Monday, June 30, 2008

Why the desk gets a bad name

You Usual Suspects and other regular visitors can probably imagine why this hed set off the buzzers over in the research depart- ment this morning. One of the ongoing projects there is looking at how news accounts create meaning about the Islamic world and the Middle East in general. Fox News, in particular, goes out of its way to find stories that remind its readers that, whatever "Islam" might be or "Muslims" might do, it's completely and permanently incompatible with their values* -- even if the evidence is completely fabricated in the sort of ways that only the British tabloid press can fabricate evidence.

So when this sort of hed appears on the op-ed pages -- or, if you read the thing online, as the No. 3 story in the whole A section -- of a purportedly "liberal"** newspaper, we need to take a look and see if the contagion is spreading from Fox into the ranks of the hitherto professional news outfits. What sort of text supports a big-type assertion about "standoffishness from Muslims"?

As it turns out, none. What we have here is the sort of grotesque distortion of meaning that makes people in general -- and writers in particular -- distrust copy editors and all their works and ways. If I were Leonard Pitts, and I had written a column about Barack Obama and his arms-length relations with the U.S. Muslim community whose second paragraph went something like this:

In the 17 months he has been pursuing the presidency, the senator has faced a crude and shameless campaign from conservative pundits, GOP functionaries and assorted ignoramuses in the peanut gallery to prove him a secret Muslim – a “Manchurian candidate,” as one put it – trained from birth to subvert America from within and, I don't know, make us all eat falafels or something.

... I would hope that whoever is in charge of sticking a hed on the damn thing would at least have the decency to read the column first. Particularly the antepenultimate graf:

This standoffishness toward American Muslims is a denial of all those things.

Well, Jiminy Christmas on a motor scooter. Do you think "toward" and "from" might be the sort of prepositions that -- kind of like "in" and "out" -- aren't interchangeable in this context? Because they mean, you know, exactly the opposite kind of thing?

Honestly. If someone had deliberately set out to turn the text upside down -- to make sure that someone reading only the headline would come away with a meaning that was completely contrary to the (pretty freaking obvious; Pitts is often worth reading, but he's rarely subtle) intent of the writer -- it's hard to imagine a better way of going about it. And since everything in journalism these days points, none too subtly, to the looming question of how the craft will survive, the point is kind of clear: How, exactly, is this sort of mind-bending cluelessness supposed to help?

* In Chicago the first week in August? Come on over and check it out.
** Meaning it runs an occasional column by some far-leftist like Tom Friedman to balance out the lockstep natterings of Charles Krauthammer, Cal Thomas and the like. Don't kid yourself.


Saturday, June 28, 2008

An enemy of the people!

Well, that had to hurt.

It's almost as bad in the reefer:
Charlottean gets shot at Beijing

Strike up the chorus, somebody: "Gets shot" is the textbook example of when to ignore all the "rules" you thought you knew about using articles in heds. Unless, you know, somebody actually did get shot.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Whom's next?

Poor misunderstood "whom." I find myself sticking up for it when people are talking about tying a rock to it and tossing it in a lake somewhere. It's a nice pronoun! It can has caseburger! It just wants you to like it!

So it pains me to remind assorted desks out there that if you don't stop pulling its tail, somebody's going to come downstairs and take "whom" away for good:

York County authorities are looking for a man whom they say broke into a Fort Mill home earlier this week and struggled with a 15-year-old girl who was inside the residence.

Bet them isn't. Bet them are looking for ... well, I'm not sure whatm them'm looking for:

The Observer's news partner, WCNC-TV, said the sheriff's office released a description of the suspect Thursday, saying he fled in an older-model white Lexus with tinted windows and a rear spoiler.

Well, we are what we drive, but (rogue Lexus stalks S.C. town!) -- sure we didn't mean "a description of the CAR"?


Thursday, June 26, 2008

No, but thanks for asking

The Thursday Evening Theory Seminar would like to take a moment to salute Bernard Cohen, whose (actually quite good) "The Press and Foreign Policy" has probably got the highest people-who-quote-it-to-people-who-read-it ratio of any book that doesn't claim to be divinely inspired.

Cohen's best-known image is the one associated with Max McCombs and Don Shaw's pioneering agenda-setting study a decade later: Newspapers might not be able to tell us what to think, but they're really, really good at telling us what to think about. Bob Entman, among others, considers the distinction misleading: "If the media (or anyone) can affect what people think about – the information they process – the media can affect their attitudes": or at least, what people think about what they're thinking about. And nobody remembers Cohen's following sentence: "It follows from this that the world looks different to different people, depending not only on their personal interests but also on the map that is drawn for them by the writers, editors and publishers of the papers they read."

That's why Fox World is such a mean and scary place, but it's also why Fox World is so comforting! You don't have to worry about why or wherefore there are so many different kinds of ruthless autocratic behavior, or whether different thugs need different ... where's Sly Stone when you need him anyway? Anyway, thugs are bad. They torture people and subvert democracy.

To be picky about it, lots of people would cast this as a framing question, rather than an agenda-setting one: Saddam Hussein defines what dictators look like, Mugabe's officially on the Fox dictator list, and that's all ye need to know: how to think about Mugabe, not what to think about Mugabe (theoretical arguments in this domain require deft use of the italics key). So for today's quiz, visit the little friends at Fox and categorize this story as "agenda-setting" or "framing":

Amnesty International's Anti-Guantanamo Display Rouses Controversy
NEW YORK — Amnesty International is currently touring the country with a life-sized replica of a maximum security prison cell at Guantánamo Bay. But critics say the cell, which is an attempt to call attention to alleged human rights abuses at the camp, is missing basic amenities provided to prisoners.

Whether Amnesty's display "roused" the controversy, or whether the said rousing is a result of Fox's calling a dependable source and asking him just how awful Amnesty is, are different questions. So which will it be: Framing or agenda-setting?


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Flight 1360 is full of eels

Nice little discussion going on over at the ACES board about The Rules: Which ones we do or don't think can be thrown overboard from assorted "rulebooks," particularly the AP's, in the interest of spending less time on trivia and more on stuff that matters.

Submitted for your consideration, then, is an actual grammar issue, which is exactly the kind that does matter (and if you're letting these into your paper or onto your Web site because you think copy editors are expendable, shame on you). This is a fault of parallelism, or coordination. "Ice" is a noun, and "buttocks" is a noun, but they aren't the same kind of noun:

No ice with that, please
No buttocks with that, please

Now. There are certain bodily parts that can be grammatically separated from their human owners and turned into nouns. But doing so in formal writing has the potential of getting you labeled -- well, for want of a better term, a [GEORGE CARLIN, WHY DID YOU LEAVE SO EARLY?] with ears.

Please. Treat grammar right and it'll treat you right. Don't imagine that people won't notice when you cut corners. It shows.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

'Wishful' 'thinking'

Today's reminder to the cousins at Fox: You're entitled to your worldview and your choice of frames, but you don't get to make up your own facts. That's called -- well, "making stuff up."

As Fox is doing here (it's been the lead story since morning). True enough, Israel has declared that the Gaza truce has been violated, but if Olmert's office has said the cease-fire is "over," there's no evidence of it in Fox's story. (Indeed, the most recent update contains this rather telling sentence: "But signaling it would still honor the truce, Israel said an envoy would soon head to Egypt to work on the final stage of the agreement.")

Fox is also a bit ... let's say, ahead of the pack in keeping this story at the top for so long:
  • CNN's top Mideast story is about plans for an Israel-Hezballah prisoner swap;* the truce violation (which includes a warning from Olmert's office that the rocket strike "could jeopardize" the truce) has moved downpage.
  • At the BBC, the top Mideast story is about the suicide of an officer at B-G airport as Sarkozy headed home. The rocket attack is inside, and it mentions that the PIJ thinks Israel violated the cease-fire.
  • At Ha'aretz, the story is #3 on the front page (Hezballah leads, airport suicide is #2), with a fairly cautious hed indicating that the truce is "shaken."
  • At the right-wing Jerusalem Post, the story's down to #5, though with the speculative hed (unsupported in the text) "End of truce? 3 Kassams hit W. Negev"

Why does this remain** such a big deal for Fox -- especially compared with the folks who actually live in the neighborhood? Fox, after all, is still fairly new to covering not just the Fractious Near East but the Big Shiny World Out There in general. The sometimes tentative processes by which people stop shooting at each other (or start to stop, then fall off the wagon, or any of the other ways conflicts continue or don't) might be as novel as the dark side of the moon to the folks who write teasers and pass news judgment there.

It is, of course (insert weirdly analogic scorpion joke of choice here), the Middle East. Fox, or the rest of us, could wake up tomorrow and find that peace has busted out all over. Or that the roof has fallen in. Those and the other alternatives call for a little more circumspection -- certainly not the sort of cheerleading that suggests Fox is getting ready to lead the charge itself.

* Why both CNN and Fox are still giving the babblings of James Dobson any kind of significant play is beyond me.
** Update from the Short Attention Span Theater front: As of 5 p.m. eastern, the story has vanished from the Fox front altogether. Easy come, easy go.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Moral reasoning at the Times

Anybody out there get a blinking red light on your media decision-making radar long about the second paragraph on the front of today's Newspaper of Record?

The interrogator, NameIfoundhardtobelieve Here,* a soft-spoken analyst who spoke no Arabic, had turned down a CIA offer to be trained in waterboarding. He chose to leave the infliction of pain and panic to others, the gung-ho paramilitary types whom the more cerebral interrogators called “knuckledraggers.”

I first saw the story in a (badly, for reasons I'll get to in a second) cut version on somebody else's Web site, then got to spend some time with the whole thing when Language Czarina got home with the Times itself and some canned tomatoes. And the Times, at least, addressed the big old Loaded Gun in the First Act Second Graf question. If we're going to put the name of the dude who interrogated Khalid Sheikh Mohammad on the front page, we need to explain either:

1) Why he (the interrogator, not Mohammad) thinks it's a good idea, or
2) Why nobody can make a convincing case it's a bad idea

And what did the Times think?

Mr. Here declined to be interviewed; his role was described by colleagues. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, director of the C.I.A., and a lawyer representing Mr. Here asked that he not be named in this article, saying that the former interrogator believed that the use of his name would invade his privacy and might jeopardize his safety. The New York Times, noting that Mr. Here had never worked undercover and that others involved in the campaign against Al Qaeda have been named in news articles and books, declined the request. (An editors' note on this issue has been posted on The Times’s Web site.)

Well, that's better than running the story without that paragraph (in effect, announcing that if the Times does something, the lesser papers have no business questioning it). But it doesn't answer the big questions, for which we need to take a brief detour.

Evidence is never neutral, as GE Bentley** reminds us, and stuff never happens without context. In this case, the context isn't just the Plame/Libby/Novak mess (though "had never worked undercover" suggests that the Times too was looking over its shoulder at the Intelligence Identities Protection Act). It's also the context of Guantanamo and the fortuitously timed McClatchy series, assorted demands*** by the foamy-mouthed right to bring the Times to the dock for daring to report on warrantless eavesdropping, the Times's own credulousness before the Iraq war, the Bay of Pigs, and any of a number of tussles between the press and the executive branch that date back to before the rise of the modern "national security state."

When there's an incompatible claim between "security" and the relevance of an item to democratic decision-making, who gets to make the call: the executive (sometimes stupid, self-interested, and venal) or the press (occasionally venal, stupid and self-interested)? You can see why inquiring minds sometimes feel very strongly both ways.

Is there a genuine national-security issue at stake here? Perhaps for the Poles living near the base the Times identified; they certainly have a claim if they become likelier targets for a suicide bomber with a mad on. On the other hand, if they want a voice in how their government decides on doing stuff that could place them at risk of such vengeance, they can't have one without that sort of information. Erwin Canham of the Christian Science Monitor summed it up pretty well at an editors' summit in 1943: Sometimes lives are lost because stories are published. Sometimes lives are saved because other stories are published.

The interrogator's claim against the Times is less a national one than a personal one: He thinks his own safety (not to mention his privacy) might be at risk if he is named -- as, you'll note, the colleagues who identify him are not. The request to withhold his identity is pretty official, coming from the director of the CIA. There appear to be a number of reasons for skepticism about any such claims from this administration:

  • It lied, repeatedly and shamelessly, to take the country to war (but that war isn't the one in which these characters were captured and interrogated)
  • It mandated the use of interrogation methods that civilized societies generally reject (but this interrogator neither ordered nor used those methods)
  • It diverted resources from a legitimate security threat to a contrived one, thus leaving the country vulnerable (but this interrogator appears, on the evidence, to have actually advanced US security interests)

Now for the counterclaim: How many of you are going to go to bed as smarter citizens, better enabled to carry out your democratic duties, because the Times turned down this guy's request not to be named? Right, thought not. The identity has nothing to do with any of the elements that make the story pertinent. (And in case the message hasn't sunk in yet: This is the sort of story a free press provides to a democracy, even in wartime. Get used to it.) As much as the Times might rail about source anonymity, it's still the coin of the realm in national security stories, and it's hard to see why the legitimate considerations that underlie anonymity weren't given stronger consideration here. (Except the interrogator wouldn't talk to the Times, meaning he wasn't a "source," so ... he doesn't have any interests worth protecting?)

Again, on the evidence, this isn't an issue of national security. But it does seem to be rather directly an issue of ethics. How much good is the Times doing, at the cost of how much harm? And could it accomplish all the better ends of that equation by responding to a fairly straightforward request to mitigate some of the personal harm?

I think the Times should have withheld the name. I'm not entirely convinced I'm right, but I'm not at all convinced by the Times's justification. If any of you Usual Suspects or newcomers would like to take a swing, please do. I am thinking about putting this one on the final and will post the pertinent question if that actually happens.

* Nope, not under any illusion that either you or Bin Laden or the FSB can't find or hasn't seen the name. Just suggesting that it's possible to exercise some editorial autonomy even over stuff that Big Important Editors At The Times have signed off on.
** The Blake biographer, in which context a comment like "all evidence bears the bias of the witness, whether it records a tax-payment or a vision" makes perfect sense.
*** Not the time or place to go into detail, but the comparison to the Tribune case therein is remarkably inept and ill-drawn, even by the standards of the dead-enders

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Do you need it in words of one syllable?

Sigh. Here's the 1A coverage, and below it is the reefer from the Web site: "Can God heal through tattooed preacher?"
We can't quite dismiss the reefer as Just Another Stupid Question until we know what it means. Is it asking whether God can heal through any tattooed preacher (in other words, if tattoos are a barrier to the practice of faith healing), or whether God can heal through this tattooed preacher? But every time we try to wrestle with that one, we're overlooking a bigger question, for which let's go to the text:
Bentley, 32, brings his controversial ministry to Concord tonight. Some say he's a vessel for God. Others accuse him of heresy – or worse.
Well, there's your problem. This is America 2008, and "heresy" isn't an issue anymore! (Even the Britons have finally gotten rid of their law on blasphemous libel.) Heresy is about a fundamental incompatibility between two interpretations of the supernatural, one of which usually has the power to have the other one barbecued in public. And journalism solves that by being a creature of the empirical world. We don't worry about accusations of heresy, because claims about the supernatural all go into a category of stuff we can't and don't adjudicate. End of story.
Fraud, now -- that's a different matter. If you take people's money in return for your promise of some good or service you have no intent (or ability) to deliver, both the cops and the world of journalism have every reason to take an interest in you. And that should suggest the basic problem with (a) this story and (b) its presence on the front page:* It's presented as a story about the divine, which is something we don't have the tools to cover. But it's actually a story about somebody making a series of testable fact claims, which we proceed to -- well, in effect, to accept without any testing at all.
Reports of healings by faith have existed for centuries, but modern communications distinguish this revival. Bentley's staff says millions worldwide watch the nightly services on God TV and online.
That seems a bit of a credulous gloss for a paper that claims to take its religion reporting seriously. Reports of faith healing** have been around for quite some millennia now (may we suggest the healing of Naaman in 2 Kings 5?). And "modern communications" don't distinguish this revival from any others. If masscomm history has any lessons for this story, it's something like this: Whenever a new technology emerges, two forms of content will stake immediate claims on it: (1) porn and (2) somebody who claims to be able to put you in touch with dear departed Uncle Baldrick for a couple of florins Amen.
And there's our problem. The article doesn't acknowledge a conflict between the empirical world and the supernatural one. It presents the whole thing as, essentially, a heresy case. One group of believers says this:
“This is not ‘no harm, no foul,'” said Hank Hanegraaff, whose nationally syndicated “Bible Answer Man” radio broadcast is based in Charlotte. “This is very, very tragic … “These people are in emotional chaos. The counterfeit revivalists play on that.”
And the other says this:
“I believe what God is doing isn't for Lakeland and Todd Bentley,” he said. “I believe it's for the world."
Do you see a basic failure of "objectivity" here? There's a good lively debate about whether Todd Bentley's particular flavor of magic is appropriate, but we're missing the bigger picture: Whether magic is a form of medicine at all. The writer is presenting "two sides of the story," but "two sides" isn't the same as "both sides." What we're missing here is the side that says faith healers should be presumed frauds until they produce the evidence.
To set one other topic to rest: Yes, the economic picture for newspapers in general, and McClatchy newspapers in particular, is painful and disquieting. Why assume you can help that picture by pandering to an element of the readership that's almost guaranteed to distrust you anyway? Why not be a little bolder? If you're going to venture into the supernatural, why not call a fraud out for what it is?
When the faith healer sets up his tent (and cash register) on the edge of town, after all, the monotheist editor and the atheist editor stand side by side: One stirs the tar, the other holds the feathers. And they should enjoy a well-deserved beer together afterward.

* Over and above the question of whether a newspaper that's just taken an 11% staff cut can do better things with its journalism resources than go to Florida and cover some clown who claims to raise the dead (about two dozen of them at last count, according to our intrepid reporter)
** PS-and-by-the-way? Don't write reefers like "Testimonials of the healed." That's the same fallacy as "Have you stopped smoking weed before you write about religious frauds?"

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Lying: Lessons from the masters

Here's a superlative example of the propa- gandist's art. At a casual read, you'll get -- well, exactly the impression you're supposed to get: The callow naif who is poised to represent the Party of Chardonnay and Surrender Democrats is surrounded by people even flakier than he is, so sign the kids up for those Farsi lessons now.

The story itself, of course, is almost a complete fabrication. The fun part is the "almost" -- seeing, in this case, what an impressive superstructure of lies the good folks at Fox can build out of a few kernels of empirical reality. That's the essential skill of the propagandist, so let's have a bit of a look at who said what.

Here's Fox, starting at midmorning with the reefer you see at lower right, effectively the No. 3 story on the Fox home page. The story was promoted in the afternoon to the dominant visual element on the page (upper right), suggesting that it's been vetted a bit up the food chain and endorsed for stronger play. And the story it refers to?

Obama adviser: Pooh Bear, Luke Skywalker hold lessons for foreign policy
Foreign policy architects could benefit from studying Winnie the Pooh and Star Wars, according to a Barack Obama adviser who is set to attend a meeting of the Democratic candidate’s national security work group Wednesday.

Not the same assertion as the frontpage hed. For "Obama's Pooh Bear policy" to hold up, two things have to be true: There has to be a Pooh policy, and it has to be Obama's. But why quibble about informal logical fallacies when Our Way of Life is at stake?
Richard Danzig, former Navy secretary under President Clinton, drew several creative and unusual analogies to explain the challenges America faces overseas during a foreign policy conference in Washington, D.C., last week, according to an article in the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph.

Fox gains a bit of standoff distance with that. From here, it's going to be about what somebody else's report says, not what Fox is claiming on its own. Let's stop in at the Torygraph and see if we can track down the pertinent grain of truth:

Barack Obama aide: Why Winnie the Pooh should shape US foreign policy
Winnie the Pooh, Luke Skywalker and British football hooligans could shape the foreign policy of Barack Obama if he becomes US President, according to a key adviser.

The attribution is key. Under the rules, it means that this is what the "key adviser"* said, not what the reporter infers from what he thinks the adviser might have meant. Quite simply, it's a lie -- you can find a podcast here, but you aren't going to find the adviser making those assertions, because the reporter made them up.

Richard Danzig, who served as Navy Secretary under President Clinton and is tipped to become National Security Adviser in an Obama White House, told a major foreign policy conference in Washington that the future of US strategy in the war on terrorism should follow a lesson from the pages of Winnie the Pooh, which can be shortened to: if it is causing you too much pain, try something else.

The relative clause is ambiguous. From the text, you can't tell if the person shortening the Pooh lesson to "if it is causing you too much pain, try something else" is the reporter or the speaker. In the recording, the speaker offers no such summary. But by the time the story gets to Fox, any kernel of fact has fallen away, leaving only the context that the Torygraph invented:

In arguing that the country should back off a policy that causes too much pain, Danzig said, “Winnie the Pooh seems to me to be a fundamental text on national security.”

Wrong on two counts. First, the comment doesn't come in context of any such argument (because, again, the speaker presents no such argument). And second -- oh, hell, I suppose we have to bring it up sometime. Danzig is making sort of what we call a "joke," which "adults" or other people with what we call a "sense of humor" understand as a form of figurative speech.

Specifically, he's acknowledging the speaker who introduced him by referring to two of the latter's great interests: sports (hence the Berra quote that precedes the Pooh one) and his (the introducer's) children. Thus the idea that Winnie the Pooh is a foundational security text is -- you hate to even bring this up, given that the British press used to have a great reputation for wit, but he didn't really mean it!! And anyone who would claim (with what appears to be a straight face) that he did is either a liar of breathtaking scope or someone so bleeding stupid he shouldn't be allowed to tie his own shoes without close adult supervision.**

There is a serious point behind the Pooh quote, which the Torygraph at least provides, rather than paraphrasing:

Mr Danzig spelt out the need to change by reading a paragraph from chapter one of the children’s classic, which says: “Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump on the back of his head behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming down stairs. But sometimes he thinks there really is another way if only he could stop bumping a minute and think about it.”

So, like, I mean, the wisdom of the bear isn't "stop doing painful stuff," it's, like ... "consider alternate courses of action"? Heavy!

Mr Obama’s approach will be popular in Europe, where President George W. Bush has spent the week on a farewell tour, arriving in Britain yesterday for meetings with the Queen and Gordon Brown.

Which implies that what we're talking about is "Mr Obama's approach," rather than the observations of a policy analyst -- much as Fox does with the "Obama's Pooh Bear policy" hed. Alas, as the introduction makes clear, Danzig wasn't speaking in his role as Obama adviser. The Torygraph keeps its pivot foot down; Fox is the one that's cheating here.

Fox is also the lone fabricator on the centerpiece, "Adviser also cites 'Star Wars' at foreign policy conference." Danzig -- is it going to get too dull in here if we repeat this? -- does nothing of the sort. He's quoting an actual terrorist talking about the actual use of nerve gas in an actual terrorist attack, and he's doing so in the context of suggesting some general knowledge about small-group terrorism that could be useful for the future. The result isn't earth-shattering psychological insight (unless, like Fox, you think terrorism was invented sometime late in the afternoon of Sept. 10, 2001), but it is the sort of pragmatic wisdom you gain from actually doing the fieldwork. If David Petraeus made the same observations about terrorist psychology, Fox would be licking between his toes in sheer delight.

No doubt you'll have more fun with the Fox and Torygraph tales on your own than we have time or space for here. And if you do, it's worth bearing in mind that almost all news organizations, at some point, play fast and loose with contextualizing; that's the core of the many legitimate complaints about the popular reporting of science. Fox is unusual because it lies so deliberately, so casually, and so consistently in the service of its political masters.

That's particularly dismaying today, in that actual journalists are losing jobs (if you are reading this at or near a McClatchy paper, the house has just bought you a virtual beer) while lying hackery of the Fox brand is starting to seem like its own reward. It may be that we can't do much about that particular injustice except point it out. If that's the case, let's at least point it out loudly and regularly.

* Unlike Fox, the Torygraph appears to have some subs who can actually read their own stylebook. It doesn't make up for fundamental dishonesty on the part of the reporting staff, but it's better than nothing.
** By which I mean to leave open the possibility that "Tim Shipman in Washington" didn't write the myriad lies that the Torygraph is running under his byline, which is by no means impossible. Tim, if your desk is making things up and putting your name on them, now is your chance to let us know.

Get in the game, penguins

I think this is a first: all six newspaper-reading continents represented in the "recent visitors" map. Glad to have you, and tell your friends to stop by too. Even if they're recent widows of former heads of state with millions of dollars they need me to invest.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Happy I'm-my-own-grandpa day

This just in from the Carrboro buro (say that three times real fast):

But out on the campaign trail, Mr. Obama, of Illinois, was warmer and cozier, sometimes adopting the Bill Clintonesque I-feel-your-pain message used to such great effect by his wife, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, in swing states.

Whom could that "his" be referring toom? Surely not "Clintonesque." That's an adjective, and we've never had a President Clintonesque anyway. No, the antecedent has to be (where's Faye Dunaway when you need her?) -- Obama himself!

Thank you, Nation's Newspaper of Record.

Friday, June 13, 2008


Brief request from Central. Whatever you're having,

1) Go to the kitchen
2) Pour another one
3) Raise it to these folks

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Who needs Fox when you have the Herald?

The Minefield of Im- partiality is es- pecially perilous for hed writers. There's the mandate to be com- pelling, on the one hand, and on another, there's the unfortunate law that the thing has to fit. Often, that means not just being concise, but being concise in units of no more than seven letters each.* People who can put the ship in the bottle night after night take a certain pride in that skill, and they deserve to.

It's the temptation, or the need, to cut corners that tends to entrap the unwary. In a statement like "It is asserted that X," the core concept that needs to be captured isn't "X" -- it's "assertion." The defendant in a murder trial isn't the "killer"; the underlying concept is "State asserts that N is the killer," for which we have convenient shorthands like "suspect" (or "defendant").

When you cut that corner -- assuming the truth of the assertion -- you're more or less automatically stacking the deck. Sometimes that goes unremarked. Heds might assert that some development is "good news" for the city or region, or that some particular meteorological pattern makes for "great weather," regardless of whether some contradictory condition (like a steady week of rain) would be better for all concerned.

Things are usually different in political discourse, which is one reason Fox News looks so distinctive. Heds like the one at upper right -- "Here's the proof" -- reflect a basic Fox presupposition: Anything the Bush administration asserts in the course of the Global War On Terror is true by definition. Here, Pakistan is offering one version of events, and Washington is countering with what it says is evidence of a contrary version. In Fox World, the latter counts as "proof."**

That said, consider the Miami Herald's lead story today: "Case builds for military strike on Iran." A hed that said "talk" about an attack, or "pressure" for an attack, was increasing would be a straightforward observation, but there's an assumption built into the hed as published. "Building" the case requires not just more assertions, but more assertions that count for evidence. That's where the paper slips from reporting on a worldview to buying into the worldview -- and, in this case, where the Herald becomes regrettably hard to tell from the more overt propaganda on offer over at Fox.

Too bad, because this is a relevant story that McClatchy did a good job of pulling together. The N&O offers a wiser tack on the hed: "A strike on Iran? The talk is growing louder."

* Or, as we used to say in the good old days when regional newspapers actually carried international news on the front: "If 'Palestinian' didn't fit in a 1/36 yesterday, what makes you think it's going to fit in a 1/36 today?"
** The BBC hedded its story "US releases border strike footage" and offers this bit of context in the story: "The BBC's Martin Patience in Kabul says it is unusual for the US to release video footage of its operations and indicates that the military has come under great pressure to justify the airstrike."

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He kindly stopped for me

All right, all right. Apologies to all my hed-writing friends, but -- you know, if you don't want us to read the damn things literally, why do you insist on writing them in ways that make it so easy?

"Man gets 3 years in punching death" would have been fine. It's really hard to read "punching" as the verb and "death" as the direct object in that one. But "for punching death"? You have to admit, it sounds like a bit of an overreaction. Dude! Just walk away! Or bring your own clock next time.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Hed ambiguity: Real and realerer

The Basic Rule on phrasal verbs and their friends is pretty straightforward. Two words if it's a verb:
We will kick off the new season with a picnic Friday
You could screw up a two-car funeral

One word if it's a noun:
Kickoff is at noon Saturday
That was a pretty impressive screwup

Two examples from today's N&O homepage suggest how distinct the effects of a "rule" violation can be. Sometimes you get just a momentary glitch with no real chance of confusion; sometimes you're out-and-out ambiguous -- if not rather clearly saying something other than what you meant.

Here are the heds (both from sports, which may or may not hold a lesson):

UNC baseball send off scheduled for Thursday
Lawson finally makes Nuggets work out

First one's a stumble but a quick recovery. Even if you read "baseball" as a plural noun governing "send off" ("Arsenal send off losing skipper"), there's no object to be sent off, so no real chance of ambiguity.

The second? Maybe the old receptors are too thoroughly primed by all the Brave New Coach coverage up here, but I can't help reading "makes" as "causes" and "work out" as a verb. Somebody has finally gotten the Nuggets to run up and down the floor a few times, and Lawson gets the credit.

Not, alas, what the writer had in mind:
Ty Lawson finally arrived in town for a workout with the team. He was originally scheduled to have gone through the drills on Sunday, but didn’t show up after an apparent case of miscommunication between the school and the Nuggets.

Moral of the story? Not all ambiguity is equal. That doesn't mean some of it isn't distinctly real. And please -- edit online stuff as if you expect people to read it. Sometimes they do.

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Monday, June 09, 2008

And this is news ... why again?

Submitted for your consider- ation, a completely non- random sample of heds from papers that deemed the purported "milestone" in gasoline prices -- the putative "national average" crossing $4/gallon, by some thousands of a cent -- worth the lead spot on Monday's 1A.

Now. May we gently suggest that you guys are out of your collective minds? That there's nothing in this development that rates the front page, let alone the top of it? That of all the things you could try to tempt your fleeing readers with, the "national average" gasoline price is one of the few that's guaranteed to be meaningless to all of them?

Look at it this way. Here are two (exclusive and exhaustive) conditions:
1) You pay $4 or more for a gallon of gasoline
2) You don't

In neither case are you affected by the mean national price. If gasoline did "climb past $4" for you, it did so independently of any averages. And if it didn't, it didn't (meaning there's also no relation between you and the national average). There's plenty of news out there (much of it, say, pertaining to how gasoline prices get to be the way they are). Could we have some of that, rather than a collective intake of breath over an often-friendly measure of central tendency that, in this case, has nothing to do with how any readers go about their lives?

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The man would be king

No, no, no. Ack, ack, ack. Lots of relative clauses can be legitimately reduced. This is none of them:

A man who gunned down three people in a S.C. Department of Social Services office in 1996 was executed by lethal injection Friday.

If anyone in readerland can come up with a national or regional flavor of hed English in which this would be grammatical, pls check in.

Grammar: Ur not just doin it wrong, ur scarin the kittehs. Stop.

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Thursday, June 05, 2008

Bear, woods, Charmin

Thanks for clearing that up, McClatchy Washburo!

What sort of lede could the hed possibly introduce?

The John McCain-Barack Obama election looks like one of the clearest choices in years, but history also shows that presidential contests rarely unfold along logical paths.

On second thought, let's not go to Camelot.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

OK science, awful journalism

Cancer cured! Mideast at peace! Plenty of room for some cheery social science reporting in that most traditional of hard-news spots, the upper right corner of 1A. The tug of guilt on Catholic teens is weakening! (Come on, Virginia.) Stop the presses!
Well, maybe not. Today's story is very, very slightly about some mildly interesting survey data and much more about "how the press expresses, validates and amplifies popular prejudices," as our friendly critics over to the Log put it. It might look like a story about changing mores and religious identification among teenagers, but it isn't; it's about how journalism internalizes cultural stereotypes and how those stereotypes become pivotal in what the news audience is told about "science." The initial fault is with the reporter:
This just in from the myth-busting department: Roman Catholic teens feel no more guilty than other U.S. teenagers.

... but the copydesk deserves a share of blame for hyping the evidence-free parts of the story into a hed that looks to be pretty much a complete fabrication:
Catholic teens feel guilt's tug weaken
Study finds shame losing its traction
Sound harsh? Well, a little. It's hard to say, because the story itself commits a prime offense: It talks about conclusions but doesn't give any results* -- at least none that bear on its premises. Those premises are why it's at the top of the front, so let's have a look at them:
If they cheated on an exam, lied to their parents or engaged in serious petting, it's not bearing down on their conscience, according to a study by UNC-Chapel Hill researchers. At least it's not making them feel more guilty than their non-Catholic peers.
The emotional fallout of transgressing the Catholic Church's long list of sins -- venial and mortal -- may be a thing of the past. Blame the decline of ruler-wielding nuns at Catholic schools, or assimilation into the wider society.
We'll get back to the cheating, lying and sex in a minute. The bigger question is "may be a thing of the past," which suggests that "Catholic guilt" is more than just the reporter's invention. And for that, we need the sort of stuff the story** doesn't bother to tell us. (Why any such outcome should be cause for "blame" is a different matter; that's a really jarring insertion of opinion in something that's trying to pass for straight news.)
The study, to be published this month in the Review of Religious Research, is based on data from the National Study of Youth and Religion conducted by sociologist Christian Smith, now at the University of Notre Dame and Stephen Vaisey, at UNC-CH. The survey included 3,290 teens, of whom 819 were Catholic -- about 24 percent, roughly equivalent to the proportion of Catholics in the U.S. population.
Ahem. This is the Intertubes Age, and it's pretty careless not to provide at least a few links to the sources, if you can't get to the study itself. Still, there's enough in that graf to start tracking down some details, and those details suggest that the premise in the third graf (thus, the hed in the prime news position on the front) is false. You can't speculate about some notional decline in "emotional fallout" because this isn't the sort of study that measures those things.
What kind of study is it? From the NSYR Web site, the project is a national panel survey of teens and religion that first went in the field in 2002. The story (n = 3,290) suggests that the numbers come from the first "wave" of the survey, when the respondents were all 13 to 17. The advantage of a panel survey is that it goes back and interviews the same people. This one's now in its third wave (and the respondents are 18 to 23), and when that's complete, the data will allow for some conclusions you can't get from a simple cross-section. You could plausibly ask whether there's a change in guilt among young Catholics or Protestants (or unbelievers; hold that thought) as they age, but not whether there's a change among Catholic teens, because you're no longer surveying the 13-17 bracket. And, of course, data starting in 2002 have nothing to do with the Sister Mary Elephant myth the reporter is invoking.
The survey asked teens 13 to 17: "In the last year, how often, if ever, have you found yourself feeling guilty about things in your life?" and "How much, if any, of those feelings of guilt do you think were caused by religious influences?"
Teens who went to confession, now called the sacrament of reconciliation, were no more likely to feel guilty than non-Catholic teens.
OK. I'm not sure why the writer is breaking out teens who went to confession*** (or whether that's something done in the forthcoming study), since the theme is "Catholic guilt," not "guilt related to practice." But if you want, here's a handy site that lets you create your own crosstabs from any two variables**** in the first-wave survey. And it's pretty clear that there's no significant difference between Catholic teens and "another kind of Christian" teens.
Fine. But also nowhere near addressing the hed, "Catholic teens feel guilt's tug weaken." That's an invention of the newspaper. You can't say the study found it, because the study didn't measure it. There's no "before" to compare the 2002 data to. (The deck compounds the offense by claiming that the study found something similar about "shame," which isn't even in the questionnaire. Nor are cheating, lying and sex play measured as elements of "guilt.")
The trouble with inventing results to fit your preconceptions is that when you start asking "experts" to evaluate the results you describe, you get what's known as "fruit of the poison tree":
Changing values probably also account for a drop in Catholic guilt, said the Rev. Joseph Vetter, Duke University Catholic chaplain. Catholics used to feel guilty for not attending Mass on the Sabbath, or for living together before marriage. For many, those behaviors are now common.

He's a chaplain, not a methodologist. When a reporter asks for his response to a "study" that finds "Catholic guilt" declining, his job isn't to tear the data apart; it's to answer what he assumes to be an honest question. Thus his opinion is meaningless. We have no idea if there's any "drop in Catholic guilt" for him to speculate about. You could also ask why those social changes affect Catholics and not others, but ... well, we don't know whether anybody else's ambient guilt level has changed either, do we?
Again, this story isn't about "bad science." It's about a small part of a precise but not especially earthshaking study whose most interesting aspects are several years down the road (and probably won't draw a second glance from the N&O). The problem is bad journalism: yanking a fact out of its context and jamming it into somebody's favorite cultural stereotype. Too bad a nice chunk of 1A real estate went to waste.

* Put a little less stereotypically, the finding -- some six-year-old data show no significant differences on teen self-reports of how often they feel guilty -- it seems a little less likely to make the front.
** Reporter and editors probably share the guilt; it must have been nice to pitch a 9-graf hold-to-the-front science tale with a happy ending.
*** There doesn't appear to be much difference between those who have done confession in the past year and those who haven't. There could be a significant difference on feeling guilt "occasionally" vs. "rarely", but that's a pretty flimsy place to start building a story.
**** Heh heh heh.


Tuesday, June 03, 2008

New copydesk game: Fridge magnets

Hey, editors! Here's a game we can all play with campaign coverage (you can try it on staff copy if you want, but I'd start with the wires and work up from there).

First, pretend all the adjectives in political copy are printed on refrigerator magnets. Then, pull some random adjectives off one refrigerator and stick them on another! Here's an example from the National Press Club to get started with:

Talking about his family roots and how he's distantly related to Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, the vice president noted that he had Cheneys on both sides of his family.

“And we don't even live in West Virginia,” Cheney quipped.

HAHAHAHAHAHA! Quipped! Anyway, let's gather up a handful of adjective magnets and see how they fit in this phrase: "Cheney's _______ comments."

out of touch

OK, "place-ist" is kind of a stretch (give 'em a break; it's USA Today). But do you kind of get the idea? Some adjectives have a pretty clear connection to reality. "Blue" is a distinct part of the visible ("blue Impala") or emotional ("blue Christmas") spectrum. "Incendiary" is different. It requires a touch of our old friend the social construction of reality. Comments aren't incendiary because they're somewhere between red and yellow; they become incendiary (or condescending, elitist, whatever) when the AP or someone equally safe declares them so.

The fridge magnet game isn't perfect (no drinking involved, for one thing). But it's a way of reminding writers that "conventional wisdom" isn't a naturally occuring element. It's a social construct, and when you hire a social construct, you're hiring its baggage too.

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Third-rate romance ...

One great blessing (or curse) of heds is that they tend to create a lasting impression at first glance. In the case of this one, you can be forgiven if that impression is And the Academy of Country Music thanks them for their ongoing support!
Ready to put that high-priced J-degree to work? The solution is "grammar." Take the sentence apart and wire it back together so the sex offenders are the object, rather than the subject. That's what the big paper across the state tried, and it came away with the the much less giggly hed you see at right.
The N&O hed isn't perfect -- it's possible to read it as the product of a special investigative report ("Carolina Inn could house Amelia Earhart! Film at 11"), for example. Ideally, we'd avoid "could" and "might" altogether, on grounds that heds should be about what is, rather than what might be. In that best of worlds, the design desk would open the bidding with 1/42/4, the copydesk would counter with "State considers using hotels to house sex offenders," and we'd negotiate from there.
Nice thing about the new offices on the fifth floor? When pigs start doing aerobatics over the Ambassador Bridge, I've got a really good view.


Monday, June 02, 2008

The foreign country of religion

Some entertaining bumbles from the weekend to suggest how far journalism has to go (this means you, New York Times) before it figures out how to cover this thing called "religion."

First up is Clark Hoyt's public editor column from Sunday, in which Hoyt calls the Times op-ed page to account for a fabricated piece of bilge suggesting that the entire Islamic world was poised for homicidal outrage once it found out that B. Hussein Obama was -- gasp -- technically an apostate! This assertion was noted here last month, when the N&O picked up a syndicated version of the same tale, but that was by an adjunct at an obscure college, whereas the Times's version was by a scholar -- Ed Luttwak -- of some repute.

What's interesting here is not just Hoyt catching the Times playing a little fast-n-loose (he's actually been doing rather well at that), but the justification he gets from the op-ed page for why the piece didn't get a serious fact-check:

David Shipley, the editor of the Op-Ed page, said Luttwak’s article was vetted by editors who consulted the Koran, associated text, newspaper articles and authoritative histories of Islam. No scholars of Islam were consulted because “we do not customarily call experts to invite them to weigh in on the work of our contributors,” he said.

Uh, right. We had some editors look at the Koran* and read some newspaper articles, but we didn't ask any experts, because we don't ask experts to assess what "experts" (Luttwak, as Hoyt noted, is a military historian; he isn't a scholar of religion) are saying. Let's try looking at it from a different perspective. Suppose you have a stats question involving multiple regression. You can borrow a genuine dog-killer-size regression textbook (Pedhazur, say) and see if you can figure out the answer on your own. Or you could call somebody who teaches regression, studies it, and probably assigns the textbook. Which do you figure is going to get you to a credible answer quicker?

Wow, that was tough. Kudos, anyway, to Hoyt, for calling out an Orientalist fake that appears to have some political weight behind it, no matter the fact-checking policies that appear to obtain on the op-ed side.

Elsewhere, the Times is a little less successful. Alas, when a story appears on the Times wire, all sorts of people will run it without much regard for its accuracy or relevance. Here's the tale as it appeared in one of those papers that won't assemble the front page without seeing the Times's 1A budget:

ST. LOUIS -- Southern Baptists, as a rule, do not drink. But once a month, young congregants of the Journey, a Baptist church here, and their friends get together in the back room of a sprawling brew pub called the Schlafly Bottleworks to talk about the big questions: President Bush, faith and war, the meaning of life, and "what's wrong with religion."

Well, true enough. But since the congregation in question describes itself as "interdenominational" (from other coverage of the Schlafly beerfest, its links with the SBC and MBC are more than a little shaky), what's the point of describing it as Baptist -- particularly if you can't establish some definite link to the non-drinking folks in the lede?

... None of that means younger evangelicals have abandoned the core tenets of their faith, including a belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus and the literal truth of the Bible. They think abortion and homosexuality are sins.

Whoa. Particularly when the folks in your lede suggest that they're inerrantists, you think we might be going a bit too far here suggesting that all evangelicals are literalists? Or do you figure that once the Times straps in the pith helmet and ventures south of the turnpike, literalism and inerrancy look like the same thing?

Well and good when the Times does it. Why, though, do newspapers in regions where the Southern Baptist Convention is the "mainline" insist on following the Times's agenda-setting cues? And if we're going to wait for the Times to tell us what to do, why cut out all the parts in which Real People get to speak for themselves? We're left with nothing but "experts" telling us what people think -- coincidentally, one of the core concerns that critics were raising about religion coverage a decade and a half ago.**

There's more writing about religion these days, and it's different. Whether it's any closer to providing a set of reliable clues about how this phenomenon plays out in daily life -- don't hold your breath.

* Draw your own conclusions on NYT transliteration style.
** One of the reasons things were light around here last week was that Language Czarina and I were off at ICA***, meeting a wondrous local ale and catching up with some of the Philosophy School gang. The religion critique is one of the papers that finally got an airing.
*** Want some more free stagecraft advice? Never follow a YouTube paper with a repeated-measures ANOVA.