Stop Reading Headlines, Start Reading Stories

How to skip over the dumb parts.

It amazes me how frequently, in our new media Twitterverse, a perfectly obvious fact becomes controversial. A headline might read, “Beer bottles can be recycled!” and the ensuing Twitter conversation will become a debate on climate change. Things spin so quickly out of control.

But Twitter is not to blame. Much of the time it’s the way things are contextualized by a publication. Everyone wants the links, the clicks, the hits. So writers and editors dumb things down to get buzz going, indulging in a greatest hits of lazy tropes. And it screws with our discourse, man. The smartest people I know are on Twitter, yet they can end up having the dumbest conversations. I include myself, mind you.

Let’s take a look at New York Magazine‘s latest cover story, which would be middling under any circumstances, but is a perfect example of the kind of thing that gets online tongues wagging.

Its online title is “The Retro Wife.” There are interesting implications within that phrase: not only about conventional notions of spousal responsibilities and contemporary relationship roles, but the way that “retro” can also imply a kind of cool. Is it cool now to be a wife? And if so, does that mean marriage is cool just when we thought it wasn’t? Can “wife” even be construed the same way now that gay marriage is legal in many states?

That’s enough to get me reading. But there always has to be a sexy subhed. The tyranny of the sexy subhed! Where once they were simply informative so that readers could decide if the article was a good fit, they’re now all about provocation. For Miller’s piece, the subhed reads: “Feminists who say they’re having it all—by choosing to stay home.”

Before we’ve gotten 15 words into the article, the subhed is already making us stupid by promulgating the notion that feminists can only be women. But one of Miller’s key projects in the piece is to issue a sort of state of the union on feminism–and that debate has been shaped, in part, by the question of whether men are allowed in too. Write “women” if that’s who you’re talking about, even if it’s not as buzzy. How else will language and perceptions evolve?

Of course, these days if you say “feminist,” it’s like dropping fish food into the Twitter fish tank. Even before anyone has read a sentence of Miller’s piece, they’ve got their fingers on the touchscreen.

Then there’s the human factor. Any journalist who wants a repeat assignment knows you need a person to carry the story. Ideally, the person will be aligned with your target demographic, or representative of the trend you’re describing, or maybe just the friend of a friend who told you at a party a few months ago, “Hipsters are totally debating strollers now. So weird.”

In the case of Miller’s piece, the human person is Kelly Makino, 33, who went to Penn to get her MSW and then—oh, whatever, it really doesn’t matter who she is, especially given that she says a lot of complete bunkum. The important thing to Miller, I’m guessing, is that Makino was alive and willing to be quoted and was wearing “an orange hoodie, plum-colored Converse low-tops, and a tiny silver stud in her nose” when they met, which was about as perfect for this story as it was going to get.

Naturally, Makino comes at the beginning of the piece, so we start off as morons. But for some reason, it’s assumed that this human being is the only thing that can draw readers in.

If you want to know what the piece is actually about, you’ll have to delve into the deeper corners of Miller’s piece, where you’ll find words that would never, in a hundred million years—and I will bet my dog’s life on this—make it as a lede in a mainstream publication:

If feminism is not only about creating an equitable society but also a means to fulfillment for individual women, and if the rewards of working are insufficient and uncertain, while the tug of motherhood is inexorable, then a new calculus can take hold: For some women, the solution to resolving the long-running tensions between work and life is not more parent-friendly offices or savvier career moves but the full embrace of domesticity.

That’s what the story is actually about: a new (old) calculus, and where it’s being seen. Sadly, writers and editors have become convinced that the only way to get readers interested in such concepts is to drag a Kelly Makino through an article, bumping her along over paragraphs filled with substance, assuming readers will only follow along if they know Kelly will meet them at the end.

Take all of Kelly out of Miller’s piece, and you spot other content, which includes:

– Research and statistics, i.e., numbers of American stay-at-home-mothers; division of labor between men and women; college students’ aspirations by gender; European and American work-life conflict studies
– Quotes from credible and thoughtful sources like New York University sociologist Kathleen Gerson; University of Texas evolutionary psychologist David Buss; BlogHer’s Stacey Morrison
– Pop cultural influences and citations
– Relevant description of online and offline world of stay-at-home-moms
– Some of Miller’s own feelings about the subject, which aren’t irrelevant

Kelly Makino is, as SAT test developers say, a distractor; she is the wrong answer, but compelling enough to sway even the smartest reader. That’s why the first response I read to Miller’s piece came out swinging by quoting the fatuous (but correctly engineered!) subhed and then tore into Kelly, saying her story made up the bulk of the piece. This is simply wrong: There are about 1,800 words devoted to Kelly, and about 4,000 devoted to everything else. How sad: Dumbing-down is making Jezebel’s Tracy Egan Morrissey bad at math, and she should be pissed off about it.