The Case For Jesse M. Brill

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.

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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, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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