Friday, October 31, 2008

'The truth about the fact'

Fact-checking is always good, but it's not always sufficient. For some useful thoughts (and nice turns of phrase) toward that conclusion, let's do the flippy-calendar, spinning-front-page thing and transport ourselves back to 1947 and the Commission on Freedom of the Press.

This collection of scholars and other intellectual leading lights is often called the Hutchins Commission, after its chairman, Robert Hutchins of the University of Chicago. It's sort of a home planet for the "social responsibility" theory of journalism. Meeting in the shadow (well, metaphorically) of Col. McCormick's Tribune Tower, it put a lot of thought into whether the conservative corporate media of the day were up to the task of providing the information people need to be competent citizens -- particularly when it came to the outside world.

The commission's first requirement for the press is accuracy, but close behind is context: "It is no longer enough to report the fact truthfully. It is now necessary to report the truth about the fact." That's the problem with "fact-checking" an ad like Liddy Dole's near-comic bit of witch-huntery. It accepts the facts on their own terms: Yes, Hagan attended the black mass fundraiser in question, but the comments are taken out of context, and shame on you, Liddy, for being a little deceptive while still keeping a foot on base.

But that's not really the issue. Guilt by association is usually true; that's why it's called "guilt by association," rather than "lying." The question is really about who's declared out of bounds by such an argument, and the truth about the fact is that Liddy Dole is a shameless defiler of the First Amendment. "No law" prohibiting the free exercise of religion means exactly that, from no gods to as many as you can make dance on the head of a pin. Dole isn't making things up (though the shout at the end is pretty close to the line); she's just suggesting that citizens' rights to enter the public sphere can be limited by their religious beliefs. That's the context that gives facts their meaning (to borrow another one from the commission), and that's what a "fact check"of this ad should have noted.

In the cosmic sense, that's a shame, because Dole used to belong to the grownup wing of the N.C. Republican Party: the one that produced competent, forward-looking leaders like Jim Holshouser and Jim Martin (imagine, a collidge professor with a PhD running for governor). Genteel southern upbringing or not, she's thrown herself in irredeemably with the bottom-feeders. Doesn't matter whether you buy your sheets at the Wal-Mart or at Lord & Taylor; if you cut eyeholes in 'em for your campaign rallies, the rest of us have a pretty good idea where you stand.


Thursday, October 30, 2008

An easy one to do right

Here's a too-familiar turn of phrase I hadn't seen in a while:

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan ordered airstrikes on Tripoli and Benghazi after the disco attacks that killed three, including two U.S. servicemen. The Libyans say the retaliatory attacks killed 41 people, including Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's adopted daughter, and injured 226 others.

To get the nudge-nudge part out of the way, no; the consensus is that the girl was Gadhafi's daughter from an affair (with an army officer, Kate Adie* says). But more to the point, the appropriate term for an adopted daughter is "daughter." The AP's phrasing suggests a kind of casual dismissiveness -- hey, it's not like she was a real daughter -- that ought to be out of bounds, whatever you think of Gadhafi and/or his transformation from Mad Dog of the Med to Friend of Peace.

Nice part about it? You can just correct this at your desk without asking anybody's permission! If anyone asks, you can say you didn't realize that daughters came in different grades. Or you can simply start referring to the publisher's new bride as his morganatic wife.**

* Whose "The Kindness of Strangers" contains a compelling account of the bombing and its aftermath.
** Or both! Who said ethics can't be fun?

Why we still need editors

Police nab 2 murder suspects
Charlotte-Mecklenburg police arrested two more men Thursday in connection with the robbery and beating of a man earlier this month. The victim died 10 days later of his injuries.
Just to recap: Two people (A and B) were arrested earlier in the week and two more (C and D) today. A, B and C have been charged with murder. As for D? "Police have not said what charges are pending" against him. So it seems, to say the least, a little reckless to call him a "murder suspect."

It's really not that hard to write cop heds safely. Start with the passive voice (and get rid of "nab" while you're at it). You can't say "charged in death," because that only goes for one of the new suspects, and until we have some charges against the other, I'd be wary of "arrested in death." But "arrested after" would get the sequence right without tying the Mystery Nonsuspect to the offense he may or may not be charged with. So:

2 more arrested after fatal attack
Not much longer than the first, thanks to all those narrow f-t-l characters. And not nearly as breathless. But if you haven't heard "better dull than libelous" yet, you weren't paying attention in editing class.

Whether 16-year-olds are properly called "men" is a different matter. So is whether it's appropriate to name a suspect who hasn't been charged. "Safe" and "right" are two different things. Being safe is the minimum. It doesn't, or shouldn't, mean you're done thinking.

No she doesn't

Here's the cutline, in case you can't read it:
"OH, SHE'S SO SAD": Psychic Annette Martin feels the presence of a ghost bride named Mary Anne during a visit to the Niles Canyon Railway Sunol depot.

Last-minute reminder: You can call spirits from the vasty deep all you want, but they're under no obligation to listen -- much less talk back, even if you're surrounded by credulous reporters and photographers. Ghost brides and psychics go on the funny pages 51 weeks a year. This week, they stay there.

Don't get us wrong. We encourage the celebration of Halloween and all other holidays that involve food, pagan rituals and beer. And if you're looking for a last-minute costume suggestion, may we suggest going as an open stylebook? You're guaranteed to scare the hell out of the undergraduates, most of whom have never seen one.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Hey, kids! Let's put on a controversy!

Today's manu- factured contro- versy
on Planet Fox: the LAT's craven double-standard cover-up of the Smoking Toast!
John McCain says he's sure The Los Angeles Times would be quick to produce a tape that purported to show him or his running mate at a neo-Nazi event, so he can't understand why it won't show Barack Obama in the company of a former PLO mouthpiece.
John McCain slammed The Los Angeles Times Wednesday for refusing to release a videotape that the newspaper's editors say shows Barack Obama praising a Chicago professor who served as a spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization when it was a U.S.-designated terror group.
Speaking to two Florida radio stations, the Republican presidential candidate suggested a double standard in reporting by the newspaper and said if he were hanging out with neo-Nazis he'd bet the tape would be made public.
"Apparently this is a tape with a dinner that Mr. Ayers, the former, and now still, unrepentant terrorist, who was at, and also the, one of the leading spokespersons for the PLO. Now, why that should not be made public is beyond me," McCain told La Kalle radio.
Well, a couple of points about that:
1) The paper says it got the tape on condition that it not release the tape. Sen. McCain probably hasn't taken a journalism ethics course, but his running mate seems proud of hers, so ... governor, would you lean over and whisper gently in his ear? Something like "the prima facie duty of fidelity requires the paper to keep its promise"? Or were you at the beach the day we covered that?
2) Fox is only able to fabricate this controversy in the first place because of the Times's report on the tape, which appeared six months ago. So it seems a little ungrateful -- or just a genuinely Bizarro World reading of "we report, you decide" -- to append a reefer like "Tell the L.A. Times What You Think."
3) Especially since the day's Third Most Important Shock Horror Controversy -- that'll be "Furor over Palin effigy" -- is primarily drawn from yet another LAT report?*
None of which -- not the McCain campaign's inability to understand a basic ethical duty like promise-keeping, not Fox's unwillingness to recognize a slightly more complicated one like gratitude, not the spectacle of a candidate running on his international expertise and yet being unable to tell the PLO from the neo-Nazis -- gets to the substance of the matter, which is: What substance? What is it that "Americans need to know"? Put another way, what is it Americans need to know now that the in-the-tank communist Los Angeles Times didn't tell them in April?
If you go to the trouble of reading** the article, you get a fairly clear idea of how genuinely constricted American political discourse about the Middle East is, particularly when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian issues.*** The far-out activist fringe is -- like, having dinner with Edward Said.**** (Imagine if a Democratic president were to actually suggest something radical -- maybe linking loan guarantees to settlement expansion, as Bush the elder did.) But it certainly adds to one of the takeaway impressions of this campaign: The people who mutter about a media cover-up are people who can't be bothered to read. Their hope is that no one else can, either.
Those who want to something nice in the fight against made-up controversies and the bottom-feeding hacks who spread them can find contact data for the LA Times at Fox. If you like, drop the Times a note and let 'em know you appreciate it when somebody stands up to the hoodlums.
*To Fox's credit, it's fairly careful to attribute the quotes it copies. But attribution isn't the same thing as reporting.
** Don't tell me you were absent the day we did that part too, governor.
*** If Gov. Palin would like to see some socialism, maybe she could visit a kibbutz? There's a friendly one near Bet Shemesh that has some genuinely hard-core bluegrass fans.
**** Wanna take bets on tomorrow's lead story at Fox?


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

What did you take the in out of in in for?

You're half-tempted just to repunctuate this one (mmm, a comma after "Charlotte" looks about right), but the problem's worse than that. Somebody forgot to count the parts of speech before driving away, and somewhere in North Carolina, a poor preposition is standing by the highway with a sign that just says "Mother."*

It's the nature of phrasal verbs to draw their meaning from the union of verb and preposition -- not necessarily greater than the sum of the parts, but different. "Turn your paper" and "turn your paper in" are two different suggestions. "Screw up a two-car funeral" isn't a comment about screwing or direction, but about "screwing up."

What we really need is "Man turns himself in in Charlotte slaying": "Turns himself in" for what went on** and "in Charlotte slaying" providing the circumstances. So let's give a big old midtown welcome to the Six Stranded Prepositions: Dear editors, what did you take the in out of in in for?

* Today's trivia question: How cold was it?
** This one seems like it has to be split if the object is a pronoun: "He turned in the suspects" or "he turned them in,"but not "he turned in them."

Monday, October 27, 2008

You provide the pictures ...

So you thought the days of the great press barons and the epic fabri- cations were gone? Well, think again, earthling! Today's top story on Planet Fox is a delicate blend of viral marketing and old-fashioned lies, served on a bed of actual-seeming news routines:

In a sense, the teaser at right is true: The interview does provide "fresh ammo," judging by the piles of shell casings around the right-wing wankosphere. But the rest of the tale, almost in its entirety, is fabricated. The fun, as usual, is in watching the techniques that go into building a SHOCK HORROR OUTRAGE story from as little truth as possible.

Details first. Someone discovered, and posted to the YouTubez on Sunday, a BOMBSHELL interview that Obama gave to Chicago public radio in 2001. Let's let Fox characterize it:

Obama, in 2001 Interview, Lamented Failure
of Civil Rights Movement to Redistribute Wealth

A 7-year-old radio interview in which Barack Obama discussed the failure of the Supreme Court to rule on redistributing wealth in its civil rights rulings has given fresh ammunition to critics who say the Democratic presidential candidate has a socialist agenda.

Note that we have "failure to rule on redistributing wealth" or some variant of it three times already, and the hed takes us from merely "discussing" the event to "lamenting" it. That's amusing in itself; if a Fox News story noted that the Japanese didn't occupy the West Coast in January 1942, Fox would be justifiably upset at a hed that said "Fox laments Japan's failure to seize California." But there's also a deeper process at work. The assumptions that drive journalism are a lot like the ones that drive conversation. When you say stuff at the top of a news story, you're implicitly warranting that it's borne out by the rest of the story (or by the supplemental matter the story refers to). So let's have a look (true to form, Fox has taken the original story down; these are from the version around 4p Eastern):

"The Supreme Court never ventured into the issues of redistribution of wealth and sort of basic issues of political and economic justice in this society, and to that extent as radical as people try to characterize the Warren Court, it wasn't that radical," Obama said in the interview, a recording of which surfaced on the Internet over the weekend.

"It didn't break free from the essential constraints that were placed by the founding fathers in the Constitution, at least as it has been interpreted.

"And the Warren court interpreted it generally in the same way -- that the Constitution is a document of negative liberties, says what the states can't do to you, says what the federal government can't do to you, but it doesn't say what the federal government or state government must do on your behalf, and that hasn't shifted.

"And I think one of the tragedies of the civil rights movement was that the civil rights movement became so court-focused, I think there was a tendency to lose track of the political and organizing activities on the ground that are able to bring about the coalitions of power through which you bring about redistributive change, and in some ways we still suffer from that," Obama said.

Forgive me for not being terrified yet, but ... Halloween's still four days off. I'm still waiting for some lamenting, let alone some indication that anyone, least of all Obama, is casting this interpretation as a "failure" by the Warren court.

The 2001 interview evokes recent questioning by Joe "The Plumber" Wurzelbacher, the Ohio man who asked Obama about his proposal to raise taxes on people making more than $250,000. Obama told Wurzelbacher he wants to hike taxes on the wealthy so that the government can spread the wealth.

Somebody at Fox must have just aced the propaganda midterm. Every time you kick the can down the field -- from "Joe the Plumber has pictures of candidate with sheep" to "candidate denies sheep rumors" to "new questions surface about sheep affair" -- you get farther away from the original allegation. If Fox (aided by an echo from the usual cybersuspects) can make this a story about socialism, rather than a story about some tame if complex comments a law professor made on a radio show, it's done its job successfully.

Enough of that, though: What does Vladimir Ilyich Hussein Ali Obama actually say about redistribution -- or even anything with a root like "redistrib*"?

The interview has evidently been edited (the audio, I mean, not the IMPORTANT PARTS of the text EMPHASIZED ONSCREEN in case you WEREN'T SCARED ENOUGH YET about "REDISTRIBUTION OF WEALTH TO AFRICAN AMERICANS"). From that, it's fair to infer that the YouTube poster is putting forward the most damning case possible; if you've got the candidate on the record saying he wants your white women wealth, you don't cut that part and leave the bit where he talks about the Phillies. The best match I can find to the apocalyptic right-wing glee over Obama's notional lament is this, around the 2:55 mark:

"... you[?] just look at very rare examples where, during the desegregation era, the court was willing to, for example, order changes that cost money to local school districts."

So, "changes that cost money to local school districts" is the closest thing we have to an operational definition of "redistributive change"? What do you figure are the chances that he's talking about --- oh, busing, for example? Or other results of desegregation orders?* In general, if there's something on the recording that points to wholesale talk of raiding your savings account to fund those shiftless characters who didn't have anything better to do that sit around the Woolworth's lunch counter and act uppity, we aren't shown it, and there's good reason to presume that means it ain't there.

But that, once again, isn't the point. Every time the news cycle turns over (the hed on the current version is "Obama camp lashes out at Fox News over coverage of 2001 radio interview"), we're another mile down the road from the original nugget of facticity -- iand on, in this case, to whether the Obama camp is changing the subject by blaming Fox.

Fox does quote the Democratic camp, which says, in part: "In the interview, Obama went into extensive detail to explain why the courts should not get into that business of 'redistributing' wealth." (That's a fair description of the recording, I'd say.)

The McCain spokesman counters: "Barack Obama expressed his regret that the Supreme Court hadn't been more 'radical' and described as a 'tragedy' the court's refusal to take up 'the issues of redistribution of wealth." Both predicates are out-and-out lies. There is no other way to describe them. Fox (and the McCain camp) must hope that anyone who bothers to listen to the recording is too stupid to know what it says. But -- claim, counterclaim, and independent assessment by a journalist (who's also, oddly enough, a Fox contributor); it must be a news story!

Is there a takeaway point for editors? Sure. When your foamy-mouthed readers demand to know why this story isn't all over the front page, tell 'em you don't run made-up stories from news organizations that lie so often and so casually that they can't even remember where the true part ends anymore.

UPDATE: Lest you think we wax alarmist about the possibility of any professional news outfit falling for this stuff, here's

The Arizona senator pointed to a 2001 radio interview in which Obama said that one of the failures of the civil rights movement was that "the Supreme Court never entered into the issues of redistribution of wealth, and sort of more basic issues of political and economic justice in this society."

This may not be a lie in the intentional sense, but it's completely false. That sequence does not appear in the interview. If that's how McCain phrased it, the appropriate journalistic thing to do is to note that McCain was lying like a cheap rug.

* Your mileage may vary. My high school wasn't integrated until 1970, and I spent a large party of my career in the district that lent its name to Swann v. Mecklenburg.


Sunday, October 26, 2008

Cancer cured! Mideast at peace!

Must be a very slow night, or a very small world, down at the Freep when the lead story on a Sunday is -- neighbors and relatives can have different political preferences without killing each other!

Buffy Exemplarette is a staunch Barack Obama supporter, but she's also a good neighbor.

Rule 1 of story/hed/play matching is this: If you can't get a subject-verb-object hed out of the lede, you don't have a hard news story. Even squinting a bit to allow for the linking verbs in this one, we'd get: Woman is good neighbor! (Stop press)

Why is she a good neighbor? A McCain sign from a neighbor's lawn blew into her yard, and she gave it back! (Despite the urging of her handyman, a Maoist illegal immigrant who wants your daughters Democrat!) And that's important ... why?

The gesture gave a clue into how millions of Americans handle political disputes without the vitriol often seen in political campaigns. In a nation split nearly evenly between left and right, many people -- spouses, friends, in-laws, coworkers and neighbors -- tolerate beliefs they normally abhor.

You can probably write the rest yourself -- and quite possibly have, if you've written It's A Small World features for small-town newspapers before. It's fairly typical small-N-generalized wanking: find some neighbors, some colleagues and a couple who fall on either side* of some Great Divides (State vs. Michigan, paper vs. plastic, Great Taste vs. Less Filling), then write about how they all get along. The only thing that sets this apart is the writers' genuine obtuseness. Interpersonal relationships -- home, office, neighborhood -- generally don't look and sound like political campaigns because they aren't political campaigns. People don't make the same generalizations about people they know as they do about the group those people belong to; that's why, if nothing else, you can think all of Congress is corrupt and make an exception for the guy who represents you. None of which is either new or news.

If you want to bury this one back in the lifestyle section somewhere, go ahead. But don't try to pass it off as political coverage, and for Baal's sake don't stick it at the top of the front and pretend it's the biggest news story of the day.

*Take that, AP Stylebook.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

And her little dog too!

Sweet Nellie Forbush. At long last, have these people no sense of irony left?

At the beginning of her remarks, Palin appeared to ad-lib a riff about her much-discussed wardrobe, which has the been the subject of scrutiny since Politico reported last week that the RNC spent $150,000 on clothes for Palin and her family before the Republican National Convention in September.

“Your state is filled with good, hard-working people all loving the outdoors,” she said, “and it was nice and crisp getting off the airplane and coming into the — it reminded me a lot of Alaska, so I put my warm jacket on, and it is my own jacket. It doesn't belong to anybody else."

Can you actually reach political maturity -- the kind where you hold actual elective statewide office -- in this country without having run across this at some point?

I should say this—that Pat doesn't have a mink coat. But she does have a respectable Republican cloth coat. And I always tell her that she'd look good in anything.

I know you will all join me in hoping that as the 2028 campaign draws to a close, 19-year-old Checkers Palin is sweating the midterm for J2100, not shipping out for his first tour in IranIraq.

Friday, October 24, 2008


Flagged by the estimable ndugan over at Testy Copyeds, a candidate for Stupidest Story in the History of Wire Services. Take it away, AP:

A heavenly result for Devil-less Tampa Bay Rays
Devil ... be gone!

For 10 years, they were a lousy team with a fiendish nickname: the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Then the club exorcised the "Devil" from its name, and suddenly Tampa Bay is in the World Series.

Was it the hitting, the pitching, the coaching - or the hand of God?

The AP's been getting a lot of stick lately over its fees and other policies (Doug in the Lesser Carolina is a strict and regular chronicler). Maybe if we all just send in some extra money, the AP will stop putting this sort of thing on the wire.

Of course, AP membership doesn't carry any obligation to run AP stories, either the good ones or the amazingly dumb ones. So for the 118 of you whose ill judgment provided the Google hits available at this glance -- embarrassed yet? If not, keep trying.

Only a cockeyed optimist

Got a letter from Gov. Palin the other day (actually, Umm Czarina got the letter, but 'tis the season for sharing and all that). And guess what? Whenever Sarah and her friends can get their message past the liberal mainstream media filter, they find that people agree with their confident optimism!

We Republicans reject the Democrats' fearful and pessimistic mentality.

Alas, the bit about rejecting the fearful and pessimistic doesn't seem to have gotten through to the Ministry of Information. Fox, you'll notice, has found black-and-white pictures of the Two Scariest People in the World to illustrate today's story on OPEC's production meeting. But there's actually good news tonight, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea:

Take that, OPEC.

The international oil cartel agreed Friday to cut daily production by 1.5 million barrels in a move to drive up prices on the international market — and, at the gas pump.

But, crude oil futures went in the other direction, falling 5 percent Friday in London trading on speculation that demand will continue to fall.

Yeah, take that, Ahmadinejad! And you too, Chavez! We optimistic Americans scorn you! So much that Fox will put you on the front page but never bother to mention you in the text!

Now, if the theme is starting to sound familiar, it should. At lower right is the treatment from the Fox front on Tuesday afternoon: same guys, though slightly more formally dressed, and a dire warning by way of an OPEC precede:

Just as Americans are finally beginning to reap the benefits of plunging gasoline prices — including more money in their pockets — OPEC is getting ready to squeeze them once again by cutting oil production and driving up prices to refineries.

The 13-nation global oil cartel — which includes Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran and Hugo Chavez's Venezuela — will hold an emergency meeting in Vienna Friday to discuss the steep and rapid decline in oil prices.

Well, at least on Tuesday they were mentioned, kind of, in passing, once. (Not that you wouldn't have recognized these guys; after all, you might have just seen them in a Really Scary Ad on a small screen near you.) But evidently they weren't as important as this character:

"The era of cheap oil is finished," Iran's Oil Minister Gholamhossein Nozari boasted on Tuesday.

When asked what price Iran would want for its oil, Nozari declared, "The more the better."

A guy so quotable, or so hard to track down for an update, that he was back on Friday:

Hardline OPEC members Iran and Venezuela had been pushing members to slice production by 2 million barrels a day, with Iran's oil minister declaring, "The era of cheap oil is finished." When asked before Friday's meeting what price Iran would want for its oil, Gholam Hossein Nozari boasted, "The more the better."

If we're going to cut and paste, do you think we could cut and paste his given name too?

Vultures, vultures everywhere. Good thing Fox is keeping an eye out for us, eh?


Halloween came early

Fewer deputies are a reality

... quoth the Freep on today's local front. The bulk of Macomb's finest, apparently, being sorta ectoplasmic or something.

Looks like another case of Weird Hed Nouning -- taking a noun or NP from the end of a phrase that modifies another noun and letting Noun 1 stand for the whole concept. The hed writer is shooting for something like "(Dire warning about) fewer deputies" or "(Situation in which Macomb County has) fewer deputies." But without the missing head noun to guide the verb number, we're stuck with "are," which ties reality to the cops themselves, not the concept.

This one, from Tuesday's 1A, is more dangerous, because of the risk of deck-stacking in a criminal case:
Cop favoritism probed in shooting case
Detroit police are investigating whether a homicide lieutenant gave special treatment to the son of a fellow officer by releasing the teen while two other defendants remained locked up in connection with Thursday's shootings at Ford High School.

The missing noun is evidently something like "(Allegations of) cop favoritism" or "(Suspicions about) cop favoritism." Without it, you're stating a fact, not an allegation, and that's a bit reckless.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Ambiguities: U haz dem

Unfortunate choice of punctuation -- probably driven by an unfortunate decision about news value -- in the offlede hed. Here's what the story is about:

Headlines, police officers and grieving family members state the obvious: When one person kills another and then himself,* it's a murder-suicide.

By general hed conventions, we're supposed to read that comma as an "and," which -- unlike the hyphen of the lede --- leaves us at a fork in the road. Are we talking about

(cases of murder) and (cases of suicide)
(cases of) (murder and suicide)?

How did the hed writer get painted into such a corner? Because someone pushed a soft-news story into a hard-news specification. Vertical heds like this one (1/36/4 to its friends, unless I'm misreading the size) are good for subject-verb-object stories: "Quake kills thousands" or "Dewey defeats Truman." They're undependable for features or other slow-developing stories.

What's the cat doing there? Because Halloween falls on a Friday this year! Usually you use a "calendar," not a "newspaper," to figure that out. Here, it ends up as a centerpiece, creating an overall impression that either (a) cancer has been cured and the Mideast is at peace or (b) Ohio's Greatest Home Newspaper forgot to plug in the news judgment machine before the budget meeting.
* This strikes me as a really unfortunate generic "he."


Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Getting the thumb out

There's a nice quick summary of the prescriptivist/descriptivist divide (if it's a divide at all) over to the Language Log today, though casual visitors might be forgiven if they're more diverted by the ensuing argument about what is and isn't appropriate for language people to say about themselves and each other.

That's all good sport, but the original source of the debate risks going overlooked, so it's worth a short visit here: Louis Menand's review, in the Monday-dated New Yorker, of David Crystal's "Txting: The Gr8 Db8." I'm looking forward to the book; Crystal's an engaging writer and scholar who can marshal a great deal of information without talking down to the lay reader -- me -- or making the said reader feel any dumber than usual. And the review helps, if only because the sort of uninformed petulance it displays often suggests a really good point that the reviewer decided not to get.

That's not to suggest that Menand is an incapable critic, or that reviewers should be barred from reviewing any book whose author has more degrees in the topic than they do. The problem is that he's committing the old academic sin of answering the question he wants to, rather than the one that's on the table. He doesn't address the book's evidence and arguments directly; he uses them to string together a bunch of assertions of his own (often with nonexistent or nonsensical support) about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket. I'm not saying that Louis Menand shouldn't review popular books by scholars -- just that he shouldn't sound like Sarah Palin while he's doing it.

Thus, I'm less worried about Menand's generalization about linguists than about the argument that follows it:

So his [Crystal's] conclusions are predictable: texting is not corrupting the language; people who send text messages that use emoticons, initialisms (“g2g,” “lol”), and other shorthands generally know how to spell perfectly well; and the history of language is filled with analogous examples of nonstandard usage. It is good to know that the estimated three billion human beings who own cell phones, and who use them to send more than a trillion text messages every year, are having no effect on anything that we should care about.

That's campaign-level demagoguery, getting "no effect on anything that we should care about" from the conclusions reported in the first sentence. Let me suggest a couple areas we should care about a great deal that have already been affected by texting* or will be soon: disaster communication and democratic transitions, particularly the "color revolution" variety. I'd like to think David Crystal would agree (if anybody wants to use their** secret decoder ring and summon him, he can probably find the "comments" button on his own). And it's also possible that he cares a lot about things that allegedly "corrupt" the language but has concluded that the evidence is overwhelmingly against any such effect of texting -- or any other language technology dating back to the invention of the handbasket. Menand's too busy setting up a straw man to tell us.

The texting function of the cell phone ought to have been the special province of the kind of people who figure out how to use the television remote to turn on the toaster: it’s a huge amount of trouble relative to the results.

Yes, until somebody figures out how to put a "toaster" button on the remote, for about 1.9 cents in added cost. At which point making toast is about as much trouble as turning on the TV.

In some respects, texting is a giant leap backward in the science of communication.

It's hard to think of some way in which this sentence isn't complete nonsense. The "science of communication"*** actually likes it when people communicate, because it gives us something to do when we aren't destroying the fabric of the American family! Perhaps the author means "the interaction of laypeople and communication technology"? Let's see:

It’s more efficient than semaphore, maybe, but how much more efficient is it than Morse code? With Morse code, to make an “s” you needed only three key presses.

Semaphore is pretty efficient, if you have a clear line of sight and two semaphore-speakers. (And if I recall it correctly, there's a txt-like smphr moment in one of the Hornblower novels: using the signal for "lee" to shorten "The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea.") Morse is efficient, as long as the sender and receiver both have access to a Morse-speaker and the wire's up -- and, critically, both are somewhere near a telegraph head. The telegraph made news of fighting in Latin America go at the speed of light -- as soon as the boat got to New Orleans, until which it went at the speed of horse and boat. Menand doesn't mention the Telex, which is far more efficient than Morse because you don't have to know any code. I wonder if that's because all the ways in which Telexing corrupted the language (the resignation-by-Telex from Saigon in Caputo's DelCorso's Gallery: "Upshove job assward") have become part of folklore. But that's a digression: We (well, I) still don't know how many keystrokes it takes to txt an "s." Canst advise asapest tks rgds fev.

Sending a text message with a numeric keypad feels primitive and improvisational—like the way prisoners speak to each other by tapping on the walls of their cells in “Darkness at Noon,” or the way the guy in “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” writes a book.

Sorry, but from a "science of communication" perspective, that's just dumb. How txting "feels" to some guy at the New Yorker has no relation -- none, zed, zero -- to the way it feels to people who actually use it to communicate. If people are really doing something a trillion times a year, it seems a fair bet that it's beyond "improvisational" for many of them (where "primitive" comes into this, I don't know; it looks as if it was just thrown in ad hominem). And there's a bizarre sort of originalist assumption here -- echoed later, when Menand invokes the qwerty keyboard as if it had been handed down along with the Commandments -- that one arbitrary set of movements producing a message is better than another arbitrary set of movements producing the same message. It's sort of like a sax player scoffing at a banjo as a primitive way of making notes.

And, as Crystal points out, although cell phones keep getting smaller, thumbs do not.

Uh ... long-scale bass, GREAT BIG SPACE between nut and first fret. Mandolin, littletinyspace. Funny, people seem to be able to play them both.

But the technical arguments run out pretty fast, so like a Team o'Mavericks flailing around for a message that sticks, we're gonna head for the Culture Wars. These arguments range from empirical statements without evidence:

But the lists also suggest that texting has accelerated a tendency toward the Englishing of world languages.

... The most common text message must be “k.” (Wonder what the most common marker of assent in speech "must" be.)

... to apocalyptic driver-ed moments:

It was reported that the engineer in the fatal Los Angeles commuter-train crash this fall was texting seconds before the accident occurred. The Times noted recently that four of ten teen-agers claim that they can text blindfolded. As long as they don’t think that they can drive blindfolded. (Unfortunately -- speaking as a former teenager here -- they do. Or, at least, that they can drive while talking over their shoulder.)

... to dire speculative warnings about the sort of havoc that's going on while ... d00d, wait, what?

So texting has probably done some damage to the planet’s cultural ecology, to lingo-diversity. People are better able to communicate across national borders, but at some cost to variation.

Those are questions I'd take to somebody who studies stuff like variation and Englishing and "lingo-diversity" -- you know, a what-do-you-call-'em, a linguist or something? But Menand seems to have adopted a core journalistic habit here: Experts don't really know what they're saying and can't be trusted to get it right anyway. When you've got a theme going on, why mess it up with data?

All right, all right. Is that even an editing issue? In that reviews ought to talk about the topic at hand, rather than the reviewer's peeves, sure. Meanwhile, it's back to work here.

* I'm using this as a shorthand for "lots of interpersonal or interactive portable wireless technology that isn't very well studied or understood yet." YFMMV.
** "His or her," if you're getting ready for the Dow Jones test.
*** This is one of the things we do up there on the fifth floor, in case you were wondering. Rly!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Pollwise, these are trying times

Q: Are there worse things you can do with polling data than a little creative bending to fit the story line?

A: Yep. Indeed, several particularly unpleasant parts of hell* are reserved for those who violate the First Commandment of survey research: No generalizing from nonprobability samples, ever. Results of any self-selecting poll have exactly the statistical validity of the horoscope and may be appropriately displayed on the comics page.

Real news organizations don't do stuff like this, so it's a good thing we have Fox to keep the editing classroom supplied with awful examples. For the record, when a few thousand of Rush Limbaugh's closest friends call in to complain that the in-the-tank media are suppressing this valuable bit of data:

None of this is true. The troops have not been polled. There is no "landslide of support" for anyone, because we have no way of knowing what "the troops" think. Military Times had the good sense to acknowledge that its readership doesn't accurately represent "the military"; the MT lede refers to the military's "professional core," and the third graf is more detailed: "The group surveyed is older, more senior in rank and less ethnically diverse than the overall armed services." Fox ignores those concerns, which conflict with its narrative:

A poll by the Military Times newspaper group suggests that there is overwhelming support for John McCain among U.S. troops in every branch of the armed forces by a nearly 3-1 margin.

According to the poll, 68 percent of active-duty and retired servicemen and women support McCain, while 23 percent support Barack Obama. The numbers are nearly identical among officers and enlisted troops.

But in either case, we're still missing the bigger point: Respondents selected themselves into the survey. That creates an uncontrollable, nonquantifiable source of error. No one has any way of knowing whether the volunteers accurately represent the readership.

As is often the case, we really can't tell whether Fox is being unusually dishonest or just unusually stupid. Since those conditions aren't exclusive, it might well be both.

* Lots of mosquitoes, no copy editors, nothing on tap but Bud Light.

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A ray of sunshine

Quoth this morning's Newspaper of Record:

An article in the Itineraries pages last Tuesday reported about the increasing stress on business travelers, and cited the findings of “Stress in America,” an annual survey of the American Psychological Association. That survey found that economic factors were the leading causes of stress levels in 2008, but it did not say, as the article did, that “the crisis on Wall Street was the No. 1 cause of anxiety,” nor did participants in the survey say they felt most vulnerable to stress “in the office and on a business trip.”

The survey included data from Sept. 19 to Sept. 23, 2008, a period of volatility on Wall Street, but none of the questions in the association’s survey referred to Wall Street or any economic crises. Participants were not asked how business travel affected their stress levels or where they felt most vulnerable to stress. The author of the article distorted the survey’s findings to fit his theme, contrary to The Times’s standards of integrity.

If you're a regular visitor to these parts, you might be seeing a familiar theme. All sorts of news organizations routinely distort survey findings to fit writers' preconceived story lines. It's fun to catch Fox out, because Fox is so clumsily shameless about it, but the Times itself has a healthy tradition of bending the data to fit the story. Reporters are storytellers; the structure of journalism is set up to reward storytelling, and there's nothing in it to encourage those pesky rimrats to raise questions about flights of prose that slip the surly bonds of significance and soar off on their gossamer wings. So it's unusual, and potentially quite promising, to see someone own up to this offense in public.

Copydesks should find a copy of today's Times and have this Editor's Note bronzed. And the next time Star Reporter tees up an innocent survey to make a Big Cultural Point, you can take the plaque down off the wall and whack him/her upside the head with it.

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Monday, October 20, 2008

How not to write cop stories

This compact set of object lessons in Getting The Basics Wrong comes to you courtesy of the local paper (the one up by the pub, not the mighty engines of freedom down in the 313):

Drunken driver strikes bicyclist
(Guilty, guilty, guilty: Thanks for sparing us the expense of the trial, Judge Trib!)

CLAWSON — Police are investigating a personal injury accident involving a 53-year-old Clawson man who was struck by a suspected drunken female motorist from Troy.

Here's a basic proposition: If the cops aren't doing their job, you can begin with an active "Police are" sentence. Otherwise, you really ought to start by telling me what happened (especially if it's Sunday and the daily paper is just getting around to stuff that happened Wednesday). "Personal injury accident" is jargon, and turgid jargon at that. How did the accident "involve" the man? Is a "suspected drunken female motorist" suspected of being drunk, of being female, or both? How and when does the Trib decide to mark gender? Do you write a lot about suspected male embezzlers and indicted lady doctors and suspected drunken male motorists, or are you just kind of making it up as you go along?

The incident occurred around 10:19 p.m. Wednesday when police were dispatched to the 900 block of North Main Street and found a bicyclist on the ground with apparent injuries and a motorist standing by who told police she had struck him with her car.

Let's stay away from "incident." Don't use "around" when you have the time to the minute ("around 10:15" is OK, but it's "at" 10:16). Usually, accidents occur before (not "when") the cops are sent (not "dispatched"). If this one's different, we got us a lead story -- certainly compared with "Residents fight to save Days Hotel."

Detective Lt. Scott Sarvello said the man had extensive internal injuries and was transported to William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, where he remained in the Intensive Care Unit as of Friday morning.

"Taken," not "transported" (if your goal in life is to sound like a police dispatcher, you're in the wrong business)."Intensive care unit" is a common noun, not a proper noun. And -- is this getting a little embarrassing? It's the Sunday paper, and the best we can do is report on the guy's condition as of Friday morning?

It doesn't get much better. We learn that the driver was "lodged at the Troy Police Department," but not whether there's been any change to that situation since Wednesday night. And we infer that the reporter never got the lecture about not saying "arrested for." By which time you've already had a chance to compose your own fairly concise lede, on the order of "A bicyclist from Clawson was listed in guarded condition [FILL IN DATE AFTER REMINDING REPORTER THAT HOSPITALS ARE OPEN ON WEEKENDS] after a collision with a motorist who was accused of intoxicated driving."

Small-town papers used to be the sort of place where greisly old editors wrung the bad habits out of fledgling writers (and if the story got past the first gate, the copydesk would take it out to the loading dock and pummel it into submission). If those papers still want to stake a claim on people's media dollar, they might want to start by observing some basic standards of reporting -- and storytelling.

Friday, October 17, 2008

They actually believe this stuff, you know

In case you were wondering:

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: Has Senator Obama made a deliberate and strategic decision to attack FOX News Channel? Senator Obama said this about Fox News Channel last night during the debate. ... Why is Senator Obama doing this? Joining us live is Bill Sammon, Fox News Deputy Managing Editor. And, Bill, we even got a shout-out tonight at the roast.
BILL SAMMON, FOX NEWS WASHINGTON DEPUTY MANAGING EDITOR: When it happens the third time in three days it's a trend and it's an intentional strategy. This isn't just accidental. This has made a calculated decision that if I beat up on FOX News that will excite the fringe left wing of the Democratic Party.
VAN SUSTEREN: He's already got that.
SAMMON: That's the thing. The other side of the strategy, you risk being seen as thin-skinned if--you know, if everybody in the media is in the tank for you and one media outlet is actually being balanced about you and asking tough questions but giving both sides of the story, and that bothers you to the point where you have to call that media outlet out, you look a little thin-skinned. He's probably right about the two or three points. And it's not because FOX is biased. It's because FOX is actually doing its journalistic duty and being fair and balanced about it.

Well, that's Fox for you: Why interview experts when you've got your own experts on staff? And real experts too -- hard-hitting veteran journalists like Bill Sammons! No doubt he excels at the biscuit game that is Fox-on-Fox commentary, but outside that charmed circle, the record really kind of speaks for itself, doesn't it?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Post-debate silliness of the year

Of the three debates, this was perhaps the most substantive and saw the nominees dealing with each other directly, sitting near each other at a desk with Bob Schieffer of CBS.

It's OK for reporters to have opinions, but could we do a little better at keeping their really stupid opinions in check? Especially considering the first two grafs of this gem?

The central figure of the third and final presidential debate Wednesday night of the 2008 campaign wasn’t Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain.

It was Joe the Plumber.

And we're going to infer substance from that exactly how again?

Here's one that the morning fishwrap is likely to correct in some abstruse fashion. I don't know how yet, and it's like Christmas Eve waiting to see what the corrections column looks like:

As McCain accused Obama of running negative ads and described what he called Rep. John Lewis’ “hurtful” comparison of him to anti-segregationist George Wallace, the Republican nominee also said the American people have a right to know the depth of the relationship Obama has with William Ayers, a Chicago educator who was a member of the Weather Underground, a radical antiwar group that planted bombs at federal buildings and the Pentagon decades ago.

Yow. You can see how some poor copyed was lulled to sleep by the manic ineptitude of the sentence structure, but ... "anti-segregationist George Wallace"? Does someone, at long last, feel at least the smallest twinge of regret for driving any editors born before 1980 inexorably toward the buyout?

RTFP: Crunchy frog at the NYT

Has it really been just a month since the NYT joined BusinessWeek (dutifully reported, once again, at Romenesko, and echoed meanwhile at Conde Nast Portfolio) in publicizing the handful of magic beans known as SpinSpotter? Well, who would know?

Online watchdog sniffs for media bias
If you don’t trust the news media, what are your options? You can fume about bias, wonder what you’re missing and suppress the urge to throw things. Or ignore some sources and turn to those whose slant you like. (NYT, 10/15)

Start-Up Attacks Media Bias, One Phrase at a Time
SpinSpotter, a new start-up, could send shivers across many a newsroom. The Web tool, which went live Monday at the DEMO technology conference in San Diego, scans news stories for signs of spin. (NYT, 9/8)

You can't expect even the argus-eyed Times reporting corps to read everything, but the point of the RTFP rule is that at least you read your own paper. That should mean, minimally, that you don't swallow the same implausible claims whole:

But what if there were a device that objectively flagged questionable elements in online news articles, poking and parsing words and phrases, and letting you contribute your own critiques? Well, a Seattle company called SpinSpotter has produced a piece of software — a free download that works within a Web browser — that tries to do just that.

More broadly, it should mean that you think twice about whether to write about the thing at all. (One way of phrasing this is: How are you going to write the SpinSpotter lede next month?) But SpinSpotter has apparently been busy refining its algorithms and advisory panels (and explaining its earnest good intentions at SpinSpotterBlog), so it seems to have earned another plug in the eyes of the Times.

Have things gotten any better? Well, not really. The Times's second iteration is a little more open in admitting that the thing doesn't really work and that there's no indication of when or whether it will. We learn a bit more about the human side of things. (Missouri journalism grad students will critique the critiques, o joy!) And the Times manages not only to correctly identify the passive voice -- "four people were killed in an accident" -- but to note that it has no consistent correlation with "spin."

Which -- where's the dead horse graphic when you need it? -- underscores the essential futility of the project. There's a "spin" case to be made around the morning fishwrap's treatment of the ACORN story ("Obama's ties to voter registration group questioned") and the treatment offered yesterday by McClatchy ("Fox News alone has mentioned Acorn stories 342 times in recent days"). One's passive, one's active; both are a form of "spin," but one of them is the form of spin that actually contributes to a better understanding of how the political world works. Guess which?

And it would be self-defeating for SpinSpotter to point out how much free publicity it's getting from the inherent biases of news routines. News likes stuff that claims to be new (and deeply fears being last with the story about the Next Big Thing). News is biased toward conflict. By defining the novel (in the man-bites-dog sense), news helps create a narrow definition of what's "normal" -- which is why some armed robberies are serious and some are just a laugh a minute. No wonder the founders say they don't intend to purge the news of spin entirely. So far, it's their best resource.

So the real burden here isn't on SpinSpotter; it's on the Times, which needs to start (a) reading its own product more consistently and (b) doing a better job on the Truth In Packaging front. At some point, when you're peddling chockies, "crunchy frog" just doesn't cut it anymore. Next time the Times writes about SpinSpotter, we need to see some mention that it the product contains crunchy raw unboned real dead frog. Garnished with larks' vomit.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Another order of objectivity

Here's one of those occasional stories that inclines one to forgive the McClatchy Washburo its ineptitude with survey data, its inability to remember minor stuff like the difference between the Warsaw Treaty Organization and the Soviet Union, and the like:

ACORN may be victim, not perpetrator, in registration cases
(Neat, huh? Just as a group that nobody but activists and Foxheads had heard of last month replaces Iran as Direst Threat to the American Way on the Whole Planet, somebody in the big old mainstream media comes along and suggests thinking about it another way)

Republicans and their allies in the media and on the Internet are ramping up allegations that the liberal-leaning nonprofit voter registration group Acorn is trying to steal next month's presidential election for Democrat Barack Obama.

Another of those casual fact-drops we could use a lot more of: "Republicans and their allies in the media."

Conservative media outlets and Web sites are focusing on Acorn, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. According to, Fox News alone has mentioned Acorn stories 342 times in recent days.

Hmm. I don't know what a is, or why we're hearing from that rather than some of the better established content analysts out there, but -- imagine, news stories assuming that a correlation between party talking points and scale of Fox coverage is relevant!

The McClatchy folks have a lot of work to do, but let's go buy a lot of copies tomorrow anyway.

That objectivity thing again

How about a hand for the corporate mainstream media, without which we here on the Middle Coast wouldn't know what the Sacramento County Republican Party was posting on its official Web site these days?

Anyway. One of the challenges of teaching the journalistic flavor of "objectivity" is the bit about which opinions, if any, aren't given a seat at the table: No, you don't have to call the Klan for a comment on why cross-burning is just harmless fun, but how do you write a generalizable rule from that? We're left, often, with a sort of Potter Stewart-like statement: We can't define what comments are out of bounds, but we'll know 'em when we see 'em.*

Don't mistake us on the free-speech front. The First Amendment is a big deal, and we take it seriously in these parts. But the right to free speech does not entail a right to borrow my amplifier, and even a major party risks having its microphone cut off if it shows up at the debate in a pillowcase too often.

* People tend not to remember the rest of the famous sentence about hard-core porn from Stewart's concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio: "I know it when I see it, and the motion picture in this case is not that."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Guilty, guilty, guilty

Man robbed at gunpoint ... by his cousin
As a general rule, never -- that's never, as in "never" -- declare people guilty of crimes they haven't been convicted of (let alone, in this case, charged with). It's true that nobody's named here, but with every detail -- date, time, address, "construction site," make and model of stolen truck -- you're getting closer to identities that people who know these folks could infer. It never hurts to follow basic standards, even when ... what's that again?

This is a family apparently in need of some intervention.

A man told Charlotte-Mecklenburg police that he was robbed at gunpoint Monday evening -- and that one of the two suspects was his own cousin.

HAHAHAHAHAHA! It's a laugh a minute, that armed robbery stuff.

One gets the impression, for whatever reason, that if this robbery had taken place on the tree-lined streets of Dilworth, somebody might have asked what was so funny about having your money and vehicle taken at gunpoint, by anybody. And the paper could have been spared some richly deserved embarrassment.

[Wednesday update: Did you think we were kidding about the geographic distribution of mirth in armed robbery coverage? Police are investigating a robbery and carjacking in a part of Charlotte which normally doesn't experience such crimes -- the southeast side.]

Sunday, October 12, 2008


High on the list of Books That Ought to Be on Every Journalist's Desk (fits-in-back-pocket category) is Darrell Huff's "How to Lie With Statistics," a Strunkenwhite-size paperback about -- well, what do you suppose a book called "How to Lie With Statistics" ought to be about? I picked up my copy in College Park 20-whatever years ago, and my opinion of the Maryland J-program remains somewhat inflated because the thing was on a shelf of books required for a reporting course.

One of the nice illustrative tales in HtLWS is the one about the rabbitburger. Guy's driving along and sees a sign: "Rabbitburgers, 25 cents." His curiosity roused, he stops in and asks the proprieter: How can you sell a genuine rabbitburger for only 25 cents? Well, says the proprieter, I have to admit -- it's not 100% rabbit. I do mix in a little horsemeat.

How much horsemeat? asks the guest. Fifty-fifty, says the proprieter. One horse to one rabbit.

That may be why some campaign coverage of the past week has a strange whiff about it. Here's a tale from the NYT news service, appearing in the provincial press:

Obama, McCain ratchet up attacks
Sen. John McCain joined in the attacks Thursday on Sen. Barack Obama for his ties to the 1960s radical William Ayers, telling a raucous crowd in Wisconsin that “we need to know the full extent of the relationship” to judge whether Obama “is telling the truth.”

Obama, in turn, condemned McCain's plan for the government to buy bad home loans as a “bailout” for risk-taking banks and lenders, and he told several thousand voters in Dayton, Ohio, that McCain's approach to the financial crisis was “risky” and “erratic.”

Candidate A says Candidate B is probably lying about something shady, but we won't know what until he comes clean about whatever dark hints they're dropping over at Fox today. Candidate B says Candidate A's home-loan proposal is a bailout. Horse, meet rabbit; both candidates are "ratcheting up attacks."

And here's one from Fox itself (using the AP, which allows Fox to go "see? Everybody's talking about it!"):

Fact-Checks Show Candidates Stretch Truth About Foes' Old Associates
SPRINGFIELD, Ill.: With the election winding down, each candidate is trying to push the idea that his opponent must be guilty of something if he has connections to shady characters -- and both are stretching the truth to accomplish the smear by association.

Who might these shady characters be?

-- William Ayers: Forty years ago, Ayers was a founder of the Weather Underground, a radical group that claimed responsibility for a series of bombings, including nonfatal explosions at the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol.

He certainly seems to be a fixture of campaign discourse. You'd almost think he was somebody who ...
Charles Keating: Keating was a real estate speculator and savings and loan owner. His institution failed, costing many investors their life savings and sticking taxpayers with a $2.8 billion bailout cost.
McCain received $112,000 from him, his family and associates, and took trips to the Bahamas at Keating's expense. McCain took up Keating's cause with financial regulators who were investigating the businessman.

... gave the senator a lot of money and sent him on vacations? Or something like that. Odd, though; I read lots and lots of this stuff (hey, it's a job), and I'm not seeing a lot of indications that the good old Keating Five are being invoked every other minute on the campaign trail. Rabbit, horse. Horse, rabbit.

There's a strange sort of -- well, when people like John Singlaub were running around loose in Washington, it was called "moral equivalence" at play here: Candidate A kicks Candidate B in the fusebox. Candidate B says "I thought we were going to talk about policy, not kick each other in the fusebox." Headline says "Campaigns focus on fusebox-kicking."

Mmm, rabbitburger. Medium rare for me, with some provolone. May I recommend the excellent Bell's Third Coast Ale?


Heds, stories, events

A couple of steps seem to be falling out of the journalistic process here, and it'd be sort of nice if editors stepped up and started enforcing things a bit:

McCain talks policy at rally
Candidate turns away from attacks that were met by shouts of ‘terrorist' from crowd

DAVENPORT, Iowa -- Republican John McCain, the clock ticking down on a chance to narrow Democrat Barack Obama's lead in polls, turned away Saturday from visceral attacks on his rival to pivot back toward policy differences.

McCain kept his speech in this Iowa river town focused on the economy and other policies, a striking change from just days ago when his campaign redoubled its challenge to Obama over his association with a former '60s radical.

You can see where the hed writer was working from in the lede: "pivot back toward policy differences." But getting to "talks policy" from there takes some inferring, and it needs to be backed up in the story. Is it?

When an anti-war protester interrupted him, McCain nervously watched what the crowd would do. The protester was hoisted on shoulders and McCain's supporters chanted “We want John.”

“You know, my friends, there's a perfect example of some people who just don't get it,” McCain said to applause.

“As people are trying to stay in their homes, keep their jobs and afford health care, is what they want for us, to yell at each other?” he asked. “No. They want us to sit down together, Republican and Democrat, to work through this terrible time of crisis.”

I can see how some coders can have a close call with that last one, but I can't call it a policy statement, because I can't call "work through this terrible time" a policy. (Nor is this graf, which the paper cut: "Which candidate's experience in government and in life makes him a more reliable leader for our country and commander in chief for our troops?" McCain asked. "In short: Who's ready to lead?")

You could skip the next three grafs (on grounds that prayer -- even the "millions of people around this world praying to their god, whether it's Hindu, Buddha, Allah, that his opponent wins, for a variety of reasons" -- isn't policy either), except that they set up the conclusion:

“While we understand the important role that faith plays in informing the votes of Iowans, questions about the religious background of the candidates only serve to distract from the real questions in this race about Barack Obama's judgment, policies and readiness to lead as commander in chief,” Wendy Riemann said.

OK, got it now: "Policy" means putting aside attacks on your opponent's character so you can concentrate on important stuff, like -- your opponent's bad judgment! You can see how people have trouble in content analysis class until they get their codebooks straight.

Blame this one partly on the AP, but mostly on the copydesk. There are two assertions in the lede -- that McCain is turning away from "visceral attacks," and that he's turning toward "policy" -- and the desk chose the one that isn't supported to put in the hed.

Here's one from the local paper (since Charlotte didn't seem to think the Alaska abuse-of-power tale was worth much -- certainly not as much as Cindy McCain's visit to the speedway -- and the Freep at least had the vestigial good judgment to front it):

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin unlawfully abused her power as governor by trying to have her former brother-in-law fired as a state trooper, the chief investigator of an Alaska legislative panel concluded Friday. The politically charged inquiry imperiled her reputation as a reformer on John McCain's ticket.

Um, implicationally, for this to be true, doesn't Palin have to actually be a reformer? (Much as Your Editor's "reputation as a power forward" would entail his actually having been one?*) Pinning this assertion to the "team of mavericks" itself seems the way to go here.

The "objective" turn in journalism isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's historically been an easy thing to game. An election is a nice time to keep people from gaming the system.

* The Central Ohio bureau can stop giggling any second now.

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Let the ... on second thought, don't

Time for another Emergency Verb Drop downtown? You make the call:

The Red Wings celebrate Valterri Filpulla's first-period goal Saturday night in front of Ottawa goalie Martin Gerber, right. (1D)

Toledo's Nick Moore (1) and his teammates on the sidelines erupt into a celebration* after Michigan missed a chance to tie Saturday's game at 13 with four seconds remaining. (1E)

Texas quarterback Colt McCoy celebrates with the Golden Hat Trophy after defeating Oklahoma, 45-35, on Saturday. (3E)

Michigan State free safety Dannny Fortener (33) and his teammates celebrate Fortener's 21-yard interception return Saturday against Northwestern. (5E)

You can't say it better than the hed on 6E:
Leading league in cliches is a good thing

* Honorary Verb status to this VP


Friday, October 10, 2008

That afternoon news meeting

Hmm. I wonder what would be an appropriate lead story for a Saturday morning newspaper.

Does anyone have any ideas?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Fear factor: Turn me on, dead man

You can sit around and watch the stock market. Or you could tune in breath- lessly to the latest hints of Obama Waffling that help Fox turn an Internet ad into a No. 2 news story. But if you're really a Fox fan, you've been stocking up on bottled water and ammunition all day as the Preacher Doll tale moved up the charts.

The headline version: Nice example of tank-town journalistic ineptitude, amplified by Fox's interest in keeping the fear furnace stoked.* This one appears to have started in the Tulsa suburbs, where a couple of intrepid news organizations took a local crank at his word and ran with the Shock Horror Outrage tale at hand: Cute cuddly baby doll proselytizes for Islam on the side! And the story was too good to check out. The Owasso Reporter bought one of the little satans, though there's no sign that anyone there listened to it. (The enterprising Reporter investigative team did apparently surf the Web and discover -- Web sites proclaiming that Baby Cuddle-Coo said "Islam is the light"! Leave your cell phone number with the Pulitzer committee, Owasso Reporter.)

KJRH "2 Works For You" posted its "parents are outraged" story without even the courtesy of an audio clip. (There's one in the version you can reach now, but if the reporter bothered to listen, he doesn't say.) picked things up in early afternoon, citing the outraged parents even when there was still only one source -- the Owasso stalwart who was alerted when a co-worker brought the doll into his office. (No indication of whether the source is a parent; that'd involve all that pesky verification and implication.)

By mid- afternoon, Fox had found some parents. At MyFoxBoston, much as at Fox ground zero and KRJH, parents were outraged. At other Fox outlets, things went a bit farther. MyFoxNewYork says the doll, "despite its sweet name, is spouting more hate than love." MyFoxKansas City puts it in writing: "Doll pulled from shelves for spouting hate."**

And the story has spread through the rest of the Tulsa market. As News On 6 reports:

Target shoppers The News On 6 spoke with had trouble understanding the doll at first, but after they were told what she is allegedly saying, they immediately changed their tune.

Hmm. Wonder why that might be.

Enough fun. You can find the official Mattel audio track at KRJH and watch the FoxNY tape above. If you hear Baby Cuddles saying "Islam is the light" (you'll note that nobody seems to be isolating the "Satan is king" part), then you are not only the walrus, but you buried Paul. Really. No kidding. And I can get you a heck of a deal on a suspension bridge. (That one over there. With the lights. Leading to Canada.) That doesn't seem to be a problem for the usual bottom-feeders. One of the implicit promises of journalism, though, is that we know better. Could we back up and try again, please?

* It'd be unscientific to suggest a link to the upcoming election; Fox wants you to hate and fear Those People all year 'round! So it's absolutely, totally a coincidence that this is appearing next to yet another story about B.H. Obama and his cadre of terrorist pals.
** Does it seem to you that Fox is subtly suggesting that "Islam is the light" is a hate message?


People don't trust us ... why again?

"The Dish Rag," over at, waxeth snarky on Newsweek's cover photo selection:

How did Newsweek get
Sarah Palin to pose with a rifle?
How did Newsweek convince Gov. Sarah Palin to pose with a rifle for its cover?

Simple. It didn't.

Instead, it used an archive (fancy speak for old) stock photo of her taken back in June 2002 and used it for the cover without her knowledge.

...Hey, is that even the right way to hold a rifle? Can't you shoot your foot off like that?

Short answer: Correct. It didn't. A slightly longer answer could go: "Governor, would you put down the shotgun* and pose with a rifle for our cover, please?"

This doesn't appear to be the fault of the desk, but it does look another installment in the long string of evidence for running everything -- no matter how fresh or snarky -- under a pair of jaded editorial eyes.

* "That's the correct (safe) way to carry one too," Strayhorn notes.

Stop press!

Gee, you think?

Coming up, bears head to woods with Charmin, and two sources close to the water say it runs downhill. But first, your traffic and weather together!

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Ah, home

Hey, the old hometown had a Famous Visitor tonight!

The invocation at Sarah Palin rally in Greenville this evening called on God to close the mouths of Democrats who are “lying” about GOP presidential nominee John McCain and Palin.

It was led by a local pastor, the Reverend Walter Leake, who prayed: “Father, you said the truth will set us free. We know the truth is out there, and the truth is that the other side is lying, unbelievably lying. ... God, we ask you to close their mouths.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah. We're still working to catch up with Czarina's hometown on the clerical front. But we're trying!

And the guest of honor?

"Tonight it's town hall time, live from Nashville. And I wanted to come to Greenville so I could watch the debate from here with a whole lot of real Americans, hard-working folks. Because you guys get it."

Which, apparently, they did, later, with a couple of pitchers of Bud and a pizza (the N&O doesn't say who hogged the Bud). Good to hear a big night on the town hasn't changed.

Guilty -- with an explanation

Sometimes I get the impression that the local fishwrap is just sort of pulling my leg, as in the example shown here. Either that, or it needs to get out more. Or perhaps stay in and get in touch with its inner nerd a bit more. Here's Woody himself, doing the same thing 37 years ago, only better.

If your life is a bit too serious today, go visit the friendly IMDB and enjoy the memorable quotes for a bit.

"I'm a products tester for a large corporation. I make sure products are safe and practical. Today I tested an exercise machine, and an electrically warm toilet seat for cold days. "

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Propter hoc, ergo ... dude, wait

Interestingly Bungled Interpretation of the Political Process of the rapidly waning election season:

Voters headed to the polls Saturday in Louisiana to decide whether a corruption scandal has done irreparable harm to the reputation of indicted U.S. Rep. William Jefferson.

Well, not really. Actually, not at all. What the voters were doing was preparing to "vote" in a "primary." They get to choose among "candidates" -- not vote yes or no on whether Rep. Jefferson has or hasn't damaged anything beyond his freezer. There's a fairly good chance that any decisions about whether the scandal has done "irreparable harm" were made well before Saturday. And there's a not-unreasonable chance that some people who have voted yes on the harm-to-reputation issue are also going to vote for Rep. Jefferson -- incumbency sometimes having that effect, and all.

This lede looks to have been rewritten at the desk (it doesn't show up anywhere else, but the fourth graf of the Freep brief is pretty much the one AP sent in a feature on Friday). Kinda wish they'd left things the way they were in the Saturday lede: A 28-year political career was on the line Saturday for indicted U.S. Rep. William Jefferson, who is fighting bribery charges as he tries to fend off six Democrats in the primary for his New Orleans-based congressional seat.

It's not Shakespeare, but nothing in it appears to be out-and-out clueless. Unlike the improved version.

How to follow an act like that? How about ... another national brief!

Gov. Sarah Palin's husband is planning to to speak to an investigator looking into abuse-of-power allegations against the governor, Todd Palin's lawyer said Saturday.

That one does appear to be straight off the AP. It's kind of fun, I think, because two people are named (Sarah Palin and Todd Palin), but neither one is the person the corresponding noun phrase is about. How'd we get to be the profession that prizes clarity, anyway?

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Entirely out-of-tune hed of the day

Can't find an image of the page, but here's the hed as it apparently ran on the N&O's local front:

DVD rattles Islam's apostles

The lede is on the tangential and anecdotal side:
Since the terrorist strikes of Sept. 11, 2001, Muslims in the Triangle and across the United States have lived under a shadow, wondering whether their faith would be blamed for the acts of a few.

Recently, they were reminded of just how terrorism has shaped some perceptions of Muslims when The News & Observer, along with other papers in 14 states, distributed as a paid insert a DVD called "Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West."

... but if you're starting to form the opinion that this is a Regular People story, you're right. Which means that if the copyed who wrote the hed had been looking for exactly the wrong word, it would have been hard to do better than "apostles."

Is there a potentially legitimate usage we're missing? Let's see: "One sent on an errand," or a messenger? Nope. The first missionary to plant Christianity (OK, let's say "a monotheistic faith") in a region, or an especially successful missionary? Oh, come on.* Leader of a new principle or system -- did somebody not notice that we were talking about Real People, with Real Driveways and Real Jobs and Real Neighbors? Apostles as in Acts-of-The? Maybe, in a fairly standard Dumb Extension of one religion's terms to another religion, you could refer to the companions as apostles, but again, see Real People above.

I'm not suggesting that the hed is offensive, or that perceived offense is the only (or most important) thing hed writers need to be concerned about. The problem is that the hed is misleading to the point of being utterly incomprehensible. It should have been kicked back to the rim.

I've heard these discussions before, and at this point the defense tends to offer something like "I meant it in the figurative sense" (or "we just have a difference of opinion about that"**). To which two points: 1) You can call it what you want, but there is no "figurative sense" that corresponds to what you seem to have meant. 2) Readers can't see what you meant. All they can see is what you said.

* There seem to be some differing claims about this, but about four miles down Woodward is a building marked as the site of the first mosque in America.
** Sure do! I think incomprehensible heds are bad, and you apparently don't!


Saturday, October 04, 2008

Language and politics

A few notes from elsewhere on the intertubes, largely drawing on Thursday's debate. (Sorry for the delay; it's busy times here.)

1) A nice bit of quick-n-dirty crosstabbing at Language Log: words used more than 10 times by each of the debaters, with the Palen-Biden and Biden-Palen ratios for each. (Language Czarina wasn't hearing things; Palen really does say "also" all the time.) I wouldn't exactly say this table represents hard science, but it's a snapshot of how science starts: something looks like it might be interesting, someone figures out a way to count some representations of it, and the audience joins in looking at the results and saying "I wonder what that means."

2) The strange impression, flagged at Talking Points and The Greenbelt, that "Bosniak" represents some sort of error. It isn't -- you'd like to say "needless to say, it isn't," but apparently the impression isn't isolated. In a way, that's not surprising; "Bosniak" seems to be pretty much unheard-of in US news language (it shows up sometimes as a proper name) before the wars of the Yugoslav collapse. When it has worked its way onto the newspages since, it's usually explained parenthetically as (Muslims) or (Bosnian Muslims).

Why? For one thing, when it comes to socially inclusive language, news is a conservative field. "That's what readers expect" and "that's what we've always called Those People" are the sort of arguments that carry a lot of weight, even if "always" means "the three or four months since the death toll reached five figures in that war we've been ignoring."* Nor is the US news environment especially hospitable to international news these days. Radovan Karadzic's arrest was barely briefworthy for many organizations, if it made the paper at all.

The error -- that is, the error of assuming that "Bosniak" is an error -- doesn't seem to align with any particular political camp. Center-right babbler Cokie Roberts at NPR fell for it, but so did Will Bunch (left) and Mona Charen (right).** And that leads to something genuinely strange:

ROBERTS: If she [Palin] had said "Bosniak," everybody would be making a big deal of it, you know.
GOODWIN: Correct.

What's cool -- all right, "scary but clinically interesting" -- about that is how quickly the "analysis" of the debate has gone beyond whether something might or might not be true and on to how well it fits the appropriate theme or story line. Our experts aren't just assuming that "everybody" slept through the Balkan wars, but that there is no relevant political discourse outside the horse race. It doesn't really matter if a candidate was or wasn't paying attention during a defining moment for post-Cold War Europe; all that matters is what the pundits might or might not say after This Commercial Break.

That's the part of the much-derided "horse race journalism" that I find particularly scary and stupid. But it's not the worst thing happening in journalism, for which

3) We turn to the National Review Online:

He [Biden] said we didn't have to worry about Ahmadinejad because "the bureaucracy" is in control of the nukes, etc. I guess he thinks that the Supreme Leader is part of some "bureaucracy," huh? Good to know that the top dude at the Foreign Relations Committee has such a fine grasp of how theocratic fascist regimes work.

One is tempted to ask: Is this guy a liar or just a buffoon? (If it's the Michael Ledeen I'm thinking about from my days in the vast right-wing conspiracy, the answer is "both"). For one, Biden didn't say "the bureaucracy." He said "the theocracy" (it was pretty clear in the live exchange, and that's what CNN has in the transcript):

The fact of the matter is, it surprises me that Sen. McCain doesn't realize that Ahmadinejad does not control the security apparatus in Iran. The theocracy controls the security apparatus, number one.

I don't know how many people outside the Iranian bureaucracy have a "fine grasp" on it, but between Biden and the National Review, there's not much contest. It probably goes without saying that Ahmadinejad isn't the supreme leader of Iran. He's a knuckle-dragging populist ex-mayor with no known interest in or knowledge of the outside world*** who happened to be elected president -- subject t0 term limits. None of that means Iran doesn't present serious concerns for US interests, or that Ahmadinejad has suddenly become a nice guy, or that the bizarre unelected apparat of Iran isn't scary in its own right. It does suggest that there are people who have an idea about how the world works and people who don't, and the National Review is among the folks who really don't want you to know the difference.

Dumb can be fixed. Dishonest usually can't. Which of those concerns should journalism critics be spending more time with?

* Don't get me started on presentation editors and the Balkan wars. Don't even think about it.
** As of tonight, it seems to have only made a tiny dent in print journalism, and some outfits (Santa Fe, take a bow) have pointed out that "Bosniaks" is sort of, you know, like, an indication of having heard of the place before last week.
*** The nerve of some countries.