Jeffrey Goldberg and Jack Shafer
During the campaign, the press busted the presidential candidates every time they harvested a mawkish anecdote from some specific sad bastard's life to make one of their policy pitches. (Often the sad bastard was strategically placed in the audience to give the TV citizenry that throat-clogging Oprah moment.) I cringed whether it was George Bush demonstrating his compassionate conservatism in one of the debates by misting up over the Texas convict who asked him who really cared about his jailed ass or Al Gore jawboning against pricey pharmaceuticals by complaining that his mother-in-law was paying three times as much for the same arthritis drug that her dog Shiloh consumed (a claim that turned out not to be true).
Politicians rely on cheap, emotional anecdotes for obvious reasons. Theirs is a cheap and emotional business. But what's to explain our press comrades' overreliance on the same technique? Scanning the morning papers I find two sad bastard ledes without even searching. My friend Rachel Zimmerman begins her Page One Wall Street Journal story about drug patent extensions with the up-close and personal story of "Mary Robinson, a Philadelphia X-ray technologist," who enrolled her 7-month-old baby in a drug-testing program in return for a $50 Toys "R" Us gift certificate. It's a fine story about the politics of patent extension, but the anecdote never pays off. Baby Robinson pops up only one more time, deep, deep in the story, where we find out that the diluted drug she was fed in the drug trial cured her indigestion.
The Los Angeles Times similarly frames its Israeli election piece around one everyman, Tuvia Metzer, a "pro-peace Israeli leftist." As a pro-war Israeli rightist, you're surely peeved by this story to no end. But what puts the starch in my drawers is the story's artificial dependence on a character who could have been recruited from central casting. He's going to vote for Ehud Barak, but "only after weeks of agonizing inner debate." Metzer doesn't really matter to this routine campaign story except to give it the quick stink of flesh and blood. (Do you think Shiloh will bark for Barak or speak for Sharon? And you, my dual-citizen buddy? Do you cast absentee ballots in Israeli elections? Who's your guy?)
As long as we're on the subject of cheap anecdotes, here's mine. I'm off this morning to visit an "oral and maxillofacial surgeon" who wants to carve a chunk of flesh out of the inside of my mouth. It seems that after years of accidentally biting the inside of my cheek with my right wisdom teeth, I've developed a benign (I assume) little growth that my regular dentist wants removed. Dentists love my mouth the way mechanics love the engine compartment of a 1957 Chevy: more room to bang around in than the Millennium Dome. When I return I'll probably be stitched, medicated, and sedated, so take it easy on me. (Slate readers should know in advance of your plot to disturb the comity that they've come to expect from the "Breakfast Table" with your particular brand of big noise.)
Hey, do you think I'll get a $50 Toys "R" Us gift certificate from the surgeon if I'm a good boy?
Over to you,
Jack Shafer is deputy editor of Slate. Jeffrey Goldberg is a staff writer at The New Yorker. His book on the Middle East, Prisoners, will be published next year by Knopf.