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.



Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Maybe, do you suppose, they thought "we're standing off FROM them" so it's "standoffishness from..."

Nah. Nobody could be that clueless about the way their language works and still have job that requires them to use it skillfully.

11:54 AM, July 01, 2008  

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