” or “And yet, despite their differences” (a twofer, as it were).

“Lee was two years removed from law school at the University of Chicago, and Thomas summoned Lee to his chambers for a one-on-one interview to determine if Lee would be one of the four clerks Thomas hired for the 1994-95 Supreme Court term.” Essentially, he’s describing a job interview for a clerkship, but instead we have Lee “summoned” to Thomas’s “chambers,” which I guess is supposed to sound more ominous and impressive, akin to Thomas More standing for truth and right before the English Court. (Of course, the image that popped into my head was that of George Costanza being lectured by the back of George Steinbrenner’s head, but I digress.)

I’ll spare you Lee’s report of the interview, but it’s in keeping with the tone of the article. Suffice it to say that from that one hour, he felt drawn to Thomas (whom he describes as “warm, generous, kind, fun-loving, [and] wonderful. … (My) desire (and) longing to clerk for him was [sic] magnified tenfold”). But back to the author.

“As Thomas pointed out, the location of that 1993 meeting held special significance for Lee. Following the retirement of Justice Byron White from the Supreme Court earlier that year, Thomas had recently moved into the former chambers of White — the same justice for whom Lee’s father served a Supreme Court clerkship in the 1960s.”

That last sentence is a doozy. The long introductory clause is followed by “Thomas had recently moved into the former chambers of White,” which seems to loop back awkwardly to make sure we know it’s White’s chambers we’re talking about (as opposed to, say, the chamber of secrets or the Orem Chamber of Commerce). Then we are told–after a superfluous dash–that Lee’s father had clerked for White in the sixties; we need to be told this was a “Supreme Court” clerkship so that we don’t assume Rex Lee was doing a 7-11 clerkship for Justice White.

Then it’s Thomas’s turn to gush about Lee: “very conscientious, very serious, honest to a fault, a nice guy, and smart and precise in his words.” And in case we missed it the first time, the author includes Thomas’s restatement of whom Rex Lee had clerked for in “those very same chambers.”

“During their year together at the Supreme Court, Thomas educated Lee and his three fellow clerks about how to be effective jurists.” Yep, that’s part of being a clerk.

Next: “Thomas also steeped them in the sagacious nuggets of wisdom he had gleaned from his grandfather, Myers Anderson, and which would eventually be a basis for Thomas’ 2007 memoir, ‘My Grandfather’s Son.'” Dear God, make it stop. How in the hell do you steep someone in nuggets, let alone sagacious ones? And since when does someone glean nuggets? And am I the only one who noticed that the author uses the possessive apostrophe without a following ‘s,’ a style choice usually reserved only for Jesus? Maybe he’s subtly expressing what he thinks of Justice Thomas. But all that aside, I don’t know why we’re being told that Thomas shared his wisdom with his clerks, which he “gleaned” from his grandfather and then wrote down in a book. It almost sounds as if Thomas was using his clerks as a preview audience for his book.

“The relationship between Thomas and Lee inexorably changed in 1996 when Lee’s father passed away following a prolonged bout with cancer.” ‘Inexorably’ is clearly the wrong word here, as it means ‘relentlessly,’ not permanently or drastically, as the author appears to mean. And why reduce Rex Lee’s courageous and excruciatingly long illness to a “bout,” as if he had just been fighting off a cold?

“At that point, Thomas began filling a more active mentoring role for his one-time clerk.” Now we get two paragraphs from Lee explaining how Justice Thomas has become a close friend, confidant, and adviser.

Then the money question: “So what was Thomas’ advice last year about the idea that comes to fruition today as Lee joins the Utah Supreme Court?” Ouch. He inserts “last year” so that we know that the “idea” in question is Lee’s “career decision” to try to get the Supreme Court nomination, which Lee discussed two paragraphs earlier. But even though we haven’t talked about an idea, it’s coming to fruition. After a recitation of some generic platitudes from Lee (“‘He felt that this was something that would be very enriching to me professionally and fulfilling and enjoyable,’ Lee said”), we’re left pondering the little dark brown man steeping a Nordic god in sagacious nuggets of wisdom until an idea comes to fruition. Somehow, watching daytime television each and every day doesn’t sound half bad. Beats reading the Deseret News.

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One Response to Bad Prose of the Day

  1. MC says:

    I would say these examples are shockingly bad, but I’m not really that shocked. I don’t know if local newspaper writers have always been so bad; I wonder if budget cut-backs or other economic factors have forced more talented writers to find work elsewhere.

    In addition to super-hackey writing, I’ve noticed something else the D-news does which bugs me. If you read the Technology section, you’ll occasionally see “articles” that were quite obviously written by a company pushing their product. It will say things like “this new product promises to change the way we do business,” or “the gizmotron takes the place of three gadgets, making your life easier.” And to be clear, these aren’t ads per se – they are presented as unbiased, journalistic articles. Sorry, Deseret News – this isn’t news. It’s marketing material.

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