Magazine article The New Yorker

Say's Who?

Magazine article The New Yorker

Say's Who?

Article excerpt

A very short quiz for the end of the school year. Don't panic! There is only one question, and all you will need is a No. 2 pencil. Please settle down now and read the instructions carefully. Here is the test: You read the newspaper this morning. In doing so, you looked at the lead story (front page, top right-hand corner). You read the headline. Possibly you also read the first paragraph, possibly more, possibly even the entire article. O.K. Who wrote the article? When you have finished writing your answer, put your pencil down and look up.

How many of you wrote nothing on your answer sheet? That is because most readers never pay attention to the byline on a newspaper article, and the reason they never pay attention is that who wrote the article has nothing to do with the decision to read it. You read the story because you're interested in the information, not in the personality and opinions of the reporter. Personality and opinions are, in fact, what you hope not to find in a newspaper article. Those are things you look for in a column, where the writer's name and, in some papers, a tiny head shot, made in, maybe, 1983, when the writer had a lot more hair, appear at the top. You would not like to see a tiny head shot of a reporter at the top of a news article, because a news article is supposed to be a clear window on the facts.

This is not to say that there are not great stylists of the front page. Professional journalists and aficionados of the press know the bylines and savor the special flair of the great writer-reporters. But the ideal of perfect transparency is the ideal that is supposed to be subscribed to by reporters themselves, devotees of the dying art of self-effacement in our increasingly face-centric culture. So why did many Washington Post reporters decide, last week, that it would constitute a telling act of protest against the paper's management if they took their bylines off their pieces? Almost all the articles in the Post for June 5th, the first day of the protest, ran without personal bylines. (Columnists who tried to pull their bylines had their columns killed.) "Dismissal of Abusive Priests Is Proposed" was the headline on the lead front-page story. (Not, perhaps, the most compelling or informative headline ever composed. Proposed by whom? Dismissal of abusive priests is proposed daily around water coolers, in bars, and at dinner tables across America.) The byline on the article read, simply, "By a Washington Post Staff Writer."

The issues behind the protest are the usual bones of collective-bargaining contention: pay increases, vacation time, union membership. …

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