Last week on WNYC's On the Media, host Brooke Gladstone introduced a story on press coverage of the Gulf oil spill by talking about their use of "purple prose" in their reports. She went on to illustrate the "purple prose" with clips from a variety of audio sources describing the spill. One report described it as "the biggest oil spill in the world by far." Another said "it could be the worst environmental catastrophe in our country's history." A third called it the "biggest oil spill in the world by far." Now while these may or may not be accurate estimates of the extent of the damage caused in the Gulf, they are not examples of what would normally be considered "purple prose."
The term purple prose and its fellow, purple passage, usually refer to a brilliant passage of writing usually turning up in the midst of more or less dull pedestrian piece of writing. The etymology of the term goes back to the Latin phrase pannus purpureus usually translated as purple patch. It refers to the Roman's association of the color with splendor and wealth because of the scarcity and expense of the purple dye. Its use as a literary term is usually traced to Horace in the Ars Poetica. He uses it as a pejorative term, referring to a passage that may be fine in and of itself, but is inappropriate for the material and the occasion.
Among later critics the term came to describe writing that placed more importance on brilliant bits rather than on the whole. Alexander Pope, the 18th century English poet writes in "The Essay in Criticism:"
In wit, as nature, what affects our hearts
Is not the exactness of peculiar parts,
'Tis not a lip, or eye, we beauty call,
But the joint force and full result of all.
Thus, when we view some well proportioned dome
(The world's just wonder, and even thine, O Rome!),
No single parts unequally surprise,
All comes united to the admiring eyes;
No monstrous height or breadth, or length, appear;
The whole at once is bold, and regular.
In the 19th century, there was a school of writers who thought differently, they felt that a great work of art demanded places where the reader could rest his mind. Too much brilliance would overwhelm the reader. It was therefore necessary for the writer to restrict his eloquence to purple passages placed strategically between the pedestrian. The common critical consensus however is that purple prose, purple passages, purple patches, call them what you will, are signs of bad writing. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. One would expect that they would be particularly out of place in journalism.
Now while the sample quotations in Gladstone's introduction may well spice up some otherwise dull reportage, I would doubt that anyone would think of them as examples of particularly brilliant prose. They are, if anything, examples of hyperbole. They are exaggerated, excessive statements. They may eventually prove true, but at the time they were made, they were probably over the top. Now while a hyperbole may well be purple, it is not necessarily so.
In literature, hyperbole is a figure of speech used to make a point, sometimes for emphasis, sometimes for irony. Thus when Andrew Marvel in "To His Coy Mistress" says had he "world enough, and time," he would devote a hundred years to admire her eyes and two hundred more "to adore each breast," he is using hyperbole for ironic purposes. The samples offered by Gladstone, on the other hand, are certainly meant to be taken seriously.
And this is a problem, hyperbole may be appropriate for poetry and literary prose, but there is certainly some question about whether it is an appropriate technique for journalism. As one commentator says in one of the interviews on the coverage, the hyperbolic news stories set up expectations in the public that may have consequences if they are not met. Call this the greatest catastrophe in world history, and if and when it turns out it wasn't quite as bad as we thought, people may well be less likely to listen to what you have to say. If we are lucky enough to avoid the greatest environmental disaster in the history of the world, how soon is it going to be before people begin accusing the wacko environmentalists of screaming the sky is falling? It's the boy who cried wolf syndrome. The trouble is that it happens too often in this age of twenty four hour news coverage. Every problem is a candidate for the great disaster. Purple prose is not the problem; hyperbole is.