Tuesday, March 08, 2005

On The First Lady and the President

Not to pick on Elisabeth Bumiller too much, but I think that once again she falls into a sloppy writing style, in several ways.

First, her article's emphasis seems troubling, given her material. Bumiller is ostensibly reporting on a recent speech Laura Bush made in Pittsburgh addressing an upcoming administration program, "Helping America's Youth," an:
Initiative [that] consists of administration programs already in effect. The name is in large part a marketing tool that ties the programs together and promotes strong religious faith, families and communities as solutions. Mrs. Bush herself called it an "umbrella initiative that incorporates several federal programs that already exist or that have been proposed in the president's budget." intended to help "troubled youth."
Rather than making this program or Laura Bush's speech the focus of the article, however, Bumiller makes President Bush's presence and the supposed inversion of the First Lady and President's roles the story's main focus. As the article's headline suggests and much of the article's paragraph's attest, the real interesting thing, for Bumiller's article, is that President Bush appears to be taking a seat behind his formerly quiet First Lady. Consider this: the article's first four paragraphs deal explicitly or implicitly with the unique enactment of the first couple's assumed roles and the final paragraph displays more of President Bush's quirkiness than any connection to the article's presumably rightful subject: Laura Bush's address and the program she talked about. There is something troubling when an attempt to raise awareness about an issue is silenced in favor of something we already knew: President Bush acts a little sweet and goofy when he's around his wife in public (an arguably tangential thing for the public to know or even care about!)

Second, even on a syntactical level this de-emphasis of the "news" occurs. Bumiller begins her article by saying:
President Bush appeared as the supportive spouse on Monday to his wife's new program intended to help troubled youth, and then took a seat in the background.
Where is the action at in this sentence--is it in the speaker, the program? No. It exists only around Bush and his appearance and his subsequent taking of a back seat to her program--a program that is syntactically buried within the center of the sentence.

Finally, in order to underscore her cleverness (possibly), Bumiller makes what should be considered a shaky inferential leap in describing President Bush's behavior a few paragraphs down.
For the next 20 or so minutes, while Mr. Bush slouched agreeably in his chair behind her, Mrs. Bush outlined her plans to combat gang violence, drug addiction, alcoholism, sexual activity and alienation among the country's youth.
Though there might be an observable and empirical sense that Bush was slouching, any statement as to his "agreeableness" seems to rest more on supposition than actual "fact-reporting." How does one "slouch agreeably?" Isn't the appearance of slouching indicative of an "agreement" to slouch? If so, isn't the agreeable-ness of that slouch redundant--a blow to the newspaper world's famous love of concision? But if this misses the point, and the agreeable-ness rests more in Bush's attitude towards sitting down as his wife speaks, then how does Bumiller know that Bush is in fact "agreeable?" Did Bush let her know, with a wink or some other move, undecipherable to the rest of us?

It's obvious to me that some little speech about a policy that isn't radically new isn't a man-biting-dog kind of thing, but must an even more inane story be squeezed out of the material, demonstrating more of Ms. Bumiller's willingness and ability to eke out some cute story with a funny twist? Doesn't that elevate the reporter and her craft by lowering the significance of "troubled youth"?


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