Against the gratuitous cheeseburger
I’m a fan of cheeseburgers. I’m also a fan of the singer Neko Case. I haven’t the faintest idea, however, as to how the two are connected.
And yet, here they are, dished up together in the lead paragraph of a long profile of Case published in Sunday’s Times Magazine:
“I wish I had a tremolo,” Neko Case said. She looked at the Samburger she was wolfing down — Samburgers and Zinburgers being the specialties of a restaurant called Zinburger, in downtown Tucson, where Case lives, for now. With their maple bacon, American cheese and Thousand Island dressing, Samburgers are a cardiothoracic surgeon’s dream. Case had been talking about singers whose music and voices she admired — Iris DeMent and Roy Orbison prominent among them. She now banged her hand on the table, flounced her bright-red hair, leaned over and said, “I want a tremolo!” Then she looked up and laughed at herself.
Why do so many journalists insist on reporting what their subjects (or they themselves) were eating at the time of an interview? What do such cheeseburgers, delectable as they sound, have to do with the price of peanuts in Paducah? (Note that the reference to cardiothoracic surgery lends no real relevance to the cheeseburger, as the article gives no reason to think Case has suffered physical impediments to her singing.) What follows is a serviceable if somewhat overwrought 4,300-word portrait of the indie rock vocalist from the Pacific Northwest.
The above cheeseburger moment exemplifies one of the laziest tics in journalism, about as ubiquitous as In-N-Out Burger is along the California interstate. This may seem an esoteric criticism of the writer-editor sort, but I bring it up foremost in defense of the attentive reader. Describe to me the details of a cheeseburger, particularly at the outset, and I’m inclined to think that’s one rather important cheeseburger. Until I’m left only half-wondering, “Can I get some fries with that?”
Veteran journalist and author Sam Freedman contends with the problem in his incisive book, Letters to a Young Journalist. If an article begins with an appropriate anecdotal scene, he writes, it should lead inexorably into the broader themes and content. “I’ve read far too many leads over the years that described someone sitting back in a chair and taking a pensive drag on a cigarette. That scene only matters if you’re writing about lung cancer or tobacco litigation.”
Great journalism can be drizzled with evocative details. But its essence is still focused and lean. It gets to the point. Anything else in the mix is just indulgent calories, perhaps tasteful only to the person who served them up.