Sunday, April 30, 2006

Dumb editing award of the week

Eye-opening lede time: Here's the rare case of a question hed that's justified:

Debate on 'Da Vinci': What's true, what's not?
Growing controversy adds to book's impact

Wasn't that easy? You can use a question hed if the story's about a question -- like, say, "how do the assertions of this novel compare with the generally accepted record?" (Yes, it's a bit silly to be asking whether a work of fiction is true, but let's not rain on the parade here.) So one reads on:

A line from Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" tells you why it's easily the most disputed religious novel of all time: "Almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false."

With 46 million copies in print, "Da Vinci" has long been a headache for Christian scholars and historians, who are worried about the influence on the faith from a single source they regard as wrong-headed.


So far, so good.

Now the controversy seems headed for a crescendo with the release of the movie version of "Da Vinci" May 17-19 around the world. Believers have released an extraordinary flood of material criticizing the story -- books, tracts, lectures and Internet sites among them.

And?

The conservative Roman Catholic group Opus Dei, portrayed as villainous in the story, is among those asking Sony Corp. to issue a disclaimer with the film.

And?

Bart Ehrman, religion chair at UNC Chapel Hill, likens the phenomenon to the excitement in the 19th century when deluded masses thought Jesus would return in 1844.

The novel's impact on religious ideas in popular culture, he says, is "quite unlike anything we've experienced in our lifetimes."

And?

For many, the problem is that "Da Vinci" is billed as more than mere fiction.

A senior Vatican official, Archbishop Angelo Amato, called for a boycott of the film Friday, saying it contained slanderous offenses against Christianity.

And? Well, that's it -- except for this quote, set off with its own subhed:

What Author Dan Brown says
"It's a book about big ideas. You can love them or you can hate them. But we're all talking about them, and that's really the point."

Tight, bright, reader-friendly and dumb as a post. We had the right hed for the story, but we no longer have the right story for the hed. Somebody apparently didn't notice that a 1,300-word account of Brown v. Board of Inquisition can't be cut down to 250 words without losing everything that made it worth attending to in the first place.

As in? As in three grafs on the earliest indications of belief in the divinity of Jesus. Six grafs about canonicity that would have come in handy a few weeks back when the religion editor was desperately cooking up a local buzz about the Gospel of Judas. Four grafs about the Magdalene thing. There's a story here, but it's not an inverted pyramid whackable to a glorified brief -- as anybody expecting to pass the final in J4400 next week (and that's everybody, right?) ought to be able to tell you. All the stuff that has any bearing on the hed -- and, conveniently, on the whole topic -- is gone.

In a way, that's the subtext for the slightly disingenuous debate being carried on between the editor and the readership about the amount and quality of international news in this paper. It's the difference between substance and the appearance of substance.

The problem isn't whether this Regional Newspaper (which, like all other Regional Newspapers, spends a disproportionate amount of space on national sports) does or doesn't have a certain number of international datelines per issue. It's what follows those datelines. DATELINE: NAMIBIA doesn't do much for your knowledge of democratization in sub-Saharan Africa if it only appears when celebrities are having babies there. Soi-disant explainers about the Middle East don't help anybody if they don't understand what they're explaining.

And then there's the fungibility issue -- the idea that all offerings from the national/international desk are interchangeable because they come from the same pot. Alert readers might recall the lazy days of August 1990, when the news arrived that Saddam Hussein (remember him?) considered his slant-drilling and grant-repayment issues with Kuwait serious enough to have moved three Republican Guards divisions down to the border. The US immediately announced a perfectly normal emergency joint air exercise with some of its friends in the neighborhood.

All of which was headed, quite reasonably, for the front page. Until the national/international desk declared that its regional fauna piece (FIRE ANTS: THREAT OR MENACE?) had been successfully localized, whereupon the fire ants went to the front page and the tedious old Middle East went back to the far bowels of the A section. And you can look it up.

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