Sociolinguistically unaware journalists?

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Julie Satow, "She Was a Star of New York Real Estate, but Her Life Story Was a Lie", NYT 1/10/2019:

Wrapped in furs, dripping with diamonds and with her blond hair perfectly coifed, Faith Hope Consolo cut a glamorous figure in the flashy, late 20th-century world of New York City real estate.

Ms. Consolo was born into the business, benefiting from her father's legacy as a real estate executive. Emboldened professionally by her mother, a child psychiatrist, Ms. Consolo parlayed her privileged Connecticut upbringing, which included a stint at Miss Porter's School for Girls and a degree from Parsons Paris, into a bold career, socializing and cutting deals with the moneyed classes she knew so well.

In late 2018, Ms. Consolo died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 73. As someone who had covered her for years, I wrote her obituary, which included some of the details above, confirming her place in this rarefied world.

But those details, I soon discovered, were lies.

In fact, it appears that her mother actually was a hairdresser, her father was a career criminal who met her mother while he was on the run after escaping from prison, and she was raised in Brooklyn.

What's (socio-)linguistically interesting about this story is how a socially savvy New York Times reporter could have talked with Ms. Consolo and believed that she was raised in Westport Connecticut rather than Brooklyn, and educated at Miss Porter's School rather than St. Brendan's:

Commenters on the NYT story had the same opinion, e.g. Ira Kravitz:

Anyone who ever met Faith or heard her speak would know in a heartbeat that she did not grow up in Connecticut or go to Miss Porter's school; her Brooklyn accent was unmistakably local. And strong.

It makes sense that no Henry Higgins accent-transformation process was needed in the context of the NYC real estate business. But it's still odd that journalists accepted her self-reported biography without wondering about her speech.

 



15 Comments »

  1. MattF said,

    January 12, 2020 @ 2:36 pm

    It's true. I think accents of NYC natives are markers of class rather than geography

  2. Victor Mair said,

    January 12, 2020 @ 3:32 pm

    This post fits right in with the previous Language Log post:

    "Seke, an endangered language of Nepal, in Flatbush, Brooklyn" (1/11/20)

    https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=45729

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 12, 2020 @ 3:34 pm

    Accents in the NYC area are class-linked, but not necessarily class markers — they tend to reflect the accents of childhood neighborhood/schoolmates. Where I live (Westchester Co.) there are plenty of affluent adults who have accents of either an "outer borough" sort or of a "this person is an immigrant" sort, but their kids have their peers' accent, not their parents. Some people who grew up with a non-prestige accent put effort into shedding it as an adult, but others don't even as they grow wealthier and raise their kids somewhere where the default accent-acquired-in-childhood is different. FWIW, I think if the story was half-true and a Brooklyn-born-and-raised girl had spent 4 years at Miss Porter's starting at age 14 or thereabouts, that would have presented (for someone of median neurological capabilities in this regard — there's obviously considerable individual variation in how much plasticity there is at that age) a choice, with both assimilating to a more "high-class" accent and retaining the earlier-childhood accent being viable options. Or perhaps some lasting ability to code-switch.

  4. Laura said,

    January 13, 2020 @ 5:52 am

    It also shows a lack of fact checking when Miss Porter's School (the name of the school since the 1920s) has "for Girls" added. It would have been easy to check whether she'd attended at all, Brooklyn accent or no. After all, Bernie Sanders hardly sounds like a Vermonter.

  5. Rube said,

    January 13, 2020 @ 11:47 am

    A couple of thoughts:

    (a) In my experience, most people are horrible at identifying accents, and people who self-identify as "having an ear for accents" tend to be no better than anybody who doesn't so identify;

    (b) Doesn't the usual puff piece biography of somebody like the deceased tend to have a line like "Despite her privileged background, years in the NY real estate world have left her with a Brooklyn accent thick as a slice of Junior's cheesecake"? I can see people not thinking about it that much.

    [(myl) On the other hand, in Shaw's Pygmalion, Henry Higgins describes his accent-transformation work by saying:

    This is an age of upstarts. Men begin in Kentish Town with £80 a year, and end in Park Lane with a hundred thousand. They want to drop Kentish Town; but they give themselves away every time they open their mouths.

    ]

  6. BZ said,

    January 13, 2020 @ 11:57 am

    What's ironic is that those details are presented (I think) in a disparaging way, to imply that perhaps her social status was not earned, and that she was just born into money and was given a further leg up by her mother, when in fact the real story could be present as a "rags to riches" American dream type thing.

    [(myl) That would certainly be my interpretation. Presumably the reporter's negative reaction was to the lies about her origins rather than to the fact of her overcoming them.]

  7. Leo said,

    January 13, 2020 @ 1:28 pm

    Maybe some social habit makes us averse to questioning others' accounts of themselves too closely. I haven't got the quote to hand, but Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London wrote that, when he was living as a beggar, surprisingly few people remarked on his obviously middle-class accent and manner, although these were hardly typical of homeless people.

    Of course, a journalist should endeavour to overcome any reserve they have about fact-checking interviewees' backgrounds.

  8. Andrew Usher said,

    January 13, 2020 @ 6:50 pm

    It's a habit of journalists, at least, to avoid offending those interviewed, and I think it's pretty clear why they would do so. Unfortunately that does give us worse journalism.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  9. Viseguy said,

    January 13, 2020 @ 8:13 pm

    Hey, there were no Brooklyn accents on the St. Brendan's H.S. debate team back when John Sexton was coach, which included Consolo's era. They were formidable opponents; just try to put the toothpaste back into the tube and get away with it (in-joke). But … maybe Consolo wasn't on the debate team — or maybe she was only at the grammar school.

  10. Barbara Phillips Long said,

    January 15, 2020 @ 12:45 am

    @Andrew Usher:

    As someone who came to reporting late, without any official journalism training, I would say the issue of fact-checking can be more complex. When a writer has worked hard to get a person available for an interview, it's harder to be adversarial if you want to represent yourself as being well-intentioned. In my case, I was writing a lot of feature stories about ordinary people who had never been in the paper before. Sometimes those "being polite" habits carried over once I moved to news reporting. And that doesn't even get into how a reporter aspiring to be truthful presents the information gleaned in a way that sources are comfortable with — or at least accepting of — while creating something readers want to read.

    In news, the bigger problem is that the reporter works with some people repeatedly. If the writer begins by reporting on events or transactions, details of the source's background may be irrelevant, so that only later in hindsight might the reporter start digging more deeply. I have no idea what time constraints or other factors might be operating in this case — the paper, at various points, may have uncritically published the official bio and thus prejudiced the reporter toward accepting it at face value.

    Building up expertise in a specialty can boost a reporter's career. Sometimes, however, the cost is that the reporter may get too socially invested with a source, even if there is no overt socializing. I suspect there are parallels in other fields, too, such as academics accepting frequently cited work as gospel, or a politician's willingness to listen to donors and familiar lobbyists more than constituent voters. The tendency to courtesy that greases social interactions is not conducive to following the rule that "if your mother says she loves you, check it out."

  11. ajay said,

    January 15, 2020 @ 8:36 am

    This is far from the worst thing to happen as the result of a gormless New York Times writer taking a rude, overbearing, narcissistic property developer's unsupported word as gospel.

  12. Peter Grubtal said,

    January 15, 2020 @ 11:57 am

    …and I always thought the accent and class thing was very much a British hang-up, at which the Yanks affected superiority.

  13. Allan from Iowa said,

    January 18, 2020 @ 10:11 am

    Why yes, Yanks do affect superiority over the British hang-up about accent and class. But it doesn't prevent us from doing the same thing ourselves.

  14. Philip Taylor said,

    January 18, 2020 @ 11:36 am

    It's not a "hang-up", Sir — it's a perfectly normal part of life (well, here at least!). What did surprise me was that Australians have class-related accents — when I visited CSIRO in Melbourne for six weeks in 1987, I was amazed at the difference in accent between those with whom I worked and those with whom I travelled on the local bus.

  15. Andrew Usher said,

    January 18, 2020 @ 8:41 pm

    I believe that was a bit sarcastic there – Americans don't call themselves 'Yanks' in earnest. The truth behind it is that we do have accent prejudices – anywhere _but_ NYC, her accent would have prevented her from the social success she achieved.

    The class-related differences in Australian accents stand out more because of the lack of regionally-based differences there.

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