Friday, August 31, 2007

Just stay home next time

In some parts of the news-consuming world, the people we call "anchors" are known as "news readers." Makes sense, given that the job description consists of ... well, of reading some news. It's a laudable skill (wouldn't it be nice if we weren't always watching for those fabled eyebrows), but it's not, you know, the path to glory.

We in the U.S., on the other hand, are regularly treated to the sight and sound of news readers going overseas to bring us the Real Story. The evidence at hand is from Katie Couric. And what does she have to tell us about Baghdad?

"The city looks like a third world country."

Thanks, Katie!

Anyway, read the whole thing here. And Katie and the rest of you lot: Just stay home next time, OK?

Keep opinion to self

Couple examples Ripped From Today's Headlines -- OK, Wednesday's headlines, but time has been at a premium this week -- to illustrate the damage a stray modifier can do.

This isn't a call to get rid of adjectives. As the good folks at Language Log note, you can't even say "Omit needless words" without 'em. But it is a call to use them carefully. Modifiers are particularly prone, in some cases, to being needless:

She clutches a white coffee cup and twirls a strand of brown hair that has fallen loose from her twisted updo. The gesture makes her appear slightly nervous.

We don't learn much about coffee cups (or the Artisan or Pippa) from this. All we gather is that somewhere, the writer internalized the idea that news writing is turned into feature writing by putting adjectives in front of nouns. But that doesn't mean adjectives themselves are evil.

Other cases are more of a threat to the craft, and those are the ones we're concerned about here. You'll even get a few tips on how to judge the appropriateness of adjectives in news writing (see? your subscription dollars at work).

One way to test whether an adjective is the beast you want is to reverse its valence (notice that's not really a property of "white" in "white coffee cup" or "brown" in "brown hair"). Here's a test case from the AP:

Two weeks before receiving a major assessment of the war in Iraq, President Bush on Tuesday delivered a ringing defense of the war effort.

Let's try it with a less enthusiastic adjective. Based on Mr. Bush's previous speech on the war effort, I'm inclined to suggest -- oh, let's go with "incoherent." President Bush on Tuesday delivered an incoherent defense of the war effort ... hmm, truth value aside, it does sort of suggest why the lede is not the place for the reporter's opinion of the speech, doesn't it?

Ready for another?

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boldly declared Tuesday that U.S. political influence in Iraq is "collapsing rapidly" and said his government is ready to help fill any power vacuum.

Let's just use a simple semantic differential on this one. Would we say he "timidly" declared that U.S. influence was collapsing? Is the nature of the declaration really at issue here, or is it some sort of AP lese-majeste -- the gall of some damn foreigner, daring to suggest that U.S. influence might be collapsing? !?! Or ?!?!? I mean, how dare he?

Don't bar the door to adjectives and adverbs. Make sure they say something, and make sure it's something appropriate to say. And if you aren't ready to call babbling historical fabrications "incoherent," don't give the guy a pass with "ringing." (I don't know what's worse, the observation that news sites increasingly tend to post AP copy unedited or the clear evidence that both the examples above were seen and approved by editors.)

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

There will be a petting zoo ...

... pony rides, and children can reduce Lucy the relative clause! It's another case of parallel structure gone awry in America's dailies, but this time it trips an editor rather than a writer.

Yesterday was a good day to sing the praises of sharp editing -- and to note, of course, that it's almost impossible to discern, given only the final product. There is, after all, always the outside chance that the writer had a clue in the first place. Today we turn to bad editing, which has the highly regrettable property of leaping out at you like two giant leaping things. This episode is not about missing errors but about introducing them:

Seung-Hui Cho wrote a paper for a Virginia Tech English class about a gunman planning a mass school shooting, one year before he killed 32 students and faculty members and himself in the deadliest shooting by an individual in U.S. history, according to sources familiar with the paper.

The paper, written for a fiction writing class and has not surfaced publicly, has "eerie" parallels to Cho's shooting inside Norris Hall on April 16, according to several sources. One source called it "kind of a blueprint" for the shootings, but others cautioned that that was an overstatement.

The second graf as it appears in the originating paper:
The paper, which was written for a class in fiction writing and has not surfaced publicly, has "eerie" parallels to Cho's shooting inside Norris Hall on April 16, according to several sources.

It's clear what the editor was trying to do, and it's something most textbooks (and most teachers and desk chiefs) teach: Reducing relative clauses is usually a good way to save space. You can reduce the clause by taking out the relative pronoun and the auxiliary or linking verb:

The poem, which was originally published in English
The poem, originally published in English

If you work for the Times, of course, the full relative clause is a way of establishing the appropriately ponderous Times style:

After a long week serving as spiritual adviser to many Mormons in his ward, Mr. Knight, who is an electrician, headed back to work at 6 a.m. for a 12-hour shift at a mine near Crandall Canyon.

But recently some of them have been arrested too. Ramin Jahanbegloo, who is an Iranian-Canadian scholar, spent four months in an Iranian prison last year.

We lesser breeds are inclined to write "an electrician" and "an Iranian-Canadian scholar." Eight lines is an inch, and an inch less foam is an inch more beer, and pretty soon we've saved enough space for some actual content.

The example at hand would have worked except for the change in verb voice:

The paper, which was written for a fiction class ...
The paper, written for a fiction class ...

The paper, which was written for a fiction class and had not previously been made public ...
The paper, written for a fiction class and not previously made public ...

The elements of the clause are parallel with all the parts in place, but when the first part is reduced, we get nonsense. This is a case of the desk making the writer look dumb.

Now, economy of words is a noble goal, and there's plenty to be done on that front. Having established Virginia Tech, gunman (is he still a standalone name nationwide, you figure?) and massacre, does the lede need to spell out the numbers and cap them off with the superlative? How many times could "according to ..." be replaced with "said"? How much of the Post's detail is important for a Virginia paper (which the Post is) but less relevant outside the state -- the governor's political affiliation, for example?

But there's other evidence that the story was whacked in a hurry and didn't get the second or third read that makes the difference between good surgery and the oh-there-it-is moment when the missing scalpel first shows up on the X-ray:

Some of Cho's writing in the paper is similar to what he said the words he spoke on the videotape he made on the morning of the shootings, the sources said.

Some of what Cho wrote was echoed in the words he spoke on the videotape he made on the morning of the shootings, the sources said.

It's longer and it makes less sense! Great taste! Less filling!

Seriously, though. One of the things we talk about in our spare time is what scale of train wreck it might take for the glass offices to realize that a desk with enough time to think about its work is no luxury. A mangled sentence or two in a wire story isn't necessarily a train wreck, but it should be at least a jogger-on-the-cowcatcher sort of warning.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Oink, flap, snork

Sun rises in West, water runs uphill, and it's time for the invisible work of the desk to stand forth. Here are two examples of top-grade copy editing that innocent readers, snug in their beds, will never notice nor need to notice. Original ledes from McClatchy's Washburo are followed by the versions as edited for McClatchy's Charlotte fishwrap:

With the resignation Monday of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the Bush administration faces its most daunting task: repairing the reputation of a Justice Department reeling from the controversy over the firings of nine U.S. attorneys last year.

Good to hear that pesky war is settled! A gentle thwack with the cursor brings us a bit closer to empirical reality:

With the resignation Monday of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the Bush administration faces a daunting task: repairing the reputation of a Justice Department reeling from the controversy over the firings of nine U.S. attorneys last year.

Does your writer appear to think all statistical concepts are interchangeable?

The Carolinas are rearing some of the country's most overweight kids, with nearly one in five classified as obese, a health study released Monday says.

The study says no such thing, and the desk hauls the writer back to earth:

On average, more kids are overweight in the Carolinas than in most other states, with nearly one in five tipping the scales at unhealthy weights, a nationwide study of obesity released Monday says.

Yep. Percentage of kids overweight has nothing to do with how far over the limit any portion of the little darlings might be.

Now, not all is puppies and kittens and birthday cake at Trade and Tryon. There's this spectacular collision of images from the O Hai I Mixted You A Metafor front:

Corny jokes, new campuses and pricey supplies open year like chalk across a blank slate as kids get back to class.

And this:

My, how big you've grown, blogosphere.

What can top an offer like that? Lids! Or a "this reporter":

Anyone with a laptop and an Internet connection can be a blogger -- for free. (It took 80 seconds for this reporter to start his own personal blog, simply by clicking on one of several sites and filling out two painless forms.)

Uh, yeah. Anyway, if you're one of the heroic copyeds who toned down the excessive prose of the Washington corps, take a bow. You made the craft look better. Nicely done.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Today in sourcing

It's always the way of news organizations. Comes a public scandal or flare-up of some sort about sourcing and everyone takes the pledge. And it lasts right up until -- usually until it makes sense to break it.

Hence what looks like a strong candidate for the news of the day:

WACO, Tex., Aug. 27 ­ Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, whose tenure has been marred by controversy and accusations of perjury before Congress, has resigned. A senior administration official said he would announce the decision later this morning in Washington.

This is as strong as the sourcing gets -- a single anonymous official. Raising an interesting set of questions from the ethics-n-practice perspective:

What's the minimum number of sources a story like this should require before it goes up?

How big does a story have to be before that rule is waived?

Who has how much say in making those calls?

Should the size of the story make you more or less stringent with the rules?

Cases like this tend to crop up more often in the cop-n-crime domain; news outfits that usually hold the line against defamation will go ahead and let blind sources libel the living fork out of a suspect if the case is big and lurid enough. And to be honest, in most cases, it goes unpunished: The rumor's true, the suspect is guilty, whatever. Which may well prove true here.

What if it's one of the big screwups, though: another JUSTICE FOR JONBENET case? And what happens to the low-ranking newsroom contrarian who stands up to a Washburo big-hitter and says a story isn't ready for publication? Inquiring minds want to know.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Advance to the rear

Yet another alleged wordsmith is trapped in the web of parallel structure faults:

He thought it was a bumblebee. But then it stopped, and hovered. It backed up, then forward -- and flew off.

What's happening in the last sentence? Well, unless "forward" is a verb (in which case it'd have to be "forwarded"), we have a compound predicate with two verbs, "back up" and "fly off." Throw in the "then" and the little demon is backing forward -- quite a feat, even for the ruby-throated.

Don't be misled. Use the rules or the rules will use you. Even if you're a designated prose star.

Friday, August 24, 2007

There once was a young ...

Sometimes it's hard to get your bearings on who or what exactly was a headline name in the dim, dark past before your own historical memory begins. So the first part of this hed is understandable. But the second seems to take the natural progress of heds in the wrong direction:

Shooter who left governor paralyzed to go free
Ala. politician hit on '72 campaign

OK, it's syntactically a train wreck (Dude! You hit on a whole campaign?), but the real issue is apposition: the number of different words or phrases we use to stand in for the main actor. When it's Jim-Bob Smith of 264 Bypass East, of course, we can't just make him "Smith." He has to be "local man" or "county man," or perhaps "student" or something. Then the deck can explain something further about him. When he (or she) moves up to the cusp of celebrity, either the hed or the deck will probably use the name, with the other explaining the actor's status.

In this case, both heds are stating more or less the same thing about the actor. He's a "governor" in one and an "Ala. politician" in the other. And neither one comes close to telling me that, what with the "shooter" being Arthur Bremer and all, the "Ala. politician" is George Corley freakin' Wallace.

So -- look. I know the modal first news memory for copyeds these days is the Challenger or something later. "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever" is somewhere just north of Triceratops on the timeline of life. Go ahead. Close your eyes and take a gamble on your audience. This isn't a story in 2007 because somebody shot a governor. It's a story because it's about George Wallace. Get his damn name into one of the heds, at least.

And if someone can provide a proper citation for the following, I'd be obliged:

There once was a young man named Hollis
Who used possums and lizards for solace
His children had scales
And prehensile tails
And voted for Governor Wallace

Lucy the Pig rides again

Here's another parallelism fault for your consideration (Lucy, as some of you refugees might recall, is the Poster Pig of parallel structure, immortalized in this true-life example: "There will be a petting zoo, pony rides and children can meet Lucy the pig"). It's worth noting as a reminder that copyeds are outgunned in most disputes with writers. We're usually going to lose if it comes down to a matter of "I think this sounds weird" vs. "well, it's my sentence, and I don't."

We boost our chances a lot when we can name and describe the fault at issue. We've bolstered the idea that language is governed by rules rather than whim, and we've increased the chance that the writer will walk away with some idea of how not to sin again -- which, if we're lucky, will end up making our job easier. So the point of this sermon: Don't hesitate to challenge a fault, even if it's in the lede story. As in this example:

The crime ended the life of a staunch community activist and widow of Detroit artist and art teacher T.J. Williams.

See the coordination problem at the end of the prepositional phrase? The first object is indefinite: "a staunch community activist." The second is logically definite (she's "the" widow of the artist), but because there's no change in the article, she comes out being two indefinite things: a staunch activist and a widow of the said artist. Urgh.

The copyed isn't free of sin here either, of course. The hed (it was indeed the 1A lede), "Firebomb attack kills widow in her home," puts the victim's marital status ahead of everything else in the significance queue: her activism and the social/cultural status of her late hubby, to name two that are more prominent in the text. If widow-killing had some sort of special status in the Detroit metro area, that'd be one thing, but here it just looks like bush-league sexism. Let's not.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Zeugma in real life

Or "syllepsis," if you insist: the fine art of letting a word govern two (or more) words or phrases that would be correct by themselves but end up a sort of skewed parallel when read as a group. The fine folks at Language Log aptly call it "WTF coordination" too, and they note that it's usually used for literary (often wry or humorous) effect, as in this from Flanders and Swann:

When he asked "what in Heaven?" she made no reply,
Up her mind, and a dash for the door.

Well, just because the Times sneaks it into a feature doesn't mean you can syllepse your way through the cop blotter, as the pyem daily in Collegetown demonstrates:

A small roof fire at a retirement center in southeast Columbia caused 46 people to evacuate and $10,000 in damage, the Columbia Fire Department said. No one was injured.

Save it for the [ahem] funny pages, y'all. Just hit the damn ball up the middle in fire stories.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Worst of all worlds

Is it a trender? Is it a brief? Well, it's been whacked by 85%, but it's got a big hed and a color photo and it's the only non-local story on the front ... you make the call!

This tale moved as the "AP Centerpiece," meaning we're not sure what. It originally weighed in at just north of 1,000 words, presumably enough to support some of the assertions, at least a bit -- you know, the ones like "small but growing number of parents" and "hints at the potential importance of domain names in establishing one's future digital identity."

At 160 words, needless to say, it doesn't. All it gets to do is lose all the qualifiers. "It's not known exactly how many," for example. Or "There's no guarantee, though, that domain names will have as central a role in online identity." And those annoying transitional grafs:

Still, even if the effort is for naught, $9 a year is cheap compared with the cost of diapers and college tuition.

That's right, parents! And for that same $9 a year, you can lock in your subscription to headsuptheblog until your poppet enters an accredited journalism program!

In its full glory, this is a dubious trender. As a brief, it's a joke. (Here's a foolproof test for briefs: Can you write a subject-verb-object hed from the lede? If not, it's not a brief!)

Baby Howells gets
own domain name

Besides leaving the hospital with a birth certificate and a clean bill of health, baby Mila Belle Howells got something she won't likely use herself for several years: her very own Internet domain name.

See what we mean?

Anyway, it's always nice to hear that cancer has been cured and the Mideast is at peace. Given all the news space we can now spend on swill, let's swill it a bit more carefully, shall we?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Day of wrath and roses looming

Let's pick a noun to retire from all stories and heds about tropical weather. No doubt you have nominees. Here's mine:

Charlotte teen escapes Dean's wrath

City man dodges
Dean's wrath

Mexico, Belize brace for
Dean's wrath

Jamaica feels
Dean's wrath

Jamaica smashed by wrath of Dean

Travel plans altered by
wrath of Dean

The wrath of Dean was even felt in space, where Endeavour astronauts scaled back their last spacewalk yesterday and planned to land the space shuttle Tuesday, a day early, NASA said.

A boat sinks in Fort de France, Martinique, after it takes on water from Hurricane Dean's wrath. The storm was Category 3 when it hit land.

While much of the island escaped Hurricane Dean's wrath, the southernmost tip was not so lucky.

Cancún still could face winds with tropical storm force - forecast to extend over about 75,000 square miles, about the size of Nebraska or South Dakota - but city officials told the public Monday night that the area should escape the worst of Dean's wrath.

Strong winds blew down trees in southern towns near the Haitian border but the country was largely spared Dean's wrath.


Wednesday, August 15, 2007

More editing tips

Tnx to the contributors to date on One Thing You'd Tell Future Editors (as alert readers may have noticed, "one" is sort of like shorthand for "somewhere between zero and 20," which is fine*). More are eagerly solicited (see "Editors of Christmas Future" below). We do actually talk about this sort of issue in class (you colleagues over there in the sidebar can chime in too), and sometimes it sinks in.

Meanwhile, in honor of our first entrant (take a bow there, The Ridger), let's have a look at how to make heds match stories,** courtesy of the local blatt (or we can just have some more parentheses).

Padilla defense finishes
Dirty bomb case goes to the jury

MIAMI -- Jose Padilla, dubbed the "dirty bomber" by the Bush administration, didn't fill out an Al Qaeda application, didn't train with the group and didn't plot to kill anyone in the name of Islam, his lawyer said at his federal trial Tuesday.

The takeaway rule on making heds match stories is easy: Any fact stated in the hed needs to have a corresponding fact in the story. As a test, run your finger down the story. If you get to the end without reaching the fact in question, you have a mismatch. That's not necessarily a bad hed; it could mean the story is missing a key component. But it's a hed that can't run until either hed or story is fixed.

The case at hand combines stuff that's clearly stated -- "defense finishes" in the main hed comes from "Making his closing arguments" in the lede -- with stuff that's implied, which is where we run into trouble. The deck says a case has gone to the jury, which is true, but it also specifies what kind: the "dirty bomb" case. Let's apply the finger test and see if that's true.

Oops. Lurking at the end of the fourth graf (it's Gannett, so a seven-graf story is darn near a news analysis) is the tipoff: "the purported dirty bomb plot -- allegations that later were dropped." Meaning the "dirty bomb case" can't have gone to the jury because there is no "dirty bomb case." BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZT. False hed.

At a guess, this is a simple RTFS violation. Alas for The Meedja, it's the sort that's impossible to tell from flacking for the govment. So eat those Wheaties, kids. Watch between-meal treats, brush after eating, and always (always!) RTFS.

* Really. Sometimes one thing leads to another. If "one thing you need to know about stats" turns into five sub-things that stem from the original, no problem.
** Making heds match the truth is a trickier proposition, which we'll try to work around to off and on as time goes by.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


Editors don't expect to be loved. The way we keep those baskets of fruit and sacrifices of small furry animals coming is by keeping writers from looking silly (or worse). Here, alas, an unknown number of editors missed such an opportunity, and the whole paper looks ... well, judge for yourself:

Karl Rove’s well-known political tactics also reached Missouri, observers said Monday after he left the post of chief political adviser at the White House.

As a pivitol state in national elections, they said, Rove — if not his strategies — was a player in Show-Me-State politics.

Michael Smith, a former Washington, D.C., speechwriter and Columbia resident who now works in the Missouri State Department of Health, pointed to Mel and Jean Carnahan’s 2000 U.S. Senate race against John Ashcroft as evidence of Rove’s influence.

Smith said questioning opponents’ patriotism was one of Rove’s trademark tactics. Ashcroft lost the election by a small margin, but Smith said he remembers state residents being swayed by the administration’s message that patriotism and support for Iraq were inherently linked.

You could dive back into the files (what's the point of free Lexis-Nexis if you don't use it?) and note the issues that came up in that campaign: Social Security, the "patients' bill of rights" and the like. Or you could just do the math and note that the "administration" in those days was Bill Clinton's, that 9/11 (the dawn of the current patriotism/fear era) was still nearly a year away, and that "support for Iraq" is talking about something as far in the future as 2010 is today. No doubt the speechwriter "said" he "remembers" this. But if the writer falls for that sort of thing, an editor needs to step in and point out that memory is tricky -- and, in this case, flat wrong. What the guy says is irrelevant. It didn't happen.

We'd win points for noting that it's "pivotal," not "pivitol" (how did that one slip past spellcheck?). And that, dangler-wise, Rove wasn't a pivotal state. And that the hyphenation gets a little excessive. But the prize in this one is the whole story. It should have been killed, and some anonymous editor should have been able to paint a big red CORRECTION on the copydesk splinter shield. Woe.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Editors of Christmas Future

It's almost syllabus time here at the new digs (as in, right after we get back with the groceries), and you're all invited to join in the fun. Today's question:

What's the one thing you want the editors of the future to know?

In case you're wondering, yes, they'll hear about Christmas Came Early, why the thing about sentence-final prepositions isn't a rule, the bit about not putting it on the screen if you don't want to see it in the paper, why "margin of error" is meaningless without the confidence level, that sort of stuff. That should suggest that we're open to a range of stuff here: Grammar tips, cross-cultural f***ups, the win and awesome of effect sizes, the ceremony for exorcising Gannett demons from your publisher -- it's up to y'all.

Everybody can play (unless the one thing you want editors to know is where to find your blog on beauty tips): students, rimsters and writers, visitors from other professional and academic domains, intelligent ammonia beings from the Planet Mxyzptlk, and MANY MANY MORE. Add comments to the comments place.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Bad guess

Behold, a hed writer being led down the crooked path of sin:

Man avoids death term in hotel fire
Judge says he'll order life without parole after jury can't decide

You can see the source of the temptation. "Prison term" becomes "prison sentence" in heds because "term" makes sense and it's four counts, rather than seven and a half. But it doesn't mean "sentence"; it means something else that "sentence" also means in that context:

A portion of time having definite limits; a period, esp. a set or appointed period; the space of time through which something lasts or is intended to last; duration, length of time.

So "prison term" works, but -- well, bad news. There's no such thing as a "death term." Although now that somebody has gotten away with it, somebody else can point to it and ... the horror.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Headline bait-n-switch

Another nice illustration of how you can fib in the big type without all the muss and bother of, you know, actually lying. From Fox's front page:

We're interested in the fourth one, Body of woman found in NYU professor's bedroom. It helps to have a bit of a grounding in the social function of news about academia in Fox World. Professors are loony-lefties who waste Taxpayer Dollars studying guppy sex when they aren't showing disrespect for the flag, making up statistics about climate change, or inducing Your Kids to forget the American history test tomorrow so they can smoke some marijuana reefers and go down to the bad part of town and ...

Sorry. Anyway, you get a pretty good idea of what the story's about from the hed -- which, after all, is what heds are supposed to do. Some professor, no doubt in sociology or some other useless discipline, went a little too far with some trick he learned from the smut magazines he posted as class reading, and you can fill in the blanks from there. Make sense?

Sure, until you read the story. The woman (not formally identified as of the AP's telling) is thought to be the prof's daughter. The prof is a woman who's on a foreign study program. A little less interesting than the reefer off the front would suggest.

Leave this one to the pros, kids. Don't try it at home. Or at least don't try it in class if you want your grade to stay anywhere north of zero.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Stop it with the Big Lie already

Here's a bullet item appended to the bottom of a news story:

Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was subjected to the CIA's harshest interrogation methods while he was held in secret prisons around the world for more than three years, according to a New Yorker article to be published on the magazine's Web site Sunday. -- washington post

Interesting, and probably important to know. Mind if we ask why -- again -- an item about a Qaida figure who was captured in Pakistan appears at the end of an article about the unrelated war in Iraq?

Seriously. Particularly given that the same edn carries an article about Afghanistan, which is where the people who did 9/11 are in all likelihood hanging out, there's no excuse for this sort of blunder. At best, it suggests a clueless provincial rag that thinks everything beyond the borders of the Great State of Mecklenburg is interchangeable (except football teams, golfers and NASCAR drivers). At worst, it suggests a newspaper that isn't just doing propaganda by accident but is outright volunteering to shill for the administration.

Could we get an explanation, please?

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Thumb on the scales

Latest in a series of comments on the strange combination of big picture and little picture that goes into life on the copydesk. Here's the lede hed from a major Southeastern daily* this morning.

Big picture: One of the known ongoing failings of the U.S. press is its excessive focus on the executive side in general and the president in particular. Coverage of Congress is spotty at best, coverage of statehouses is more or less an endangered species, but the president's every action is recorded in detail. And, conversely, stuff that's important on its own -- particularly international news -- faces an additional hurdle in that it has to be commented on by the president (or the Mouth of Sauron) before it gets into circulation. In the case at right, a low-bore development that has almost no relevance to the ongoing story of the bridge collapse is elevated into Story of the Day prominence. Given that everything else above the fold is either FOOTBALL or NEWS2USE, that means real news moves even farther to the back of the bus.

Little picture: "Get this bridge rebuilt" is imperative, and that's a grammatical and factual distortion of what the president said. Here are two quotes in which the phrase appears:

Our message to the Twin Cities is, we want to get this bridge rebuilt as quick as possible, that we understand this is a main artery of life here -- that people count on this bridge and this highway system to get to work.

One of our jobs is to work with the governor and the mayor and the senators and the members of the Congress to cut through that paperwork, and to see if we can't get this bridge rebuilt in a way that not only expedites the flow of traffic, but in a way that can stand the test of time.

The hed sounds like a stern leader giving an order that Must Be Obeyed. At a guess, it's an artifact of news routines (did somebody give Mark a Herbert Gans anthology for his birthday or something?) rather than deliberate news slant. It is, after all, literally "true" in that Bush said those words in that order. It fits. It's timely and perky (not necessarily "active," though that misnomer does accurately represent the news value of sounding loud and busy). But if your hypothetical media critic from Mars were to suggest that journalism structure and news routines tend to result in pro-administration bias even in the allegedly "liberal" "media," he/she/it wouldn't get much argument here.

* OK, here's the deal. I'll stop saying "major Southeastern daily" if all the academic journals will stop saying "large Midwestern university."

Saturday, August 04, 2007

I'm missing mine too

Kin of Bridge Collapse Missing Wait

The problem with writing heds on autopilot is that it's easy to miss an essential navigation marker. Here, normal hed rules eliminate all the stuff that would tell us what role "missing" might be playing:

Noun of class membership (article: Among the missing were ...)
Adjective (linking "be": Two people are still missing)
Part of the verb (auxiliary "be": I'll be missing you)

Thus we end up with a British English-style attributive noun pileup that's impossible to tell from a nice simple sentence. Are the kin of the bridge collapse missing their wait? Or are the kin of those missing in the bridge collapse waiting for something?

Friday, August 03, 2007

Cartoon of the (middle-aged) year

After a sojourn in the weeds of American editorial cartoons, it's nice to run across Steve Bell of the Guardian again. Can we give him a Pulitzer, even though he's a furriner?

Department of New Lows

In case any of you still thought our little friends at Fox didn't take their marching orders from the Republican National Committee, this just in:

Sen. John Edwards in a Biz Hate & $Witch

(That's the hed on the front page. Fox rimsters might want to note that the alleged play on "switch" would work better with the "W" lowercased or the word in all caps.)

The story itself, "John Edwards Calls on Democrats to Turn Down News Corp. Donations But Received $800,000 in Book Deal," doesn't mention "hate." You sort of have to be a regular Fox reader to know that "hate" is shorthand for "occasional suggestions that News Corp. in general operates as the armed propaganda wing of the Bush White House." So what might a "hate and switch" look like? Let's let the tale, from the august New York Post, tell us:

John Edwards, who yesterday demanded Democratic candidates return any campaign donations from Rupert Murdoch and News Corp., himself earned at least $800,000 for a book published by one of the media mogul's companies.

The Edwards campaign said the multimillionaire trial lawyer would not return the hefty payout from Murdoch for the book titled "Home: The Blueprints of Our Lives."

The campaign didn't respond to a question from The Post about whether it was hypocritical for Edwards to take money from News Corp. while calling for other candidates not to.

(Here's the original, in case you want the real stuff from the Post and not the version dumbed down for Fox readers.)

Raising a number of questions, of course, among them: Is the Post's Washburo chief really so blinkin' stupid that he doesn't know the difference between royalties and campaign donations? Or is he a real journalist desperately trying to smuggle out coded pleas for rescue? Or -- well, add your own questions here, but let's make sure that Fox News and all its minions and catamites are held up for the weasels that they are.

Two tropes enter! One trope leaves!

Here's a fun game you can play at home. It's called Hypothetical Copy Editor from Mars. Imagine you've just arrived from some distant planet with nine suns, a lot of plutonium-based foliage and a thriving broadsheet daily press industry. Now see how long it takes you to figure out the rules -- style, story play, policy and the like -- of the earthling news medium of your choice.

Today we have an important lesson in how "hed transitivity" (if story theme A is more important than theme B, and B is more important than C, then A is more important than C) works at The Fair and Balanced Network. Two elemental Fox themes are in play in this story: The subject is both a minister's wife and a missing mom. We all know that preacher's wives are a big deal:

Small Tennessee Town Braces for Start of Minister's Wife's Murder Trial

Minister's Wife Wants Evidence Excluded

... but could anything be more important than a missing mom?

NJ Man Tied To Missing Mom Surrenders

Ex-Con Named 'Person Of Interest' In Missing Mom Case

Chicago TV Reporter Videotaped Wearing Swimsuit at Home of Missing Mom Lisa Stebic

Missing Mom Mystery: Scene of the Crime

What's your call?

OK, to save you the suspense, raise one green tentacle if you picked "minister's wife," because you qualify as a rimrat for Fox News!

Missing Minister's Wife Returns to Alabama From New York

Yes, even though she "knows she made a 'serious mistake' by leaving" and "has returned home to Alabama to be with her two children," the power of the pastorate overcomes the tug of motherhood.

You might have an easier time of it if your home planet has more case inflection than Fox World. Here on Earth (at least in the parts where we speak English and use real money), we have a hard time telling whether "missing minister's wife" means "wife of the missing minister" or "minister's wife, who is missing." Meanwhile, go ahead and set up that direct deposit. You're ready to go to work.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Duck, Mom!

Your morning-coffee-deprived readers are going to love this deck, ripped from the front pages of America's Newspapers. If I was showing a 15-month-old, I'd duck too.

Please. If you're going to put this sort of thing on the front page (cancer cured! Mideast at peace!), at least clue us in on what actually happened.