Saturday, May 31, 2008


A couple sugges- tions for the Orlando copydesk: Read the story before writing the display type. Look at the photos before writing the cutlines. Look at the photos again after writing the cutlines. Lather, rinse, repeat.

That's not a guaranteed formula for success, but it is a time-tested way of cutting down on the number of times you write "Security cameras show a woman toting a rifle" under a picture of a woman toting a shotgun -- and over a lede like this:

A woman carrying a pump shotgun and making jokes about George Bush walked into a Bank of America and told a teller: "This is a stickup."

Links re-created from the actual story, because they're part of a broader package of stuff underscoring one of our favorite refrains: The world of journalism doesn't need less editing, it needs more. Your garden-variety reader probably has a good idea which George Bush you're talking about, even without the link, but the same reader will probably also notice that you're violating a basic principle of stagecraft: If you introduce a loaded Bush joke in the first act, it needs to go off sometime before the final curtain.

Does it? Well, have a look.

She then ordered everyone into the bank vault.

It was over in moments, and no one was hurt.

But the drama began shortly after 5 p.m. as chatter over law-enforcement scanners alerted authorities that someone had a shotgun in the lobby of the bank branch on Orangewood Boulevard.

Starting to see a pattern here?

More details trickled in: The armed suspect was a woman wearing a pink shirt. She was barefoot and sitting in a chair with the shotgun.

That's three mentions of "shotgun" in the first five grafs, if you're scoring along with the cutline writer at home. But more to the point:

And at least 15 people were held inside -- some in the unlocked bank vault, according to the reports crackling over the law-enforcement scanner.

Wow! It sounds just like ...

Katlego Mogwera, a 23-year-old hotel worker huddled in the vault, described it as "something out of the movies."

... Calm, controlled chatter between dispatchers and deputies continued as they updated each other about what was happening.

We do seem to be sort of following a script, don't we?

... Deputies locked down the Publix and the Williamsburg Downs strip mall near SeaWorld Orlando. "For about a half-hour it was interesting," a Publix bagger said.

Kids today and their short attention spans! (OK, that's a guess. I don't know it's a "kid." For all the paper sees fit to tell us, the "Publix bagger" could be a "90-year-old former paramour of Alger Hiss." Hell, it's Florida.)

It sounded as if some hostages were calling dispatchers from inside the bank. Dispatchers tried to reassure them by saying deputies were there.

Let's review the bidding for a moment. Barefoot woman sitting in chair with shotgun as deputies surround bank -- would this be a nice place to tell us which Bush joke(s) she was regaling the, erm, captive audience with? ("And then he comes out of the Oval Office with this puzzled look on his face and says, 'How many zeroes in a brazilian?'") Or, failing that, what it sounded like as the hostages called dispatchers?

Someone asked the hostages to stay in the vault until the bank was cleared, according to scanner reports. "Weapon and white female secured," a voice clattered over the scanner at 5:45 p.m.

Chatter! Crackle! Chatter! Clatter! Who wrote this, Dr. Seuss?

It's a bit dismaying to try to figure out how much effort went into what on this tale. There's a double byline, and the shirttail lists three staffers as contributing (for a total of 22 grafs). Figure one writer over at the Publix trolling for quotes, two at the scene (one chasing down hostages, one watching the deputies and helicopters) -- where are the other two? Back at the shop taking notes from the scanner?

This is the sort of story that's made for the Live'n'Local 6 o'clock news. One of the functions of editors is to remind the breathless reporters that a newspaper isn't a television. (Doesn't anybody read McLuhan anymore?) Stick to your own best flavor of storytelling. And try to make sure somebody in the process -- preferably somebody who knows a rifle from a shotgun -- looks at the whole package with a critical eye before you hit the button.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Fear factor Foxtacular!

This just in (actually, leading the page for much of the after- noon) from the Fair 'n' Balanced Network: Democrats meddle, Middle East in peril! First, the weather!

Of the several malign flavors of question heds, this one falls into the category of assertion-disguised-as-question. Working off a three-graf tale published Monday in the Times of London (its Murdoch bedmate), Fox would like you to think -- OK, at least to question whether -- this "former Dem president" has spilled a major secret to the winds.

Even by the standards of question heds, though, this one is remarkably, genuinely, if-they-gave-a-medal-for-it-you'd-be-on-a-box-of-Wheaties-level stupid. As fans of the Times know, the "outing" should properly be credited to ... step forward, the Sunday Times of London! Return with us now to October 1986:

Revealed - the secrets of Israel's nuclear arsenal

THE SECRETS of a subterranean factory engaged in the manufacture of Israeli nuclear weapons have been uncovered by The Sunday Times Insight team.

Hidden beneath the Negev desert, the factory has been producing atomic warheads for the last 20 years. Now it has almost certainly begun manufacturing thermo-
nuclear weapons, with yields big enough to destroy entire cities.

...[Mordechai] Vanunu's evidence has surprised nuclear weapons experts who were approached by Insight to verify its accuracy because it shows that Israel does not just have the atom bomb - which has been long suspected - but that it has become a major nuclear power.

... The nuclear scientists consulted by The Sunday Times are convinced by Vanunu's evidence. They calculate that at least 100 and as many as 200 nuclear weapons of varying destructive power have been assembled -- 10 times the previously estimated strength of Israel's nuclear arsenal.

As even the Israeli expert quoted by Fox notes, "[Carter] is not the first and he won't be the last to talk about this." You figure that understanding might be one reason nobody panicked when Robert Gates described Israel as a nuclear power during his confirmation hearings in December 2006? Or when, less than a week later, the Israeli PM came out with: "Iran openly, explicitly and publicly threatens to wipe Israel off the map. Can you say that this is the same level, when you are aspiring to have nuclear weapons, as America, France, Israel, Russia?"

Fox seems to be smitten by Israeli Intelligence, but it doesn't have a lot of respect for Israeli intelligence. Maybe after four decades of this particular sort of ambiguity, they've sort of figured out how to make it go; deterrence does tend to work better, after all, when all the parties know the routines. But then again, this isn't really a story about the Near East. It's about signing the kids up for those Farsi lessons in a hurry if a Democrat gets anywhere near the White House.


Monday, May 26, 2008

Pass the ketchup

Some days, the pileup of hed cliches is so gory you just have to slow down and gawk a bit.
This Memorial Day treat comes to you courtesy of the Fair'n'Balanced Network.

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

She do?

From the Hed Grammar front:

Nope, can't do that with the quotes in American heds. It works in British heds, where those particular quote marks would be a way of noting something on the order of "it is asserted that ...":

164 ‘killed by Nazi fiend, 86’
A frail 86-year-old man has been accused of murdering 164 people in Nazi-occupied Slovakia during World War Two.

See? No relation to what people actually say, just acting as an "allegedly" marker.

Heds on our side of the ocean don't do that. In this example, which is pretty standard, we're trying to mark the word as Clinton's (the assumption behind why the quotes are needed is that we have no idea whether she "regrets" the incident or not; all we know is that she said she does). But the rules require her exact word(s). And she didn't say "I regrets that." She said (see Language Log for the sentence in its um-laden glory and a recap of how "sorry" works), or at least we're told she said: "I regret that if my referencing that moment of trauma for our entire nation and in particular the Kennedy family was in any way offensive."

I'm still trying to figure out why this gaffe is worth playing above the fold on the front. The malign influence of the NYT frontpage budget could be at work again, and the Times seems to have been overly attentive to the world of cyberbabble. It certainly doesn't suggest that we're any closer to figuring out how to put substance over noise.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Keep opinion to self

MONTREAL -- What do people mean when they say they want journalism to be "objective"? Sometimes it's something about Dan Rather's eyebrows. Sometimes it's more about the newspaper's stubborn refusal to make clear in every lede that all swarthy foreigners are terrorists (except the ones from Mexico, who want to force you to speak Spanish in the Wal-Mart). And sometimes they demand that everybody just stick to The Facts.

When we rule out judgments and comparisons, though, we're ruling out some of the things that can actually make journalism interesting and relevant. So let me offer a better (or maybe just more reliable) test: How did you form that opinion, and why would it be relevant to what you're reporting? Here's our example:

FORT BRAGG --President Bush came to one of the nation's most patriotic events -- the annual homecoming of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division -- on Thursday to continue pressing his strategy in Iraq and urge Congress to pass a war funding bill that would give troops in combat "America's full support."

Adjectives by themselves are neither bad nor irrelevant. There's always a most populous county, a list of five most powerful Atlantic hurricanes, a massive change in public opinion (assuming you have valid and reliable before-and-after measures of same), indexed by population, pressure, or what-have you. The trouble starts when you get to things that you can't measure -- or that, when you set out to measure them, say more about you and your attitudes than about the object you're trying to describe.

Such a thing is "patriotism." You and I and the writer all probably know what it is, sort of, but we're likely to start disagreeing as soon as we get to the bundle of stuff we're going to measure to create our patrio-index. The source paper has indicated before that it considers "number of flags" a valid and reliable index of patriotism. I think that's pretty irrelevant and jingoistic, and you might think something altogether again (which might even be printable). So the first question for the writer is: How do you measure the "nation's most patriotic events": Number of flags? Number of soldiers? (Square root of (flags*soldiers))* 1.96? How do we take population growth into account?

More to the point, though, why is the writer's opinion about the level of patriotism in events nationwide relevant to the story? Any particular reason we should know that, any more than whether he prefers vanilla or chocolate ice cream?

Here's another anti-bias hint: Heds that don't have a direct relationship to some real-world event are particularly likely to be read as slanted. Here's the quoted paper on the story above:

Bush pushes forward in Fort Bragg visit

Raleigh (the originating paper) has:

At Bragg, Bush presses his Washington agenda

Fayetteville (where it really is a local story) has:

President Bush offers his thanks

See the difference? "Bush presses agenda" is rooted in there being a Bush, with an agenda, and something he's doing that we can summarize as "pushing" it. Similarly, if Bush is thanking someone, it's not hard to trace a relationship between "Bush offers thanks" and reality. What about "Bush pushes forward"? Well, he seems that he continued to "press his strategy in Iraq" and "railed against the idea of pulling troops out of Iraq before that country is politically and economically stable." Can the hed writer demonstrate some reliable way in which we can correlate those concepts with "pushing forward"? If not, is there some other way we can tell this institution from our friends over at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network?

The reporter's editors should have talked him out of "most patriotic holidays." Other MCT papers should feel free to eviscerate the lede without notice. Hed writers, just stick to stuff you can recognize in the corporeal world.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

One born every minute

On the list of Magic Beans for which you can almost always get a newspaper to trade the family cow -- or better yet, some 1A space -- surely this ranks near the top. Local(ish) Prof Stands Up To Big Science! Topped with a return appearance by the Shroud of Turin!
Read the whole thing, imagining yourself in the role of the editor in the budget meeting who tries to point out ... nah, that might take the fun out of it.
Now: Could newspapers have even more fun than a little breathless 1A sindology? Sure. And if your newspaper is about to run the following, go stop it right now:
Osama bin Laden must be chuckling in his safe house. After all, the 2008 campaign could very well give Al Qaeda the ultimate propaganda tool: President Barack Hussein Obama, Muslim apostate.
And disgruntled readers still complain that the N&O is a librul newspaper. As an editor -- well, there are no false opinions, and it's all scholarly and stuff, but ... if I was* publishing an editing encyclopedia and needed a public-domain illustration of "paranoid fearmongering droolfest," I'd start there.
Once this sort of babble has been waved through a few gates, it's hard to slow down. But just for fun, read the whole thing and come up with a list of propositions and assumptions that would have to be true before you'd toddle over to the law library and start poking holes in the alleged data.
* I'm not prepared to declare this a counterfactual condition just yet

Sunday, May 18, 2008

'A democrat Israel'

Here's today's weird bit of political disfluency: George Bush, discussing his hopes for the Middle East peace process, as heard on NPR this morning:

"I strongly support a two-state solution: a democratic Palestine based on law and justice that will live with peace and security alongside a democrat Israel."

Whee! Remember the little flap around the time of the '07 State of the Union -- Bush's reference to the "Democrat majority"? It seemed that the chief executive had been caught doing something that's usually left up to the Ministry of Truth and its private-sector allies: a pejorative shortening of "Democratic Party" to "Democrat Party." Things weren't quite that clear-cut. According to the AP, for example, Bush had misread his prepared text, which said "Democratic majority," and we're kind of left guessing about who said what and why (here's a Language Log discussion, with links, of some of the grammatical and pragmatic issues).

So what does today's example mean? Bush tends to stumble when reading a speech? (We've known that, and most of us are lucky we don't have to hear recordings of ourselves bumbling through presentations.) Or Bush has somehow managed to completely internalize that little swap -- so it makes as much to substitute "democrat" for "democratic" (having characteristics of democracy) as to substitute "Democrat" for "Democratic" (the first name of the demonized party)?

There's plenty of NPR silliness to bemoan in passing. Bush might have intended to advance the peace process, but the hed -- "Bush speech advances peace process" -- mistakes the alleged intent for the deed. He might have tried to "rebut" criticism, but to "refute" it requires something more -- evidence, for one. And the country he is thought to favor, of course, is not "Iran."

But the star of the show is "democrat Israel." Any insights on that would be welcome.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Rays of hope from the campaign trail

Here's an interesting bit of journalism* in a story that will merit some long-term watching. The topic is President Bush's bank shot at the Democrats during his address to the Knesset:

Bush then made a surprising segue, adding: "Some people suggest that if the United States would just break ties with Israel, all our problems in the Middle East would go away." He did not say who those people were.

No leading Democrat, and certainly not Obama, has suggested breaking ties with Israel. Obama in fact has called it one of the United States' most important allies.

I'm guessing that's the work of an alert wire/copy desk that still knows how to do rewrite (I've only seen this phrasing in the International Herald Tribune; the story is credited to three NYT writers, but the topic doesn't seem to have come up yet at the Times itself). What's unusual is not the attempt to "truth-squad" a speaker's facts. What's unusual is that it points out a false implication, and that's worth some attention, because it suggests that campaign reporting can break out of the call-and-response cycle that makes it so easy to manipulate. Rather than letting the candidates create a story line, the paper tries to keep them on track.

Here's how not to do it, from the AP:

The three-way dustup over foreign policy -- Bush vs. Obama vs. McCain -- began a day earlier, when Bush gave a speech to the Israeli Knesset in which he criticized those who believe the United States should negotiate with terrorists and radicals.

Here's what Bush said:

"Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along."

Bush is omitting (with the AP's help) the minor premise ("Democrats are among that 'some'"), which allows the party to act disingenuous when the intended target complains about the implied conclusion ("Democrats are just like appeasers"). But omitting that premise isn't the problem.** The problem is that the major premise is false. It's the difference between

All cats are mammals
[Bernie is a cat]
Bernie is a mammal

All cats are squids
Bernie is a cat
Bernie is a squid

See the difference? The AP quotes the president as warning against the Attack of the Squid Cats. That's a legitimate function of the press -- I mean, if your commander-in-chief is telling somebody else's legislature that cats are squids, you have every right to know about it. But the IHT is pointing out that, you know, cats aren't really squids after all. And that's actually fairly important for campaign coverage. It opens up some room for skepticism in an area where it's especially needed -- and where the press tends to do a particularly poor job.

I'd be tempted to go a step further than the IHT: not only has no "leading Democrat" suggested breaking ties with Israel, nobody within artillery range of mainstream American politics has either. Even by the standards of an administration that would employ John Bolton as a diplomat, that's an otherworldly assertion. So it's nice to see somebody slap it across the face with a big dead fish, however tentatively. If you like that sort of reporting, send somebody a cheery e-mail and ask for more of it by name.

* Flagged originally by the vigilant Ridger over to The Greenbelt. Cheers!
** It usually isn't. In a construct like "You should take quantitative methods -- people who are scared of math do well in that course," the minor premise ("you're scared of math") fills itself in automatically.

Is grad school for you?

Amid those tales of layoffs and buyouts, watching the company stock in your retirement plan settle ever lower in the water, you might be wondering if it's time to hope the fence for graduate school and a career in journalism education. Our friends at Conservapedia have put together a handy guide that can help you determine if academia is right for you!

First, what are "professor values," and how can you tell if you have them?

Professor values refer to the common value system embraced by a large percentage of professors, just as Hollywood values refers to the common value system of many in Hollywood.

An extremely high percentage of professors disagree with conservative principles. Professors' common value system typically includes atheism, censorship, socialism, unjustified claims of expertise and knowledge (for example, the dogmatic promotion of the theory of evolution), liberal beliefs, liberal grading, liberal bias, anti-patriotism, lack of productivity, bullying or discouraging conservative students (for example, homeschoolers), and promotion of sexual immorality.

That looks like a lot of ground to cover. And you may find yourself asking questions like:
  • When will I find the time to discourage conservative students?
  • How can I convince a tenure committee that I lack productivity?
  • How should faculty colleagues share the credit for promoting sexual immorality?
But there's a lot you can do in the meantime!

Professors block the granting of a tenured professorship to anyone who:
-- criticizes the theory of evolution
-- criticizes
feminism and/or abortion
-- opposes the
homosexual agenda

Professors wear white armbands to protest an award of an honorary degree to a conservative.

(All that goes under "service" in your tenure dossier.)

With the advent of online graduate programs and distance learning, it's never been easier to slip the surly bonds of journalism and find a home in the luxurious ranks of academe. What are you waiting for?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Prepositional train wreck

Diagramming party to action stations! Let's play "pin the prepositional phrase on the noun":

President Bush is scheduled to give Furman's graduation speech May 31 at this fairly conservative school of 2,625 undergraduate students with Baptist roots in the state's traditionally conservative Upstate region.

It's all -- I think -- technically "grammatical." The problem is that it's grammatical about several different things at once. The writer (or the editor) decided to dump a bunch of Furman-related stuff into the predicate at random. Most of it seems accurate, and some of it seems relevant (though if the writer can't be any more direct than "fairly conservative," that particular judgment doesn't seem very interesting). But it doesn't really add up to anything meaningful, because it has no idea what it means.

Eighteenth verse, same as the first. Journalism is supposed to be a craft of clear and direct writing. (I'm sure of this because our holy writ tells us we need to interpret for those damn academics, who can't be trusted to tell us what their work really means.) If you're giving this sort of prepositional train wreck a green light while you triumphantly spear another harmless "split infinitive," you aren't editing. With respect to Truman Capote, you're barely even typing.


Monday, May 12, 2008

Genuinely bizarre correction

This one, brought to public attention by the indefatigable Regret the Error, is worth a little attention from the editor's perspective. Not because it could have been caught on the desk -- that might happen with a genuine fact-checking system, but it's hard to imagine in a newspaper environment. At a guess, I'd say it's another case of a reporter letting a narrative -- a story about how things ought to be -- get in the way of the data. In this case, we get not just misplaced data, but wrong data of stunningly clueless proportions.

Have a look at the correction. The article said its subject was gay, and he isn't*. This does appear to be a case in which we need to repeat the error, not to mention offer a bit of explanation of how such a blunder could have been made. Do we seem to fall a bit short there too, though?

The reporter misunderstood the name of his partner -- that sounds like more than just your average Chris/Robin/Stacy confusion (which, to be picky, would call for "the reporter assumed an ambiguous name was gender-specific"). What does it mean? Source said "Eugenie" and reporter heard "Eugene"? Source said "Barb," but he's from southeastern Virginia, so reporter heard "Bob"? Source said "Elizabeth" and reporter heard "Baldrick"?

... and misinterpreted references in the conversation. Right. I think we've all watched enough situation comedies to reconstruct this one at home. But reporting (unlike writing sex-identity comedies) isn't a craft of creating ambiguity. It's supposed to be a craft of reducing ambiguity.

... and incorrectly assumed Graber to be gay. That should be embarrassing enough, but there's more. The story didn't just assume the subject is gay, it built a central myth around that assumption:

As second-generation Jewish immigrants, Graber's parents were frugal and had worked their way into the upper middle class by running pawn shops. Becoming a psychotherapist and living openly as a gay man, Graber had challenged many of their expectations.

So it's not just a false assertion about his sexual orientation. It's a claim about how that orientation affected his relationship with his parents. And if nothing else in this silly piece-of-feature-fluff screams out for a tad bit of verification, surely that one does: "So your being openly gay was a real challenge for your parents, huh?" (I'd also have been happier with a reporter who knows how to phrase a gently leading question: "So ... how d'you spell your partner's name?") In short, this is the sort of correction that also calls for an explanation of how we're going to try not to be so bleeding stupid next time. Aside from by not running anything as vapid as this weeper about the healing joys of Drumming For The Parentally Bereaved.

* On the bright side, at least the LAT didn't say "we have no reason to believe he is gay."


Saturday, May 10, 2008

Lookin' for ... oh, shut up

Further evidence that journalistic competition, rather than broadening the range of stories and voices placed before the eager democratic public, generally involves a frantic race to the same point at the bottom of the pit. When the Tampa paper puts its quarter in the jukebox and plays a chorus of "doing what no teacher should," how do you think St. Pete should answer?

... the 29-year-old has joined the ranks of notorious educators who are household names for all the wrong reasons.

Sigh. For one thing, "household name" isn't amenable to a speech act. An appropriate authority can make you "married" by saying so, but a newspaper (ah, the power of the press!) can't make you a "household name." For another, this teacher isn't accused of faking her credentials, likening the 9/11 victims to "little Eichmanns," going armed to the terror of the public or any of a zillion "wrong reasons" but one: having sex with students.

It's tempting to suggest again that it'd be nice to have some news on the front page, but today's dominant news across the region seems to be the sentencing of a professional wrestler's son. Well, never mind the BurmChinese earthquake. No, leave the rooster alone!

Friday, May 09, 2008

It's a hed, not a country song

Whichever side of the classroom you were most recently on, you'll probably agree that quite a bit of stuff falls into the category of "doing what no teacher should." Murder, for example. Torture. (with a couple exceptions involving the AP Stylebook.) Selling drugs to the tinies. Selling grades to the tinies. Selling the tinies to vivisectionists. Since this is Florida, evolution probably figures in there somewhere too.

The answer here -- no thanks to the hed writer -- is pretty much what the doin'-what-you-don't-confess tone implies. The teacher is accused of having sex with middle school students. That's what the deck needs to say.

Hence, what we have here is a failure of objectivity. Not because conniving lefty journalists think their ignernt readers need to be more tolerant of sex offenses against minors by authority figures, but because the core of our little positivist enterprise is reporting data rather than values. We need to know what the teacher is accused of, not whether the hed writer (on behalf of the paper) is sufficiently outraged.

Hed writers? Unless you tell me otherwise, I'm going to assume you agree that teachers shouldn't indulge in murder, child molesting, embezzlement or smoking in the boys' room. Spare me the cheatin' song and give me some information.


Thursday, May 08, 2008


Iredell County authorities seized 20 pounds of marijuana, valued at $400,000, during a Tuesday morning traffic stop.

Today's trivia question: Can you tell from the story which way the malefactor was headed?

Hint: It wasn't south. As noted here a few summers back, the "street value" of marijuana in Lexington County, S.C., is a mere $1,100 a pound. Granted, everything's taking a hit from inflation, but -- $20,000 a pound?

Next time, let's do the math and firmly attribute all wild speculation about the retail value of illegal drugs, on every reference, to whoever offers the said speculation. And by all means, don't amplify the guess in a hed.


Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Hyperforeign spelling alert

If you see this McClatchyism headed for print, go remonstrate gently with your wire editors:

It's no irony that Palestinians refer to the establishment of Israel as "al naqba" — the catastrophe.

Aside from the complete lack of any relationship between "irony" and the subsequent concept, our writer has the wrong word here. "Q" and "K" are commonly used to represent two different consonants in Arabic, and -- surprise -- the words that result aren't interchangeable when it comes to meaning. The word for "catastrophe" is "nakba." If the 1976 edition of the Wehr-Cowan dictionary is a good guide,* "naqba" is something like excavation or perforation.

Why does this sort of thing happen? You have to admit, "q" looks a lot more bizarre than "k" -- especially in the middle, without a friendly "u" to help it out. It's sort of an orthographic version of hyperforeignization: spelling a word wrong to make sure that it looks strange enough. And this one's actually going in the wrong direction. Two decades ago, "nakba" was far and away the dominant spelling in AP texts. By the early 200s, things were reversed: "naqba" was about 10-1 over the more accurate "nakba."

In the great grand scheme of things, the q-for-k swap here isn't one to start the revolution over (not that originating editors are prone to appreciating, oh, technical arguments about consonants and meaning and stuff). It's far from the worst mistake of its kind -- not in spelling, certainly not in translation. But if we have to speak other people's languages, it'd be nice if we could sort of start trying to tone down the ambient fear level, one consonant at a time.

One more thing:
Even if Israel and the Palestinians do agree on their borders, few realists think that a deal would assuage extremists who refuse to accept the idea of a Jewish nation in the Middle East.

Let's not get our concepts confused. That's not a primary concern of realists. Realists care about whether extremists know who's on which side of a proposition like "The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must." Don't get realists confused with "pessimists."

* Long story short, this W&C doesn't list either "naqba" or "nakba," but "naqb" (excavation) and "nakb" (catastrophe) are the transliterations of the first nouns after the roundup of the respective verb forms.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Is it just me, or ...

... is that a new trick the Fair'n'Balanced Network has on its graphics: referring to the Democratic candidates as "HRC" and "BHO"?

Oh, come on. Why don't you guys just come out and say "Hussein"? You know you want to!

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Immediately unclear

With just a few drops of Journalism® brand news routine, the slightly unusual can be transformed into the almost entirely incomprehensible! Let's watch as Fox (and the AP) show us how.

Cops: Naked man takes woman hostage in Illinois
ROCKFORD, Ill. — Police in Rockford, Illinois, have arrested a 32-year-old naked man who allegedly took a woman hostage and threw furniture out an apartment window during a standoff with authorities.

You can tell from the hed why this is a front-page story. It allows several triple-word-score-type hed terms ("naked," "woman" and "hostage") that automatically elevate a story's importance in Fox World. Regular readers can no doubt name some others: "missing," "pregnant," "mom" and "Marine," for example. So this isn't a perfect story -- "Naked Marine takes missing pregnant mom hostage"* would be closer -- but it's evidently a very, very good story.

The lede presents some problems, though. It's been second-cycled ("police arrest man," not "man takes hostage"), so it conflicts with the hed. Because it's active, it foregrounds the subject ("police") rather than the object ("fridge-hurling naked dude"). The adjective order is backward: It needs to distinguish one guy (naked) from other 32-year-old men, not one guy (age 32) from the other naked men strolling through downtown Rockford with ... you know, baseball bats in hand. (As we'll get to in a moment.) And I can't tell what's going on in the predicate of the relative clause. Does "allegedly"** go with both verbs, or just the taking? Did the hostage-taking happen during the standoff, or was that just the furniture-tossing?

Here's the lede from the originating paper. It's not exactly Homer (despite the syllepsis), but it is fairly clear about what went on:

A naked man locked himself in an apartment, hurling furniture and curse words out a window at police during a more-than-three-hour standoff Saturday afternoon.

But back to the AP:

No injuries were reported in yesterday's standoff which lasted more than three hours.

With fraternal greetings to both sides in the Great Which Hunt, let's suggest that the biggest problem isn't the use of "which" with restrictive (or "integrated relative") clauses. "A date which will live in infamy" is as clear as it gets. The problem is the lack of a comma to mark the nonrestrictive ("supplemental") clause, as above.

Kevin Bailey was charged with assault on a police officer, unlawful restraint and criminal damage to property.

According to the Rockford Register Star, police were called to an apartment after reports of a man knocking on doors with a baseball bat. (In the original, they were called to an apartment building, which is rather different, and it was "a man with a baseball bat knocking on doors," not "knocking on doors with a baseball bat." The urge to "improve" copy by screwing with it at random never goes away.)

Authorities say Bailey sprayed an officer with a fire extinguisher, ran into a woman's apartment and took her hostage. (Help me out on the sequence here, authorities -- and you too, AP. Bat in one hand, fire extinguisher in the other? Or did he drop the bat and then pick up the fire extinguisher?)

Bailey barricaded himself in a bathroom naked. He allegedly threw a television and dresser out the window.

Help! Has he been naked all this time? Or did nakedness ensue somewhere between the fire extinguisher scene and the bathroom? Has the hostage been released yet? (I'm not quite prepared to take the source paper's definition of "elderly" on faith -- there are reporters to whom it apparently means "50 or over" -- but from the original, this appears to have happened in city-run housing for the elderly, which seems worth mentioning.)

How hostage, and for that matter how naked, were the participants during the three-hour standoff? The AP doesn't say; we have to go back to the originating paper to find out that the initial call came at 1:48p and the woman had been freed by 2:15p; that's when the bathroom standoff began. It's still a little vague on when the protagonist went naked on us, but "police were called ... because of a man with a baseball bat knocking on doors" -- you figure we would have been told if it had been a naked man knocking on doors? But on to the thrilling conclusion:

It was immediately unclear if Bailey had an attorney.

This is not a pragmatic violation. The AP is second-cycling, remember, meaning it has to see if it can get some comment from the defense side. So it calls the cop shop and finds out -- well, most likely that nobody on duty knows if a lawyer's been appointed or hired or has seen the suspect. So AP can't provide a comment because it's not clear -- at least, not immediately -- whether there's someone it can find to provide a comment.

Somehow -- Strunk and Orwell, tag team of the century! -- somebody decided that the preceding concept had to be expressed in "positive form." Meaning, apparently, that we can't say what it wasn't (clear) when we can say what it was (unclear). The trouble is the adverb:

Wasn't immediately clear = wasn't clear when we called but might become clear soon
Was immediately unclear = all at once, it became unclear (as if the AP turned off the light on you, which is more or less what happened)

That's a lot of damage to do to a small amount of data -- particularly when you consider news writing's claim to put accuracy and clarity above all things. Makes you wonder why we spend so much time making fun of the academics.

* If you throw in a couple of automatic Fox villians, like George Soros and the U.N., you could get "Naked Soros takes missing pregnant Marine hostage at U.N." It's really motivational to know there's always a higher goal to shoot for.
** Yes, kiddies, it's still a dumb idea to think "allegedly" helps in a situation like this.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Why I don't like fishing

The little hed's from the Fox front page, and space is naturally a bit restricted. Do things get any less ambiguous when we click through?

Angler Catches Fish, Partially Digested Lizard Crawls Out of Mouth
Uh, guess not. For that, you have to wait for the lede:

An American angler on a fishing expedition in Australia made a fascinating catch: As he was taking pictures of his prize, the fish began to regurtitate a lizard, which moments later crawled out of the fish's mouth.

Thanks for clearing that up.

... But as Simson continued taking photographs a miracle happened.

Miracle of the Lizards and Fishes, eh? Is Fox just a little too quick sometimes with earth-shaking news from its Murdochian siblings?

Sensational sightings of a flying human above the skies of Mexico could be genuine, says a paranormal expert.

Nah. Just quick enough.

Friday, May 02, 2008

I thought it said 'fish'

Genuinely bizarre Hooked-On-Phonics-Apparently-Didn't-Work-For-You story of the day:

WCCO-TV morning show anchor Bill Hudson apologized Thursday about stumbling over the word "neighborhood" and instead saying the N-word.

Can we make the poor guy's situation any worse? Well ...

Scott Libin, WCCO-TV's news director, said, "If you think about the word 'neighborhood,' three out of the four first letters are unfortunately shared with that word I will not repeat. You know what, human beings occasionally stumble on their words."

Yep. We've all stumbled, and we can only hope that we never do it so thoroughly. (Of course, the word "night" shares all three of its first three letters with Voldemort that word the news director won't repeat, and there's nothing either fortunate or unfortunate about that.) But we seem to have a sort of disconnect between "letters" and "sounds" here. Unless you have a vision of the Founding Dads prancing around Philadelphia in their powdered weighs, that is.

Let the poor dude make his apologies and slink away. Try not to compound it, all right?