Monday, September 14, 2009

Brave old world

When we get to the Brave New World of interactive, reflexive, crowdsourced, transparent, Wikiated journalism, we're gonna ditch the thundering prescriptivism part, right? Especially the Ancient Rules you can knock down in two clicks of the mouse while grading style quizzes with the other hand?

Uh, guess not -- at least, judging from Point 7 in Dan Gillmor's "Eleven things I'd do if I ran a news organization":

We would replace certain Orwellian and PR-speakish words and expressions with more neutral, precise language. If someone we interview misused language, we would paraphrase instead of running direct quotes.

Examples, among many others:
  • So and so is not worth some amount of money. He has financial holdings of that amount, or his wealth is such and such. (It's your newspaper, but -- any word on where this whim comes from? It sounds a little Biercean, though I don't recall seeing it anywhere. "He is worth ..." dates to the 15th century)
  • The activity that takes place in casinos is gambling, not gaming. (I share this bias, but "gaming" for "gambling" is more than 400 years old.)
  • There are no death taxes. There can be inheritance or estate taxes. (Works for me, but surely we checked to make sure that no one has figured out a way to tax death.)
  • Practices for which this nation and its allies have successfully prosecuted others on war-crimes charges are torture, not “enhanced interrogation techniques.” (This is an interesting time to bring out the exceptionalism card; does it have to be something our side has prosecuted others for, or is a war crime a war crime no matter who prosecutes it? And while we're at it, torture is a war crime, but not all war crimes are torture.)
  • A person who pays to stay in a hotel is not a guest. She is a customer. A guest, by definition, is not billed for the privilege. (If "by definition" means "according to the entry in the dictionary under the word in question," this is simply wrong. "A temporary inmate of an hotel, inn, or boarding house" is a definition of "guest" from the 13th century, and it seems to have stayed in fairly steady use since.)
  • Piracy is what people carrying guns on the high seas do: capturing ships, stealing cargo and turning crews and passengers into hostages, sometimes murdering them. Piracy does not describe what people do when they post digital music on file-sharing networks. (Rabid prescriptivism does murder sleep! And like "murder," piracy has been extended to less grisly and literal offenses for quite some time. In the sense of violating copyright, the OED dates it to 1654.)
Fun as it is to play look-up games, I have a bigger problem with this lightning-from-the-pulpit stuff: the "Orwellian" argument is, for want of a better term, pretty Orwellian itself. My biases are "neutral" and "precise"; yours mark you as a tool of public relations and Dr. Strangelove. If "enhanced interrogation" is PR weaselspeak, what can we say for "posting digital music on file-sharing networks"? And if you think the point of saying "torture" is to be neutral, you're as far off base as Orwell was.

Dan Gillmor is a smart character, and he commands a lot of attention these days when he speaks. Often it's for good reason, and the "Eleven Things" list is worth a look just because -- well, we all want to be the good Charlie Kane sometimes, don't we? Some of the ideas are every bit as good now as they were 20 or 40 years ago. Others need to be celebrated every time the fourth edition* is published: Doom and woe to anniversary stories, and Lists of Ten ought to be banned forever.

Others are less interesting. The "what we don't know" box would be as impractical in the online environment as in print, and like the obsession with hyperlinking, has a snake-eating-its-tail air about it. Academics often end up writing a "limitations" section on their papers, but you can't write a "limitations" section on a brief, or even a 10" council story. And that's before we get to "stuff we do know and aren't going to tell you" -- names of sex-crime victims (should we go ahead and rethink the American obsession with names in general, while we're having a revolution?) and the ethnicity of crime suspects, to name a couple. And -- given that the current research agenda calls for spending a lot of time in "comments" sections -- the urge to draw more and more readers into the news process looks sublimely unattractive.

If we're actually in the middle of a revolution, I've got a few usage quirks on my pope list** too. I hope I remember to look 'em all up first.

* At (e.g.) a three-edition paper, the fourth edition is published at the nearest public house. Just so's you know.
** Stuff you'd do upon your election as Pope (or Mome) of Journalism. Beats a bucket list.

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3 Comments:

Blogger Strayhorn said...

The current research agenda calls for time in the comments section? Boy, nice work if you can get it. I read the comments to remind me why I keep a shotgun by the bed. And they also tend to make you doubt the wisdom of universal suffrage. Occasionally you find a pearl in the dung. But, boy, is there a lot of dung.

8:04 AM, September 15, 2009  
Blogger fev said...

Yep. Up at noon, read the comments, then I show YOUR CHILDREN slides of my VACATION IN LENINGRAD while extolling the common ownership of the means of production! Soon your pitiful, trusting town will fall into our hands like an OVERRIPE FRUIT.

OK, maybe not your kids. But everybody else's.

9:19 AM, September 15, 2009  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Kipling wrote "The Rhyme of the Three Captains" about piracy ... copyright infringement, in fact.

9:03 PM, September 15, 2009  

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