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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 03:36 PM ET, 01/30/2012

‘Portraits’ are ‘emerging’ all the time in the New York Times

Yesterday’s front-page story in the New York Times on Vegas casino mogul and generous Newt Gingrich benefactor Sheldon Adelson carried its share of distinguishing features. It had helpful details on the evolution of his political views. It explained how he came to adore Gingrich.

One of its distinguishing features, however, was not this sentence:

Through interviews and a review of Mr. Adelson’s testimony in legal disputes with former associates, a portrait emerges of a formidable and determined striver who lifted himself out of childhood penury in working-class Boston. He has a sentimental streak — on one of his first trips to Israel, he wore the shoes of his late father, a cabdriver from Lithuania who was never able to visit there — and he has given hundreds of millions of dollars to Jewish causes, medical research and injured veterans.

Through Nexis searches and sheer intuition, a portrait emerges of the use of the term “portrait emerges” in the pages of the New York Times — that of a highfalutin cliche that reporters invoke to imbue their feature writing with the feel of high art.

The New York Times is particularly good at spotting portraits emerging — more than 130 of them in the past five years, according to a Nexis archive of Times stories. (And we’re hardly the first ones to take note!)*

In one case the emerging starts really early, right in the headline:“Several Portraits Emerge Of Engineer in Fatal Crash” (Sept. 21, 2008).

Another, on Britain’s Tony Blair, has a little twist to it: “And the self-portrait that emerges from his new memoir, ‘A Journey: My Political Life,’ is very much that of a man without a shadow.” Not such a unique twist, however. From a review of a novel on Fidel Castro: “The ‘self-portrait’ that emerges from these pages is that of a Machiavellian survivor: an egomaniac who identifies himself with the revolution but who is loyal not to a cause, not to an ideology, not to his compatriots, but only to his own ambition.”

Here’s a classic, on Jeffrey Conroy: “In interviews with Mr. Conroy, his father, his friends, his lacrosse coaches and his lawyer, one portrait of him emerges: that of a friendly, athletic teenager willing to stick up for others, of someone who counted several Hispanics among his closest friends, including the girl he had been dating off and on for years, Pamela Suarez, who is Bolivian.”

But hey, “portrait” and “emerges” have a way of cozying up at the New York Times even in non-feature stories: A January 2010 story titled “Housing Indexes for November Indicate a Pause, but Not a Plunge” includes this delight. “Put all these indexes together, and a portrait emerges of a market going nowhere.” The market now has its own portrait!

Other outlets don’t work these adjacencies as furiously as the New York Times. Over the five-year study period, for instance, the Washington Post clocks 67 portrait-emergences, including this Times look-alike from a 2007 piece on Tom Wells, attorney for Scooter Libby:

Wells would not sit for an interview for this story. But through conversations and e-mails with friends, colleagues, his mother and others who know him well, a portrait emerges of a tough defense attorney who has mastered the balance between easygoing and hard-charging.

Even weaker at the art of emerging portraits is the Los Angeles Times (52 examples over five years); the Chicago Tribune (23); and get this — the Associated Press comes in with 74. Given the oceans of copy that it turns out each day, that may well be the lowest per-story “portrait” rate in all of journalism.

The lack of practice at portrait-emergence shows in the AP copy. Take a look at this subpar effort, in a story about the decline of the radical environmentalist movement:

The portrait that emerges is a band of young people, compassionate toward animals, seeking direction in life, looking to impress each other and reinforce their own sense of self-worth as much as they were looking for a cause. Mostly, they were desperate for attention for that cause.

As any good portrait-emerger will tell you, that sentence is missing two words: “The portrait that emerges is that of a band of young people, compassionate toward animals . . . ” Three hours of portrait-emerging instruction at the New York Times for you, AP.

*Post updated to included this credit to Tom McGeveran.

By  |  03:36 PM ET, 01/30/2012

 
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