Extended Interview: Tom Phillips
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TERENCE SMITH: The news editor, traditionally, at the networks was a sort of arbiter of the grammar, and language and scripts. Is that still the case?
TOM PHILLIPS: I don’t think so. The show is much more done by committee than it used to be. It used to have a very clear line of editorial process, where the editor’s one little area of major responsibility was making sure that the language was right, as well as the facts, and he was sort of the gatekeeper on the anchor script, and that was his baby, and if there was anything wrong with it, it was his fault. These days it’s done [differently], partly because of the way it’s done by computer now. It’s much more collaborative, and, in some ways, less hierarchical. It’s more of a team sport, I guess, now.
TERENCE SMITH: When you hear television correspondents these days doing their pieces particularly, their written set pieces, what catches your ear?
TOM PHILLIPS: Well, I think the language. The language is much more specific to television than it used to be. I think the further back you go the more it resembled writing for the page, which was partly because television wasn’t as self-conscious a form as it is now, and also because, in the earlier generations, many of the people who wrote for television came from print backgrounds.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. Yours is a trained ear. What do you hear today?
TOM PHILLIPS: You hear a lot of sentences that aren’t really sentences. You hear a lot of words dropped. You hear a lot of kind of episodic speech with dot, dot, dots, where the connective tissue used to be, and you also hear a lot of scripts that function sort of like captions to direct you toward what you’re seeing and sort of a burst of impressions rather than traditional English prose style.
TERENCE SMITH: To my ear, it’s become even more accentuated than recent years. Do you agree?
TOM PHILLIPS: I think so. I think it’s become a style bordering on affectation in some cases. It’s an unnatural way of speaking, but it does have a function — and by the way, it has a long history in journalism. I mean, headlines, newspaper headlines have always been written with words missing. The so-called telegraphic style of journalism is based on prose with lots of words missing, done for efficiency.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. And in broadcasting, there was, of course, Paul Harvey. What struck you about him?
TOM PHILLIPS: If Paul Harvey walked up to you on the street and started talking the way he talks on the radio, you would say there’s something wrong with this fellow. But when you get used to him on the radio, you realize what he’s doing. Radio is a strange medium because it’s strictly the voice. That’s all you have to make your statement, and it led to some interesting experiments with vocal technique.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. What’s the purpose of this telegraphic style that you’re talking about, this short, clipped, elliptical style?
TOM PHILLIPS: I think there are two purposes to it. One is to save time. The time constraints on television news and network television news are incredible. They used to say there’s 22 minutes to give you the news. It’s actually a lot less than that. Commercials have proliferated. The amount of headline and promotional material within the broadcast has proliferated, so it’s well under 20 minutes now that you have to deal with the news of the day.
The time constraints just get worse and worse as you go. One way to deal with them is just to drop words. If, you know, you’re looking at a computer screen, and it says, “This is 25 seconds long,” and you only have 20 seconds, well, you’ll drop anything you can. And if you drop little words like “is,” and “are,” and “that,” you can cut a second out of your script. Part of it is just time constraints.
The other is what I would call this pointing function. For instance, well, I wrote down one of the scripts we were looking at earlier. It said, “The Asian swamp eel, three feet of indestructible, slimy serpent.” Well, there are no verbs in those sentences, but it’s clear that those sentences are meant to make you look at the picture. And the picture tells the story.
This is television being self-conscious about what it is. It’s saying, “Hey. We’ve got pictures here. We want you to look at the pictures.” And what’s sacrificed there is the standard English sentence. Does it help? As they say, you decide.
TERENCE SMITH: You’re quoting there from a script by Jim Avila of NBC News — and, in fact, NBC seems to do this more than the others. Do you know why or how that happens?
TOM PHILLIPS: No, I don’t know why. I think, as I say, it’s a matter of style, and it’s a matter of efficiency. I think people in other parts of the world don’t tend to do this. I think it has a little bit to do with the American obsession with productivity, you know. Can you do it faster? And I think this is an, you know, an attempt to get more information into less time because time is money.
TERENCE SMITH: Does it work for you?
TOM PHILLIPS: I don’t like it very much. I think there’s an awful lot of other factors that make up good journalism, other than speed. And, for me, as a viewer, I find it mildly irritating. As an editor, when I work with prose like this, I just sort of throw up my hands. I’d say, “Okay, this isn’t really English, but I guess this is what they want.”
TERENCE SMITH: Originally, some years ago, your role would have been to restore those sentences to some semblance of what they once were.
TOM PHILLIPS: The expectation back in the 1970s was that we would write stuff that you could read right from the page, and it would be elegant, it would have all its parts there. The sentences would be balanced. They would have their subjects, and verbs, and objects. You’d know where they began and where they ended. And that was part of our respectability, that was part of our prestige, and we actually had the feeling, since so many people watched the evening news, that we were kind of upholding the standards.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. And today?
TOM PHILLIPS: And today I don’t think television feels that kind of responsibility. I think they’ve kind of shaken off that role. I don’t know if it was ever an appropriate role for the evening news, but we used to feel that that was one of our roles.
TERENCE SMITH: Is this, in part, generational? Is there more of it today because a younger generation is doing many of these reports?
TOM PHILLIPS: Well, I think it may have something to do with the incredible surge in productivity, generally, in the last 10 to 20 years, and we do everything faster now. I mean, communications on the Internet are bing, bing, bing. They’re full of abbreviations, they’re full of shortcuts, and that’s okay.
And you know how people are today. They feel like they have to cram more into their day than is really humanly possible. And it has always been kind of a goal, you know, the American way, and it’s taken some giant leaps in the last generation.
I don’t think television really is leading this, this movement, but I think that the trend towards saying things faster and leaving more things out goes along with a very big trend.
TERENCE SMITH: Are you suggesting that it’s broader than television? It’s sort of through the society?
TOM PHILLIPS: I think so. I mean, the emphasis on efficiency in language is as great as it is in making a silicon chip that will carry more information. It’s a continual quest to carry more information in less space and time.
TERENCE SMITH: Now the most conspicuous victim in “television speak” seems to be the verb.
TOM PHILLIPS: Maybe so.
TERENCE SMITH: Why the verb? I always thought that was the workhorse of the sentence.
TOM PHILLIPS: Well, it is, but if the verb is a form of “to be,” you can often leave it out. Let me give you a couple of examples that we’ve been using forever of sentences with verbs missing. “Good night,” that’s been on the evening news forever. It doesn’t have a verb in it, but everybody understands what the verb is. “You have a good night,” but you don’t have to say that. You say, “good night.”
So sentences without verbs have been with us forever. Here’s one you hear every night on TV, “Next up.” There’s no verb in “next up,” but everybody knows that the verb is, “Coming up next,” and if you just cut out the “coming,” you’ve saved yourself a millisecond. And if you do that every night you’ve saved yourself some valuable time, I guess.
But sometimes leaving out the verb can get you in a little bit of trouble. I heard on one of the networks the other night. “At the UN, desperate pleas today for help against the AIDS epidemic.” Well, that sentence not only doesn’t have a verb, it doesn’t have a subject even. Who made these desperate pleas? How were they made? We don’t know. And, to me, that’s a deficient sentence because it leaves the viewer wondering, “Am I dumb? Am I supposed to know who said this?”
TERENCE SMITH: When you hear language on television today what do you think?
TOM PHILLIPS: I think journalism always has to consider its audience, and I hate to use this word, but in some ways you have to condescend to the audience because you know that there’s people out there who don’t understand twenty-dollar words from graduate school, even if you’ve been to graduate school.
So you have to, I don’t like to say “dumb it down,” but you have to simplify it to the point where it’s as simple as possible, but not simpler. That’s a quote from Einstein that used to be on the wall of the CBS Evening News. “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” That used to be our motto.
Back in those days, maybe 20 years ago, I think we had the feeling we were writing for an audience of smart 12-year-olds, didn’t necessarily know everything, but were capable of understanding just about anything you presented to them, if you presented it in the simplest terms possible, but not simpler.
Today, I think the level has gone down a little bit. I think there’s more of a sense of condescension to the audience. I think there’s more of a sense that they’re not going to understand anyway, so let’s make it as simple as we possibly can, even if we leave out some of the nuance, some of the internal contradictions of a story. This is making it real, real simple. Of course, we have less time than ever to do it.
TERENCE SMITH: So I guess we get down to the bottom line. Is it a bad thing, this “television speak”? Is it a good thing?
TOM PHILLIPS: I don’t know. Every human being on Earth is using language every minute of their lives. There’s so much language uttered every day that what’s uttered on television is only a very small portion of it…
I don’t think it’s really good for television, but I don’t think it’s really bad for the population as a whole. I think there’s plenty of sources of language, there’s plenty of ways of learning to talk. I don’t think people watch the news to learn how to talk. I think they already know.