The catalog of media writing flaws is fat to say the least, but there’s one category we say too little about, and that’s blather.
Loosely defined, blather is nonsense. It’s twaddle. And when talking twaddle, it doesn’t matter how good the story, how bright the phrasing, or how accurate the facts, grammar and structure. It’s still twaddle, and it wastes time and space.
Sometimes blather is simply hot air; other times it’s the absence of thought and logic. Here’s a hot air lead:
“Outrageous! And it was only a preseason game. But what a game!”
There’s no content in that lead. Exclamations and exclamation points assert nothing; they’re hot air.
“The Rev. John Baker looks out the window, runs his hand through his steel-gray crewcut and gazes into the middle distance as he ponders the answer to a common question: What do sermonizing, boxing and motorcycling have in common?”
That’s a common question? No. It’s an uncommon question. This lead is the equivalent of idle chatter: empty claims and windy, gratuitous description.
Here’s the sort of blather that can result when thought and logic fail: “Red Sox fans are still having sleepless nights. They’re dreaming of the 1978 season, the great nightmare.” Why is this blather? The metaphor is illogical. If the fans are sleepless, they’re neither dreaming nor having nightmares.
Here’s another kind of illogic that leads to blather, these under the heading of the Utterly Assailable Aphorism:
• “There’s only one thing better than being happy with a career: being named by your peers as one of the best in your field.”
• “If the music world could get more performances like this, the world would be a better place.”
• “Life is the only gift that can soften the blow of death. And cheating death is the best way to celebrate life.”
• “Bad storms follow dark skies. Floods come after heavy rain. But earthquakes, nature’s unpleasant, often deadly tantrum, arrive without warning.”
• “An artifact is a memento of the past that can become a present-day frustration.”
Who wrote those leads? Kahlil Gibran? All are irresponsible, imprecise blather that make sweeping but unverifiable claims.
Take the first lead, which boldly declares there’s only one thing better than being happy with a career, and that one thing is peer approval. Prove that! I can think immediately of a better “better thing,” and that’s being happy, period. What might the writer have written to be unassailable? He had only to fudge a bit: “Few experiences are better than …”
The other examples also are indefensible platitudes.
The second lead, on a concert review, says that the world would be a better place if we had more performances like this one. No kidding. The world would be a better place without war, corruption and disease, no doubt. But would it actually be a better place if we had more performances like this? Come on.
The writer of the next lead states unequivocally that the only gift that can soften death is life, and that cheating death is the best way to celebrate life. Who says? We can discuss which “gifts” might soften the blow of death, or the best ways to “cheat death,” whatever that means. But who’s to say one way is the only or the best way?
The next lead declares that (1) bad storms follow dark skies (2) floods come after heavy rain, and (3) earthquakes arrive without warning. To which the reader responds: Not always.
That “memento of the past” in the final example is redundant. But phrasing aside, what does it mean that an artifact is a memento that can become a present-day frustration? First, let’s argue about whether an artifact is a memento. Then we can squabble over whether it can become a present-day frustration.
In other words, there are sweeping statements we can safely make, and some we can’t.
A final caution: Quotations are frequently filled with blather, which the reporter defends as “Well, that’s what they said.” No doubt, but that’s not a reason to put blather in our media.
We have the paraphrase and the fragmented quotation at our disposal, and we should police quotations for nonsense as carefully as we do the reporter’s narrative.
Blather from a source is no more welcome than blather from a reporter.