What does a journalist do when he has a penny ante story that he thinks might at least illuminate a larger problem? He maintains that it provides a "rare window" into that problem. To wit, the New York Times reported today that:
...the indictment, handed up last Wednesday in the federal court for the Southern District of New York, provides a rare window into the troublesome question of how military and civilian contracting officers -- few of them sophisticated in the ways of clandestine wire transfers and money laundering -- have so often managed to set up corrupt deals at the heart of the United States enterprise in Iraq, and more recently in Afghanistan..."
But wait! Earlier this month, the Times peered through another such news-filled pane, this one involving the case of a political theorist not granted tenure at Harvard:
The uproar, which has been front-page news in The Harvard Crimson and the talk of faculty meetings and dinners, provides a rare window into the byzantine tenure process at one of the world's most prestigious universities.
Hobbling for broke, this article also noted in the same paragraph that the situation "raised sensitive questions."
In July, the Times found an eerily similar perspective in the story of "a well-known dissident [that] provides a rare window on Iran under its ruling clerics." (To be fair, that was just in a summary of the story. In the article itself, the window in case received a different adjective: "In several lengthy interviews, Mr. Batebi provided an unusual window on Iran under its ruling clerics.")
I could go on. "Legal strategy aside, the report provides a rare window into the inner workings of the exchange." And so on. I suspect book reviewers use this device a lot, too.
But you get the point. This pattern in the New York Times raises the sensitive question of just how rare these journalistic windows are. I am sympathetic to the plight of the reporters involved, and I know I used such crutches a lot during my time with my head inside a computer on deadline. Journalism is indeed a glass house. Still, there is a tiredness in these structural devices. Use them if you have to, but only if you are unable to come up with a fresher way to say it. Everybody involved in these Times stories, from reporters to copyeditors to bosses, should be sentenced to re-read Orwell's Politics of the English Language, one of the best things ever written about writing and thinking.
Update: In this item, the story about Harvard was from 1997, not as I said earlier this month.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.