Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Forward spin

The Fair 'n' Balanced Network reminds us how to keep from getting stuck with a first-day hed in a second-day world.


Metaphor overload

I'm not very fond in general of hed writers' tendency to overreach for verbs that they associate with the topic of the story -- probably an overdose of auto talks stalling or going into high gear, or one too many smoking bans snuffed out at the ballot box. In this case,* I think it's out-and-out misleading. A "crippling blow" to the public option isn't the image "taking a scalpel to" creates for me. I'm hearing a subliminal "not an ax" after "scalpel" -- a sense of cutting precisely, not swinging away blindly.

I don't think my reading is universal, but I don't think it's unique either. In "Wearing surgical garb and physician's jackets, activists Monday morning called on lawmakers to take a scalpel to their paychecks," we're talking about removing a 2.8% raise. Here's one from across the pond that suggests the caution even more clearly:

It is vital that the budget estimates take a scalpel to public spending in a logical manner that penalises inefficiencies and rewards sectors that are performing well.

It doesn't take long to find "scalpel" used in the sense of wholesale cuts, but the point of a news hed isn't to explore the metaphoric richness of the language. It's to tell me what the hell went on.
* From Wednesday's Atlanta frontpage, but I can't find the story at; do you guys not post stories from the supplemental services?


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Noun pileup of the week

Let's play "Nom Nom Nom 4 Nounz" with the Fair 'n' Balanced Network!

Wondering what a "'drunk driving fight' missing Pa. mom" might be? She "vanished more than a month ago after she left a party and fought with a friend who tried to stop her from driving, saying she was too drunk." Glad to clear that up for you.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

What next for the Marxist power grab?

If you read a lot of journalism, you know more or less exactly what the evening's No. 3 story at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network means, and you can probably identify many of the signals that allow you to assemble that meaning. What's fun is that almost none of the underpinnings that make the journalism machine work -- to (mis)appropriate a phrase from the cousins in the linguistics department, the "correctness conditions" of the assertion in the frontpage tease -- are actually present in the story. Shall we have a look?

The frontpage position teases to this story inside:

Obama Proposes Longer School Day, Shorter Summer Vacation
President says American kids spend too little time in school, putting them at a disadvantage with other students around the globe

... which you, as a regular consumer of news, understand to be a "news" story, right? (As well you should; Fox is putting its own name on an actual story from the AP, which is generally called "plagiarism.") Well, sure. The present tense signals what we think of as the immediate past -- it's the news that happened between the previous publication and the one you're reading now. "Quake kills thousands" isn't about something that happened in 1995 or 1908; it's about something that happened since the last time you checked in. The heds are straightforward signals that Obama has "proposed" and "said" something, and as a news consumer you expect those things to be expressed in the past tense in the story itself. The teaser just pushes the news cycle ahead one spin: the president "risks" something as a result of having done something in the immediate past.

Well, did he? Let's ask Fox -- well, OK, let's ask Fox claiming credit for the AP's original work:

Students beware: The summer vacation you just enjoyed could be sharply curtailed if President Barack Obama gets his way.

Obama says American kids spend too little time in school, putting them at a disadvantage with other students around the globe.

"Now, I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas," the president said earlier this year. "Not with Malia and Sasha, not in my family, and probably not in yours. But the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom."

"Earlier this year?" Yeah, technically -- Fox and the AP might have ignored it, but this seems a whole lot like the comment that CNN and McClatchy both reported back on March 10, or nearly seven months ago. So to justify the present tense in the text ("Obama says American kids spend too little time in schools"), the rules of news call for us to have an ongoing condition: Obama not only said it then, it's what he has thought more or less steadily before and since. And the text will provide some publicly available evidence in support. Ready?

The president, who has a sixth-grader and a third-grader, wants schools to add time to classes, to stay open late and to let kids in on weekends so they have a safe place to go. [Present tense again! You can tell there's something good coming, right?]

"Our school calendar is based upon the agrarian economy and not too many of our kids are working the fields today," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. [That's cheating. When you go from a paragraph about someone into a direct quote, you're signaling that the quote is from the person you're talking about. When you shift to another person -- a Cabinet secretary, rather than the president -- you have to show that before the quote. Grrr.]

Then we quote a few whingeing elementary school students to show that we've been paying attention and have the human touch. So surely there will be some evidentiary support?

Her school is part of a 3-year-old state initiative to add 300 hours of school time in nearly two dozen schools. Early results are positive.

"3-year-old" meaning it began in, eh -- that'd be 2006? OK, just trying to be sure why we're writing this story today.

Does Obama want every kid to do these things? School until dinnertime? Summer school? And what about the idea that kids today are overscheduled and need more time to play?

I have no idea. Perhaps some journalist could ask the evil commie rat, you think?

Obama and Duncan say kids in the United States need more school because kids in other nations have more school.

"Young people in other countries are going to school 25, 30 percent longer than our students here," Duncan told the AP. "I want to just level the playing field."

All right, to spare you the trouble, Obama isn't quoted again in the story, anywhere -- meaning we have no indication (beyond the March speech) that he says or wants or thinks anything about this issue that warrants a news peg for this collection of random observations.

The AP, even by its own hit-and-miss standards, has done an execrable job on this tale. But more to the point, it's allowed the trolls at Fox to throw another log on their favorite fire: The centralized Marxist government in Washington is coming to seize more control from your family and everything you hold dear. RUN FOR THE HILLS!!!!

What's striking about this one, I think, is not just the AP's sheer journalistic ineptitude, or even Fox's raw ideological dishonesty.* It's the ease with which the routines of "news" can be subverted by people who lack brains, souls or both. When people talk about the importance of teaching media literacy, this is the sort of thing they ought to have in mind.

* Plagiarism is a different thing; Fox is generally rather scrupulous about crediting the AP's work, so this particular case looks a lot more like an individual blunder than part of a larger pattern of intellectual theft. If Fox takes down the offending creditline and sends the AP a nice note apologizing for the error, I'd be happy to take this one out of the plagiarism category.

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Friday, September 25, 2009

And his lovely wife, Madeline

And how are things on the Coleridge desk at the Newspaper of Record?

The TV Sports column on Wednesday, about the N.F.L. premiere of the new Cowboys Stadium, misspelled the surname of the Mongol emperor who built a lavish summer capital, Xanadu, which was teasingly likened to the sprawling football stadium built by the Cowboys’ owner, Jerry Jones. The emperor was Kublai Khan, not Kahn.

I'm not sure about the "surname" thing either, but I'd want to ask Alexander or one of the Great kids to be sure.


Thursday, September 24, 2009

Do you renounce ...?

Quick, who's doing what and where?

It's not an ungrammatical or illogical hed; it's entirely within the realm of possibility that someone could renounce the release of a terrorist. But over a lede like:

The U.S. Senate unanimously condemned last month’s release of the Libyan terrorist convicted in Pan Am bombing over Locker­bie, Scotland, in 1988 and called upon Libya to apologize for celebrating his return.

... you'd have to say it's about as thoroughly boneheaded a single-letter mistake as you can make. Renounce your evil ways and return to the stylebook.

Moral: If you don't know what a word means, look it up. If you think you know what a word means, look it up twice.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Interest holes self ER: Film at 11

Who, you might well ask, is doing what to whom in this hed from the Fox opening page? And what's the rate on murder interest these days anyway? You could read the lede, but that sort of spoils the fun:

A person of interest in a double murder allegedly fired shots at a Chicago veterans hospital and holed himself the facility, bringing police to the scene, WFLD-TV in Chicago reports.

It's been edited (and replaced with an AP update) since this first showed up. [UPDATE: Here's a slightly different take on the original, which I miscopied; "holed himself the facility" is CQ.] If you track the versions at Fox and the affiliate the story's sourced to, you can see all kinds of stuff happening as the morning goes on: "man of interest" becoming "person of interest," and the oddly overcorrected "holed himself up" (I'm guessing someone got "barricaded himself" and "holed up" crossed). But the real fun is the subject noun, "interest." It's the second time in a week Fox has fronted that in a hed as shorthand for "person of interest," only this time it appears without quotes. Whatever it is, it ain't an accident.

Given that language change is natural and people -- especially people who knock out a lot of words on short notice with little editing support -- are always going to be trying new stuff with language, should we try to stomp on this one or welcome it into the family. My vote is "stomp," for several reasons.

One -- jeez, it's ugly. Granted, that's a subjective, non-empirical and value-laden response, but the extent the public gets to vote with its feet, typewriter-wise, on new usages, mine is in: Stomp.

More to the point, it doesn't work. Apologies if there's a technical term gone wrong or begging here, but that slot isn't open on that noun. Try it in some sample news-speak sentences: "Police have developed an interest in the slaying." "Anyone who sees the interest is asked to call police." You can't make "interest" un-mean all the things it already means; that's begging for confusion.
That may be because the noun has one too many boundaries to hop. I can't think of any similar constructs in which the object of the preposition replaces the noun being modified:

Person of color
Woman of conviction
Man of constant sorrow

Third: On the whole, I'd prefer it if news language sounded less like the language of news sources. That too is a pretty natural function. When your job is to hang around people by way of getting information from them (cops, academics, ballplayers, rimrats, whatever), your vocabulary is likely to start reflecting theirs.* It doesn't necessarily change the way you see the world, but it might change the way you summarize the world when the clock is running.

Fox likes to sound like the cops. In Fox World, that's the side that all right-thinking people look up to. If you don't want your news organization to be mistaken for a branch of the police (or the military), not sounding like sources is a good place to start.

* I have no idea whether cops have started using "interests" or it's just a Fox invention. I'd be happy if we swore off "person of interest" altogether.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Here comes one now!

Just when you thought ... well, of course, as a Fox reader, you never really think it's safe to go back in the water, but just when you thought ACORN and socialism and the death panels were all under control, here comes a reminder that you're also being fleeced to keep world leaders, "including the tyrannical despots," safe as the UN convenes to steal more of your freedoms and SUVs:

The cost of keeping the dictators safe? At least $20 million.

That's how much New York City forked out during the first two weeks of last year's General Assembly, according to a city official who spoke to FOX News on condition of anonymity.

It'd spoil the fun to ask whether there was a separate budget for keeping the non-dictators safe, or how much you're forking over to keep the friendlier dictators safe when they relax in their own little dens of dictatorship behind an American shield,* or stuff like that. Suffice it to say that when John Bolton is the voice of reason in your article, something is dangerously out of balance.

To help put things in perspective, here's James Carey, from tonight's** readings:

A ritual view of communication will ... view reading a newspaper less as sending or gaining information and more as attending a mass, a situation in which nothing new is learned but in which a particular view of the world is portrayed and confirmed. ... What is arrayed before the reader is not pure information but a portrayal of the contending forces in the world.

We also have Liebling's tasty "Rubber-Type Army" pieces, to remind us of how often the very survival of the Republic has been at stake in the pages of the press, but there's work to do.

* Or how, after a summer of reminding the pliant liberal media that the real power in Iran is with an unelected clerical apparat, Fox managed to promote Ahmadinejad back to "tyrannical dictator" status.
** All full for this semester, tnx, but vote early and often if you'd like to see it on future schedules.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Stupid AP trender: Voting's over

Summer isn't even technically over, and we're closing the balloting for Stupidest AP Trend Piece of the Year? Yes! And when you see the Grand Champion here, you'll stuff ballot boxes out of sheer delight:

We had been told to expect the deaths of the famous to come in threes, [No we weren't. That was a joke. Remember? Jokes?] not in the dozens. [To spare you the trouble of counting, we manage to squeeze 27 into this piece, or a tad over 5 a month -- technically more than one "dozen," but a near-certain sign of fact inflation.]

But all through the summer of 2009 came a ceaseless and somber drumbeat, as idols [watch this space!] of all walks of life passed away. From Walter Cronkite to Sen. Ted Kennedy, the nonstop loss of luminaries continued almost as if a seasonal occurrence -- as much a part of summer as hot dogs and humidity. [True. We have four seasons, and people die in all of them. Could you explain what the hot dogs have to do with this again?]

... Even with the media-inflated memorials, the parade of deaths was unusual. [According to whom? Here's where we need to start offering some "evidence"] The phrase "summer of death" popped up, perhaps first used by New York magazine, which cheekily claimed the trademark. [This, on the other hand, is barely even an "anecdote."] There's no particular reason for such an aberration; [It doesn't matter how often you say it; sooner or later, you're still going to have to show why it's an "aberration."] the death rate is typically higher during winter.

Early May saw the passing of the beloved Dom DeLuise, 75. But the portly entertainer was only a springtime harbinger of what was to follow.

Yes, and May 2008 saw the beloved old entertainment guys Dick Martin, Sydney Pollack and Harvey Korman, all within five days of each other! Not to mention Eddy Arnold, for the slightly older, and Ham Jordan and Mildred Loving, for those who actually remember a political world before 2001.

On June 4, the "Kung Fu" actor David Carradine, 72, was found dead in a Bangkok hotel room. On June 23, Ed McMahon, the loyal "Tonight" show sidekick to Johnny Carson, died at the age of 86.

Just two days later, two icons of Generation X died. First was the news that Farrah Fawcett, the '70s sex symbol and "Charlie's Angels" star had died of cancer at 62. Late in the day, came the more unbelievable reports
["more unbelievable" than what? And stop putting commas between adverb phrases and verbs like that] that Jackson had died.

Before the end of June, the TV pitchman Billy Mays died. ["Icon" and "luminary" are starting to lose their luster a bit here, aren't they?] Like Jackson, he was just 50.

Early July saw the passing of Robert S. McNamara, 93. The Pentagon chief who directed the escalation of the Vietnam War - and was vilified by many for it.

Bo Diddley, Cyd Charisse, George Carlin. With Jesse Helms following at the beginning of July 2008.

Don Hewitt, the TV news pioneer who created "60 Minutes" and was, like Cronkite, a CBS legend, died later in the summer on Aug. 19. That was just a day after the passing of political columnist Robert Novack. [N-O-V-A-K. If you're going to elevate him to iconhood, spell his name right.]

On Aug. 11, Eunice Kennedy Shriver died. Famous to some for being the sister of President John F. Kennedy, Shriver's great accomplishment [maybe it's just the writer, but I'm prepared to find this dangler especially annoying today] was founding the Special Olympics.

Two days later, Les Paul died at the age of 94. His contributions to music can't be underestimated;
[yes they can; what the writer wants is "overestimated," though he probably means something more like "overstated"] he developed multitrack recording and the solid-body electric guitar.

August, is it? Solzhenitsyn! Isaac Hayes and Jerry Wexler! (Within five days of each other -- coincidence, or what?????) And if we hang on until September 2008, we'll see Norman Whitfield and Levi Stubbs exiting barely a month apart!!!!

As we've seen earlier with the Month of Tragedies game, you can turn any few months into a season of something if you set the bar for your event at enough strange angles. There's no trend here that would survive the first round of drinks at the staff bar -- let alone even the mildest sort of questioning from any vaguely alert editor. This story must be spiked on sight. The AP's pulling one out of thin air, getting a few experts to explain how it's all related to the Interwebs and other stuff You Kids Today are doing, and wrapping it up with the most threadbare of platitudes:

No one who ever picked up a guitar, danced to "Thriller," watched a quality TV news broadcast, read a gripping memoir or laughed through a coming-of-age comedy could have failed to feel the loss.

Autumn can't come soon enough.

If we make it come sooner, will you stop writing? Please?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

When robots write heds

Ar ar ar! Council proposal off the port beam! Blast when ready, Gridley!

When the top hed on your second-front-type 3A has a judge "blasting," the readers have a right to expect -- if not actual fire and brimstone, at least a plume of smoke and the distant rumble of an explosion. What was the source of the explosion here? The language of a lawsuit seeking to put the "council proposal" (electing the City Council by districts, rather than at large) on the ballot is ... "insufficient"!

Well, take that.

This is what happens when editors reach blindly into the word bag and pull out the first five-unit verb that seems to be vaguely associated with the content of the story. In this case, the result isn't just wildly over-tabloidized; it's also misleading. "Blasting" isn't the end product of this exercise. The ruling has the effect of taking the plan off the table for the moment. That's worth trying to get into the display type.

Want a "blast"? Try this one, from a federal district judge's ruling in a birther lawsuit (brought to light at Wonkette, to which/whom thanks):

... [S]he uses her Complaint as a platform for spouting political rhetoric, such as her claims that the President is “an illegal usurper, an unlawful pretender, [and] an unqualified imposter.” (Compl. ¶ 21.) She continues with bare, conclusory allegations that the President is “an alien, possibly even an unnaturalized or even an unadmitted illegal alien . . . without so much as lawful residency in the United States.” (Id. ¶ 26.) Then, implying that the President is either a wandering nomad or a prolific identity fraud crook, she alleges that the President “might have used as many as 149 addresses and 39 social security numbers prior to assuming the office of President.” (Id. ¶ 110 (emphasis added).) Acknowledging the existence of a document that shows the President was born in Hawaii, Plaintiff alleges that the document “cannot be verified as genuine, and should be presumed fraudulent.” (Id. ¶ 113 (emphasis added).)

In further support of her claim, Plaintiff relies upon “the general opinion in the rest of the world” that “Barack Hussein Obama has, in essence, slipped through the guardrails to become President.” (Id. ¶ 128.) Moreover, as though the “general opinion in the rest of the world” were not enough, Plaintiff alleges in her Complaint that according to an “AOL poll 85% of Americans believe that Obama was not vetted, needs to be vetted and his vital records need to be produced.” (Id. ¶ 154.)

That, kiddies, has the makings of a "blast." Prosit!


Friday, September 18, 2009

Words, words, words

Two usages I'd never heard before, both from a discussion of the weekend's new movies on "The Takeaway":

"Crux" as a verb, as in "The plot cruxes on ..."
"Redux" as a noun, as in "It's basically a redux of ..."

To clarify: Far as I can tell, the sky is not falling, the apocalypse is not nigh, and You Kids aren't Destroying the Language (though you should go ahead and get off the lawn, just on general principles). It's kind of cool that they came in close sequence, from two speakers* in a three-way conversation on a hip-n-edgy program, discussing the output of the cultural/geographic/linguistic part of the country that gave us STIX NIX HIX FLIX. But at bottom, it's just people doing routine stuff with language: banging parts of it together to make meaning.

Some of you Usual Suspects might be thinking of a particular Testy Copy Editor whose CAPS LOCK key goes into PAROXYSMS OF RAGE at the MEREST SIGHT of such a THING -- the underlying concern, apparently, being that any new usage immediately and completely shatters an established usage, thereby not only opening the gate to the barbarians but asking them to mix the drinks while we check on how dinner's coming. Please return knickers to original untwisted position. The Language of Shakespeare is going to be all right. Three people on a radio program can't break it. It's unlikely that they'll even scratch the paint.

* One might have been the host, but I'm not sure. I'll see if there's a transcript later (and rectify the example sentences if so).

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Y'all come

The local free sheet does its part in these tough economic times:

Detroit Edison entices homes,
businesses to solar system

Come on down!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Horton hears a whom

Apparently the pronomial coin toss isn't working. Same paper, same afternoon, same category of news:

Police seek man in kidnapping
Police are looking for a man this afternoon whom they say stabbed a woman and then took her two young daughters with him as he fled.

Pineville police nab escapee
An anonymous tip led authorities in Pineville to a prison escapee who they captured Tuesday afternoon after a manhunt, police say.

At least you'd get to 50% if you just held down the "yes" key.

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.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

Gaudete! Michigan vincit

Brian raises a point below that's worth a post of its own -- as much fun as it would be to try a few "jubilate" cutlines, is there really a practical alternative to "celebrate" with sports photos? Not to answer a question with a question, but probably the best alternative is: Why do cutlines need verbs? Or more specifically, why do cutlines need verbs describing the stuff that -- at least, if you trust your lying eyes --is going on right there inside the frame for all to see?

Cutlines are one of the things the NYT consistently does well, and one reason is that NYT cutline writers are really good at sticking to one of my favorite precepts: Don't tell me what I'm seeing, tell me why I'm seeing it. So let's look at a few of today's NYT sports photos and what copy editors tell us about them. Conveniently, the lede college football photo is the same one that provided the first of the Freep's five "celebrate" sports cutlines:

Quarterback Tate Forcier, right, threw* a touchdown pass with 11 seconds left that helped Michigan take a big step forward after a 3-9 season last year.

Nice and informative -- one chunk of display type is complementing all the others. We don't know the name of the player hugging him, but maybe that's another rule we should question more often.**

Downpage is another classic of the genre -- a shouting athlete shaking hands with fans -- that usually ends up with a "celebrates with fans" or "shouts as he shakes hands with" cutline. Instead:

Houston's Case Keenum completed 32 of 46 passes for 366 yards and 3 touchdowns, including the winning score with 6:42 to play.

You can't always see whether a play is a success or a failure. In cases like that, you need to complement the image:

U.C.L.A.'s David Carter sacking Tennessee's Johnathan Crompton, who had 93 yards passing and 3 interceptions in the Volunteers' 19-15 loss.

But not all action photos need explaining:

Picking up in a second-set tie-breaker, Rafael Nadal completed a three-set victory over Fernando Gonzalez to reach the semifinals.

And particularly with archival photos, who says you need a verb at all?

Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays before the second game of the 1962 World Series.

What the Times is doing is basic, fundamental, hit-behind-the-runner desk work. It's making decisions one at a time and letting content drive them, rather than following an abstract rule about what an abstract modal caption looks like under a 30-year-old picture in a journalism textbook. That doesn't mean Times editing is always good. It means decisions you think about are almost always better than decisions you make by rote.

Is there a better verb than "celebrate"? No, but there's a better idea: Tell me why they're celebrating.

* Past tense for stuff that happened outside the frame.
Certainly once you get out of state.


Season of the which?

Quick, what time of year is it downtown?

Michigan's Tate Forcier and Darryl Stonum celebrate Forcier's TD against the Irish. (1D)

They're wearing their hearts on their maize-and-blue sleeves. Some Michigan fans -- in the student section, maybe? -- celebrate a touchdown for the home team during the big 38-34 win over Notre Dame for Rich Rodriguez's Wolverines on Saturday. (2D)

Michigan head coach Rich Rodriguez and quarterback Tate Forcier celebrate after Forcier scored a touchdown against Notre Dame. (2D)

Wisconsin's Chris Maragos (21) and teammate Michael Harris celebrate Maragos' interception. (4D)

Dejected MSU player Greg Jones walks off the field at Spartan Stadium as CMU players celebrate Andrew Aguila's 42-yard field goal to win the game Saturday. (8D).

Not-quite-relatedly, further evidence that sports language has stood another verb on its ear, from the same section: "Paris Cotton catches a TD pass with 32 seconds left to put the Chippewas within one, 27-26. Defending him is MSU's Eric Gordon."

I haven't been keeping a file on this one (and not being Safire, I don't think it's a sign that the widening gyre* is getting even wider), but "defend" = "play defense against" seems pretty close to becoming standard on the sports pages. It sort of resembles a usage the OED calls obsolete, as in Holinshed's "Which walles greatlie defended the fire from spreading further." I don't like it, and I'd go to some lengths to keep it off my own pages, but language has a habit of not asking my permission to change.

"Celebrate," on the other hand, is just tedious. Please cut it out.

* Did you try the Polish sausage at the State Fair? The wurst are full of passionate intensity. Thanks, I'll be here all week.


Saturday, September 12, 2009

All right, that's enough

Editors at AP member papers, pls consider yourselves empowered to kill this lede on sight and to call the AP suggesting a rewrite:

Tens of thousands of protesters fed up with government spending marched to the U.S. Capitol on Saturday, showing their disdain for the president's health care plan with slogans such as "Obamacare makes me sick" and "I'm not your ATM."

Sorry, no. I think the AP's naivete is bordering on the delusional here. Was this written on the same planet as the fourth graf?

Other signs — reflecting the growing intensity of the health care debate — depicted President Barack Obama with the signature mustache of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. Many referred to Obama as a socialist or communist, and another imposed his face on that of the villainous Joker from "Batman."

Given a face-to-face encounter with the people who can't tell Nazis from commies, the AP insists on believing it's all about the spending? I'd be cheesed off about my membership fee too.

September -- like every month -- is a month of many anniversaries: the Tories selling out Czechoslovakia, for example, with the Tory press more or less telling the Czechs to lie back and think of England.* See if you can guess which major party in the United States agreed that those decadent Europeans ought to be left to whatever mercies Berlin might grant.** When their moral descendants flash the Nazi card and paint themselves as the freedom fighters of the modern age, "objective" journalism really has a moral obligation to call bullshit.

Funny, that's the sort of thing the Fournier-era AP claimed as its new mission. Would it care to account for this apparent contradiction?

*I'm paraphrasing Bill Shirer here, because I left him at the office while putting together the reading list. But Berlin Diary should definitely be on the bedside table if you're interested in media performance in conflicts.
** With the concurrence of the largest papers in Washington, New York and Chicago. This actually isn't a joke, in case you think the United States has a tradition of "liberal media."


Friday, September 11, 2009

Hoist with his own cooling tower

It's always campaign season at Fox, so the past few days' stories about wasteful spending are conveniently filed under "elections." But they start life on the front page, where it's easier to scare the chickens and stir up the intended reaction. Here's yesterday's example, under the hed "Tracking Your Taxes: Tax Dollars Being Washed Out to Sea":

Talk about money running through your fingers.

It's no surprise that many Americans -- who see tax dollars spent for waste and ineffective programs -- feel as though their dollars are literally being tossed out to sea.

But FOX News found one program that does just that.

Sand replenishment projects are allotted millions of tax dollars annually to "rejuvenate" beaches, often just steps from multimillion-dollar beach homes and luxury hotels.

Needless to say, the comments tend to run toward: "They throw that kind of money away on sand, but hey they can run a health care system for millions better then anyone else can and at lower cost." ("They" being "Congress," of course.)

So in today's installment of "Tracking Your Taxes," the same reporter goes fishing for outrage again:

If you want money from Congress, consider these two magic words: terrorism and disaster.

That's actually been a point of concern for some time now,* even if Fox seems to find all the porkrolling on one side of the aisle and all the righteous indignation on the other.** But let's turn for a moment to the example that the frontpage hed is drawn from:

Another town in line for $750,000 worth of funding is Point Gibson, Miss., which is less than two miles square, has fewer than 2,000 residents and just seven police officers. According to the latest FBI numbers, Port Gibson had no murders, no rapes, no robberies and just five assaults in all of 2007. Meanwhile Las Vegas, presumed to be high on any terrorist hit list, gets $600,000.

Go back and read the hed in your best Fox daytime anchor voice, bearing in mind this tag at the end of the story:

Offer your examples of pork in the comments section below.

So let's see what the readers have to say today:

Uh, to the brilliant reporter that put this story together: you need to do your homework a little better. Port Gibson happens to the home of the Grand Gulf Nuclear Power plant. I'm not a terrorism expert (although I watch 24, so there!), but I think nuclear power plants might rank pretty high on potential terrorist targets, don't you?

There is a NUCLEAR POWER PLANT in Port Gibson!

Port Gibson would very well be at risk for attack if they decided to go for the power plants.

Port Gibson has a nuclear facility and is located right on the Missisippi River. I would think $750,000 is a small price to pay should a disaster shutdown the goods and services that flow up and down the Mississippi River? What do you lose if Las Vegas encounters an attack, a few casinos? An industry built on taking money OUT of peoples pockets? We would be so lucky if Harry Reid just happened to be visiting his home state!

Lesson for Fox: be careful what you wish for. Lesson for journalists: maybe that segment of the audience isn't entirely lost after all.

* I forget who, but someone at the ISA conference last February put it thus: Qaida didn't just hijack airplanes, it hijacked a whole deliberative process.
** Wanna guess which?

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Grammar: Threat or menace?

Grammar Week is going to start Monday in the editing class, so let's have a look at the state of play for grammar in the local blatt. It's going to suggest that whatever is getting the undergarments in a wad downtown, it's the wrong stuff.

Some of these could (and, I expect, do) reflect editing errors. Others are faults or misunderstandings on the writing side that should have been fixed or clarified in the editing process. Either way, you're better served if you think of "grammar" as the process of identifying the parts of the machine in front of you and determining what they do to each other. It isn't about avoiding split verbs, and it certainly isn't about wasting time enforcing the stylebook's absurd claim that you can't refer to countries as "states" (to pick a non-grammar "rule" that happens to annoy Your Editor). Onward:

Stepping into a fray that still threatens to kill plans for national health care overhaul, President Barack Obama declared Wednesday that "the time for bickering is over" and outlined principles for Congress to follow in the debate:

This looks like a desk-induced error -- someone remembering that "reform" is freighted with positive connotations and substituting the purportedly neutral "overhaul" instead.* If that's the case, we have a scalpel-in-the-patient problem, and those look really bad on the X-rays. "Reform" and "overhaul" aren't the same sort of noun. "Overhaul" doesn't come in a noncount sense; you can say "I support reform," but not "I support overhaul." "A national health care overhaul" gets it done in two keystrokes.

Last week, Chrysler said it would show in Frankfurt a new 2010 version of its Dodge Caliber hatchback that will be powered by a 2.2-liter diesel engine supplied by Mercedes-Benz and a freshly designed interior.

Up to a point, this is a straightforward diagramming job. Last week is when Chrysler said something, and we have a long complementized clause explaining what it said; "in Frankfurt" is where it will show (the noun phrase pointing to) "hatchback"; there are some nested relative clauses** describing the car; and there's -- well, apparently there's a "freshly designed interior." Which goes where? Will Chrysler show it, or does it help power the hatchback, or did it help M-B supply the engine? A couple of easy fixes suggest themselves, but they aren't going to make themselves. Somebody needs to bail the writer out.

Ready for another case of random "after"?

A Birmingham mother was arrested on charges of drunken driving as she took her 9-year-old son to school after her blood-alcohol level registered more than three times the legal limit, Ferndale Police said. (They tested her first, and then she took the kid to school, and then they arrested her? Again, if you're sweating bullets over the distinction between "police said" and "Ferndale Police said," you're wasting time on an irrelevant point of house style and letting the writer down.)

The Freep is usually so fearful of split-verb superstitions that you hate to complain when it breaks down and splits an infinitive, but:

In recent years, the CIA has tried to increasingly recruit Arab Americans as the United States has become involved in conflicts across the Arab and Muslim worlds. (The splitter is a good signal that the adverb needs to go with the verb it's allegedly splitting: "to boldly go where no man has gone before." That's not how I read this sentence; I want "increasingly" to go with "tried." Again, the first question shouldn't be "am I following the rule?" The first question ought to be "are you saying what you want to say?")

There's more to look at, and there's a lot of bad writing that's perfectly sound in the world of grammar, but let's start the new season with a clear idea of what we need to concentrate on and what we can happily ignore.

* I wasn't there and don't know, but it's worth noting that "reform" shows up in a lede under the same byline inside.
** This is the bomb that destroyed the hatchback that carried the document that undermined the tape that supported the defendant's claim that lived in the house that Jack built. Try it at home!

Category error

Take it away, McClatchy Washburo:

Rep. Joe Wilson, a Republican from South Carolina, stole the spotlight Wednesday by yelling “You lie!” during President Obama's address to Congress.

No, he didn't, and this really suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of what "news" is and how it works. The lede assumes that actors determine where the spotlight goes and that news just follows objectively along. Rep. Wilson can't steal the spotlight unless someone hands it to him. McClatchy isn't the sole offender, but it's unusually brazen about aiding and abetting.

If you think the spotlight ought to be somewhere else, aim it there. But don't blame somebody else when you're sitting there with your hands on the controls.


Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Sweet leaping lizards

The original seems to be no longer available, but this correction points back to a remarkable bit of cross-cultural misunderstanding:

Because of a reporter's error in a Friday story about Seder, the Jewish observance of Passover, two references were made to actions symbolic of Jesus. In the first, the breaking of the matzo is not representative of Jesus and in the second reference, wine is not representative of his blood.

Go forth and ... just don't.


Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Chain letter!

This is mildly off topic, but not entirely* -- I mean, I do teach media history over the summer, and this is like getting a Telex, reading an evening newspaper, and seeing Fred and Barney sneak behind the house for a Winston, all at once. In glorious black and white. It's an actual chain letter, on paper, in an envelope, from Missouri, with a first-class stamp!

Well, not really. After all, it says very clearly: "This is not a chain letter." And it's from a retired attorney! Whose client asked him to look at the letter! Which he found "not 100% legit"! But at client's request he "made only one small change which made the program totally legit"! See, you have to add "please put me on your mailing list," because that way, you're selling something of value! In return for the hundreds of thousands of dollars you are about to receive! ("You may want to purchase and** electric letter opener.")

The big difference, best I can tell, is that these days, you buy a mailing list from Datafax, rather than yanking the chains of people you already know. ("Specify that you want the names and addresses of OPPORTUNITY SEEKERS," 200 of whom*** will cost you 45 bucks, and the peel-and-stick envelopes at Wal-Mart are a great deal.) All you have to do is call 1-877-328-2977!

I don't know about you guys, but I'm going to go open a Schlitz and -- oh, write an inverted pyramid or something. If anyone wants to assign extra credit for seeing if you can get Prince Albert in a can along with your OPPORTUNITY SEEKERS, it sounds like more fun than another essay.

*And lighten up out there anyway. There's a whole raft of Fox stuff to work through, and tonight was the first meeting of the all-new (!) media-conflict-crisis seminar, and editing is tomorrow, and an accept-but-revise just got here, plus I'm still typing with somewhere between eight and nine fingers and the deck has steadfastly refused to scrape and paint itself during my convalescence even though winter is yclosing in, lhude sing [naughty words here].
** Sic. But i expect Czarina's mom has one around somewhere.
*** OK, "which." Sheez.


Monday, September 07, 2009

The sorcerer's apprentice

Stop me if this sounds too much like an edgy new BBC sci-fi/noir drama: A zombie, a robot and a Time Agent are sharing a hip 1920s bungalow off East Boulevard while working at a Major Metropolitan Daily, and one of them has to cover the holiday shift on the wire desk, and ...

Wonder why Zardari's election is a big deal here? (That's the teaser from the top of the online "print edition" section at bottom and the story itself at top.*) Especially since it isn't mentioned in the story, the rest of the news world seems to have missed it entirely, and Zardari was elected in September 2008? Good question. It certainly doesn't bode well for the idea that we can just let the rest of the world run itself while we concentrate on football, Mission Possible and the United Way.

* As of this writing, the story is fixed, but the teaser remains a wide-open rift to another part of space-time.

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Sunday, September 06, 2009

Writing yourself into a corner

Hey, MU fans, today's quiz is for you! Here's a sentence:

If there were any doubts that sophomore Blaine Gabbert would bumble the line of succession as Missouri’s next franchise quarterback, they became expired after one pass in the Tigers’ 37-9 thrashing of Illinois.

Was Mr. Gabbert's performance (a) a success or (b) a failure?


Saturday, September 05, 2009

Battle of the hometowns

Hey, thanks for making the Old Hometown look all up-to-date on the international stage and everything, you guys!

So how are things in Language Czarina's native territory? Eh, went downtown today for sets by Dee Dee Bridgewater and Dave Brubeck (quartet first, kids later), with some rising talent in between. Fried perch and craft ales on the way back. Gave moral support to the (probably expiring) state fair the week before. Got caught in the Dream Cruise before that.

We can hold them at bay on the fried fish for a while, but otherwise things aren't looking all that good for the old zip code.


Friday, September 04, 2009

Aiding and abetting

Uh, no. No, it doesn't -- "alarm parents," that is. This one is directly and specifically the fault of the copydesk (that'll be the desk of The News and Observer of Raleigh, if you're scoring along at home). And it illustrates a central principle of news framing: There is no zero milestone. If you think you aren't choosing an organizing principle for your news story, you can rest assured that one is being chosen for you.

You want alarm? OK, a couple of weeks ago, a guy running away from a fatal accident* decided to betake himself up Main Street and meld into the topiary or something. Having no success in locating him (it being 3 or 4 in the morning and all), the cops called in a helicopter from the Coast Guard. Helicopter going over the house at 4:30 in the morning low enough to track some guy last seen running from yard to yard, that was "alarming." These people are -- well, let's give them a listen:

"The thing that concerned me most about it was it seemed like a direct channel from the president of the United States into the classroom, to my child," said Brett Curtiss, an engineer from Pearland, Texas, who said he would keep his three children home. "I don't want our schools turned over to some socialist movement."

... Mark Steyn, a Canadian author and political commentator, speaking on Rush Limbaugh's radio show on Wednesday, accused Obama of trying to create a cult of personality, comparing him with Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader.

The Republican Party chairman in Florida, Jim Greer, said he "was appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama's socialist ideology."

And Chris Stigall, a Kansas City talk show host, said, "I'm not letting my next-door neighbor talk to my kid alone; I'm sure as hell not letting Barack Obama talk to him alone."

So even if "parents" means "one parent, a party hack and some gasbags," it's pretty clear that what they are is "deluded" (except for the gasbags and party hacks; they're evidently "paid liars," though we'd need to restructure the sentence to get all that to coordinate properly). Not "alarmed." But back to the second graf for a moment:

Some parents said they were concerned because the speech had not been screened for political content. Nor, they said, had it been reviewed by the state Board of Education and local school boards, which, under state law, must approve the curriculum.

Hmm. Wonder where all those ideas came from? Let's ask another paper that -- funny -- also used the "speech causes uproar" hed:

U.S. Rep. Thaddeus McCotter, a Livonia Republican, and U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., are asking Obama to release the text of the speech in advance.

Make sense now? (That's really the point of framing, after all; it's a sensemaking tool that helps you organize a bunch of random data into a narrative.) This is part of the "just release the birth certificate" narrative: the secretive Marxist cabal in the White House is doing stuff behind your back again, despite its (false) promises of openness. The president could stop all these uproars in advance, if only he would let the American People see the documents!

Most of the other familiar meta-frames emerge in the coverage: Socialism, fascism, hidden motives, arrogance and the cult of personality, radical associates, scorn for the Constitution, lust for clandestine power grabs -- and don't forget the Teleprompter. Alarmed? Nah. Summoned to action by a clever propaganda apparat? Getting warmer.

More and more, it's also clear that there's something else below the surface. When somebody says the Confederate flag in his license plate holder is about heritage, not race, my first thought tends to be: It's about race, glad we cleared that up. And when somebody at the "town hall" tells EyeWitlessNews7 or the Daily Beast that it's about the socialisms or the Bill Ayerses or the death panels or the secret Hitlerjugend camps, I'm starting to think the same thing: Glad we cleared that up.

The hed, once again, is directly the desk's fault. The NYT story under it is a bit oblique; it plays by the rules of journalism, so it can't actually call Mark Steyn a babbling loony or ask whether the engineer has designed any bridges on your route to work, but you can get a pretty good idea of who's doing what to whom. It's all right to leave the anti-loony invective for the editorial pages (where, frankly, it's about time the volume was turned up a bit), but the newspages need to do their bit as well. And part of that is an end to aiding and abetting intellectual fraud in headlines.

* "Fled the scene on foot in an unknown direction" is the technical journalistic term.

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'Onion News Network'


Two Bangladeshi newspapers have apologised after publishing an article taken from a satirical US website which claimed the moon landings were faked.

... The story was published on the Onion's website on Monday and on Wednesday, the Daily Manab Zamin translated it into Bengali, attributing it to the Onion News Network in Lebanon, Ohio. It then ran in New Nation on Thursday.

Both papers, the Beeb assures us, "have now apologised to their readers for not checking the story."

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Hey, kids! Did you know ...?

Today's linguistics trivia: Did you know that the Chinese word for "front page" is made up of the characters for "there's one born" and "every minute"?

Highlights, in case you can't read the fine print:

When teacher Kimberly Woody went searching for supplies to decorate her classroom this year, fire and water topped the list.

A red triangle representing fire and a fish tank filled with water will each find a home in her Clinton Township classroom.

The elements are essential to feng shui, the ancient Chinese belief that the way a room is arranged affects energy in the space. Woody said she believes feng shui will help her students focus, thus improving grades and behavior.

... To prove her theory, the art teacher at Mohegan High School said she will compare student's grades from last year to this year, and do a series of student surveys.

Can't wait for those between-group comparisons!

Enjoy today's back-to-school 1A presence in all its glory here. (Frontpage stories differ a bit between print and dotcom; owing to the no-jump rule, print stories have discrete front and inside versions, but the Web version usually shows up as a single continuous story.)

Good Old Days are here again

A visitor from a few days back takes issue with the (perceived) suggestion that the days when publishers ordered their friends' business or social doings into the paper at random are gone. We're certainly happy to stipulate that that's not what we had in mind. For a variety of reasons,* I expect it's less prevalent than it was three and four decades ago, but that's a hypothesis, not an observation.** But for those who thought this flavor of sacred cow had gone extinct on us,*** have a look and enjoy.

How did the "local philanthropist" here come to merit the bulk of the front page -- "call him Waco's behind-the-scenes booster" lede and all? (Aside from his claim to have been the highest-paid insurance salesman in the country at age 25, I mean.) Hmm. Wonder if there are any hints with the jump? Like, say, that pull quote at the top of the page from the, ahem, "new owner" of the paper?

Well, freedom of the press has always been uniquely guaranteed to those who own one.**** Sometimes it's just a bit more visible than others.

* Counterintuitive as it might seem, the spread of chain ownership is one; when you're getting your passport stamped on a two- or three-year rotation, it's harder to build the sort of deep-catalog incestuous relationships you need.
** Nor do I know of any evidence that the public has a better idea of how often (or under what circumstances) it happens.
*** Or haven't heard the tale about the nuns and the pancake breakfast.
**** For extra credit, see how long it takes you to find the actual quote via Google.