Monday, August 31, 2009

Annals of attribution

Why do newspapers keep having so much trouble telling matters of opinion from matters of the record?

Organizers of a conference this week marking the 70th anniversary of the start of the war that many say started with Germany's invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, hope to collect some of those stories.

Hard to figure out why this extremely straightforward assertion merited the "many say" treatment. It's a conference aimed at gathering the memories of Poles and Polish-Americans, yes, but it's not a uniquely Polish assertion that the Second World War began with the invasion of Sept. 1, 1939 (the Beeb is daring to leave out the attribution even as we speak). There are only a couple of reasons for thinking anything else:

1) The Asian conflict that ended up being part of the larger war -- in which case you could simply say that "World War II in Europe" began in 1939.
2) Wars don't begin until English-speaking people formally declare war! Meaning, I suppose, that the "war" didn't start until Sept. 3. That'll be a pile of fun when you tell the local VFW post that the U.S. didn't enter the war on Dec. 7, 1941.

Unfortunately, something else is probably driving the "many say" phenomenon here: the idea that life is only assertions and denials. The sun doesn't really rise in the east, water doesn't empirically go downhill, and all opinions are equally deserving of recognition. We might want to do a little better at distinguishing assertions from facts. People might expect it of us someday.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Annals of advertising

See, kids, in the Good Old Days, when editors looked like Cary Grant and J-school grads looked like Roz Russell* and brontosaurus-riding waifs had the paper at the door of your cave by 6 every morning rain or shine, you could actually see "ads" and "stories" together on the same "page dummy" before you "went to press."

That produced what we call a "win-win situation." Ford dealers didn't like being opposite the daily PINTO EXPLODES story, and we didn't like it when CANDIDATE CAUGHT IN LOVE NEST WITH 'SINGER' jumped into a stack of ads for, uh, enhancement medications or the like. So when you saw this sort of story:

At about 6:16 p.m., Boone County sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to the trailer park at 3501 New Haven Road after a caller reported a man was exposing his genitalia from the window of his trailer.

... you gave the page an extra look to make sure that none of the nearby ads had -- oh, you know, SuperBanker ripping his suit off. There are better ways to have your work immortalized in CJR.

* And city functionaries looked like Billy Gilbert! This is totally true.


Friday, August 28, 2009

'Tis the seasonable

Whatever you might say about their syntactic peeves, copy editors used to take great pride in keeping this sort of thing off the front page of your major metropolitan daily. The "rates" in question are unemployment:

Unlike statewide rates, the rates reported for the city are not seasonably adjusted.

Sigh. Per the 9th New Collegiate,* "seasonable" means timely or opportune, "suitable to the season or circumstances." The writer is looking for the adverbial form of "seasonal," whose second definition is "affected or caused by seasonal need or availability," as in "seasonal unemployment."

Have you heard this song before? That's why the industry of journalism evolved an industrial process of editing. Had this one escaped the originating editor** and the rim, slot and proof stages, it still might have been caught by some greisly compositor whose role in life was to remind the college graduates upstairs that the dictionary was in alphabetical order for their convenience, should they want to open it.

Welcome to the New Journalistic Order; the food's awful, but at least the portions are small. Remind me again how we're supposed to win hearts and minds this way?

* The copy I was issued last time I came aboard the desk of a big daily. It still works, which cannot be said of the Apple IIC we had at that point.
** OK, it's the business desk; in the Good Old Days, they might have been busy trying to make space for a picture of the furniture store owned by a friend of the publisher. Now get off the lawn, you kids.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

When life gives you limes ...

For all you Social Construction of Reality fans out there, let's follow this one around the world -- literally. We're starting with the home page of and the assumption -- hey, call us a dreamer -- that stories end up on the front page for a reason.

Let's click on "Outrage over candy with 'pornographic' wrapper" and see where we land. Aha! It's a six-graf story credited to, another Murdoch property, bearing the hed "European candy under fire for putting 'fruits in pornographic poses' on box." (Yes, kids, those are "claim quotes";* nobody in the story says "fruits in pornographic poses," so the quotes indicate an assertion on the news outfit's part.) Here's where we find the outrage:

A popular candy is causing an uproar in Europe after a flood of complaints about its packaging.

Claims have been made that the fruit figures that appear on Haribo MAOAM sour candies are engaging in sex acts.

You noun fans are hard at work already, right? "Uproar," "flood of complaints," "claims"? Good thing we can Click here to read more on this story and see pictures at, isn't it?

There we find an eight-graf story, "Haribo MAOAM sour candies feature 'fruits in porno- graphic poses'" -- same uproar, same flood, same claims, and the same solitary Yorkshireman who was buying sour candies for his brood when he noticed that the cartoon fruits were apparently having all the fun: "The lemon and lime are locked in what appears to be a carnal encounter." (We report, you decide, but be forewarned: I deeply hope this is the last bit of citrus porn that runs here during my editorship.)

Fortunately, if we want more, we can Read the full story and see more pictures at The Daily Mail ! Well, let's. Alas, that takes us to a mere six grafs from the Daily Mail itself (to his credit, though, there's another picture of the overactive lime):

A father-of-two has spoken of his disgust after spotting fruity cartoon characters appearing to have sex on SWEET wrappers.

Hmm. Somehow, traced back to the original, our continentwide outrage has collapsed back into one irritated Yorkshireman (unless you count his wife, who was apparently so dismayed by things that she had to go wait in the car, meaning we could conceivably have two irritated Yorkshirepersons). Time to secure from general quarters?

Maybe not quite. Stuff -- again -- doesn't get to the front page by accident. An intergeneric two-on-one is entertaining by itself, sure, but there's also a reminder there of what sorts of things go on in "Europe" that cause outrage among right-thinking people.** Bad stuff happens in Europe. Bad! Like fruit smut and socialism!

All right, more to the point: Shouldn't we be writing about health care and really important stuff that journalism needs to pay attention to? I'd like to suggest that we are. If you spend much time over in foil-helmet country, you've probably seen complaints this week that the In-The-Tank American Media are suppressing horror tales that the British media are valiantly bringing to light. Bear in mind, just for a bit, how true a story has to be before it appears in the Daily Mail. Because the answer, in many cases, is "not very."

* Following a question from the Outer Hoard the other day: I'm not at all familiar with news routines in Australia (other than some delightful visits to Media Watch and one season of a pretty evil sitcom whose name I can't now remember). Are claim quotes an Australian practice too?
** Or at least among one guy buying candy who wrote a letter to the Mail.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Cancer cured! Mideast at peace!

Thousands stream back to work as new process makes free newsprint from carbon dioxide and angel tears! Hence, apparently, the prominence given to this tale:

Investor: I had affair with Madoff and lost a fortune
NEW YORK -- An investor who says she had an affair 16 years ago with failed financier Bernard Madoff said Tuesday she described Madoff as “not well-endowed” because she thought the detail was key to understanding his personality.

Whenever you see a hed written off a relative clause ("who says she had an affair ..."), the chances are extremely high that you're seeing a mistake. News heds live in main clauses: who did what to whom ("An investor said she described Madoff as ..."), the parts of a lede that allow you to tell why today is different from yesterday. The lesson for hed writers is that when your hed doesn't match the lede, you need to figure out why, and that often starts with a trip to the archives. And this AP lede from Aug. 14 indicates that your problem is a bad case of Last Week's News:

Bernard Madoff's decades-long fraud might not have been his only secret. A new book says he had a two-decade affair with one of his investors.

Why last week's two-decade affair has shrunk to a mere 18 months in today's tale might be an interesting question, if indeed the sex lives of the principals here were somehow an interesting story. And that gets back to the bigger point: Why does this (ahem) member paper think an axe-grinding assertion about the Madoff endowment is worth the space it's ... no, you can add your own naughty comment here.

Armchair psychoanalysis is, at best, crap to start with. This is not a best case. It's a waste of time and resources. The AP had no reason to flog this book again beyond the adolescent thrill of talking about a public figure's private parts. The newspaper's excuse is even limper.

There's only one reason to waste a single passing second on this story, and that'd be this example of the AP's ongoing struggle with pronoun antecedence:

She said she decided to write the book five weeks after Madoff confessed his multi-decade fraud to the FBI and was arrested in early December.

The former certified public accountant said she revealed the affair to her husband of 37 years and her son and explained that it was a way to earn money after Madoff wiped out her family's life savings and forced the sale of their Manhattan home.

What was a way to earn money -- the affair or the book?

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Hobgoblin of small minds

Some days you just want to take up a collection and buy "Ask the Editor" some reference books:
Q. ...but the theory has never been proven (or is it proved?) Thanks. – from Grand Forks, ND on Fri, Aug 21, 2009
A. proved is the verb, proven the adjective.
As a matter of what is and what isn't, that's nonsense. "Proved" is a verb. So is "proven" ("historically the past participle of preven, in Middle English the usual spelling of what has become prove," as the MWCDEU puts it). Both are fine, and both are in regular use -- by high-end writers and in high-end publications, not just by You Kids with your darn Twitters and Facebooks and all. "Proved" as an adjective is less common (and I think it sounds strange), but it's there too. So as we prepare to launch another semester with the AP Stylebook on the required list, the question arises again: Who are you going to believe, the Wizard Behind The Curtain or your own eyes, ears and book collection?
A better -- certainly a more honest -- answer to the verb question at hand is "Whichever you want." We don't need a style ruling on this one. There's no chance of confusion, there's ample evidence that both are utterly standard, and if you can't find something better to worry about, you aren't looking. Why try to regulate a free choice with a spurious mandate?
I think the AP has confused the need to keep some aspects of usage in line with a Mission From God to regulate everything that moves. That's not just a waste of time; it gives editors (and stylebooks) a bad name, and it reinforces the image of "grammar" as a set of mysterious, unknowable lightning bolts from On High rather than a tool that writers use to make meaning.
Isn't it important to be consistent? Aren't readers going to flee in droves if editors don't enforce style across the board? Yes and no. If you're going to cover the first day of Ramadan, you shouldn't spell the prophet's name "Muhammad" on one page and "Mohammad" on another. But that doesn't mean half a dozen contemporary Mohameds (or Katharines, for that matter) can't prefer half a dozen spellings. Shoehorning them all into one category is what gives "style" its reputation for procrustean nitpicking.

There is a lot to be said for consistency, much of it under the Wheel = Round rule -- as in, you don't need to reinvent the wheel (we have one, it's round, it works) on deadline every night. It's nice to know whether yesterday should be "yesterday" or "Monday" or "August 24th" or "Aug. 24." That means we also need to know which months are abbreviated and when, the circumstances under which we spell a number out or use figures, and how we refer to dates in general. Thus, we get handy principles like the week/year rule: within a week of the date of publication, just use the day ("Monday"); between a week and a year, just use month and date ("Aug. 17"). It's settled a lot of arguments in its day, but at the margins, it leads to some tortured constructions that satisfy the stylebook at the expense of meaning. Try these two sentences:

The study ran from July 11 through Friday.
The study ran from July 11 through Aug. 21.

Which gives you -- the reader, not the editor -- a quicker intuitive idea of how many days the thing lasted?

It's worth asking on several grounds (a full-on examination of the sort of tormented syntax that "style" can produce is a different topic) whether we're getting what we pay for when we turn to the stylebook for rulings on grammar questions. The biggest question, though, remains: Do you really not have anything better to do with your time than worry about whether a perfectly sound bit of grammar meets the AP's standards? Because the evidence very clearly indicates that you do.

Want some "grammar"? OK, let's do some grammar. This one actually does make a difference in how you comprehend the news:
“In his mind,” Larry McClure said, “he was worried they'd be back." His son said he grabbed his gun, got into his dark, green van and guessed the thieves would head toward nearby Ginger Lane. (Who's speaking in the second sentence, and who grabbed whose gun?)

More? Here's one from the Sunday front page:
These efforts don’t stop all crime, but it certainly helps prevent some, officials say. (They does?)*

Cluelessness with quotes? We can do that!
He returned moments later, pulled the revolver from his pocket, pointed it at a female attendant and demanded money. She gave him cash and then he told her and the other employee to lie on the floor. As he left, the man told them that he “would be back.” (It's so Terminator -- "I would be back!")

Enabling partisan spin through gullibility? All in a day's work:
Around 100 people, representing a range of ages and occupations, gathered at noon in front of U.S. Rep. John Spratt's Rock Hill office to show their displeasure toward socialized health care and to urge the 14-term Democrat to address their concerns in a public forum.

Spratt, still recovering from recent foot surgery, did not attend the rally, one of many held across the country Saturday as part of Recess Rally 2009, a grassroots effort to stop government-run health care.

Sigh. Did you wonder why Iraq and the "war on terror" got so badly conflated in the Free And Independent Watchdog Media in 2002-03? Partly, it's mere seniority: Rookies draw the sort of general-assignment shifts that lead you to small-town rallies on Saturdays. Somebody in the crowd says "we're gonna fight terrorism in Iraq before we have to fight it here" (or "we're a grassroots effort stop the socialists from putting government-run health care between me and my doctor"), why shouldn't the reporter write exactly that?

Editors could spend a lot of time on grammar -- even just on diagramming sentences -- and not run out of stuff to do. They can ask whether style is serving the readers' ends or the desk's ends. They could raise substantive points about the logical implications of what sources (and, by not much of an extension at all, reporters) are saying. But they can't do those things if they're spending their time asking irrelevant questions of a dubious source. They need to take some authority on themselves, and the AP needs to stop trying to be the corpse at every wedding.

* There are, of course, legitimate differences on noun-verb and noun-pronoun issues (British English reads collective nouns differently than we do; doesn't mean the British are debasing their own language). This is just an "error."

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Monday, August 24, 2009

Jumping the ... no, don't

Sounds like a nice, cheery, pro-underdog hed to find in your normally pro-criminal bleeding-heart liberal media, doesn't it?

Slight problem, though. Nothing in the text tells us whether the hed is true. Here's the closest thing to an indication:

When the gunmen left, police said, a male victim of the crime ran out, looking for the people who had robbed them. He caught up with the men, and a shootout ensued. Police say the victim was not hit by gunfire, but it is not clear if any of the gunmen were struck.

A prime example of how the active voice too can hide agency. Much as we might want it to, nothing in "a shootout ensued" tells us who shot first or who shot back.

It'd be nice if the Obs (and news outfits in general) just went ahead and disabled the "comment" function on crime stories. Tamping down the Wild West tone in the heds isn't a cure for reader stupidity, but it could help keep people from confusing sloppiness with bias.

UPDATE: And this just in! Diagramming fans, have a go at the online reefer to this story:

Police say victim of home invasion chased after men who robbed his family and shot at them overnight in east Charlotte

Assign "shot at them" to two different actors by putting it in two different clauses! Ready, steady, go.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Poor guy

Well, did they draw straws for it, or what?

There were 28 bunks for 62 men, requiring one man to give up a bed as shifts changed.

Good thing we have the press around to remind us of the old days, huh?

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Slouching toward cluelessness

In a word, no. No, she isn't. No, it couldn't. No, your pleas for mercy will not be heard when Basement Cat comes for your journalistic soul. (Though the ad is a nice touch, one must admit.)

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) -- Could it be divine intervention that's kept Florida safe from hurricanes since Gov. Charlie Crist took office?

It's nearly impossible to pick a winner of the Stupid Sweepstakes here: there's the AP writer who came up with the lede, the editor who decided to put it into play, and the Web editor who assembled the "Thank you, Charlie" illustration for the opening page (below). May all three be assigned to produce follow-up stories, with quotes, every time a natural disaster strikes anywhere in the world for a year and a day from this date Amen.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Separated by a common welcome

Today's wizard hed noun prang head-scratcher comes from the BBC. You probably got the meaning right away -- or, put a bit better, you probably got "a" meaning right away, and it was different depending on which side of the pond you opened your browser on.

Let's propose a testable hypothesis: This particular flavor of verb-elided hed produces distinct British and American readings. The American reading puts a linking verb after the noun phrase:

Anger at Lockerbie bomber [is] welcome

The British reading is an expletive verb at the beginning:

[There is] anger at Lockerbie bomber welcome

Which is more or less what other verb-free heds on the front page are doing: "Israel fury at Sweden organ claim" and "Mexico probe over kidnap deaths" (three-word pileups like "child smack ban" and "gender row athlete" -- or "Lockerbie bomber welcome" -- are a different matter).

The American reading puts a few extra Wheaties on the keyboard because it crosses a perceived bright white line into editorializing: You could get away with saying a forecast of rain is welcome, but anger is a different matter. We'd generally try to displace that with a passive verb. "Anger welcomed" doesn't say who's doing the welcoming, but at least it makes clear that it isn't you. (UPDATE: As the tabloids often make clear, some flavors of newspage editorializing are more welcome than others.)

We can probably adapt to each other's hed dialects pretty fast, but I'd still put it in the category of remembering which way to look when you cross the street: Don't try it for the first few hours after you get off the plane.

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Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Copy Editors Full Employment Act

The nice folks downtown do make a wonderful case for hiring more editors, don't they? Here are some ledes from the first two inside news pages of yesterday's A section. They're a small sample, yes, but the Freep on non-home-delivery days is a small sample* to begin with:

The 27-year-old Claw­son man whom investiga­tors said caused the fiery tanker crash on I-75 last month has paid his speed­ing ticket.
Him has? Good to hear it.

Police were investigating on Monday the stabbing death and shooting of three people in downtown Pontiac that happened in the hours after the Woodward Dream Cruise.
Quick, how many people were killed or injured in downtown Pontiac in the hours after the Dream Cruise? For extra credit, what happened to each? While you're thinking, ponder the damage done to this story by the tyranny of the news cycle. "Police were investigating" is a second-cycle lede (like "Investigators sifted Monday through the debris ..."); it's a standard way of quietly admitting that the news happened while you were dark. But it was news -- first-cycle news, that is -- to me; I tend to get local news from the radio or the paper, so I'd much prefer a lede that said some people had been shot and stabbed to one that said the cops were actually doing their jobs. (Got your answer yet? One stabbed, three shot, as the lede** on the online version makes clear.)

A Monroe County man shot a po­lice officer Monday outside his rural Berlin Township home, then holed up inside before later shooting himself during a standoff with law enforce­ment, authorities said.
Hate to think he holed up inside (the sort of cop cliche you should really hold down to once a story, if you're wondering) before earlier shooting himself.

I don't mean to suggest that Freep news writing is uniquely bad.*** News writing can be pretty ugly stuff, no matter where it's produced. It's done in a hurry, it's more interested in getting the required news elements in the right order than in producing coherent narratives, and many of the people who practice it think of "grammar" as a vindictive zombie rather than an instrument for turning jumbled facts into a story.**** That hasn't traditionally been a problem, because the same industrial logic that split "reporting" off from "writing" also built in multiple layers of editing: cityside, rim and slot would be the minimum a low-bore three-graf cop story would get. But it's a big honking problem when we try to do 1930s-style reporting with 2009-style editing.

Please, Freep and all the rest of you: Hire your editors back. Then hire more editors. You can be a purveyor of competently processed news or you can be the moral equivalent of a lemonade stand. Which do you want to be?

* Though slightly bigger than at the outset of the non-delivery experiment. Long about the Stanley Cup finals, the powers-that-be decided that sports should be a standalone section every day.
"Police today are investigating the shootings of three people and one fatal stabbing in downtown Pontiac that happened in the hours after the Woodward Dream Cruise" -- still pretty bad, but at least it's not openly misleading.
*** Mitch Albom is a remarkably bad writer, but he's a star, not a news writer.
**** Hardly their fault. That's more or less what textbooks teach.

You just understand!

Today's case of Who Moved My Negation comes from the world of news blogging, and our favorite editorial board is quoting a polling company:

Bev Perdue opened an office in Charlotte and has made a point of visiting the city, but voters there still don't think she's been attentive to them since taking office.

58% of voters feel she's been inattentive to the city's needs so far, while just 25% think she has been.

Well, has she or has she? Let's look at the trail a bit. The assertion stems from a telephone survey last week that asked this question: "Do you think that Governor Bev Perdue has been attentive to Charlotte since taking office? If yes, press 1. If no, press 2. If you don't know, press 3." Results were 25% yes and 58% no, leading to this lede on the press release:

Despite her opening up an office and making a point of visiting, only 25% of voters in Charlotte think that Bev Perdue has been attentive to the city since taking office, Public Policy Polling’s newest survey finds.

58% of Charlotteans think that Perdue has not been and 17% aren’t sure.

Fine so far. But then the polling company's own blogger succumbs to the urge to phrase things just a bit differently: "58% of voters feel she's been inattentive to the city's needs so far, while just 25% think she has been." Having made clear that it's quoting someone else, the Obs then pastes without reading, and another case of WTF grammar is born.

There isn't really a bad guy in this -- just a reminder of how easy it is to get your syntactic feet crossed up in your own native language and how thoroughly everyone (no matter how much you write or how prominent a forum you write in) needs an editor.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

He is listed in good condition at ...

Coincidence, or what??? Days after Milwaukee mayor is hit with pipe ...

Up, up and away!

One thing's certain: It's...
a) official
b) not easy being green
c) time for another reminder about annoying seasonal cliches and the grisly fates awaiting newspapers that use them!

Please. Before Christmas comes early, call it another one for the Forbidden Heds list.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sock-drawer grammar

Sometimes I'm inclined to suggest that people shouldn't be allowed to open the AP stylebook (or, for that matter, the grammar chapter of any leading journalism textbook) until they can take a sentence apart and put it back together again. That way, we at least have a slight chance of getting words and phrases wired together in a way that means what we had in mind, rather than the current AP method of reaching into the sock drawer and grabbing the first two tubelike things that come to hand.

Today's complaint arises from what ought to be a fairly interesting story (unless people are always going around whacking the mayor with pipes in your neck of the woods):

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett is in the hospital after he was attacked by person using a metal pipe as he was leaving the Wisconsin State Fair. (The tyranny of the news cycle; "Mayor attacked with pipe" is a better story than "Mayor in hospital," but the AP's still in thrall to the idea that newer is better, no matter that the older news is still new to the vast bulk of us.)

The Milwaukee Police Department said in a statement on Sunday that Barrett was in stable condition at a local* hospital and was alert and talking when he arrived on Saturday night.

The statement says Barrett was leaving the state fair when he heard a woman crying out for help in the city of West Allis.

So, did Superman run for mayor of Milwaukee after he got out of the comic business? He left the fair, heard a cry for help in some distant city, leapt into the nearest ... oh, wait. Anyway, if you're not from the area, you can be forgiven for having to look it all up. It appears that the fair's street address is in West Allis, just west of Milwaukee itself. But the poor prepositional phrase can't jump all the way back across the relative clause ("when he heard a woman crying out for help") to reach "the state fair." Instead of putting it where it belongs, the AP reaches for the sock drawer, comes out with blue and orange, and calls it good.

Police say Barrett began called 911 when the suspect who was attacking the woman charged at the mayor and began hitting him with a metal pipe. The suspect then fled the scene.

You can't spell "automatic pilot," on which someone is typing here, without AP.** If nothing else, "at the scene" phrases can be improved out of nearly every cop-and-crime sentence they appear in ("firefighters arrived at the scene of the blaze," etc. ad nauseam).

I know AP's being zealous these days about guarding its work, so let me offer a suggestion. I'll put a big honking AP bug on any AP ledes used as exemplars here if you guys will stop acting like word order doesn't matter in English. All right?

* Ahem. Even the stylebook tells you to "avoid the irrelevant use" of "local," with "local hospital" as an example.
** If you don't remember the grand old days of wire-service competition: You can't spell "cheap" without AP or "stupid" without UPI. (Wire hands, it must be noted, have their own store of tales about newspaper cluelessness.)


Friday, August 14, 2009

Town hall talk: If 7.267 was 9

This one's evidently a big deal over at Fox, so let's spend a bit of time pondering what it might mean for the president to be so verbose that he outtalks his audience by "nearly 9 to 1" at a town hall meeting.

How do we know it's a big deal? There's the amount of time it spent at the top of the front page, for one thing. The upper view is from about 7 p.m. (EDT) Thursday, the middle from about 7:30 this morning, the bottom from around 11 this morning.* It's not only been prominent for a while, it's been tweaked a lot to get the tone right (sort of like comparing heds from different editions of a newspaper). It carries a staff byline (with a second staffer contributing), which usually signals a lot of attention. It's drawn more than 1,600 comments as of this writing. And it's ... well, we can certainly say it's original. If you didn't know better, you'd be tempted to mistake it for journalism.

So, what do you find if you click along to "'Town Halls' a chance for the president, not the public, to vent"? Let's see:

Much has been made of the chance for true, interactive democracy offered by the freewheeling town hall format that lawmakers are using in health care forums across the country.

But what the White House is calling a "town hall meeting" does not quite follow in the tradition of the public-driven forums that sprouted centuries ago in New England.

It's more like a press conference for the public.

In an orderly fashion, selected members of the audience pose brief questions, and the president elaborates.

And elaborates. And elaborates.

A look at President Obama's health care "town hall" Tuesday in Portsmouth, N.H., shows the president out-spoke his audience by a ratio of nearly 9-to-1.

Here's the scorecard.

Obama: 8,619 words.

Audience: 1,186 words. (Do you get something more like 7.267 to 1 when you divide these? Funny, I do too.)

That's hardly the kind of even-handed exchange of ideas that marked the town meetings of colonial America.

Let's stop the tape here for a moment and sum up what we're asserting or implying (aside from 7 equals 9, which might just be Fox's routine incompetence, rather than Fox's routine dishonesty). First, that the "freewheeling town hall format" is a chance for genuine interactive democracy. Second, that Obama's not only less brave than Congress, he's spurning the ideas of the Founding Fathers. And third -- the real point of the story -- we can prove it with numbers: Obama isn't just talky, he's specifically, statistically talkier than his handpicked audience, so he really must be as arrogant, narcissistic and self-absorbed as the George Wills and Charles Krauthammers of the world have been saying all along. So 9-to-1 (all right, 7.3-1 if you're going to be picky) must be a relevant number.

Let's take the first two together. "Town hall meeting" means something different in the era of thoroughly mediated politics than it does in the parts of New England that still hold them. I was tempted to date the current flowering of town halls to the relentlessly self-promoting Clinton era, and a glance at Lexis finds terms like "town hall style" and "town hall meeting" reaching the news columns of the prestige press by the early to mid-1990s. (Elite papers tend to be warier of things that look like neologisms than the popular press; AP was using "town hall" in the Carter days.) In general, they aren't outcroppings of 18th-century democracy. It's a stretch at best to think of them as the "people's forum," and invoking some "even-handed exchange of ideas" from colonial days is just silly.

But that's not the point; the point is the numbers, because -- of course! -- numbers don't lie. Even when they're correctly calculated, though, their precision is deceptive. We don't know how the Obama-to-audience ratio compares to similar speakers, but that's only part of the problem.

For comparison, let's look at a couple of town halls from the younger Bush's first year (Dec. 4, 2001, and Jan. 5, 2002, both transcripts archived at CNN). It's a little risky to make exact comparisons, because Fox doesn't say much about how it handles the data or the challenges that transcripts pose. (For example, how do you count an exchange when all or part of the question is unrecorded because the speaker is off-mike?) But there's enough there to draw a few conclusions.

Does Obama (7.27-1) outtalk his audience more than Bush? Depends on which Bush appearance; I got 5.00-1 for December 2001 and 12.46-1 the following month. Bush's aggregate is 6.81-1 (the January meeting was shorter). Fox also provides a word count for Obama's opening and closing statements, so we can compare the Q&A sections only. On that measure, they're even closer: Obama, 4.19-1, Bush 4.08-1. (Yes, opening statements eat up a lot of the variance; Bush's were 1,496 and 3,685 words.) Absent some more data on Obama, I can't say whether a difference of a tenth of a word is statistically significant here, but I'll happily suggest that is is not practically significant.

The bigger point, though, is: What does it mean to talk more than your audience at a town hall? Here's an exchange in which Bush talks less than his questioner:

QUESTION: I don't have a comment, I have a question. And actually I don't have a question, I have a comment. (BUSH: OK.) You've been doing a good job for the United States. Can you shake my hand?
BUSH: Yes. I will in a minute. You want to do it right now? I'll do better, I'll give you a kiss. You're a sweet girl. Thank you. Yes, ma'am?

Here's one in which question and answer are right at (what looks like) the standard 1-to-4 ratio, but it underscores a real problem with blind word-counting: What exactly are we measuring?

Q: Mr. President, I'm a Navy chaplain serving with Marines in Twentynine Palms, California. I am also honored to have you as my commander-in-chief.
BUSH: Thank you (APPLAUSE) Your question?
Q: My question is very simple. How can we as pastors pray specifically for you and your family?**

A presidential "town hall," we might want to surmise, is going to involve a lot of reverential awe, no matter who's involved or who's talking.

Summary? This is the classic sort of story that distinguishes the stuff that Fox does from real journalism. It lets Fox side with the little guy (and, of course, the Founders) against the elites. It's about a cultural construct (Obama the out-of-touch narcissist) that's central to the Fox audience. It waves a number around without providing the context that lets people judge it. It's exactly what a really enthusiastic and deeply dishonest propaganda organization would do.

* And on a Google alert last night, prompting a query from reader Sean, to whom thanks.
** First one of you that says "backwards" is in big, big trouble.

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Everybody's a quant

Hey, you Fox- watchers are staying up late out there!*

Anyway, just as our pals over at the Log were lamenting the lack of crossover research between linguistics and the communication sciences, here's Fox filling that very gap with a hard-hitting look at who says what in these "town" "hall" "meetings." What should the next step be?

* And thanks to alert tipsters for the link.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

ZOMG Reds! l8r d00dz TGjoe

Every now and then, when media technology and media practice line up in just the right way, a skilled demagogue manages to slip into the rift. That's one way of interpreting today's news in the context of the McCarthy era, and the outstanding exemplar of today is -- well, let's see if you can pick her name out of the Fair 'n' Balanced coverage here.

Sarah Palin reads the spin on the news-routines curveball as well as Joe McCarthy ever did. She's been in the news for two cycles now, all from one Wednesday night posting on her Facebook page, in which she basically made up some more stuff about the "death panel" fabrications she introduced at the weekend. Like Sen. McCarthy in his prime, the moving finger tweets, and having twit, moves on. Follow-up questions? You have to catch her first!

The "death panels," of course, are the Obama-led tribunals that will decide little Trig Palin's fate, much as the British NHS put paid to renowned scientist Stephen Hawking. (As usual, Palin was first to introduce her children into the story line; the "leave my family out of this" bit doesn't work if no one's put the family into this, so why take chances?) And they're -- oh, hell, did we say this already? She made 'em up. As she demonstrated repeatedly during the campaign last year, Sarah Palin is an outstanding liar: inventive, enthusiastic, relentless, like a point guard weaving through traffic and making stuff up. Also!

So if you're feeling guilty about how your journalistic forebears handled the McCarthy thing, here's a chance to atone for it. Next time the ex-governor makes things up in public, say so! The AP seems to be coming around, even referring to her "debunked claim" in the lede of its latest 700-word take on the matter. And the Times (online, at least) is going so far as to suggest that Palin doesn't give a very careful account of the paper by Ezekiel Emanuel she quotes, either. Don't be fooled by teh Facebooks magics. Call it when you see it.

Beeb noun modifier prang record

I don't think I've ever seen a six-word noun hed before, but even the BBC has its surprises:

Gaza white flag deaths probe call

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Time and a place

As long as we're sharing our strange beliefs here, I'll note that in general, I'm not terribly bothered by unnamed sources -- or at least that as source qualities go, I'm less bothered by anonymity than by dishonesty, malice or stupidity. With that out of the way, though, it's worth noting that some cases of naming are more important than others. Prosecutions, for example. Here's why:

A former contract worker for the CIA pleaded guilty Tuesday in Detroit to fabricating background checks of federal employees and potential employees. The suspected motive: laziness and greed.

Service journalism at its best! You didn't even know you needed a link to, did you? But there's something bigger to worry about here:

Two sources familiar with the case said Tuesday that Kerry Gerdes, 26, of Royal Oak simply avoided conducting the interviews as a fast track to getting paid.

Uh, no. If you're going to talk about the defendant's motives, you stand up and do it in an open court or you shut up. This is where the whole fair-trial thing is actually a complement to the whole free-press thing. Trials aren't open just so you can write down lots of lurid details and run big screaming heds with near-complete protection from libel claims. They're open so one side (usually the one with the power and resources; guess which?) doesn't get to make blind claims about the other.

..."The defendant was entrusted by the United States to conduct background investigations of applicants to sensitive positions," U.S. Attorney Terrence Berg said. "The false reports submitted by Gerdes were a betrayal of the trust placed in her."

Does he just talk like a press release, or are we, erm, quoting his press release? No law against that, but it doesn't make much of a case for the independence of your reporting.

... Sources said she was paid per background check and simply didn't do the required work as a way to quickly move on to the next paycheck.

At the very least, tell me why these sources are credible enough to quote (and whether they're the same "two sources" you mentioned earlier). Is this assertion part of the record? If not, what's it doing in the plea story?

... Her attorney, Richard Helfrick of the Federal Defender's Office, did not return phone calls Tuesday.

So at this point, is it fair to conclude that we've covered a key moment in a fairly prominent case (in traditional terms, I'd call the story a second-front offlede) without bothering to attend it? That's too bad. Showing up in court is often a good way of finding out stuff that the prosecutor's office doesn't put in press releases -- or of actually finding the defendant's lawyer, should you want to compare his take with what "sources" say. That used to be a fairly good way of distinguishing journalism from PR.

Granted, the Freep has too few people covering too much frontage. (Gannett managers aren't the only ones who can count bylines.) And given their say, I expect some -- maybe most -- of them would rather cover the story from the courtroom than by phone and fax. Just a reminder that when we lose the routines of journalism, we're losing a lot of stuff that's less prominent, but not less important, than the big FOIA fights.

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Photos and reality: Wheaties test

Comes a request for discussion of the photo at right -- specifically, whether it's appropriate to run pictures of dead dogs on the front. It's always a little tricky to generalize rules from single cases, so (being an agenda-setting sort) I'll tell you a little of what I think about before telling you what I think.

When someone asks what I think about photos of dead animals on 1A, I tend to start with: What kind of animals, and how did they get that way? I don't mean that to be dismissive; I think it's a way of suggesting that most of us would put different photos at different places on the continuum. If there's a chemical spill upstream from My Little Town and the photo is of dead fish crowding the intakes at the water treatment plant, no problem. Dead deer on the first day of the season? I wouldn't front it, but it's pretty easy to imagine cases where that's what the audience would expect. Bear shot dead after running wild up and down Main Street at the peak of back-to-school days? Sure. Dead kitty tortured by local adolescents? Nope.

See a couple of continuums operating there? Mammals are more proximate than fish, and pets more proximate than wild animals. Present danger is bigger than past danger, and public danger bigger than small-scale danger. Ritual news and surprise news raise different sorts of questions. And all those things more or less point to a bigger question: What's the photo saying?

That's a bit of a stumbling block, I think, because decision-makers are inclined to start from the presumption that photos are true, rather than the presumption that photos are highly selective representations of brief moments of reality. Just for the heck of it, here are two AP photos from a press conference by the Rutgers basketball team back during the Don Imus scandal. Is one of them truer than the other? If so, which?

My call (which, I will remind you, is easily worth the price of your subscription) is that they're true about different things. When you choose between them, you're making a discursive choice rather than an "objective" one. Nothing wrong with that, unless you're in the habit of mistaking your truth for the truth.

We're not spending much time on what a mediocre photo is the one that adorns the Venice front, or what a genuinely awful story* it accompanies. I'm not sure those concerns make that much difference -- at least, technical quality itself shouldn't make you change your mind about the ethics of photo play. But the quality issues do speak to a certain incoherence, which goes to the problem above. I really don't know what I'm supposed to be seeing. The story's almost all blotter, no context. If there's some higher good to be served by the photo, no one's making a case for it. "We've got a picture of dead dogs" is a statement of fact; it's not an explanation of what the picture is, and it's not a justification for running it. If I'm going to yank people's chains over breakfast, I'd like to have a stronger reason.

A long time back, I had one of those occasional copydesk-vs.-assigning-desk arguments with a great good friend of many years' standing. His conclusion:** "You get paid to keep stuff out of the paper; I get paid to put stuff in the paper." I tend to put it differently: I get paid -- or did, back in those days -- to make sure that everything going into the paper has a reason. So I'm not really trying to argue the dogs off the front page. I'm suggesting they had no reason to be there in the first place.

Opposing views, as always, are welcome.

* Look, spellcheck isn't a very smart tool, but at least it'll tell you that the cop's name is spelled two different ways.
** Constructed from memory; kids, don't try this at home.

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Monday, August 10, 2009

Cancer cured! Mideast at peace!

If you're still hoping to be a contender in the Ineptly Executed Bogus 1A Centerpiece of the Decade contest, be advised that the bar has just been raised a few notches. Let's get right to the tape:

Kwame Kilpatrick sits before the judge, his hands clasped in a triangle beneath his chin and his finger tops pressed to his lips.

It’s a photo snapped during one of the many court hearings the ex-Detroit mayor appeared at during the text message scan­dal. And, according to an expert in body language and facial expressions — who also is the inspiration behind the TV show “Lie to Me” — it was a clue that Kilpatrick wasn’t telling the whole truth.

As Kilpatrick faces new allegations that he had yet another affair — this time with the federal monitor overseeing the city’s police department — Fox is gearing up for its second season of the TV show.

Given the Freep's extreme no-jump policy, we're more than halfway through the word part of the centerpiece already. What have we learned? Well, the ex-mayor had a scandal, and now he's accused of having had another affair, and Fox is preparing for another season of a fictional crime program. Surely there's a local angle?

Michigan law-enforcement officials say there is some fact to go along with the show’s fiction.

“There’s a lot of behavioral clues in body language,” said Detective Sgt. Eric Schroeder of the Michigan State Police.

“People say how they feel about a lot of things without using words.”

Those other three guys in the CP? Glad you asked! "Cheney" could be the "Dick Cheney" mentioned in the story, whose mug shot was apparently flashed on the screen to illustrate "scorn" (no indication of whether it's the same mug we're seeing). Nobody named "Clinton" or "Hussein" shows up at either the online or e-edition versions. If you do manage to follow the longer version of the story inside, you'll find that the Kilpatrick photo (I'm guessing that by "the image of Kilpatrick" they mean it's the same one) was "used to illustrate self-hush­ing — suggesting the former mayor was keeping himself from speaking the whole truth." No word on what that might have to do with "contempt."

The full story doesn't do a lot to make sense of the jumbled ideas in the CP. Not much more on "body language," though the local cop gets to talk a bit about the social encounter of interrogation. A legal scholar gets to point out body language isn't much of a science, and the star of the piece -- the guy whom the "Lie to Me" character is based on -- adds that yeah, the show does tend to, um, fictionalize stuff. ("Sometimes they show things that are contradicted by my findings, because they think it is very useful for a dramatic point.")

There is a graphic inside, giving some details on the Ekman-Friesen Facial Action Coding System, but no indication of how basics like "fear" or "disgust" might be put together into constructs like "shame," scorn" or "contempt." (That's on the off chance the story might want to talk about the people or concepts illustrated on the front -- go ahead, call us old-fashioned.) And if you're wondering whether the Stupid Question on the front -- "How do you spot a liar?" -- is ever answered, don't. It isn't, and as more or less everyone in the story suggests, that's probably a good thing.

The inside hed sums it up pretty well: "Don't believe all you see, human lie detector warns" (you'd like to think Dr. Ekman would tell you that goes for terms like "human lie detector" too). We have a story that isn't really sure what it wants to say about a show that doesn't really have much to do with real life. It's an excuse to run, yet again, a filer from the endless sex-n-text scandal, but even that doesn't entirely know what it's illustrating. If there's a way to spin more journalistic irrelevance out of less substance, I'd like to see it -- but not in print.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Dangling ... no, don't go there

Not all dangling participles are created equal. Their outcomes range from "technically 'ambiguous' but unlikely to be misread" to "all but guaranteed to mean something you didn't want." Here, I am delighted to say, we have the latter.*

Here's another who-did-what-to-whom from this morning's trawl. It's even easier to fix (just move the prepositional phrase), but that risks obscuring a bigger point. If "news partner" WCNC can't tell a machete from a sword, the editor's job is to fix the text, not amplify it in big type. Does anyone bother to read this stuff before it goes up?

* Why is this tale a big deal -- bigger even than "Bear found feeding on elderly Colo. woman's body" and "Police: Officer hit, dragged by drunk driver in Idaho"? Not only is it a chance to say "sex toys" in display type, but it pushes the "all Islam is scary" button too. Hard to beat that.

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Thursday, August 06, 2009

Odds and ends

BOSTON -- There was a big old Oxford comma in the lede graf of the top story in today's local blat, and the world did not end. Just thought you'd like to know.

I thought I had a fairly good handle in derogatory newsroom intergroup terms ("glassholes," "toy department" and the like), but I learned a new one today: "Photocracy." Nice.

And if you're a newcomer or otherwise haven't yet indulged, please consider completing the grammar survey. The official invitation screen is here.

Republic of fear

Today's adventure in agenda-setting is brought to you by -- aw, you peeked!

In case you can't read the cutline: "As White House, Democrats and Republicans spar over rights of Americans to voice their opinion on health care reform, take a look at one public forum and ...YOU DECIDE."

Here's the story. Prosit!

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

False dilemmas

OK, once more with feeling. The reason we spend a little time in your editing class on logical fallacies is so we don't commit 'em in public -- as in the deck hed here, "Job security wins out over homeland security."

"Job security" and "homeland security" are not mutually exclusive. They aren't a zero-sum game. You can have neither. You can have both. When you suggest they're on a seesaw together, you're engaging in a false dilemma. (And while we're at it, let's stop saying"Gitmo," all right?)

Heds don't make people stupid, but they do give intellectual cover to the stupids. Let's not.

Monday, August 03, 2009

On missing the ball and why it matters

This hed on a Clinton precede misses by just a bit, but it's just enough of a bit to knock things askew. And that underscores the importance of questioning everything: not just the story you're given and the material that went into it, but your own assumptions. If we don't pay attention, we muddy up the stream for everybody.

"Democracy," like "terrorism," is the sort of concept that's often based on whether we like somebody, rather than where that somebody might fall on some tested continuum. That doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't use it, but it does mean we should take some pains to be open and consistent in our judgments. If you wanted to calibrate heds like this one, you might want to bookmark the nice folks at Freedom House, whose business is data on stuff like political rights, civil liberties and press freedom. By their tally, only two of Clinton's seven destinations meet the "free" qualification.

That doesn't mean the trip can't be "aimed at 'supporting strong and sustainable democratic governments'" (though one can be forgiven for wondering how many "State Department officials" actually chorused those last six words together*). It doesn't mean the trip isn't important, or that weak Africa coverage isn't better than no Africa coverage at all. It does suggest that an editor is clouding the mirror a bit. Our already imperfect picture of what's going on is dumbed down even farther.

If you don't think that matters, have a look back at the hometown paper's coverage of the "Triangle Terror Takedown."** Time was, a paper of the N&O's repute would actually have someone on staff who remembered when the Soviets left Afghanistan and would compare that to the alleged travel dates. Owing to that, the paper might have actually put some substantive questions to the US attorney's office on the first day -- as in, "Why does your indictment assert that this dude started fighting the Soviets three years after they left the country?"*** Or "Hmm. Defendant 'did travel to Gaza and attempted to enter Palestine,' huh? Did anybody involved in bringing these charges have the faintest freaking clue what 'Palestine' and 'Gaza' might mean?"

That's the whole point, really, of having a process for producing news, rather than surrendering outright to the happy new world of instant, unmediated information. People look at stuff, and they compare it to what's known, and when things don't match, the discrepancy is noted. When we fail at that, we get a dumber population. Worse, we let the powers-that-be know that they can tell the public the moon is made of green cheese if they want; no one's going to check.

* Or how the writer determined that South Africa was "the continent's most powerful nation," or why some editor thought the writer's opinion was worth sharing. That iteration of the McClatchy Superlative appears in the longer version.
** I don't make this up, you know.
*** The N&O finally took note of this howler five days on, a day after the AP had helpfully done the math. I'm not holding out hope for a correction.

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