Friday, July 18, 2008

The AP's new clothes

What does the purported new breeze from the AP Washington bureau hold for those of us downwind? In some cases, perhaps more than meets the eye. On balance, probably less, so let's have a look.

First the news. Doug and Andy (esteemed partners in crimethink who profess editing at Lesser and Greater Carolina, respectively) have drawn attention this week to a piece over at Politico about the new direction being encouraged by AP's Ron Fournier, "a main engine in a high-stakes experiment at the 162-year old wire to move from its signature neutral and detached tone to an aggressive, plain-spoken style of writing that Fournier often describes as 'cutting through the clutter.'"

Politico's hed gets to the concern about the story (if not its substance): "Is Fournier saving or destroying the AP?" The signature test case is a piece by an AP hand who covered the Clinton campaign that began "I miss Hillary." The AP's executive editor "loved" the piece, Politico reports. Doug, being a concise old wire hand, suggests "You make the call." So:

I miss having a woman in the race and the excitement so many women felt at the prospect of electing the first female president.

Sorry, AP, but SSDP: Same [conventional wisdom], different pronouns. You might as well be reading Maureen Dowd without the delicate hint of Eau de High School Yearbook. If the AP had written "I miss having a genuinely liberal candidate in the race," that'd be a little more adventurous. Or "I miss having a candidate with substantial experience in international relations." Or "I regret that the AP worked as hard as anyone to make sure genuine expertise and political diversity were marginalized throughout the primary season." That would suggest some serious clutter-cutting. Conventional wisdom in the first person is still conventional wisdom.

Signature cases make for bad generalizations, though, so let's look at some more routine stuff. A cornerstone of this "accountability journalism" is calling out the bad guys: "Reward the truth-tellers, expose the liars and help readers navigate the squalls of spin," as Fournier suggested in a 2007 piece outlining some goals and tactics. In Politico's phrasing: "Reporters are encouraged to throw away the weasel words and call it like they see it when they think public officials have revealed themselves as phonies or flip-floppers."

Nice goal, but one that's more likely to bag a few episodic targets than to make a dent in systemic weaselhood. Here's a concrete example: Your Govment has put a lot of effort into convincing various news media that they need a new word -- "detainees" -- for prisoners captured in the course of the War on Terror®. Given that we already have several highly useful words -- like "prisoners," for people we've thrown in prison, or "captives," for people we've captured -- for the concept, "detainee" seems like a good candidate for a "weasel word" to be discarded at once. AP evidently disagrees. (Credit where due, though; international is ahead of the pack at mixing in the occasional reference to "Guantanamo* prisoners.")

And pointing out the mote in the other guy's eye doesn't do much good if the weasel is in your own:

Chertoff's comments on Capitol Hill come as the country is entering a potentially vulnerable period with the presidential nominating conventions next month, the presidential election in November and the transition to a new administration in January — all of which may be attractive targets for terrorists.

That's the AP's opinion, but it might as well have been written in a box of earth from Dick Cheney's native planet. Certainly, political conventions "may be attractive targets for terrorists" (a claim that's rather harder to make about a "transition"), but why would they make the country more "vulnerable" than the Super Bowl, the Co-Cola 600 or the Detroit Thanksgiving parade, all of which happen every year?

Then there's the encouraging side. You go leafing through the AP archive at Lexis-Nexis long enough and something like this turns up:

WASHINGTON -- Eight years after bashing the Clinton administration for squandering U.S. resources on "nation building'' around the world, Condoleezza Rice is singing a different tune.

If this is where AP wants to go with "accountability journalism," sign me up for some more. The writer (Matthew Lee) has been doing his homework, and he lets the standard-bearer of faux realism in 2000 paint herself into her own corner. I wish I'd seen it six weeks ago, when it was written.

Which, alas, is the larger problem with the AP's effort: Is anyone going to see it? The major metro daily that lands in my driveway every morning doesn't trouble me with very much international news, and it's hardly the only paper leaving readers on their own if they're interested in the World Outside. If anyone saw this piece in print (or ran it), please check in, but it's increasingly hard to imagine a retrospective policy piece making itself heard above the din of hyperlocalism and News2Use.

Good luck to the AP, and may it have the fortitude to put with the occasional stumble (axing "detainee" really would be an encouraging sign). It'll be an interesting effort -- especially if it manages to see the light of day.

* If the AP really wants to get rid of "weasel words," it could start with banning "Gitmo" from suggested heds, which all too often are shoveled straight onto Web sites. But that might be an issue for the general desk to address.


Anonymous Amy F. said...

Can you explain why detainee should go, please?

p.s. In Greater Carolina, rumors of more layoffs abound.

1:06 AM, July 19, 2008  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

"Detainee" should go because being "detained" is a far cry from being locked up in a foreign country for years with no charges being pressed. Sure, "detain" covers that, but it's a euphemism, designed to allow us to feel better about what the government is doing. And it buys into and supports the administration's policies* instead of describing the fact. These people are prisoners; they have not been merely "detained".

*which is SOP for AP, of course

1:04 PM, July 19, 2008  
Anonymous Amy F. said...


9:41 PM, July 19, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

Agh, not more layoffs! You guys just fed the dragon -- don't tell me it's hungry again.

"Detainee" has a bit of a history -- mostly British and mostly colonialist, to infer a little bit from the cites in the OED, suggesting that it's something white people do to brown people "on political grounds and in an emergency, without or pending formal trial." I'm not sure the AP (or the administration, come to that) wants all that baggage.

If I were putting on a tie and trying to convince the Raj, I'd probably also note that this administration is extraordinarily persistent at exploiting the tendency of news language to sound like its sources. That happens mostly for one (or more) of three reasons:

1) It sounds technical or "official", hence the tendency of cop stories to say stuff like "Police responded to shots fired at Broadway and Providence"
2) It sounds "inside," as if you're privy to special knowledge; hence Fox's tendency to talk about "intel reports"
3) It aligns you with the source, which is why Fox likes to ask the cops "are we going to get these guys?" It puts you on the side of order and goodness.

I think what the White House folks did was pick a word they thought sounded as clinical as possible and use it -- with appropriate icy stares -- until everybody in the room was bamboozled into following along. (Go over to and read some old Ari Fleischer transcripts, especially on the arguments about who is or isn't covered by the Geneva conventions. Unless you just ate or something.)

My summary attitude would be that people you throw in prison are "prisoners," and hairy-eyeball suggestions that there's an "official" word to use instead are just more fun from the people who brought you "homicide bomber." As usual, I'll let you know as soon as the AP beats a path to my door.

10:02 PM, July 19, 2008  

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