The Case For Jesse M. Brill

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Here is just one of the many places where Michael Kinsley (whom I regard as a columnistic legend, by the way) went wrong in his piece about newspaper articles being "too long" for their own good. The article "Cut This Story!" appeared in the January/February issue of (glorious, wonderful, thanks for the shout-out) The Atlantic magazine and has generated both heat and light ever since.

"Quotes from outside experts or observers are also a rich source of unnecessary verbiage in newspaper articles," Kinsley writes. He then uses, as an example of this conduct, a November 8, 2009 article from The New York Times written by Louise Story on bank bailouts. Kinsley didn't like that Story quoted a man in the bank bailout business named Jesse M. Brill. "I, for one, have never heard of Jesse M. Brill before," Kinsley wrote. "He may be a fine fellow. But I have no particular reason to trust him, and he has no particular reason to need my trust."

This is what the first crack at a Google tells us about Mr. Brill. Pretty impressive. What follows then is my argument on his behalf, and on behalf of the reporter who used his quote to enrich her story, and on behalf of experts and analysts (like me) everywhere. Sorry, Mr. Kinsley. Call it cheesy but consider it a long-due and deeply-respectful payback for your "Muffins" book, which I dutifully bought and devoured when I was in college.

Like Kinsley, I had never before met or heard of Jesse M. Brill before his brief quote was included in Story's story. Unlike Kinsley, however, I was nonetheless impressed that Brill would evidently be prominent and respected enough in his field to garner the attention and respect of a Times' reporter. I assume, as I believe most reasonable people do, that reporters for the Times care about which sources they choose to quote in their stories because they care about what their editors and bosses and other sources think about their coverage of their beat.

If Story is a legitimate journalist, and I assume she is, and if she is a good one, and I assume she is otherwise she wouldn't be at the Times, she has every incentive to include only the best quotes from only the best sources in the precious space she has in which to tell her tale. If Brill had said something stupid, or completely out of whack with Story's experiences and perspectives, she would not have included his views in her piece. The people reading Story's piece--not people like me and Kinsley but people who know anything about bank bailouts--are Story's "checks and balances." If she doesn't impress them with her use of quotes, she won't get them as sources when it all comes round again. She will ultimately lose her beat or her job.

I know a little more than most about this because I have routinely been the "source" who gets quoted as an "expert" in a story about the law. In fact, although I cannot remember the date, I still remember the day I was first quoted in The Times. It was during the Timothy McVeigh trial and I felt as though I had arrived. I also felt as though I had had to earn the right to be quoted by my commentary and analysis on the Oklahoma City bombing trial. I am quite sure that Brill felt the same way on November 8. I would be shocked if he did not.

Straight news articles should include analysis from experts like Brill. Otherwise, the pressure on reporters like Story to become their own analysts would be even more intense than it is today (especially on television news). Kinsley argues that Story's use of Brill constitutes a sort of passive-aggressive ploy to ensure that her views of the bailout are fully represented on the sly. Maybe that's true, or not. But who cares. I feel a lot better being a part of Story's conspiracy knowing that Brill has weighed in. Don't you?

Kinsley also argues that since no reader can immediately evaluate Brill's responsibility, it's really the responsibility of the paper to ensure accuracy. As my son would say--"that's what I am saying." If you are taking the time to read The Times you ought to trust it--with a grain of salt, always. Otherwise, what's the point? You might as well go online and watch YouTube videos of cats playing pianos. If you can't trust The Times to use a reporter like Story when she sources a guy like Brill, then the Times already has lost its battle for your heart and mind--perhaps you should go find succor in the Valley of Beck.

Because of what I do for a living, I intensely follow coverage of the law. Not only am I familiar with the writing and skills of most of the reporters on the beat, I have come to be familiar with some of the sources they use. I know, for example, that Erwin Chemerinsky is likely to offer a more "liberal" quote than Kenneth Starr. I know that when Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center is quoted in a story about capital punishment that the person doing the reporting knows what they are doing. The use of these people in these stories adds to their value to me even as it adds to the number of inches for the paper.

In a perfect world, newspapers will evolve this way into daily magazines, offering sharp coverage of fewer stories and ceding to the Internet the little "news brief" sections and 250-word wire stories that make most daily newspapers so unsatisfying these days. In fact, you could argue, that one of the things that separates The Times from lesser newspapers is that the stories are long enough to include color and a quote or two from "experts." This deserves praise, not Kinsley's scorn.  

The reason print journalism is dying has far less to do with what its story-lengths are and much more to do with the way Americans now want and are able to get their news. Now, more than ever, with so many inexperienced anchors and reporters and hosts weighing in on matters of expertise way beyond their means, I believe we need to see more "context and perspective" quotes from Brill and his fellow pontificators. At least when they offer their opinions, they aren't hiding behind a glitzy studio set as anchors or behind the words "reporter" or "correspondent."

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice.

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