Monday, December 25, 2006

More slop from the Paper O'Record

It's just about midnight here at the Manor, and we're resolutely staying away from the chimney in hopes that Santa Cliche will slide in any second now with the goodies. At the top of the list -- right after peace on earth and a new US importer for Badger products -- is a big old bag of remorse for reporters who are tempted to make stuff up.

Copyeds, you cannot insist often enough. When conventional wisdom is slopping down the pipes, ask for some evidence. Don't settle for "everybody knows that" or "well, I saw it that way somewhere." And don't accept the justification that feature sections don't need to play by the rules. They do.

Here's some bilge from the Times' Week in Review section that should have been shot down. It's not just dumb (as if that wasn't reason enough), it's the sort of dumb that makes a pretty good paper look like a political tool. And if you're going to do that, kids, at least try to do it right.

Ten days after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush gave the national lexicon “the war on terror” — a linguistic gift that, five years later, keeps on giving.

Quick, who was the first president to use "war on terrorism" in a speech to the United Nations?
a) Teddy Roosevelt
b) William Howard Taft
c) Ronald Reagan
d) George W. Bush

OK, trick question. No UN for TR and Taft! Best we can determine here, the answer is Reagan (September 1986, should you be scoring along at home).

Oh, you meant "war on terror"? Pretty much the same vintage. If Bush got it from anybody, he probably got it from hed writers. Which more reporters might have noticed if they, um, read the paper more often.

This year, Mr. Bush warned that Americans were fighting against “Islamo-fascism,” a fancy term that was retired almost as fast as it was introduced. As the elections drew near, and Mr. Bush tried to wrap the controversial war in Iraq inside the politically palatable war on terror, he came up with a more sweeping tag: “the great ideological struggle of the 21st century.”

"Islamo-fascism" isn't especially fancy (I'll buy "brainless," though), and Bush neither introduced nor retired it. It appears to date to mid-September 2001, though "Islamic fascism" is about a decade older. The construction seems to be doing fine among the sorts of people who always took to it. And wrapping Iraq into the "war on terror"? It's been going on since 2002, assisted, with more and less enthusiasm at different times, by the solemn voice of the news pages.

... But those presidential utterances — cooked up mostly by speechwriters — cannot compete with the president’s most notable, and unscripted, contribution to American discourse this year: the Decider.

Mr. Bush first used the phrase, back in April, to insist he would not fire Donald H. Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense. “I hear the voices and I read the front page and I hear the speculation,” Mr. Bush said then. “But I’m the decider, and I decide what’s best. And what’s best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the secretary of defense.”

Well, let's pick on the facts before we speculate on motives. In the AP's Lexis database, Bush first refers to his deciderhood ("I'm a pretty good decider") in June 2000. And he isn't even the first one in the family: "In the event that that hypothetically were to ever come up, the president would be the decider," a White House spokeswoman said in October 1990.

[The copyed who wrote the c-deck -- "Verbalization not being his strong suit, Bush chooses to create a noun" -- gets a lump of coal too. You figure it might be worth looking in the dictionary to see whether "decider," as in "one who decides," had been on active duty since the 16th century or anything?]

How we know what can and can't compete with what in this realm -- especially since we seem a little short on database skills -- remains a tantalizing question. I wish I knew. But here's a hint:

... The Decider struck the national funny bone.

Oops. Reporter commits cardinal sin: assuming that "what my friends and I think" is the same as "what the whole freaking country thinks." I think Jon Stewart is dead-on funny too, but I don't mistake him for the national funnybone (I doubt he does either). This presumption is just out-and-out stupid, and anybody who wants to wave it around as clear evidence of Meedja Bias can go ahead. You want to pick on Bush for the Rumsfeld two-step, fine. But save the pseudo-reported snark for the party circuit.


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