Friday, February 29, 2008

Strunk & White in real life

What does "put statements in positive form" mean: More good news, less bad news? I sing of puppies, kittens, birthday cake? No, it means that in most cases, talking about what did happen is clearer and more economical than talking about what didn't happen. And since clarity and economy are what heds are all about, here's an example:

Judge doesn't halt Wright's hearing

OK, so who did halt the hearing? Or: What did the judge halt, then? Or -- well, let's wade through the lede and see if there might be some news in the second graf:

A Wake County judge on Thursday put N.C. Rep. Thomas Wright, already under criminal indictment, on course to make more inglorious history next week. The House of Representatives is slated to bring him up on ethics charges -- a single lawmaker on trial by his colleagues.

The judge rejected Wright's request to halt the ethics hearings.

We could talk about what the judge did (active) or what happened to the hearings (passive). Either way, you get to the point quicker when you don't talk about what isn't.

It's fashionable in some circles to slag Strunk and White, and that's unfortunate. Taken as a set of observations about what works most of the time for most kinds of writing, or as a list of things that tend to work unless you have a better way to do it, the little book still has a lot of value. Many of its shortcomings are down to the people who wave it around, not the "principles of composition" themselves.

Sure, S&W suggest preferring the active voice to the passive -- but they also have a nice, simple explanation of the things that the passive voice does better than the active. (Very handy for people who haven't yet noticed that passive heds tend to be livelier than active heds.)

Yes, there's "omit needless words," and once first-timers realize that S&W aren't advocating a contest to "omit words," it's like -- well, imagine a world in which banjo players didn't think they were paid by the note. And cops reporters never again felt the urge to write "Police arrived at the scene."

What's wrong with an admonition to use specific and concrete language -- in S&W's example, "a period of unfavorable weather set in," with saying what sort of weather, for what period, and at what intervals? ("It rained every day for a week.") The problem with "specific" is that journalism stylebooks and textbooks use it to mean everything from "this is the way we've always done it" to "we're afraid to make a value judgment, so we'll pretend we're dealing with an equation."

What happens when "specific and concrete" goes overboard? Well, S&W aren't telling you to be irrelevant (that's a Grice issue). A sentence like "Some of his bloodied clothes were strewn in the parking lot of the restaurant" is detailed (sort of) but not relevant. It's only there to tell you somebody drove out to the site of the shooting. File under "needless words."

Bad editors do bad stuff in the name of "omit needless words." That's why they're bad editors. Good editors listen to where the writing is going and try to help it get there. They don't ask what brand of T-shirt was bloodily strewn in the parking lot. They ask what you mean by "unfavorable weather."

Corrections that don't

Thus correcteth the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

A column Wednesday on the Perspectives page by community columnist Jim Norton misquoted a line from William Shakespeare. The quote is "Now is the winter of our discontent," not "This is the winter of our discontent."

Yes and no. We've corrected a miquoted word, but we haven't corrected the misquotation. Which is a shame, because this is one of those moments when some copy editor gets to rise briefly from our cherished obscurity and swat a columnist back into the last row of the student seats. Here's the columnist:

"Now is the winter of our discontent." You can hear Kenneth Branagh cutting off his T's as he speaks the words. It's a polite way of saying nasty things in words that are printable in this newspaper.

No it isn't. "Correction" or not, that ain't the clause to whom we are speaking. Break it down: "Now" is the subject, "is" is a linking verb, and "the winter of our discontent" is a predicate noun. Which isn't at all what Willy Shakes had in mind when he wrote
Now is the winter of our discontent
made glorious summer by this son of York

Isn't it fun to be a copy editor? "Now" is an adverb, and it tells you something about how things are different from the last time we checked: The far-distant actor ("this son of York") has done something (don't you just love the passive voice?) to "the winter of our discontent." What was done to it? It was made "glorious summer." So lighten up. You've been waiting for the sun to shine on your back door, and it just did. March wind gonna blow all your cares away! Stop complaining about the potholes and read the damn sentence.

But such is the way of corrections. We fix the superficial but not the structural.

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

That Monica-Lewinsky scandal

Speak of the devil and he will surely park his SUV in front of your driveway. Here's an alarming bit of hed punctuation by the folks who insist on hyphenating "million" and "billion" compounds:

Court may reduce Exxon-Valdez damages

Ack! The story's been touched by human hands, obviously, because Freep style has invaded the lede:
The U.S. Supreme Court seemed inclined Wednesday to reduce the $2.5-billion award of punitive damages to victims of the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster.

But did it occur to nobody that proper names are a very special case of compound modifier and don't need to be hyphenated to make their unity clear? That anybody who would write "Exxon-Valdez damages" is the sort of person who would get the Monica-Lewinsky scandal mixed up with the Sacco-Vanzetti affair?

Please. Read text before following "rules." Edit for meaning. Have clue.

The when-in-doubt-hyphenate cousins down the road in Columbus commit a different sort of fumble here, but it still reflects blind fear of the stylebook, rather than reasoned use of the tools at hand:

You can read "heart transplant" as a compound if you want, I suppose. Or you can read it as a set of cumulative modifier. Either way, what exactly is the worst-case risk of confusion we've wasted our editing time on preventing?


Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Don't mention the war

Did Xpesmas come early, or did Ground-hog Day just come three weeks late?

There was another debate, which was high-stakes and crucial, and the candidates ... well, how did they come out, McClatchy Washburo?
CLEVELAND — New York Sen. Hillary Clinton came out swinging against rival Illinois Sen. Barack Obama on Tuesday night.
Whereupon they sparred and traded jabs, and somebody hit somebody else upside the head with a folding chair or something, and the championship belt was thrown into the crowd. And some people say wrestling isn't a sport.
There were fists flying almost everywhere you looked. But other than that, it was a very different sort of debate, depending on where you live and what you read. If you read the Freep (which carried the MCT report and allowed Obama to swing back in the jump hed), it was mostly a debate about who said what about whose attacks on whom. If you read the AP version that led the front page at Charlotte, same thing:
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama blamed each other for spreading false information about their respective health care plans Tuesday night in a high-stakes debate one week before a quartet of primaries.

Unless you flipped over to the Beeb, then, you might not have noticed that they talked about other stuff too:
It was on foreign policy that there was the strongest contrast between the two candidates, says the BBC's Jonathan Beale in Washington.
In other words, if you relied on the largest paper in either of those states, you wouldn't have any blinking idea that either the press or the Democratic candidates knew the country was in a war. You were slightly luckier if you read the N&O, which (using the Post's coverage) quoted the younger candidate thus:
He continued, "The fact was this was a big strategic blunder. ... And the fact is that Senator Clinton often says that she is ready on day one, but, in fact, she was ready to give in to George Bush on day one on this critical issue -- in fact, she facilitated and enabled this individual to make a decision that has been strategically damaging to the United States of America."

ZOMG! So there are candidates on the Democratic side who will actually mention national interests and attribute responsibility for damage done to those interests? Sounds more interesting than a cheap shot or two from a SNL skit.
One of the things we try to keep track of here at the manor is news framing of the Fractious Near East, and one of the strangest trends in that domain is Iraq's move into the realm of the agentless "war-torn" states -- as if some unseen hand had come along and war-torn it, and nobody quite knows how it got that way, so there's really nothing for us to see here. To the extent that news reports are feeding that impression -- or ignoring the war (along with everything else that happens in the Mean Old World out there) under the self-fulfilling prediction that people don't want to read it because "pocketbook" issues trump all -- we're doing people a real disservice.
There's a war in Iraq. It was started by the party that claims the mantle of "national security." John McCain seems to know that. The Democrats seem to know that. Who, exactly, do editors think they're kidding when they ignore the issue?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

You're kidding! And here we thought ...

Nobody manages to be shocked (shocked!) to find gambling going on here quite like -- well, quite like the AP, as it turns out.* Here, a local brownshirt is winding up the crowd for a McCain rally in Cincinnati:

Cunningham had delivered remarks that painted a grim future for America if “Barack Hussein Obama” were** elected president. He mentioned Obama’s middle name three times.

To his credit, the candidate apologized directly on taking the stage. But note the clever sideswipe in reporting on the follow-up:

Asked whether the use of Obama’s middle name — the same as former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein — is proper, McCain said: “No, it is not."

Really? You mean it? The exact same as that guy in Iraq***? Is that a coincidence, or what?

* I gave the credit to Fox at first, but the wording appears to come from the AP tale itself. Another reminder that assumptions are no substitute for reporting.
** Ahem. The hypercorrection, though, seems to be all Fox.
*** Who used to be such good buddies with Bob Dole and Alan Simpson and those guys?

Man eating blancmange

The hyphen was placed on earth so that fallen personkind, lost in the Forest of Sin, could tell the difference between a man eating blancmange and a man-eating blancmange. In other words, it's there to make meaning clear -- not just to show the slot you've wreaked some sort of damage on the copy that passes through your basket.

The cousins downtown have a few strange hyphen habits -- for instance, hyphenating preposed million or billion compounds, like the now-legendary "$8.4-million settlement." Most stylebooks consider that one unnecessary, because there's utterly no chance of confusion (unlike, say, "the 15 million-year-old fossils," which follows an AP style mandate into the Slough of Ambiguity). Too bad the Freep doesn't spend more time hyphenating for meaning:

Prosecutors and lawyers for Fieger and codefendant Vernon (Ven) Johnson spent the rest of Monday's hearings debating Fieger's vindictive prosecution claims.

Ideally, that sort of noun pileup wouldn't happen in the first place. But if it does, could the first responders give a little more weight to clarifying it?


Why run fake news when ...

... you could be running real news? Don't know. Maybe we should ask the people who do!

Teens are swearing more than ever
`Why We Curse' author says adolescents using up to 90 swear words a day
Adolescents and preteens are swearing more publicly than ever -- especially at school, experts say.

Wow! An empirical science claim, made by "experts"! And it's about Our Kids and Teens! Surely this is a major national news story, worth being plucked from the obscurity of the Sacramento Bee and played nationally!

Suppose we look at the substance of the story -- you know, the part that supports the claims in the lede -- for a moment.

It's conversational swearing -- in the hallways and in the classroom -- that is on the rise, says Timothy Jay, one of the leading scholars on cursing in the United States.

There's our expert, and he's making a pretty clear statement. Here's the kind of swearing that's on the rise. And how bad is it?

He estimates that the average adolescent uses roughly 80 to 90 swear words a day.

Frickin' kids, huh? And their music: It's just noise! Trouble is, you can scan all the way to the end of the story without getting to anything that supports the lede. "80 to 90" has to be "more" than something for the story to be true, right? (Let's not even bother with significance testing for the moment.) So what's it more than? How do we know that the little delinquents are swearing either "more" or "more publicly" than ever?

The short answer is that we don't, meaning that likely as not, we can't (if some long-suffering editor at Sacramento pointed out that the lede is bogus, somebody owes him/her a drink). What we have here is a non-story; it's an excuse to babble a bit about something that looks "family"-related, but it isn't news by any known or reasonable definition.

Too bad it's eating up so much space, then, because if you were editing wire at some McClatchy rag and wanted to make points with the glassholes by running a story from the provinces, you might find this:

March 4 vote could give religious right sway over Texas schools
AUSTIN -- Although little noticed by the public, the race for a local seat on the State Board of Education could lead to a dramatic ideological shift on the panel and -- by extension -- in Texas school policy.

Well, switcharoonie. You mean we could find an substantive McClatchy national story that actually says something useful and informative about how things stand in the nation? Instead of, like, you know, I mean, some conventional wisdom about, like, Those Kids? And their baseball caps language?

Jeez. If you were actually interested in national news, you could look at the Texas story in the context of this:
For the first time ever, evolution is to be taught clearly and explicitly in Florida classrooms now that the state Board of Education approved a batch of new science standards that mention the ''E'' word. But there's a catch: The subject will be taught as "the scientific theory of evolution."

No, it isn't especially well written (Miami was always overrated as a place that produced good writing). It does, though, have the advantage of being competently reported and contextually sound. As long as we're going to waste space on national news (hey, it's another year before we have to cover the Academy Awards again), what if we tried running some of the actual news that's out there?

Monday, February 25, 2008

Propaganda prize

Here's a strikingly skillful illustration of the propa- gandist's art that seems -- at this writing -- to have worked itself into real news coverage. Please, if you're thinking about running this tale in a grownup newspaper, stop.
At above right is Fox News's centerpiece* from late morning. It's a beautifully executed bank shot: Matt Drudge posts a picture with a rumor that it came from the Clinton camp, Fox posts a story with a note that it's "working to confirm" the story, and by this carom, the Obama campaign is reacting to Fox's report of Drudge's rumor. And this entertaining little sideswipe is on its way to being "news."
As you'll note, Fox (at right) refers to this in the cutline as the "Muslim dress" photo, though Fox's stories themselves only referred to the costume as "Somali" -- until Fox could let someone else say the M-word:
Expressing outrage, Obama’s campaign suggested the purpose of the photo release was to invoke reminders of persistent rumors that Obama is secretly Muslim, and by extension, anti-American.
Brill! Fox has been able to say "Obama's a Muslim" all day without ever having to -- you know, lie or anything. (I mean, the Fox coverage carefully points out that Obama has "repeatedly denied that he is Muslim").
Before long, when campaign flacks start calling teleconferences (and reporters forget that the obligation to cover an event does not entail an obligation to write about it), other news organizations start to pay attention too. The AP says the appearance of the photo "is causing a dustup in the presidential campaign over what constitutes a smear." Obama, the AP notes, "is a member of the United Church of Christ and says he is not now and has never been a Muslim." (As LBJ probably -- alas -- didn't say, why claim it when you can make the sumbitch deny it?)
And McClatchy pushes things ahead with this helpful bit of context:
The photo could be interpreted as suggestive of Muslim garb.
So, of course, can blue jeans and sport coats. If McClatchy thinks it has some readers who are so blindingly stupid as to have missed that implication, the least it can do is add an obvious and equally "objective" relative clause: "... which was exactly the intent of whoever fed it to Drudge."
Brief detour to Media Theory Land. Gatekeeping theory is called "gatekeeping" for a reason. When something isn't a story, you can actually close the gate and ignore it. We call that "news judgment." It's worth a try, you think?
* Who's "dis-dressing" whom in that photo is a different layer of context that I'll leave to our visual colleagues.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Second vs., same as the fs.

Some days, it's just the same stuff jammed together in new and teeth-grinding ways. How do you answer a question like this one? Is what choice "gas line vs. polar bears"? What if you choose Carolina vs. Wake? If a false dichotomy falls in the national wildlife refuge, does it still need a question mark? How many words does a polar bear have for "snow"? (Yes, more snow vocabulary in the forecast; see below.) Now that "vs." is both a verb and a conjunction, what peaks does it have left to conquer?

And elsewhere, it's ... still pretty much the same old stuff. Desks are still inventing clever new ways to mutilate innocent verbs:
Police narrate plan to kill, cover up, get away
Despite proof of progress in Iraq, Dems obstruct

History experts still come up with fanciful new bits of history:
South Korea, now the Republic of Korea, once depended on food aid from the United Nations. Now it boasts the world's 11th-largest economy.
Ah, the urgency of "now." You can't run a correction on this one, because it isn't untrue: South Korea is "now the Republic of Korea." But the implication is false. The republic was proclaimed in 1947. The political changes since then have been striking, but they have nothing to do with the name given to the postwar entity.

Mitch Albom still seems to be convinced that Things Ain't What They Used To Be:
Am I the only one who remembers when they actually gave Oscars to movies with happy endings?

And lots of people seem to have ignored yesterday's suggestion that all mentions of the Global Language Monitor's fraudulent Million Word March be spiked forthwith. And Charlotte appears to have made matters worse with some original "value added" (at least, something I haven't seen in other renditions of this tale): the "official" "list" of how many words assorted languages have. English -- of course! -- is at the top, on 995,000 (see yesterday's post for a few other iterations of this utterly bogus number). And guess who's at the bottom?

Right. Those benighted Arabs, with a mere 45,000 words -- including, no doubt, 37 for "snow," half a dozen for political chicanery, and a few score for "camel." If nothing else struck you as absurd about the whole Payack enterprise, doesn't this one set off a few bells? Here's a language that's been cross-pollinating like a rabbit for 14 centuries (around Asia and, for a good chunk of the Common Era, a bunch of Europe as well). It has a pan-national "standard" version and a bunch of diverse dialects, along with its liturgical uses. It talks about all the sorts of things other languages talk about. So -- without even getting into issues like whether any of the Global Language Monitors would know a Form X verb if it jumped up and bit 'em in the arse -- why would Arabic have a word list less than 5% the size of English's? Did it occur to anybody than when an assertion looks ridiculous on its face, maybe there's a reason?

The more worrisome issue, though, is the sort of Discourse Buddies the Language Monitors seem to be choosing. Tut-tut comments about notional differences in vocabulary size aren't as innocent as they look. They tend to be associated with a bunch of cultural generalizations that, to put it gently, do more to reinforce ethnocentric cluelessness about the Fractious Near East than to help us understand the place. Given that Paul Payack has already shown himself willing to lend the mantle of dubious scholarship to the foamy-mouthed camp in American politics, he might want to be a little more careful about the company he keeps.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Bean-shopping with the N&O

Suppose you're selling magic beans -- or, better yet, offering consulting services for other companies' magic legume applicational needs. Sooner or later, you're confronted with a choice:

1) Pay actual cash money to advertise your services, or
2) Have people write articles about you, with the said articles appearing on the front page free of charge!

Well, that was a tough one.

Sure seems to work for Paul Payack and his Global Language Monitor, though. Not only did he get written up by the august Chicago Tribune, but through the miracle knock-on effects of wire service cluelessness, he's making the front page in the provinces as well. Hence the above, from the News and Observer (not available at the N&O Web site, so here's the link from the Trib itself).

Shouldn't we be breaking out the champagne, being word people and all that? No, we ought to be making fun of our wire editors, who apparently didn't do even the sort of minimal stooging-around-in-the-data that would help put such a claim into context. Had they done so, they might have noticed that it's not new. Two years ago this month, the same factola -- we'll cross the million mark this very summer! -- appeared in the Times.

In that tale, Payack's double-secret word algorithms had us at 986,120, with growth at 20,000 in the previous year -- impressive, given that the previous autumn, we were stuck on 883,485* words, according to the Florida Times-Union (in a column containing exactly 666** of the things). And why was Payack quoted there? The subject is hurricanes and their victims:

"The word refugee just caught on and people started using it, even though it wasn't the right word," Payack said. "Then it became politicized right away."

Payack is evidently fluent in English (particularly when someone calls him up and offers him some free publicity to pose as an expert on it), but he doesn't observe it very carefully. "Refugee" didn't "just catch on." People driven from their homes by natural disasters had been "refugees" in American news language for decades. It was a perfectly "right word" that, owing to some strange confluence of events, got dramatically politicized.*** But informed observation isn't the goal here; as long as you spell his name right (no periods with the initials!), he'll tell you any old thing. Even if it's a fairly destructive sort of lie:

The phrase that topped this year's ["most politically correct"] list was "misguided criminals," one of several terms the British Broadcasting Corporation used so as not to use the word "terrorist" in describing those who carried out train and bus bombings in London that killed 52 people in July, according to Paul Payack, the head of Global Language Monitor.

Goebbels would be impressed. Yes, you can find a BBC column referring to the London bombers as "misguided criminals." If you go to the trouble of reading it, you'll note that it also refers to the attacks as "savage" and "vicious" (if Payack's concern is the Beeb's alleged attempt to "strip away all emotion," he seems to have missed). And you might also conclude that "misguided" doesn't mean "poor innocent lads," but something more like "London can take it":

The huge crowds who watched and joined in Sunday's parade were London's answer to all the fear and anger and excitability of the past few days; a Churchillian hand-signal to the bombers.

Needless to say, the foamy-mouthed segment of the American right paid no attention to the substance of the column. A Language Expert had spoken, and that was enough to sic the dogs on the weeny media.

As word people, then, we ought to be preparing the tar and feathers for Paul Payack -- not rolling out the red carpet of publicity. And if anyone had listened to the two genuine language experts in the Tribune article (Allan Metcalf and Jesse Sheidlower) who dismantle the whole concept of the million-words countdown, the damn thing would have been blocked into the cheap seats. Instead, it's on the front page, where:

1) It reinforces the widely held (and often widely justified) view that journalists simply don't get the whole objectivity-and-evidence thing.
2) It takes up space that could be used for real news. (Speaking of science, wouldn't it be nice if the N&O kept its readers up to speed on Florida's latest tussle with evolution in the schools?)

Please. Nobody else run this preposterous story. And somebody send Mr. Payack a bill for the frontpage space.

* Up to 991,207 by December 2006 (Washington Times), with 986,120 having been reached around 11 a.m. Jan. 26 (New York Times). Magic beans are on everybody's diet.
** And published on September 11. The liberal media would like you to think that's a coincidence.
*** To such an extent that fearful editors started turning Kurdish refugees into "evacuees" in cutlines. Honest.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Judgment call

This one arrived at the weekend from the stalwart Fort Worth buro. It's already attracted some comment around the editosphere (at ACES and Doug's place, for example), but it's worth another go because of the sort of negotiation it's likely to set off.
The copy editor's job is easiest when we can point to some nice binary one-and-zero sort of stuff that ails the copy before us: Relative clauses don't do that; we haven't got a transitive use for that verb; sorry, that war ended when your subject was 7 years old; I know you think "'Tis the season" sounds original, but here are 14,272 headlines from the past year that have used it. Judgment calls are touchier, partly because in a battle of preferences, a lot of weight -- quite rightly -- goes to the writer's view.
Hence the calls to read the whole story, and to read some of the comments that flesh out the backstory, are relevant here. This isn't a spot-news piece (the attack is two months old); it's a featurized way into several old stories that seem to need tying together. So we can't necessarily say the concept is wrong.
But while we're acknowledging that, we can -- and should -- say that this featurized lede is wrong. The originating desk offers this justification: "It conveys how an ordinary day can become a major trauma and this is why we want people to be aware of serial rapist." To which we can say: Fine. We do too. But this one really feels like a parody ("Some days suck, and then you're raped"), and it seems more likely to stir bafflement or anger than a reasoned awareness.
At deadline, it comes down to somebody's judgment call. In this case, the worse judgment won. It isn't the first time*, and it won't be the last. Commendations for the deskers who challenged this lede on taste grounds. I hope they (and others) aren't discouraged. With a few weeks of hindsight, you'd like to think it will be clear they were right.
* If you're all very, very naughty, I shall recount the infamous condom lede sometime.


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Sneaking off and sneaking back

Nothing like a dram of Fox News, neat, to close out the weekend, is there? Behold the lede story Sunday evening and see if it puts you in mind of anything.

'Hey you!' he said roughly. 'What are you up to?'

'Nothing, nothing,' said Gollum softly. 'Nice Master!'

'I daresay,' said Sam. 'But where have you been to -- sneaking off and sneaking back, you old villain?'

Another day in the news mine

Today's news quiz: What's missing from this AP lede? [Answer below]

NEW YORK — A father who said he was upset with his teenage daughter for text-messaging a boy was arrested Saturday on charges of killing the girl, whose burned body was found stuffed in the boiler of his apartment building, police said.

One of the advantages of regular visits by our non-journalist friends is that they don't take for granted all the things that journalists do -- for instance, the idea that "news" is some sort of naturally occurring substance that's found by trained engineers, then dug out and refined and shipped to your doorstep in easy-to-use lengths. Hence, I think, a complaint last week about this paragraph in a cop tale:

A person who did not identify himself at Nelson's Wallbrook Avenue home last night declined to comment.

"What?" asks The Ridger (who wins top coolness points for getting "Gricean violation" into the hed). "What are the reporters (there are two) trying to tell us with that comment? Why is it there?" From the minehead, of course, the answer seems simple: Because that's what cop news looks like. It follows maxims of conversation, but in this case the conversation is with craft norms, rather than with the audience. Two questions are being answered: Did we check at the home for comment, and did we explain why somebody who's being quoted (even if he's quoted as not-being-quoted) in the paper isn't identified by name? The result is certainly "transparent," to drag in one of the industry's vogue terms. But it doesn't seem to be transparent about anything particularly relevant.

You can see something similar in this concluding paragraph from the tale quoted at the outset:

There was no telephone listing for Matias at the address provided by police.

And this, from another AP story on the page:

No one answered the door Saturday morning at the Urbana home of Kazmierczak's sister, Susan. But sobs could be heard through the door, where a posted statement said:

"We are both shocked and saddened. In addition to the loss of innocent lives, Steven was a member of our family. We are grieving his loss as well as the loss of life resulting from his actions."

The signal isn't there to provide you with data; it's there to remind you that the rules of cop news are being followed. Sort of like the second graf of a four-graf AP story (yes, today's harvest is a convenience sample from Fox News):

A 4-year-old girl was in critical condition, fire Lt. Larry Cry said. Officials had earlier said the girl died but recanted.*

By volume, that's a lot of story to spend on saying why something isn't. Do readers need to know that what they didn't know was wrong? No, but again, the point isn't to add more ones and zeroes to the mix; it's to explain why the story should be considered more important than it looks, even though we now know no one died.

That's sort of a long way of explaining why news sounds the way it does. Facts in the wild don't always look like "news"; they need a little social construction before they become the gleaming product you see before you. No wonder it looks strange to people who don't know the assorted secret handshakes.

So here again is the quiz from the top of the program. What's missing from this lede?
A father who said he was upset with his teenage daughter for text-messaging a boy was arrested Saturday on charges of killing the girl, whose burned body was found stuffed in the boiler of his apartment building, police said.

Here's a similar story from December, if that helps:
A Canadian man has been charged with murdering his own daughter, and her friends say the two clashed over her refusal to wear a Muslim head scarf.

And one from January:
A man on the run from police since his teenage daughters were found shot to death in a taxicab on New Year's Day had threatened to hurt one of the girls for dating a non-Muslim boy, according to police documents.

So when the AP writes about fathers accused of killing their purportedly immodest daughters, religion usually has some prominence in the lede. Wonder why the social construction of news leaves that datum out for Miguel Matias. Perhaps other readers do too.

* Shouldn't we save "recant" for the sort of thing you do when the inquisitors are about to tie you to the stake? Just wondering. (Assuming you can figure out from the sentence who did the recanting.)


Saturday, February 16, 2008

Verb of the month

I'm trying to use this one in a sentence, without a great deal of success:

When Harry vs. Sally
When Worlds Vs.
When the moon vs. your eye.

Any help would be appreciated.

Thursday, February 14, 2008


People do wonder sometimes whether Fox News is worth all the attention we lavish on it around here. (Our motto: We watch Fox because Tom Lehrer is no longer gigging so you don't have to!) We tend to think it is. The matter isn't just that Fox is the eager handmaiden of the Bush White House, though that's important, or that Fox is unusually nonchalant about being caught out in that role, though that's important too. Just as interesting to watch is the sort of world you see if Fox is where you get your news, because if that view is spreading -- if the news world is becoming more Foxified, rather than more diverse, in response to Fox's growth* -- the republic is in peril.

Fox World is a strange planet teeming with threats to the American Way of Life, but purely random personal threats take up a lot of space too. If you have a school-age child, you should expect the said moppet to be either seduced, beaten or duct-taped to a chair by a teacher before the semester is out. Most women are missing. Most pregnant women have been missing for weeks. And if you're a missing pregnant mother, just give it up; Bin Laden has your number, and you're going to be shipped to a family in Aruba any day now.

Which explains, a little, the hed above, which you reach by clicking on a story that's been on the front page since morning. It's not an especially interesting hed unless you read the four-graf story beneath, which never mentions the maternal status of the woman in question. (It also calls the thing she found a "blade-like piece of metal," which is clearly not as much fun for hed purposes as a "blade.")

Is it just Fox? Have a look at the same tale (albeit second-cycled) from the Web site of the St. Pete Times. Again, a mom (all right, a "mother," if you're going to insist on formality) in the hed, but just a "woman" in the text.

Coincidence, or what? You can see why Fox would just sort of assume that all women in peril are moms, or would figure you didn't need to be reminded of such a pesky detail in the text when the Good Lord put all the important facts right there in the hed for you. But is Foxthink spreading to the once-grownup media as well?

* Which, with all due respect to John Milton, is how the Marketplace of Ideas has historically worked.

Muddy Rays questioned in zoning spat!

Quick, diagramming party to action stations:
It's always nice for headlines to be correct. As a rule, though, it's best for them to be correct about only one thing at a time. So it really helps if readers coming to the story cold can actually tell the subject from the verb from the adjective from the attributive noun modifier.

On the bright side, of course, readers who are busy diagramming the front page aren't gazing in awe at the insights of the political editor:

To hear most pundits, Obama is unstoppable now that he leads in overall votes and is building a delegate lead.

But hold on. It's too soon to count out Clinton.

This is a razor-thin race, and if there's anything we've learned in this presidential campaign, it's that pundits and conventional wisdom are sometimes wrong.

Billie! Rossi! Stop the press!

Spike on sight

Somebody should never have written this story, and somebody should have spiked it after it was written, and somebody shouldn't have promoted it for the front page. Puts a lot of burden on the copydesk, but ... hey, what fun is it being a copy editor if you don't get to point out every now and then that a story is complete, unadulterated crap?
Check it out for the vast array of stuff writers will write when the Clue Officer of the Day doesn't tell them to zip it:
Navarro, who made it clear that he is not accusing Clemens of lying, said Clemens' mannerisms - which included rare subtle nodding, tucking in his chin and taking hard swallows over a 28-second span - indicate what he calls "guilty knowledge" - suspicious reactions a subject gives when specifics are detailed.
..."It seems to me he probably used a few times, regretted it, decided not to and got caught for something he'd given up," Hogan said.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Weird usage of the day

Iran is gaming its future in Iraq on three fronts, the most public of which has been face-to-face meetings between U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Kazemi Qomi. Another session could be held in March.

Much as one hates to welcome Iraq back to the front page with puzzlement rather than enthusiasm -- "gaming" its future? Especially now that the AP (source of the tale in question) has put the weight of its stylebook behind "gambling," rather than "gaming," for what goes on when people gamble?

Let's not go totally overboard, of course (though your author too likes to slip down to the G-Drop Inn for beer and peevology every now and then). It'd be nice if we could proclaim that "gaming" was a cunning new euphemism invented by the Stupidity Tax industry, but it ain't; it's been used for gambling since before Young Shakespeare took his first creative writing class. But "game" doesn't have the transitive meaning of staking something or placing it at risk. We have a verb for that: "gamble." Wonder what was going on in assorted AP minds.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Dawn of the pronouns

Quick: Who's doing what to whom in this Fox lede?

"Long Island Lolita" Amy Fisher says she feels "no sympathy" for Mary Jo Buttafuoco, the woman she shot as a teenager when she was sleeping with her husband — even though she still has the bullet in her brain.

And a few more items from today's FoxWatcher quiz:
  • Who besides the Long Island Lolita is well known enough to be shown in a photo with no identification?
  • Identify four other stories on the "Latest News" list that received enough attention to warrant being credited to Fox News, rather than an agency.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Doin' the Fox Limbo: How low can you go?

How does news go awry? Let me count the ways. Some- times news makes too many assumptions about what stuff means. Sometimes it suffers from a lack of training and supervision. Sometimes it just screws up.

And, of course, sometimes news goes awry because it lies -- deliberately, systematically, as a matter of policy. Our pals at Fox are prone to the first three (as are we all), but to a degree unique among the mainstream channels to which one turns for "news" in this country, they make stuff up to fit the party line. That, or they pass along fabrications from elsewhere in the Murdoch system. Here, unusually, we get to catch them at it twice on one page.

Let's look at the centerpiece first: "Brit Cleric In Islamic Firestorm."* It's a big story at Fox -- bigger, temporarily, than the last two days' worth of STUNNING DEVELOPMENTS in the Natalee Holloway case -- for a couple of reasons. The lesser is that this particular liberal "Brit cleric" (interesting shorthand for the archbishop of freakin' Canterbury, innit?) has been caught again, same as in the great homosexual conspiracy. The greater is that he's selling us all out to the Islamic menace!

Well, is he? According to Fox (relying on its fellow paragon of Murdoch journalism, The Times), he's "calling for" the introduction of Islamic law in Britain. And that's more or less a thoroughgoing lie. You can read the text of his address here, and Geoff Pullum's gently reasoned explanation** of why Archbishop Williams isn't even suggesting that adopting "some aspects" of Sharia "seems unavoidable" (as the more professional London papers put it) is worth a look too. If you check out his remarks about -- not "calls for," unless you're genuinely stupid or genuinely devoted to Murdoch cause -- "supplementary jurisdiction," he's basically justifying a right to teach your kids that Adam and Eve frolicked with dinosaurs in the Garden of Eden 6,000 years ago. And that's very, very different from any alleged right to let the little darlings die because you think penicillin is Satan's lip balm.

But -- you know, who cares if a story is true, as long as you can stoke a little post-Super Tuesday fear with it?

The second example -- "Mayor to Marines: Get out" -- pushes a different Fox button. How dare civilians tell the military what to do? The problem here seems to be that the mayor of Toledo told a company of Marine reservists from Grand Rapids*** that they couldn't conduct a set of maneuvers: "urban patrol exercises in downtown streets and a vacant building, according to the Blade, which reports that past exercises have included mock gun fights, ambushes and the firing of blank ammunition to simulate urban combat."

Urban patrols with mock gunfights! Would the little robots at Fox like a news flash? When civilians who haven't had proper (or any) notification about the upcoming maneuvers hear the ambushes, they make things really, really amusing for the night news desk!

But that's not why one misunderstanding with the reserves is the Third Most Super-Important Story in the World for Fox:

This isn't the first a city has given Marines the cold shoulder.

The City Council in Berkeley, Calif., voted last week to send a message to Marine recruiters that they weren't welcome in the city because of the military's "Don't Ask Don't Tell" policy toward gay servicemen and servicewomen.

Uh, yeah. So Fox really can't tell civil authorities' interest in maintaining civil order from Berkeley's interest in being Berkeley. Or why a recruiting office isn't the same thing as an urban warfare exercise. Or why anything involving civil-military relations is in any way indistinguishable from disrespect for the Powers that Be.

Picking on journalism is a job. Picking on Fox is ... well, business before pleasure.

* It isn't an "Islamic firestorm," of course; it's a "firestorm related to debate about Islamic law and custom." While this could be another effect of Fox's generalized racism, it's more likely just one of those things in news language that hauls modifiers around from prepositional phrases to a signaling position in front of the noun. That's how "legislation to provide insurance for catastrophic health-care emergencies" becomes first "the catastrophic health bill" and then "the catastrophic bill."
** As Dr. Pullum puts it, The Sun "is noted for displaying a level of tastefulness that makes licking your balls in public seem refined."
*** Why didn't they keep it in the state, where we could use the economic boost? It's not particularly my beloved Paris, but maybe Rick had some other advice.


Friday, February 08, 2008

Night of the living pronouns

Although everyone knows it could happen, it doesn’t make it any less horrifying when it does.

Having conquered the lede, will the Trib be able to move on to the next step: a whole story without nouns? Stay tuned.

Emergency clue drop request

Rough night on the hed front downtown, eh?

The fun element in the lede hed here is the deck: "His lawyer hints at extortion." What's that mean when you come to it cold? Well, what does "hint at [noun]" usually mean?

"...whenever Trond encounters the mysterious Lars, who hints at violence" (Village Voice, 7/18/07)
"Try to open a business that hints at sex, drugs and rock & roll, however - in the next county, mind you - and a full-scale e-mail meltdown ensues" (Florida Times Union, 2/17/07)
"He's a different type of runner than predecessor Kenneth Darby and seems to hint at going the distance on virtually every play" (Huntsville Times, 9/2/07)
"... futuristic staccato beats full of stuttering sound effects that hint at violence" (New York Times, 4/25/05)

So when you "hint at" something, it's something you can do, or offer, or might want to do. Not, as you might find if you hang on for the 13th graf, something you go on talk radio to hint that the other side has done.

Can it get worse? Hoo hah!
of crack
So says Mukasey:
Early outs a risk

The main hed could be one of two things. As an editorial, it'd be imperative: You should, or you must, or the Powers That Be should, do something. In what's known as a Flying Verb construction, it's a subject-free way of saying somebody or some agency has done something:
Seize Gus Hall, Vanishing Red, In Mexico*
Quiz 8 in Ax Fest
Judging from the lede:
Attorney General Michael Mukasey is to ask Congress to block the early release from prison of many of the 20,000 crack-cocaine offenders who can seek reduced sentences under a rule to take effect March 3.

... we don't know quite what to make of it. Does the deck help? Not really. "So says Mukasey" could be a slightly baroque way of trying (and failing; attribution shouldn't cross decks) to pin the opinion at top to the AG. But then whose opinion is "Early outs a risk"? The hed's trying to making two fact claims, and it only has enough attribution for one.

We could go on, but let's not.
* Yes, kiddies, we really did used to write 'em like that.


Thursday, February 07, 2008

When Magic 8-Balls go bad

This was a pretty clueless bit of prose even before the Romney announcement today:

North Carolina will matter after all.

The stressfully tight race for the Democratic -- and, to a lesser extent, Republican -- presidential nomination makes it almost a mathematical certainty that neither nominee will be selected by the time North Carolina holds its primary on May 6, a whimsical improbability a month ago.

1) Write thee not about what "will" happen unless thy travels have taken thee forward, yea to the event in question, and back again, and thou hast thy notes with thee and left them not in the Tardis or anything.
2) "Stressfully" is what happens when a writer reaches into the Adverb Bag at random and punches in the result. Whom is this race "stressfully" tight for? (Yes, that's that damn "can you demonstrate a relationship between your prose and the empirical world?" question again.) Do you wake up stressed by it? Do Democrats? Republicans? The candidates, to any degree they wouldn't if it were in some meaningful way "looser"?* "Stressfully" is the sort of adverb that gives honest, hardworking modifiers a bad name.
3) Trouble is, political decisions are political, not mathematical.
4) Only if you have no idea what "probability" means and what it does. First and foremost, we don't have any probability-based data to indicate whether the nominating contests would be settled by May. We have some self-report data (nationally and in some states) about what people said they would do, and we have some exit poll data (also self-reported, though it covers what people said they did) to compare that to, but neither of those addresses "will the race be settled by May?" The only "whimsical" thing would be looking at the survey data, with all its limitations, and inferring that both parties would necessarily have selected a candidate by the date of the North Carolina primary.

It's bad writing, sure. But editors were put upon this earth to ask writers what they mean by bad writing, and if the writers can't provide something to support their woolly assertions, execute an adverb an hour until they give in.

* Try it at home! Insert the random adverb of your choice into the sentence and see if it isn't just as good!

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

No it isn't

How many more times? If your label hed can't point to something concrete and relevant that distinguishes today's product from yesterday's either write a new one or (preferred) get out of the label hed business altogether.

First up, the Daily Herald of "suburban Chicago."

Here's the lede that spawned the hed:
Super Tuesday voting placed history on hold -- leaving Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in a race far too close to call and essentially making today the first day of the presidential campaign.

In a word, no and no. History is plodding ahead at the exact same pace as it was last week, which is exactly the same pace it would have reached if (implausibly) either of the Democrats had nailed down the nomination on Tuesday. History is a process. It doesn't stop and start at the command of hed writers who can't be bothered to tell me what happened. And from what planet with how many purple suns does it appear that the presidential campaign didn't begin until today?

Moral: If your writer turns in a resoundingly stupid lede, don't magnify it in the big type. Send it back for repair. Or gently tie a cinderblock around its neck and spike it.

Hard to top that one for cluelessness, but The State is going to give it The Old College Try. How many stories in the past six months (or in the upcoming three) could carry "Chasing the prize" with no change in meaning whatsoever?

Please. If you want me to buy the paper, start by telling me why it's not yesterday's paper.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Those pesky links to reality

Further to the discussion below about daily journalism and its moorings in reality, a few examples from today's Super Tuesday precedes.

The point of this, again, is that daily journalism is ... well, daily. Our deal with the people who are kind enough to put 50 cents in the newsrack is that a news element will, at some point, answer a basic question or two:
  • Why is this in the paper today?
  • What's different about the world since the last issue (or newscast, Web update, whatever) that warrants your reading this?
  • What in this presentation relates to some event or occurrence in the empirical world out there that you should pay attention to?
If, in our haste to be novel or distinctive or "authoritative," we fail to answer that, we need to back up and start over.
Hence the problem with the illustration at upper right, from The State (The One in The Home of The Mustard-Based Barbecue, if you're wondering). Why are we looking at a photo illustration of somebody ripping a shirt away to reveal an American flag T-shirt? Is Superman ducking into a phone booth and coming out as Captain Democracy? (Did we forget that both Democrats and Republicans in South Carolina have already voted?) Is there some relation between the "photo" and the Stupid Question posed in the hed? What's the connection to the real world, or are The Designers at The State exempt from questions Like That?
Next up, a case of Random Empty Metaphor from the Austin American-Statesman. The problem with this isn't that nothing is happening in the real world today; it's that there's no reason to assume as a matter of settled fact that what's happening is an "endgame." For one thing, in the barest possible rule-of-thumb, it ain't an endgame if queens are still on the board. Let's let GM Paul Keres be a bit more specific:
The middle-game is the richest and apparently the most difficult part of the game, in which the player aims for a decisive superiority or at least an advantageous end-game. And, finally, the ending is that part of the game in which we must convert into a win any advantages won during the opening or the middle-game.
Where does that leave Super Tuesday? The Republicans might be entering an endgame by early tomorrow. One contender might emerge with a decisive advantage and spend the time between now and the convention whittling it down to a win. Or they might not be. And for the Democrats? They might be having an endgame too, but for all we know they're just going to be moving from opening to middle game. All of which leaves open the question of what happens between the conventions and the election. In all: Cute hed, but what does it have to do with anything in the real world that one might find "true"?
Use images that mean something. Use metaphors that connect with reality. Don't grab for something that's been been equally true for a month and won't pass its sell-by date for a week or more.
And a few more admonitions, if you don't mind:
1) Never talk about a candidate's "momentum" unless you can measure it or the candidate is being defenestrated.
2) Don't call a poll result a "statistical tie" unless you can explain what you mean by that. (And if you have to ask, you can't.)
3) Similarly, never say a result is "within the margin of error" unless you're ready to explain what the margin is and does. (If you are, you wouldn't anyway.)
Enjoy your Super Tuesday!
* Keres, P. (1981). Practical chess endings. Great Neck, NY: RHM Press

Monday, February 04, 2008

Giant Despair

That's the fun thing about living in a hotbed of newspaper competition: Another day, another round of the vigorous, issue-driven dust-up that is the Marketplace of Ideas. And the 1A choices today could hardly have better captured the two streams of thought that dominated America's Front Pages:


Detroit News:

Tough call, huh? We're going to have to go deep into the tiebreakers. The Freep has two "celebrates" cutlines on the front page, to one for the News. But the News manages some annoying italic emphasis ("'Shock' is a word overused in sports, but this truly was a shocking victory") and is just out of bounds with a "delegate-rich Calif." hed next to the centerpiece.

But the Freep has ... Albom!
What had they done? What had they done? Had they really pulled off what the rest of the world just witnessed?

Freep by a nose.

Wherever you are around the country, you seem to have seen something similar, which doesn't say a lot for the legendary independence of the U.S. press (or the alleged creativity of the sports side). Here's some of the "Giant Upset" camp:
Mobile Press-Register
St. Petersburg Times
Tampa Tribune
Hartford Courant
Portland (Maine) Press Herald
Cleveland Plain Dealer
The Oklahoman
Philadelphia Inquirer
The (Columbia) State
Greenville (SC) News
Memphis Commercial Appeal
Houston Chronicle

Yes, the variants count too: "A Giant upset" (Omaha World-Herald), "Giant upset!" (Asbury Park Press, San Francisco Examiner), "A Giant upset!" (Burlington Free Press).

The "Perfect upset" camp was smaller:
Northwest Herald, Crystal Lake, Ill.
Baltimore Sun
Detroit News
Citizens’ Voice (Wilkes-Barre, Pa.)
Charleston Post and Courier

("A perfect upset" showed up on the Florida Times-Union, the Louisville Courier Journal and the
St. Paul Pioneer Press.)

And perennial contender "Bowled over" had its adherents in Mattoon and Doylestown.

Cutline-wise, there was a whole lot of ... oh, stop it:

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning celebrates Sunday after his 13-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress in Super Bowl XLII against the New England Patriots at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.
(Way to go, Northwest Herald! That's the sort of detail that'll put 'em right back to sleep)

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning celebrates his game-winning touchdown pass, capping an 83-yard drive during which the Super Bowl MVP barely avoided a sack to make a key reception.

Eli Manning celebrated after his 13-yard game-winning pass to Plaxico Burress in the fourth quarter last night in Phoenix.

Giants quarterback Eli Manning celebrates after his 13-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress late in the fourth quarter.

New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning celebrates his Super Bowl-winning touchdown pass.

Quarterback Eli Manning, 10, celebrates with his teammates as the final gun signals the end of Super Bowl XLII.
Fort Worth Star-Telegram

New York quarterback Eli Manning celebrates with the Vince Lombardi trophy alongside Giants head coach Tom Coughlin (right) and Fox TV’s Terry Bradshaw after the Giants defeated the New England Patriots.

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady reacts to a third-quarter sack, one of five he suffered Sunday.
The Kentucky Enquirer sneaks in a "react"!

New York Giants teammates Michael Strahan, left, and Eli Manning celebrate their defeat of the New England Patriots Sunday night.

New York Giants defensive end Michael Strahan celebrates after sacking New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on Sunday.

New York Giants’ Kareem McKenzie (67) celebrates Sunday after the Giants scored in the fourth quarter to beat the New England Patriots 17-14 during Super Bowl XLII at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz.

There's almost nothing good to say about all this, but a few commendations are in order. Charlotte and Raleigh both managed to use a celebration shot without using the Verb of Satan. And Richmond actually came up with a novel centerpiece hed:
18 and ... no

Other than that ... ecch. Please, no more.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Metaphor crashes, burns

If your notional copy editor from Mars was trying to write out the rules of earthling hed writing, he/she/them/howevermany* would pretty quickly infer the verbal metaphor rule: Heds are always "improved" if the verb makes some metaphorical connection to the story topic. The most common case, shopworn as it might be, is "snuff out" for smoking, which often starts in ledes:

The Board of Trustees unanimously decided to snuff out smoking on Ball State University's campus, and a group of students helped make that happen, according to University officials.

Drivers chauffeuring young passengers would be prohibited from smoking in the car, under a bill that passed the Utah Senate on Tuesday, but the House may once again snuff out the measure.

and migrates north:
Insurers should help smokers snuff out dangerous habit
The Patriot-News, 1/20

It can change topics:
Blanket effort to snuff out coal
Charlotte Observer, 1/20

And it can get a little mixed up:
Evidence gathers steam on second-hand smoke
Observer, 1/13

Apparently, you get the same effect from a contrary metaphor:
UNCC will light up new smoking rules
Butts move out 25 feet in July
Observer, 1/31; the judges especially appreciate the multiple meanings of "butts" here

The real fun comes when the hed writer reaches for a metaphor and comes away with a meaning that's radically different from the story's intent, as in the example shown here (Thank you, Cleveland Plain Dealer). To "land" in a hed means pretty much what it does in the OED: To secure, win or obtain; "to catch or 'get hold of' a person" (as in "You must be gentle with me if you want to land me"):

Osborne helps land West Point CC star
Omaha World-Herald, 12/4
Pedigrees help land Utahns team title
Salt Lake Tribune, 11/15

So is "Airline helped land Cleveland drug ring" just garden-variety civic boosterism? No, apparently "airline" was supposed to make some sort of metaphoric connection to the process of running something to ground (though "landing" an airplane doesn't mean that at all). And the poor readers are expected to believe what the hed writer thought, rather than their own lying eyes.

* What a shame that the only online references to Ed Subitzky's "Saturday Night On Antares: The Planet With 12 Different Sexes" appear to be in the National Review.

Labels: ,

Friday, February 01, 2008

It's official: Christmas came (really, really) early!

Q: If my lede can be snicked off in such wise that the reader may begin at the second graf with the square root of utterly no change in comprehension, is that a good sign or a bad sign? A friend of mine really, really wants to know.

A: Glad you asked! Generally, if your lede is so irrelevant that it doesn't need to be read, you should consider a new lede. As in this prominent example:

And then there were two.

The first time the Democratic presidential field debated, there were eight candidates on stage, the dominant topics were the Iraq war and terrorism, and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama avoided attacking or even engaging each other.

Of course, that means you might generally wish to avoid using such threadbare constructions in heds as well. No matter how high you can count:

… And Then There Were Four

And then there were 2 - Edwards bows out

Democrats: And Then There Were Two
(Even the NYT? Yes, even the NYT)

And Then There Were Two?
(particularly shameless of the Times, fishing in the same spot twice in a week, eh?)

One could go on and on and on, but -- why would one?


Gloves on! Gloves off!

How far off the rails has coverage of the electoral process gotten, and how did it get there? Let's start by asking a few papers what went on last night when the Democratic candidates got together to debate. How did it look down at the Freep?

Gloves come off, sparks fly as Super Tuesday nears

Biff! Thwack! Tough stuff, huh? What say you, St. Pete Times?
Clinton, Obama debate gently

Uh ... Palm Beach Post?
Clinton and Obama attack Republicans instead of each other

You there in Des Moines?
Obama, Clinton forgo nastiness for some niceties at L.A. debate

Cheek to cheek

You can fairly ask whether the papers were watching the same debate. But it's pretty clear that they were at least watching the same candidates:

Bare knuckles for Clinton, Obama
Chattanooga Times-Free Press, 1/23
Obama, Hillary take off gloves
Chicago Sun-Times, 1/22
Democrats make nice during debate, but gloves come off on Saturday
Las Vegas Review Journal, 1/16

Of course, the gloves were coming off across the aisle too:
Huckabee takes off gloves when Thompson calls him ‘liberal’
AP, 1/12
GOP rivals take off the gloves
Washington Times, 1/7
With gloves off, Romney distorts
Manchester Union Leader, 1/2

Pretty clear what we mean -- except when the opposite cliche means the same thing:

Trailing rivals, Edwards puts on gloves
Charlotte Observer, 11/1

As George Orwell suggested six decades ago in "Politics and the English Language," when one critic says a work's outstanding feature is its "living quality" and another points to its "peculiar deadness," you can be pretty sure they aren't talking about any feature that has a concrete referent in real life. That, I think, is what's been wrong with the deeply unsatisfying (if you'd like to say "generally inept and irresponsible," go right ahead) coverage of the nominating process. The big heds, and the big centerpiece packages, aren't about substance. They're about myth.

That's not the same as the much-decried "horse race" coverage. True, the horse-race aspects are grossly overreported, and in many cases distorted beyond recognition by reporters and editors who really ought to be cudgeled about the face and head with a basic stats text,* but they're not by definition irrelevant. The real problem is summed up in this Observer lede from three weeks ago:

A Democratic donnybrook. A Republican showdown. Potential last stands.
Those are among the story lines in South Carolina's upcoming primaries.

The "story lines" are myths -- not in the sense of fabrications, or tales of merrie England's music thyng and ye grene knight, but stories that express a society's "prevailing ideals, ideologies, values, and beliefs."** Right when we ought to be telling stories about substance, we end up telling stories about stories instead. That's how "the most wide-open presidential race in a half century," as the AP described it Dec. 27, could be blown wide open by Iowa, and again by New Hampshire and ... excuse me, Michigan, what was that?

Romney blasts GOP race wide open
Detroit News
Romney win keeps race wide open
Charlotte Observer
Romney’s Michigan win blows open GOP field ahead of S. Carolina primary
Columbus Dispatch
Mich. win leaves race wide open
Raleigh N&O

So the same event either blew or didn't blow the (already wide open or not) race wide open -- just as "taking the gloves off" is another way of saying "dancing cheek to cheek" (and "putting the gloves on" is either the same as taking them off or some sort of Forbidden Tango). There's no connection between the reporting and any sort of event or process that might have some real impact on voters' ability to form and express their preferences.

Is it all just harmless newspaper dumbitude? Not really. The trouble with myths is that they suck up all the air in the room. South Carolina becomes exclusively a tale about the dilemma of the black woman: Black candidate or female candidate? It's a relevant question, sure, but it elbows out others that are equally, perhaps more, relevant: Do black women in South Carolina have a unique set of interests that might be best served by, say, a white male candidate who supports universal single-payer health insurance? Or, to pick another myth from the Democratic side, why is the change-vs.-experience debate about two first-term senators, rather than the distinction between genuine international experience and sexually transmitted foreign-policy expertise?

There are myths with more and less substance, just as there are "issues" with more and less substance (say, whether Romney's church thinks Jesus spent spring break in Cancun* vs. Huckabee's desire for a King James version of the Constitution). But the "horse race" vs. "issues" debate tends to be binary: If something isn't about the horse race, it must be an Issue. What we seem to have been left with this year is a bunch of myth that looks like issues only by virtue of not being all horse-racy. That's a start, but it isn't much of one.

I don't mean to suggest that the current lineup of horses for each major party would have looked any different if it had been set in June, rather than at the end of January. But I do think the public agenda could have looked significantly different -- perhaps including a wider set of perspectives on health care, and almost certainly including a more substantive role for international relations (including but not limited to a bigger ongoing emphasis on Iraq, whose shrinkage on the agenda is alarming) -- if campaign reporting had rejected the culturally consonant story lines and assigned a bigger role to the so-called "second tier" of candidates. Don't say that's not our job; the effect is called "agenda-setting," and if we don't do it consciously, we're stuck with what we do unconsciously.

We're not going to get the whole thing fixed for this election cycle, but a couple of fairly easy steps could make a substantial improvement:

1) Default play for all debate stories is 30 inches, inside A, 2/3o/2, no art. That gives you enough room to report what people actually say, thus reducing the temptation for summary pugilism ledes; eliminates the risk of clueless label heds; and avoids spending space on repetitive illustration. (You can see why the HEADSUP-L consulting calendar is already full-up with cutting-edge newspapers.)
2) Stories about story lines are to be summarily spiked, no appeal.
3) Boxing, racing or other sports metaphors carry a minimum penalty of three weeks' answering the phone in sports on Friday and Saturday nights, starting 90 minutes before legal last call in the jurisdiction in question and continuing until the last bar bet is settled.
4) Writers who blame "pundits and polls" for repertorial ineptitude will sit a 90-minute exam in quantitative research methods. (Closed book, calculators allowed.)

Whayathink? Should we start a revolution?

* Your sommelier recommends Williams & Monge, "Reasoning with statistics: How to read quantitative research." Heavy enough to make an impression, light enough not to leave scars.
** Jack Lule's explanation, from "News as Myth," in Rothenbuhler & Coman's "Media Anthropology" (2005).
*** Why that's any weirder than His mom's visit to Guadalupe is a question for other travel agents.