February 19, 2021

I am a transformed or reformed English professor who got hooked up with newsrooms and became a writing coach. I have spent 40 years in conversation with reporters and practice some journalism now and then. If you read my books, you can find out how to use a semicolon or cut an adverb.

I am no expert on reporting. I am, instead, a student of reporters and editors, often in awe of the what they discover and how they share it in reports and stories.

If I have made one contribution to the reporting field, it is embodied in this sentence: “Get the name of the dog.”

I learned that reminder from city editors at the then-St. Petersburg (Florida) Times. I have passed it along in almost every book I’ve written about the craft, and every workshop I have taught. It’s not just about dogs, of course, or names. It’s about the power of details, what I might describe in academic settings as “particularity.”

When you are reporting a story and a dog or cat or Komodo dragon ambles by, ask about its name. These days, you don’t have to be out in the field. You can see details in a Zoom room. The name of the dog, the brand of the beer, the titles of books on bookshelves behind the Zoomer, the image on the T-shirt, that poster of Farrah Fawcett hanging on the bedroom wall.

Because of my advocacy of dog names, folks on Twitter send examples of revealing details my way. Perhaps the most surprising was when a woman was saved from a stray bullet by the padding of her bra. With a hearty laugh, the woman was happy to deliver to the reporter the size and the brand.

All this is prologue to a recent and quite startling example of this strategy from Michael Hardy, a Houston-based journalist writing for nymag.com. The headline of the Intelligencer column reads: “Ted Cruz abandons millions of freezing Texans and his poodle, Snowflake

The column chronicles his drive to Cruz’s “uber-rich” neighborhood and his approach to the senator’s “white, Colonial Revival-style mansion.” He sees what appears to be in a window pane of the front door a white dog, apparently left behind after the senator went “jaunting off to Cancun with his family.”

A security guard emerges from a “Suburban parked in Cruz’s driveway.” The guard confirms this is the senator’s house and that he is responsible for care of the dog, which reassures the reporter, who has experienced first-hand what it has been like to be without power for days in freezing weather: “I’ve been bundled up in multiple layers of clothing, shivering beneath four blankets, leaving the apartment only to charge devices in my car.” His parents in Austin had it worse, without power or water, and with a burst pipe flooding their house.

The writer is pissed. “To watch our junior senator escape to Cancun while the rest of us freeze is the ultimate indignity.”

A focus on the dog left behind serves as a form of satirical revenge. Perhaps the security guard did not know the name of the dog. The reporter gets it from a 2014 Facebook post by Cruz, “apparently showing a picture of the dog … a rescue puppy named, aptly enough, Snowflake.”

Apt, indeed. The name Snowflake for a cute white dog seems apt enough, maybe even a cliché. It grows in significance in the midst of a historic ice storm and blizzard. It takes on a kind of political irony as the name often used by right-wingers to ridicule the sensitivities of those on the left. The cutesy name also serves as a counter-weight to the senator’s faux-bulldog image.

But if you are going to name the dog, it helps to pin down the breed. Here, I fear, the reporter may have dropped the ball. “Some on Twitter have questioned whether the dog is in fact a poodle, suggesting alternative breeds such as a Bichon Frise. I couldn’t get close enough to tell, and I’m no canine expert, but ‘Ted Cruz’s poodle’ just sounds funny.”

The “sounds funny” test does not meet the standard set by getting the name of the dog. My wife, Karen, and I went online to match the photo of Cruz’s dog to a number of breeds, and the photos of the Bichon Frise appear identical to the Texas pooch.

And what about the potential line: “Did the senator fly off to Cancun and risk letting his Bichon freeze?”

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
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