The Trouble with ‘Inappropriate’

Since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke last fall, published reports of men’s sexual misconduct have abounded. Just this week, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an investigation of Jorge Domínguez, “a prominent Harvard professor and former vice provost accused of groping, kissing, and other inappropriate behavior by close to 20 women.” That and all the other reports divide into two distinct categories, something I didn’t really realize until watching an episode of All in With Chris Hayes on MSNBC in December. Hayes’s guests included Rebecca Traister and Irin Carmon, journalists who have been covering this beat.

Here’s the exchange that got me thinking:

TRAISTER: I think that journalism has been driving this in a way that has made it airtight, at least up to a point. So, in all of the cases where there has been terrific reporting, in advance of whatever winds up  happening to the accused, we have gotten this incredibly detailed, incredibly well checked in, all of the cases that we know about accurate vision of what has unfolded. …

CARMON: I mean, I think there is something that reporting can do here that other tools like the criminal justice system or HR are unable to do, right. You’re able to weigh all of the different stories in a way that is publicly accountable. You try to get people to use their names on the record. The thing that was the most effective I think about the Harvey Weinstein story when I got to Ashley Judd’s name, wow! Ashley Judd was on record. …

TRAISTER: I also think that you could tell where there has been the reporting and where there hasn’t been, because as this has gone on, there are some cases where some people have been fired or suspended in advance of reports. So for example, Garrison Keillor was fired pre-emptively, I believe, and we only have the sketchiest vision of what he did. … When a company fires somebody or suspends them … they’re legally obligated by some measures not to reveal all of the terms of why they are doing this, and that has left people with confusion about what is happening, what has been alleged, and you can see where there is an absence of the reporting.

So here’s the divide. In one bucket are cases driven by journalistic reporting — those of Weinstein, Domínguez, James Levine of the Metropolitan Opera, Bill O’Reilly, Charlie Rose, Al Franken, Kevin Spacey, and in fact not that many others. They have in common that through a combination of the prominence of the male and the frequency or severity of the offenses, a major news organization deemed the charges worth investigating and, ultimately, the investigation worth publishing. As Carmon and Traister suggested in the interview, current journalistic best practices call for a high level of checking and verification. Preferably, sources go on the record, as Ashley Judd did; if they decline to, a New Yorker or New York Times or Washington Post will use their account only if solid corroboration is found.

In the other bucket are cases the world learns about only after a company or other organization has taken a personnel action, like firing or suspension. Examples that come to mind, besides Garrison Keillor, are Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker  and Jonathan Schwartz and Leonard Lopate of New York Public Radio. Traister said the organization is “legally obligated by some measures not to reveal all of the terms of why they are doing this, and that has left people with confusion.” I am not an expert in this or any area of the law, but I suspect that companies don’t reveal details by choice, not obligation, knowing that doing so might open them up to defamation suits, compel them to to reveal accusers’ names, or cause other problems. But whatever the reason, they don’t give particulars, resulting in reactive (rather than proactive) press coverage that’s vague and often, as Traister says, confusing.

For example, in February, the Ford Motor Company fired a top executive, Raj Nair, and a press release “explained”:

The decision follows a recent internal investigation into reports of inappropriate behavior. The review determined certain behavior by Nair was inconsistent with the company’s code of conduct.

“We made this decision after a thorough review and careful consideration,” said Ford President and CEO Jim Hackett. “Ford is deeply committed to providing and nurturing a safe and respectful culture and we expect our leaders to fully uphold these values.”

The New York Times article about the move heavily quoted the release and added no details about Nair’s alleged behavior.

The word that jumped out at me in the release and the article, only because it was so predictable, was inappropriate. It is the catchall designation for bad behavior, or behavior that we are asked to think was bad, but can’t really judge, because we aren’t told exactly what was done.

There’s nothing new about inappropriate, I hasten to say. Back in 1999, I wrote an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education about the word, which was coined in the early 19th century, according to the OED, and was used by Charles Dickens in Dombey and Son: “[He] invaded the grave silence with the singularly inappropriate air of ‘A cobbler there was.’” At the time of my piece, inappropriate had been propelled into heavy rotation by Bill Clinton’s inappropriate behavior, and his admission, “I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate.” I complained,

While it is currently deployed to characterize virtually anything a writer or speaker finds unsatisfactory, its most common use is clearly as a euphemism for sexually explicit material, especially when this gets onto children’s radar screens, or (as with the President) forms of sexual behavior that for various reasons are not universally accepted. … The problem with the overuse of “inappropriate,” finally, is that it is fuzzy language and inevitably results in missed signals and squawky communication.

But the frequency then was nothing compared with the present. Inappropriate appeared in the New York Times 803 times in 2017. So far this year it’s appeared 226 times, a projected annual pace of 1,755 — more than double last year.

I hate it when people talk about banning words and I certainly don’t propose a ban on inappropriate. But I have a suggestion for the press, regarding the Raj Nair-type cases, ones where the firing is newsworthy but not newsworthy enough to dispatch a team of reporters to unearthing the backstory. Ask the company for details. If it does not provide any, simply write, “the company did not provide details.” And leave the wimpy and weaselly word inappropriate to the press-release writers of the world.

The Yagoder Effect

This went out over the wires a few days ago and was picked up on Twitter:

 
The AP reporter’s mistake is understandable. Scott Israel is a New York native and has a pronounced New York accent.

Thus, if Israel were to say “shiver,” it would indeed come out as “shivva”–so presumably the reporter was correcting for accent. Unfortunately, he or she wasn’t aware of the Jewish tradition of “sitting shiva” for the deceased.

A version of the same thing once happened to me. For many years, I have been a customer of Hitchcock, a purveyor of wide shoes based in Hingham, Massachusetts. One day a Hitchock catalog came in the mail, and on it my name was written as “Ben Yagoder.” A characteristic of the Massachusetts accent, of course, is to add an “r” sound to words that for everyone else ends in a schwa: so, John F. Kennedy’s famously imitated pronunciation of Cuba as “Cuber.”

I figured one of two things happened. One, a Hitchcock staffer made the same mistake as the AP reporter: heard me say “Yagoda,” (somehow) knew I was from New York, and “corrected” me. Or, two, a staffer was so wedded to the “-er” pronunciation that they extended it beyond pronunciation to spelling.

I like theory two.

Reporting Profiles

There’s a certain protocol for reporting profiles, whether short or long, or for newspapers, magazines, or online. The tasks below are listed roughly in order of importance, but they are all steps you should take when doing long or short or long profiles. Of course, the longer your article is going to be, the more time you should spend on each step. (To avoid pronoun awkwardness, I’m going to refer to the subject of your hypothetical profile as “she.”)

  1. On more than one occasion (if possible), send time observing her in action, doing the thing that makes her interesting or noteworthy. If a scientist, watch her in the lab; if a chef, in the kitchen; if a reporter, out reporting a story. This will not only give you an insight into how she operates, but will hopefully provide a scene or scenes that will lend drama and color to your story. Spend as much time as you can on this and be, in Henry James’s phrase, “one of the people on whom nothing is lost.” The ideal (though admittedly rarely attainable) goal is to make the person absolutely sick of having you hanging around all the time.
  2. If applicable, experience and reflect on the thing the person does. If a scholar, read her scholarship. If a painter, look at her paintings. If a chef, eat her food. Et cetera.
  3. Read everything that has been written about the person.
  4. Interview as many other people as you can about the subject of your profile. These interviews will fall into two categories. First, people who know and/or have worked with her and can provide insight into her work and personality. Second, impartial experts in the field who can assess her contribution and importance. For example, if the person is an architect, you could talk to an architecture professor.
  5. (Don’t do this before doing steps 2, 3, and 4, as these will help you come up with good questions.) Sit-down interview or interviews with the person. This is necessary, but it’s not going to be as fresh as 1, because an interview is an artificial situation. So use the interview primarily to get facts, details, and anecdotes, as opposed to quotes. (In your story, use long quotes only if the person is a great storyteller or talker. Otherwise, use short quotes of one or at most two sentences.)