Friday, January 23, 2009

Score one for the common people

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Stanley Fish is a giant among English professors, and possibly one of the smartest people on the planet. He's taught rhetoric and literature at Duke, UC-Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Illinois/Chicago. And now he writes a blog for the New York Times.

On Thursday this week, Mr. Fish wrote an analysis of Barack Obama's inaugural speech, introducing his (Fish's) readers to the terms parataxis and hypotaxis — explained here — but more importantly, citing one newspaper as making a contribution to the world of literature and belles lettres.

Now, it'd make sense if that newspaper was the New York Times, since that's the pulpit from which Professor Fish delivered this sermon. But it wasn't the venerable NYT. Nor was it the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, or the Chicago Tribune, all close runners-up to the title "national newspaper of record."

It was USA Today. Yep, the newspaper that was launched to give common people a quick and easy read through the most important details of the most important stories of the day, and no more. (The same principle is at work on the newspaper's web site.) The paper that used lots of graphics in place of words. The paper that avoided jumps (e.g. "continued on page A9") and brought full color to newspaper photographs, a stark contrast to the NYT's "gray lady" appearance.

USA Today was quickly judged as "journalism lite" by most college English professors, many of whom banned its name from appearing in the Works Cited pages of their students' research papers. USA Today wasn't a real newspaper; it was a collection of headlines and stories that were little more than blurbs; it was "airport reading."

Boo. Bad.

So what does Stanley Fish say at the end of his analysis of President Obama's speech? This:

"One day after the occasion, USA Today offered as an analysis of the speech a list of the words most frequently used, words like America, common, generation, nation, people, today, world. This is exactly the right kind of analysis to perform, for it identifies the location of the speech’s energy in the repetition of key words and the associations forged among them by virtue of that repetition. In the years to come, what USA Today has begun will be expanded and elaborated in a thousand classrooms. Canonization has already arrived."

Score one for the common people — and another to the New York Times for being gracious enough to concede the point.
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