Tuesday, July 31, 2007

NPR imitates Fox

You hate to see a reporter get slapped around by a source, except -- well, except when the reporter deserves it. And you hate to see NPR striving for that Fox News feel, because Fox is what happens when the Weekly World News boinks an unsavory administration, whereas NPR, for all its shortcomings, is the closest thing in American broadcasting to a genuine source of comprehensive news for grownups. Hence this gentle poke in the chops, given unto NPR's Rebecca Roberts by Robert Gallucci of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service.

Roberts's annoying intro to an interesting story:

A friend of mine has two children under the age of 4 and tragically has to fly cross-country with them regularly. They are not ideal companions, so when they act up, she gives them lollipops. It quiets them down, makes her trip easier, but it also rewards bad behavior.

A similar strategy may be playing out with a nation that has long been considered an international bad boy. Libya has been misbehaving of late, but the West rewarded the country this past week with diplomatic and economic lollipops.

We'll stop the tape here while Roberts introduces her guest to point out the sheer Foxitude of it all. The idea that other countries are children, running around irrationally and throwing tantrums while we adults thortfully pursue our national interests, wasn't invented by the U.S. media, but we seem to do better at it than most media systems (or perhaps we're just studied more thoroughly). Anyway, it's a pretty arrogant and stupid way of trying to explain international relations. But back to Roberts:

Libya released these six foreign medical workers who had been held for more than eight years. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says she's hopeful to travel to Libya, have some diplomatic relations with Libya. Same with France, same with the United Kingdom. How wise a diplomatic strategy do you think that is, to reward Libya to some degree for freeing medics who probably shouldn't have been imprisoned in the first place?

Luckily for the audience, the source is a bit more sophisticated than the reporter. Here's Gallucci:

I'd be careful about the metaphor, that what we're dealing with here are recalcitrant children. The international system is not a playground. The stakes are quite high. They can be high in human terms, and they can be high in the way in which states relate to each other when national security is an issue.

In other words, it's cute to write about Ka-Dhaffy Duck and So-ddamn Insane, but that ain't how the world works. The point of a public service broadcast system is not to provide a brie-eating imitation of Murdoch-style jingoism. It's to provide space for actually talking about national security and national interest and how they're interpreted -- even by obnoxious regimes like the Baathists and the Great People's Jamahiriya.

Editors, when you see the playground metaphor, call in the artillery. It skates pretty close to open racism. But more to the point, it falls right into abysmal cluelessness. Please try to do better.

Monday, July 30, 2007

What's black and white and green?*

The stern master has led Ingmar Bergman away at age 89. HEADSUP-L calls on all newspapers to publish in glorious black and white in commemoration. (This one's from The Seventh Seal, but Wild Strawberries is an even prettier piece of filmmaking.)

A cross-media reminder: "Stuff blowing up" is not the same thing as cinema. "Cars chasing cars" is not the same thing as journalism. Do try to keep the concepts separate.

* Two figures of death fighting over a pickle.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Got some bad news, Harvey

The perils of mixing tenses:

Bad news for lawyer Harvey Miller, 36, of Toledo: You aren't out of the woods yet! We're all going to die! And bad news for hed writers: You can't follow the past with the present in this wise. Harvey probably feared he might die, or feared he would die. But if he feared he may die, he was kinda wasting his time.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

What, My Lai?

Every now and then, in the largely unrelieved bummer that is the packing and moving experience, comes a ray of sunshine. Such would be running across the box with the old magazines that eventually yields Kelly Freas's Alfred-E.-Neuman-as-Bill-Calley cover: "What, My Lai?" With your Jane Fonda movie kit, your Calley-Manson computer fight, your Mrs. Agnew's Diary, your funnies by Arnold Roth and Michael O'Donoghue, and, of course, your record club ads.

Hence tonight's play-along game: How many of these from the Record Club of America spread are in your collection?

Steppenwolf Gold
Woodstock Two (that'll be Felix Pappalardi singing an excellent cover of "Theme for an Imaginary Western")
Neil Diamond, "Tap Root Manuscript"
Brewer & Shipley, "Tarkio"
The Who, "Tommy"
Led Zeppelin III
Traffic, "John Barleycorn Must Die"
"Susan Sings Sesame Street"
Orson Welles, "The Begatting of the President"
PDQ Bach, "The Stoned Guest"
CSN&Y, "4 Way Street"
Ian & Sylvia, "Greatest Hits
Melanie, "Leftover Wine"

Bonus points if you can guess anything in the ad that isn't listed here. Double bonus for anything you have on 8-track.

Let's conclude with a reading from Boni and Beard's "Would You Buy a Used War from This Man?"

But that's not all. Peaceplan (with Honor®) also rushes massive assistance throughout the entire area to help strengthen natural defenses and then provides a continuous fortified buffer to guard against recurrent attacks. And thanks to its concentrated genocidal action, it searches out and destroys the causes of persistent insurgency -- the milions of little people that infect even the healthiest political system.

Tin ear award of the (still-young) day

What we seem to mean is that a lot of people have watched some graphic video from Iraq in the days since ABC posted it. We end up saying something else in the bargain. A "hit" -- well, all the other dictionaries and their friends are packed, so let's ask the Oxford English Magic 8-Ball:

A successful stroke made in action or performance of any kind; esp. any popular success (a person, a play, a song, etc.) in public entertainment.

One would like to think the paper in question doesn't consider images of death (apparently both American and Iraqi, though the story's coy about what exactly is depicted) to be forms of public entertainment. But one can't tell what the paper thinks. All one can tell is what it says, and -- can we have a chorus of "Springtime for Hitler"?

(While we're at it, please be more attentive to parallel structure in the decks. "Shooting" (in this case) is a count noun, but "venting" isn't. Do make a note of it.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Here's an idea: Shut up

Blogs are all the thing for newspapers to have these days, aren't they? You've got staff blogs, you're in touch with the reader-friendly cutting edge and all that? Well, as we march into the Brave New World, it's probably worth bearing in mind that crap on a blog is pretty much the same thing as crap on the newspages: To wit, crap. And that judgment holds even if it's a blog from the august New York Times. Thus, today's example:

Both Newsweek and Time magazine have newish editors (Jon Meacham, Richard Stengel) and, basically, it’s war: they’re slugging it out for eyeballs in a way they haven’t for a while.
Readers have mostly been the winners; both magazines are smarter and livelier than they were a couple of years ago.

But as far as I can tell there’s also been some collateral damage: for a while now, both magazines have been running fewer (and skimpier) book reviews than they did, say, a year or two ago.

I don’t have any scientific evidence to back this up; I recycle these magazines pretty fast.

Well, here's an idea: Why don't you shut up until you do have some evidence? "Scientific" is a journalistic scare word here; the writer is implying test tubes, villagers swarming up the mountain with pitchforks and torches, and the like, but content analysis is actually something you can do at home. Just pick a sampling frame, come up with a plausible way to define "few" and "skimpy," and get to work counting your units of analysis.

You might find out that you're right (hard to see why that's a problem, if newsweekly book reviews are the caliber of newsweekly film reviews). You might find out that you're wrong. But until you find out, your "as far as I can tell" is the same as Chertoff's "gut feeling" about terrorism: You want to be taken at your word, but you can't be bothered to put in the minimum level of work that credibility demands.

I don't see how that's going to help journalism thrive in the onrushing century. But there's always some fuddy-duddy wanting newspapers to be more credible than the Homeland Security Department.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

I can afflicts them a little too?

Just tidying up the bibliography on the monster this weekend, thought some of you suspects might like this, from the USA Today "mission" "statement":

The easy-to-use, comprehensive source of timely news and information edited to inform and entertain today's time-pressed, affluent and influential people.

Alternative endings welcome. Likewise Ouija board visits from Hildy Johnson or his/her ilk.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Fun with agitprop

Some design/presentation/editing issues are ideologically neutral. Quite a few aren't. Editors need to be careful they don't mistake the latter for the former in their urge to "package" "news" to "help" the "readers."

We've complained before about the ill-advised "WAR & TERROR DIGEST," which links two unrelated concepts for some unspecified form of convenience. It's bad enough when it sticks exclusively to "war," which seems to mean the one in Iraq, and a form of "terror" that's narrowly limited to things related to the Sept. 11 perps. When it starts to drag in other actors and conflicts, it's basically carrying out the functions of the White House press office, and that's not what we have an independent press for. Here's today's example:

Iran launches new probe into pair
TEHRAN, Iran -- Iran's judiciary has launched new investigations into the cases of two detained Iranian Americans charged with endangering national security, citing fresh evidence, a spokesman said Tuesday.

The investigations into Haleh Esfandiari and Kian Tajbakhsh have been broadened, said judiciary spokesman Ali Reza Jamshidi.

Quick, which category does Iran's inept and ill-advised detention of these folks fall into: war or terror? The short answer is neither. It's a different sort of interstate p***ing match. It's deplorable, sure, but when we move every deplorable thing done by every actor we dislike into the category of "terrorism," we're opening the definition far beyond anything we can sustain. The reader is left with several potential conclusions, none of them mutually exclusive:
1) The newspaper thinks All Those People Look Alike
2) The newspaper is a willing propaganda tool of the administration
3) The newspaper doesn't think stuff that happened before yesterday is relevant to stuff that will happen tomorrow and doesn't think its readers do either

Bad lot of choices there. Futurely, let's try to put a bit more thought into the briefs packages.

(Does it actually make a difference if news reports dump stuff at random into the WAR ON TERROR category? The short answer is yes. More later.)

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Hyphen hell

Couple of nice lessons from America's Newspapers today on the difference between editing and looking busy.

Hyphenation, as we all know, is the sort of thing not to be taken too-seriously less the hyphenator go mad. And the easiest way to avoid the madness is to find a Rule and stick to it -- say, "hyphenate every preposed compound modifier on pain of gooey death." Such devotion tends to lead to some punctuation events that shouldn't occur in real life, like "high-school student" or "ice-cream cone," but you have to admit it saves precious neurotransmitters for those all-important feature heds.

Trouble arises when writers and editors forget that the rule applies to compound modifiers, not to every pair of adjectives, adverbs or whatnot that might pile up. The hyphen in "little-used car" indicates a real compound, in which the meaning arises from the combination: A car that has seen little use. And, conveniently, the hyphen distinguishes such a compound from "little used car," meaning a pre-owned Fiat. Those are "cumulative" adjectives, in which meaning is piled on sequentially. If it helps, you can also think of the head noun as a compound itself: A "used car" is a kind of car, and "little" is a size of used car.

Got it? Sticking a hyphen into a compound-that-isn't can either create ambiguity, which we don't like, or clarity, which is even worse if it ends up indicating the wrong thing. Today's examples:

We’re not big-party people. We had an intimate wedding in 1972 and have celebrated anniversaries and birthdays with family since.

Let's go out on a limb and suggest that the hyphen in "big-party people" was inserted into this syndicated column by the features desk. It removes some ambiguity, but I'm willing to bet it removes it in the wrong direction. As published, the sentence says the writers aren't fond of big parties. I think they meant something else: "party people" as the noun, and "big" (as "little" does in "little used car") suggesting that they don't go in much for parties. End result? Somebody looks busy, somebody appears to be following the alleged stylebook, and the result is bad meaning.

Here's another, from the very next page:
Raised in Dayton, Bobby Osborne is half of the pioneering bluegrass band the Osborne Brothers.

Sonny and Bobby added drums, pedal-steel guitar and amplification to the genre.

OK. Many, if not most, scholars would quibble with the assertion that the Osbornes "added drums" to bluegrass. But our target here is the hyphen. "Pedal steel" is not a compound modifier (we seem to have been over this before). "Pedal steel" isn't a kind of guitar; "pedal" is a kind of steel guitar (it's played with a steel, and it uses pedals and knee levers to change pitch).

It's always easier to do what the stylebook says, or appears to say, than to sketch out what the grammar is doing. And in most cases, you end up spending more time in arguing than you saved by not putting in the otiose hyphen. But every time an editor makes a real grammar argument and wins, an angel gets free beer for a week at any Fuller's tied house.

(Busy week here, by the way, what with revisions to be made and the new HEADSUP-L command center and missile silos to inspect. Apologies if your Telex or carrier pigeon hasn't been returned. We're working on it.)

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

It's getting away!

Latest in a series of "Chasing ..." hammerheds that were apparently written without all the fuss and bother of looking at the photo. Collect them all!

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

No gurls allowed

Essentially, the Department of Agriculture watches the price of cheddar cheese, whey, butter and nonfat dry milk and then determines the least a farmer can receive for his milk.

OK. As a rule, guys don't get to become Duchess of York. Girls don't get to be pope. Given those and a few other exceptions, though, news language should generally not imply that any particular profession is restricted by gender. As in "the least a farmer can receive for his milk."

I'm trying to figure out the minimum number of courses in which a Missourian writer (and at least one editor) should have heard that message delivered (sometimes politely, sometimes less so). It's rather a lot. Ideally, he or she also heard that there are lots of cures, most of which don't involve slapping "his or her" into every story that crosses his or her screen until he or she goes mad with the sheer neutrality of it all and follows his or her own star into real estate.

The example at hand looks every bit as natural with "farmers can receive for their milk." In this case (not in all), you can simply lose the pronoun: "... a farmer can receive for milk." In other cases, you can substitute an article ("any child wearing a team T-shirt" rather than "his team T-shirt").* It's easy, but getting the right one is challenging enough to be good practice.

Gender-exclusive language isn't "grammatically" wrong. It's socially inappropriate, which is quite enough for the thoughtful practitioner. People who want to play in the pros need to show that they know those boundaries.

* Some writers (Allan Bell is a good example) also alternate single-sex pronouns for balance. It works in some cases. In this one, though, the writer (or editor) forgot that the same person can't get both pronouns:

For example, a fairly experienced journalist may have internalized his regulative ideal so well that she acts excellently with little reflection.