Thursday, April 29, 2010

Anniversaries again

Time flies like a banana, doesn't it? Today marks five years of posting at our little corner of cyberspace here, so consider yourself welcome to our open house. Come in and support the Michigan economy with a fine Bell's product! (Cheaper than a Pinto and less flammable.)

Things have changed a bit over the years. Headsup: The Blog began life as an online version of HEADSUP-L, the semiregular critique of copy editing at the Missouri J-school's baddest and most venerable teaching laboratory, the century-old daily known as the Missourian. Other topics and other news sources began to drift in as they seemed pertinent to the ongoing question of what editors do and whether and how they should or shouldn't do it.

The table also got bigger as other folks started to stop by: Doug from the small world of the editing classroom, Hat from the land of language blogging, RayB and Strayhorn from newspapers past, The Ridger from the corner of Language and Politics. Those were some of the early visitors, and I certainly don't mean to slight any of the other fine characters who comment, send in tips, provide the occasional link, or just read. (Except the guy with the WoW Gold. He's slighted.) I'd say it's still an editing blog, but it's less tolerant of peeving -- and journalistic gullibility -- than it used to be, and perhaps a little more inclined to address the general WTF-hood of journalism today. And five years ago, I might have worried about that last comma.

I'm your editor, and I generally go by Fred. (Those are my initials* at the end of the posts, but I don't use the whole thing in publishing, because that gets you to a rather different publication record.) I write about editing because I think it's an important craft and because it's what I did for many years before I jumped the fence into graduate school full time back in 2004. And, at least since I first annoyed a supervising editor by posting our convention hed next to the ayem competition's on the bulletin board -- "Ex-Candidate Leaves Mark On Platform" and "Carter Finds Platform Sticky," if you're scoring along at home** -- I've kept a file open for things that slip past editors. Think of it as a reminder of all the things we catch.

This is Language Czarina, my partner in assorted crime and misdemeanor.*** Conveniently, when I was dissertating and she was academic-advising, a job opened up at the Big State University where she had been a wide-eyed little sorceress way back when, and it turned out to be a nice fit. We live in her old hometown, which has three brewpubs, an 80-year-old bakery that starts turning out octopus-shaped cupcakes at this point in the playoffs, and Dr. Kevorkian collecting signatures downtown. I actually do have a view of Canada from my office. (She has a view of an inflatable moose head, which is not bad.) In what may prove a surprise to our far-distant newspaper colleagues, we have produced our first co-authored paper, albeit her degree is in Blake.

I really do like the stuff I teach, which tends most frequently to be editing, content analysis and journalism history. Most of my research time goes into looking at things that got my attention when I was a working editor: how stuff comes to look the way it does in news accounts (particularly the Fractious Near East and the creation of threats) and what happens when it does. I try to be sure it makes as much sense to editors as it does to academics. That's a little optimistic.

You've already met Woodchuck and Bernie, the official research kitties, but here they are again. Bernie's the one who sounds like Jon Stewart imitating Dick Cheney. Woodchuck's the dreamy one. Pictures of Your Editor are rare, for good reason, but if you look here, he's on the left. (Didn't know there was a Christmas version of "Nunsense," did you?)

And that's our show. Please stop by often. And please say nice things to your friendly neighborhood copy editors, should you see them stalking the earth in daylight. They're some of the better-behaved and more sensible people in journalism. There's a lot about the craft that I don't miss, and if you want my three slices of mediocre free pizza next election night, you can have them. (Please don't get me started on the sort of deep-catalog clue deprivation that prevails among those who desperately want a glass office of their own.) But you can't watch the game without a kind thought for the people who are still playing it.

* At my first newspaper, you used a string of characters including your initials to wake up the VDTs -- mean little dinosaurs that would hold all for 3,500 characters before you had to dump your prose to a punch tape. We sort of got into the habit.
** My own Most Fun Hed was a 1/30/2 on the occasion of the Rajneeshis buying their ranch: "Om, om on the range." I don't do that anymore.
*** Bonus points for identifying the tube stop. It isn't the nearest one to the buro.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Just stop it

Dear cousins downtown:

Under the general heading of "no more stupid sports heds that play on people's names," see Datsyuk, P. If "Dat's it," "Dat's more like it!" and "Dats the question" were all the rage last year, what makes you think you've come up with something original this year?

Cut it out. Now and forever. Please.

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

No, but thanks for asking

Let's not say the Fair 'n' Balanced Network hates science. It just has -- oh, a sort of unusual set of conditions under which science stories are believed. And evidently, being a story in The Sun is one of those conditions.

Here's what made the No. 3 story at Fox this afternoon:

A group of Chinese and Turkish evangelical explorers say wooden remains they have discovered on Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey are the remains of Noah's Ark.

The group claims that carbon dating proves the relics are 4,800 years old, meaning they date to around the same time the ark was said to be afloat. Mt. Ararat has long been suspected as the final resting place of the craft by evangelicals and literalists hoping to validate biblical stories.

Yeung Wing-Cheung, from the Noah's Ark Ministries International research team that made the discovery, said: "It's not 100 percent that it is Noah's Ark, but we think it is 99.9 percent that this is it."

And, except for the Fox byline and the absence of the Sun's lede, that's more or less exactly what the Murdoch stablemate had to say. But Fox does add some value from a press conference:

There have been several reported discoveries of the remains of Noah's Ark over the years, most notably a find by archaeologist Ron Wyatt in 1987. At the time, the Turkish government officially declared a national park around his find, a boat-shaped object stretched across the mountains of Ararat.

Nevertheless, the evangelical ministry remains convinced that the current find is in fact more likely to be the actual artifact, calling upon Dutch Ark researcher Gerrit Aalten to verify its legitimacy.

“The significance of this find is that for the first time in history the discovery of Noah’s Ark is well documented and revealed to the worldwide community,” Aalten said at a press conference announcing the find. Citing the many details that match historical accounts of the Ark, he believes it to be a legitimate archaeological discovery.

“There’s a tremendous amount of solid evidence that the structure found on Mount Ararat in Eastern Turkey is the legendary Ark of Noah,” said Aalten.

Just in case, have a look at another hot science story from the Sun: Nessie existed 'beyond doubt'. Note that, like the Ark tale, it bears the flag reproduced at the top of this page. "Got a story? We pay £££."

* It's kind of fun to watch an American news organization copying such distinctive style features as "the ark and her inhabitants."**
** Though with its zealous attention to any and all slights against the Faith of our Fathers, you'd think Fox would have noticed that "two of every animal species" isn't exactly how the story goes.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Cheering in the pressbox

Letting our sheer excitement with the evening's top story show a little ... prematurely, you think?

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Annals of 'after'

Diagramming party to action stations: Rock Hill sentence right ahead!

Drug agents arrested five York County residents after they say one of two meth labs found this weekend was in a pregnant woman's Rock Hill bedroom.

And for all the prepositional follies, we only get two arrests and one lab.


Sunday, April 25, 2010

Tweety in the slot

Two-graf setup, then the pitch. Ready?

It takes an unusual person to try to flip a town on an auction website. It takes unusual people, too, to buy this isolated place that's surrounded by cattle ranches, vast stretches of evergreens, grazing land and the occasional sagebrush rolling along Highway 20.

On this highway, Wauconda is a pit stop at elevation 3,600 feet, a windy 25 miles east of Tonasket, and 12 miles west of Republic, the nearest towns with actual city streets.

But sold it did, on April 12.

Want to know what it looks like at the originating paper?

But sell it did on April 12.

OK. It's not a very good setup, because it's off target. It's talking about the people, not the conditions of the sale,* so it doesn't give you the contrast you want for the "but sell it did." But at least the writer put the tense on the auxiliary and not on the main verb, because the writer was not Tweety Bird and did not jump up and down going "They did! They did sold a town on April 12!"

Look, we always appreciate having fresh material for class, but seriously. What were you thinking here?

* I'm prepared to be a little slack on the meaning of "surrounded" in some cases, but no -- you cannot be surrounded by an occasional sagebrush.

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Friday, April 23, 2010

Sure can make you lose your ... wait, what?

Well, we certainly don't want people thinking the wrong thing about how quickly the Kenyans are nationalizing the auto industry, do we?

To keep the fires burning, then, we're going to take the same facts that went into yesterday's lead story (that'll be the Grassley and Barofsky comments), seasoned with the somewhat more tentative opinion piece Grassley wrote yesterday, and spin it all forward with -- hey, there's an idea! "Could be in trouble with FTC" because of the venue in which the claims were repeated! (That'll be "advertising," which pays the bills for the vast majority of American journalism.) Let's see:

General Motors is running ads on all the major networks this week claiming it has repaid its bailout from the taxpayers "in full." But the claim isn't standing up to scrutiny from lawmakers and government watchdogs who have found that the automaker was able to repay the bailout money only by dipping into a separate pot of bailout funds. (That's one "lawmaker" and one "government watchdog," if you're scoring along at home. Same as yesterday.)

The TV spot may land GM in hot water with the Federal Trade Commission over its truth-in-advertising laws, which prohibit ads that are "likely to mislead consumers."

Technically true. That's one of the things the FTC does. (If GM had claimed that the Chevy Volt will produce a statistically significant reduction in bad cholesterol in four weeks, that'd be the sort of health claim that falls to the FDA, not the FTC, and Fox would be on the side of the people making the claim. But we digress.) But how good of a forecast would this be? I wonder how we could tell.

The FTC said it could not provide any comment on the ad or whether it had received any complaints or inquiries about GM's claims from the public or from government officials. (That's a shock.)

The FTC has a division of advertising practices that investigates possible false claims, but specific investigations are not made public. If the FTC determines that truth-in-advertising laws have been violated, the agency files complaints against the organizations in violation.

Yes, that's how the rules work. It's worth noting that the peasants haven't exactly been at GM's gates either: "Martin (GM spokesman Greg Martin) said GM has not received any communications from the FTC or complaints from federal officials." But back to our story.

... "A lot of Americans didn't agree with giving GM a second chance," Whitacre said in the 60-second ad. "We invite you to take a look at the new GM."

Well, meet the new GM. Same as the old GM. The company is still majority-owned by the federal government, which has a 60 percent stake in the Detroit titan; the Canadian government owns another 12 percent.

No, in no sense is it "same as the old GM." It's the GM that's majority-owned by the government (61%); the "old GM" is the one that was bailed out in 2009. As ane fule kno.

Anyway. The crux of Fox's false-ad assertion seems to be that GM's chairman asserted in an ad that GM was able to repay the loans "because more customers are buying vehicles." At least, that's what apparently had Sen. Grassley's panties in a wad when he wrote that "GM did not repay the loans with money it made selling cars." Which, of course, isn't what GM claimed to have done, notwithstanding whether such a claim would have been materially false in a way that would be "likely to mislead consumers." Like, say, calling an Escalade a subcompact, or a Fox broadcast "fair and balanced."

And the radio doesn't work, either

This is the sort of correction that makes you really, really want to see the original:

A story in Thursday's Local & State section on claims of flaws in a nuclear reactor design incorrectly quoted Westinghouse Electric spokesman Vaughn Gilbert. Gilbert said the steel of the containment building around the AP1000 reactor is unlikely to corrode.

And the original:

"This has been reviewed and analyzed over the years. Without question, corrosion will not be an issue," said Vaughn Gilbert, a Westinghouse Electric spokesman in Pittsburgh. The steel of the containment building is highly likely to corrode, Gilbert said, but would be detected by inspections.

Reporters work in a hurry, and they can make mistakes. For such an exigency were copy editors placed on this earth Amen. But unlike yesterday's vend/vent confusion, it's hard to imagine this one getting by any reader who wasn't -- figuratively or literally -- asleep at the switch. I mean, what do you suppose he meant by "corrosion will not be an issue"?


Thursday, April 22, 2010

Venti. vidi, vici

The Telephone Error of the Month Award goes that bastion of repeating the error in the correction, the Times. Of New York:

An article on Saturday about a proposal by the Bloomberg administration to cut the number of street vendors in city parks by 75 percent quoted incorrectly from comments by Adrian Benepe, the parks commissioner. In elaborating on the proposal, Mr. Benepe said: “The artists can vend. The people who sell other goods can vend” — not “vent.”

Considering the rest of his comment as quoted -- "And everybody will adjust. This is not the end of art. It is just a very slight and strategic moving of where people can sell art" -- you do sort of wonder what was going on in his dialect* or the reporter's ear for "vent" to have made sense.

In a perfect world, you'd like to think, an editor would have arisen at some point in the process to say: Wait. He's saying they can sell stuff. Are you sure he said "vent"? But you can also see how it makes perfect sense to let it go: Yah, just another official saying let 'em eat cake.

It's interesting that the version of this story archived at Lexis-Nexis has the corrected version of the quote -- interesting and annoying, because as I first read the correction, the "not 'vent'" applied to the second "vend," so I thought the original printed version had had the artists vending and everybody else venting. That would have been strange, and anyway, it's always nice to see what the real thing looked like before complaining about it in public.

Fortunately, a New York blog** seems to have captured the original, and both of the "vend" cases were rendered as "vent." But my confidence in Lexis as a reliable tool for content analysis is not what it was a few hours ago.

* We have lots of final-stop devoicing around here, but at a quick glance, he doesn't seem like the sort of guy I'd attribute that feature to.
** Don't miss the shot of the turkey on Broadway. Nice, Cal!


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

In the realm of clowns and liars

A few enter- taining examples of stories that have been cycling through the No. 3 spot over at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network tonight. If these weren't at the top of the news for you tonight, there might be a reason for that. Let's see.

Why do some instances of episodic crime rise to the apparent top of the news -- or, to borrow Fox's terms, how does one killing become a "flashpoint in the immigration debate"? As is generally the case with agenda-setting, the best answer is something like "because it shows up on the front page a lot." You can be forgiven if you haven't heard of this case, but it certainly hasn't been for lack of effort on Fox's part. Hence today's dramatic break: "Cops say man wanted for questioning in burglaries could give them insight into Arizona rancher's murder."

Well, not quite. Things get a lot less sexy in a hurry when we get to the story itself:

Arizona police investigating the killing of a prominent rancher near the Mexican border have identified a man wanted for questioning in a series of burglaries in the area.

Hang on, because we're heading from some slippery terrain on the multiple-self-canceling-negation front:

The Cochise County Sheriff's Office calls Alejandro Chavez-Vasquez, thought to be in his late 30s, a person of interest in the burglaries. Police have not publicly connected Chavez-Vasquez to the March 27 killing of rancher Bob Krentz, but they also haven't ruled out that he might know something about that case.

So the frontpage tease is just a little false. The cops aren't actually saying the "person of interest" could "give them insights"; they just haven't said he couldn't!

"It would depend on what he would be able to tell us about other burglaries and other open cases we have," sheriff's office spokeswoman Carol Capas told The Arizona Star, adding that there are no suspects or persons of interest in the Krentz case.

So Fox's hard-hitting, can't-find-it-in-the-MSM reporting relies, as usual, on the cursed MSM? Which isn't exactly covering itself with journalistic glory either?*

The news release doesn’t identify Chavez-Vasquez as a person of interest in the investigation into the killing of longtime rancher Robert Krentz on March 27, but a news release of this type is unusual and the Portal area is just north of where Krentz was found dead on his ranch.

Planet Arizona! Where the cops never try to slip a charge they can't yet support to the pliant media in the form of ... a news release!

Now let's move back a few hours. See if you can guess why a tale like "Student who spoke to a crowd that included White House officials robbed a store three weeks later, cops say" is worth the front page.

Well, that was tough.

The problem is that almost none of it is true -- none, at least of the stuff that propels the story to the front page. For that to obtain, we'd have to have an inspirational speaker and a "crowd that included White House officials," and those amount to a bizarre exaggeration and a patent lie, respectively.

If you're not familiar with the Fox "Live Shots" feature, "Gig with White House folks, then jail time" is a good example:

Three weeks after he and dozens of others, including top-ranking Obama administration officials, spoke in the nation's capital about building a brighter future for Americans, 20-year-old Demarco Scott robbed an electronics store at gunpoint, according to local police and officials.

We have the makings of a minor case of guilt by association -- if any of the assertions are true. Who was this "inspirational speaker," who were the White House officials he addressed, and what's the connection?

If you've been to a conference recently -- here's the program, if you're bored -- you can probably guess what's coming next. Young Mr. Scott was on a panel (Fox conveniently gives you a link here; he comes on around 25:15), not addressing the multitudes. "Putting People to Work" was one of five workshops in the post-lunch time slot before the closing general session, and if you watch much of the video, you can get a very clear idea of how well attended it was. If any senior White House officials are in the audience, they don't make themselves known. (The speaker before the suspect asks about who does what, and you may draw conclusions from the responses.)

You might have found this session boring. I would have. But then again, the last panel I went to at ISA was about the securitization of infectious diseases, and you might have found that boring too. A conference of this sort is a big gathering with lots of small spaces in which people talk for brief periods about fairly narrow interests, and famous people occasionally show up for important moments. If this guy had a "gig with White House folks," then I've gigged with Helen Thomas, Molly Ivins, Jurgen Habermas, the president of Lebanon and the emir of the Dubai-ites, to name a few. And any honest observer with a few marbles still left would call such a claim raw bullshit of the first order.**

Long story short: Some kid in a job program was persuaded to put on a tie and come talk to a panel about how the program works. Apparently other stuff in his life was going badly, and -- if the cops are to be believed -- he made some remarkably stupid decisions soon afterward.*** To turn this minor local crime into a national story because it offers a chance for a sideswipe at the Maoists in the White House requires a pretty striking level of intellectual dishonesty and moral obtuseness. Conveniently, those are the sorts of characteristics that Fox selects for.

* Anytime we want to start retiring the phrase "person of interest" is fine with me.
** OK, I did give a paper in a small room next to the hall where Molly Ivins was speaking. Try to guess how well attended that one was.
*** It can be surprising what people you know end up doing sometimes.

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

If everybody had a missile ...

Something just looked ... I don't know, familiar about the most super-important story in the world this afternoon at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network. As well it should have! "Target America?" doesn't quite have the Beach Boys ring of "Target USA?"* and it's not as definite as "Target: Hawaii," but it does get the point across -- in case you're so busy running for the fallout shelter that you miss the cutline:

Defense Department report spotlights Iran's obsession with adding a long-range missile capability to its growing nuclear weapons program, fueling charges that Obama administration is not doing enough to rein in Tehran.

Well ... no. Not really. "Obsession" and "growing nuclear weapons program" are the sorts of inventions Fox gets away with because it can, but the report can't "fuel" the "charges" because the "charges" are all from the weekend or earlier (except for the genuinely deranged John Bolton, who's very good at answering his phone when Fox calls, the better to remind us how nice it is that he's a long way from the machinery of power).

Fox, true to form, never misses a chance to securitize Iran. That's their business. What you want to do when someone in power suggests that "take my habeas corpus, please!" is the right response to the particular security crisis on offer is up to you. Hey, we're here for you either way.

* Yes, we finally caught a set by the Polish Muslims** last weekend.*** Everything they were cracked up to be. Plus we apparently have yet another craft brewery in town to deal with.
** Strike strike spare spare USA!
*** Is it just me, or is a slotted-head EB3 on the unusual side? Evidently Your Editor needs to get out more.


Question-cyberbegging at the Post

The topic comes up every now and then here and elsewhere: Why do opinion columnists get to make stuff up? Did they miss the second clause in "opinion is free, but facts are sacred"? Or, for our purposes around this little editing campfire: If George Will doesn't have a conscience, can't he at least hire an editor to check his facts?

Today's example is a bit different. It uses a familiar trick, building your assertion on another assertion that you can't or won't be bothered to support, but it nudges the reader in a novel way:

When liberals advocate a value-added tax (VAT), conservatives should respond: Taxing consumption has merits, so we will consider it -- after the 16th Amendment is repealed.

And we know who's behind this cunning plan, don't we?

A VAT will be rationalized as necessary to restore fiscal equilibrium. But without ending the income tax, a VAT would be just a gargantuan instrument for further subjugating Americans to government.

Believing that a crisis is a useful thing to create, the Obama administration -- which understands that, for liberalism, worse is better -- has deliberately aggravated the fiscal shambles that the Great Recession accelerated.

Now that you have an idea of what the structure of the argument is going to look like, back up to the lede for a second. The links (as found on the op-ed part of look the same on the surface, but they have different pragmatic functions. The second one is just informative: writer says "the 16th amendment," link takes you to text of same. The first one is different. It's a whole verb phrase. That suggests more than just another explanation of what a VAT is or how it works; this is going to be about advocating, and whether "liberals" is part of the link or not, it's pretty clear who's doing it. Let's have a look at the (ahem, year-old) article and see if that's an appropriate thing to imply.

With budget deficits soaring and President Obama pushing a trillion-dollar-plus expansion of health coverage, some Washington policymakers are taking a fresh look at a money-making idea long considered politically taboo: a national sales tax.

"Some policymakers" -- well, that's a start. Who are the next actors introduced? The second graf has "advocates." The third graf has "a roomful of tax experts," "a recent flurry of books and papers," and an actual Democrat -- Kent Conrad of North Dakota -- who "declared that a VAT should be part of the debate."

The fifth graf has some "VAT advocates" suggesting that "negatives could be offset by using the proceeds to pay for health care for every American -- a tangible benefit that would be highly valuable to low-income families." But in the sixth graf, "liberals dispute that notion," and in the seventh, a White House budget spokesman says it's "unlikely to be in the mix."

It's fairly easy to see why Will is turning up the heat; VAT-fear has been one of the up-and-coming flavors of the month over at Fox, and Charles Krauthammer's crystal ball declared a VAT "inevitable" last month. And on the general principle of free and open debate, it certainly seems that we ought to be encouraging more talk rather than less. But the curious reader might have some questions about why this particular political sector is so eager to paint the thing as a trick of the Maoist Left -- and why the Post seems so eager to aid and abet.

I doubt George Will put the link there himself (I can see him sharpening his own goose quills and dipping them in the blood of peasants and minor-league pitching coaches, but not making his own hyperlinks), which makes the matter even more interesting. Is the op-ed section happy with this sort of next-gen sleight-of-hand?

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Monday, April 19, 2010

The ties that what?

All right, no peeking: Who's tied to what in this exciting crime tale?

It's not much clearer after the lede:

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have detained two men found inside a car linked to the killing of 17-year-old Reginald Leverett.

After police stopped the car on Central Avenue for an inspection violation Sunday afternoon, the two men led police on a chase, according to Capt. Earl Mathis. The men then ditched their car on Summit Avenue and fled on foot before police apprehended them, Mathis said.

Hmm. Inspection violation, chase, questioning, no charges yet -- so it has to be the car, right? Put differently, the "a car" of the lede has to be a specific "the car" sometime later in the story?

Police say they believe the victim had been in a fight and fled from the scene, but a group of men in a car followed him.

As the fleeing teen passed Custer Street, at least one of the men inside the car opened fire, according to police.

Guess not. I'm still confused --- about the story, that is, not about what the enlightened readers are saying in the comments:

We know who and what color they were. All you have to do is watch TV for all the news the unobserver can'y or won't provide you.

Anybody want to start a pool on how quickly comments are disabled on this article?

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Whom's there?

Him was?

Hamtramck’s city manager says city officials want to meet with the owners of the popular dance club Shadow Bar to discuss recent violence in the area, including the death of a 21-year-old patron whom police said was shot early Friday while en route to his car after leaving the club.

Dear cousins downtown: At this rate, you should consider just flipping a coin.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Whoppers Junior redux

Just heard the Safire plural* in real life!

Brief background: Wings are tied with Phoenix in the second game of their playoff series after dropping the first game. Announcers are discussing the relative importance of games at different stages of the playoffs. One announcer cautions that no game is really, really critical until you're facing elimination, but his main point is this: "Games 2 are important."

We talked a little bit last year (inconclusively) about how and whether and why "Game 7" and the like might be a count noun, but I don't think I've ever seen it slip over the Safire line: "Games 2," rather than "Game 2's." Others?

* And this just in: Diego from the corner with the requested citation! "William Safire orders two Whoppers Junior," The Onion, September 20, 2000.


Today's hockey tip

Let's see ... put round thing in net more often than other guys?

Pause briefly, though, to note the passing of another journalism tradition. Thursday's paper (the first of the week to arrive in the driveway in corporeal form) had the playoffs in the same spot: teaser above the 1A flag. But it teased to a feature, noting that if you wanted the score, you could bloody well look online. That was for a game that ended around 12:30 in the ayem, and we're less than two miles from the nearest Motown checkpoint.

I'm usually among the first to say that sports gets far too big a share of journalism's zero-sum resources (money, space, time), but -- come on. You can't drop a replate into the final when the home team is in the playoffs?

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Baby pictures!

That's the trouble with growing up: some- body's always pulling out the baby pictures. So here, in celebra- tion of the day in April 2005 when the little guys left their perilous home under the J-school shrubbery to become our Official Research Kitties, are Woodward (left) and Bernstein in their first few days of domesticity. Happy Bernieversary!

Minor pragmatic sidelight: That's the order we always introduce them in, but when they go to the vet, they're Bernstein and Woodward. Ah, the tyranny of the alphabet.

Your regular program of Fox-bashing, grammar-questioning and hed-ridiculing will resume shortly, but meanwhile -- lighten up. It's a blog. It's supposed to have pictures of cats every now and then.


Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Be afraid ... wait, don't

We love a little good old-fashioned watchdogging by the perpetually alert sentinel that is the American press -- particularly when it comes to challenging national-security claims by the powers that be. Why, then, do we have this barest trace of suspicion about the top story on the WashTimes frontpage today?
The online hed is a bit more to-the-point than the print one. Here it is, with the lede of the Times's 1A story:

Critics: Obama admin hyping
terrorist nuclear risk

The Obama administration is warning that the danger of a terrorist attack with nuclear weapons is increasing, but U.S. officials say the claim is not based on new intelligence and questioned whether the threat is being overstated.

Nice to see the Times holding a security assertion up to expert scrutiny, but ... wait, what's that from Arnaud de Borchgrave, editor-at-large?

Is the world more dangerous today than it was at the height of the Cold War? Anyone who is still anyone in the field of nuclear arms control has weighed in with a resounding yes. North Korea's second nuclear test, followed by a renunciation of the 1953 armistice agreements, and more missile firings, is the latest red flag on a dark nuclear horizon. Nuclear terrorism, unthinkable during the Cold War, has become the most immediate fear of the experts.

The Times isn't actually retreating; it's just -- attacking in a different direction? After all, things were different back in June, weren't they?

Evidently they were, so let's detour for a second into the land of securitization. (Naturally, all the cool kids will want to be the first to get the hott new securitization book before the movie* comes out.) When you try to push an issue out of the realm of normal political give-and-take and into the shadow realm of Mordor existential threats that call for extraordinary measures to preserve our way of life, you're "securitizing" it -- at least, you're trying to. The success of your "securitizing move" is contingent on what your audience feels as well as on what it knows, and that audience includes the media as well as the public. If you succeed, you get a role in saying what sorts of extraordinary measures are needed and for how long ("until I say you're safe" is often the goal).

Now, you might be in the camp that says securitization is fine as long as we categorize the right things as existential threats (say, nuclear annihilation or climate change, rather than ee-legal aliens and the War on Christmas). Or you might think that what we ought to be doing is "desecuritizing": moving stuff out of the shadows and back into the realm of political debate. But either way, if you want to be credible (which is one of the ways you convince your audience to buy into your understanding of security), you generally want to ensure that it's the issue, rather than the colored Kenyan Muslim socialist source, that's getting your attention.

If your earlier 1A masterpieces, then, have looked like this:

Henry Sokolski, director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, said the danger of nuclear terrorism is growing and the NEST teams are limited in dealing with the threat. (June 2008)

"This action comes at a time when experts warn that the threat of nuclear terrorism is growing," the report said. (May 2008)

Or, to move inside the A section, this, from another familiar writer from the Times stable:

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III yesterday said that it was only a matter of time and economics before terrorists will be able to purchase nuclear weapons and that the world's law-enforcement community must unite to prevent it. (June 2007)

And, to hold down on the tedium, yes -- let's go back to May 2002 and call it good:

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld yesterday raised the potential of nuclear attack in America, saying terrorist-sponsoring countries "inevitably" would acquire weapons of mass destruction and "would not hesitate one minute in using them."

Those are news stories, and they shouldn't detract from the Times's occasional habit of running commentaries by people like Graham Allison and Brian Jenkins that actually help put issues of nuclear terrorism into perspective. But they do make fairly clear that the Times's view of what constitutes an existential threat has more to do with the political camp that's constructing the threat than with the nature of the threat itself. And -- nice as it is to see someone calling out a security claim on the front page -- that's not a productive way to do either journalism or security.

* "The Eternal Triangle," with Ingrid Bergman as hypotenuse.


Monday, April 12, 2010

You're grinded

Well, all right, Mr. Cynical Pants Editor, how would you turn a lede like this into a present-tense hed?

Climate talks nearly ground to a halt before they began in earnest Sunday, with delegates squabbling over how to conduct negotiations for the rest of the year on a new agreement to control global warming.

Sunday, April 11, 2010


Here's one for the Annals of Editing Decisions. Over at the Wichita Eagle, the second graf of the wire story (from the LA Times) on the Polish plane crash at Smolensk begins like this:

It was, literally, a nation colliding with its past.

At, the sentence reads:

It was, in a sense, a nation colliding with its past.

I'm not interested in which sentence is "right" (or in whether two things can collide, literally or metaphorically, if one of them isn't moving, or whether it matters if the one that isn't moving is the literal or the metaphoric). But it'd be cool to find out which one was the original and where the change was made: On the wire? Between editions at the Times? At the subscriber paper's desk?

It's showing up both ways on the intartubes: "literally" at St. Louis and Seattle, "in a sense" at Stars & Stripes and Honolulu. Myrtle Beach got around it it by simply removing the qualifier: "It was a nation colliding with its past."

Given the pall that hangs over "literally," inquiring minds would like to know. Any insights out there in readerland?


Missing the point

Hmm. Given that the third graf includes this sentence:

Along with the president, the 97 dead included the army chief of staff, the head of the National Security Office, the national bank president, the deputy foreign minister, the deputy parliament speaker, the civil rights commissioner and members of parliament.

... you think maybe "key figures of Poland's recent past" is missing the point just a little bit?

You can see where the hed writer is going. The story's been in play since early Saturday, so a first-cycle hed risks looking stale. And international stories (the sort of thing that one memorable glasshole used to call "that Mideast trivia") are subject to particular scrutiny: mere facts often aren't good enough without some Context®. But this one seems really off the mark; it's as if Poland wouldn't be front-worthy on the strength of its present.*

The Freep chose a different way of grabbing for context without looking in the bag first. "Worst disaster since WWII" has the advantage of coming straight from an AP story used in the staff/wire rewrite on 1A:

Thousands of people, many in tears, placed candles and flowers at the presidential palace in central Warsaw. Many called the crash Poland's worst disaster since World War II.

After a statement that stark, a news story will usually circle back in a few grafs with some support: an indication of how many people make up "many," for example, or what events they're understanding this in the context of. The AP story never does -- and in the five columns the Freep devotes to the story inside the paper, the idea vanishes entirely. We're left with no way of knowing whether the context sheds any light at all on the subject, let alone whether it sheds the right kind of light.

All that aside: Hey, at least this rated a separate 1A story at some papers. At others, it barely managed a 1A reefer, and at a couple of once-notable regional powerhouses (that'll be you, Louisville, and you, Des Moines), it doesn't even get a mention.** The Eagle and the Freep would have done better by playing the story straighter, but they did have the good sense to recognize a major story when it jumped up at them.

* How key these figures are, and what constitutes the recent past, are other questions. The exile government had its important moments, but by 1989-90 it was really more an unusual artifact of World War II than anything else.
** For the Fox readership, of course, it serves a different purpose, evidenced by this comment on a folo: "
If this had happed to Air Force One it wouldn't have been a tragedy, it would have been a cause for celebration."

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Friday, April 09, 2010

Shut up, he explained

Bad things happen when newspapers let their TV "news partners" write the text:

It was the height of the storm when the giant tree fell on the Smith family's trailer on West Stage Coach Trail.

And how did we know?

Lawndale Fire Chief Phil Eaker was live on the phone during NewsChannel 36's storm coverage.

"We're getting a call. We have to go. We've got trees down on a mobile home," Eaker told First Warn meteorologist Brad Panovich.

And they caught it in the act too:

When Eaker and his team arrived, they found the tree flattening the home.

Nobody was inside, and the owner was easy to find:

They contacted Debbie Smith, who was at Walmart nearby. "That's the Lord's work. He sent me to Walmart," she told NewsChannel 36.

And it would have taken a brave soul to tell Him to get His own damn 12-pack next time. But now things get confusing:

Debbie heard from friends that a tree was down in her neighborhood and called a neighbor to check on her house.

So the fire department called to tell her a tree had hit her house, and she called a neighbor to see ... who wrote the script here, S.J. Perelman?

"[A neighbor] came running up here and let me know, and I said, 'Oh god! The dog," Smith explained.

My explanation exactly! And by now he's probably treejacked another tree and is running around looking for another home to crush! But reality is so much more mundane:

Their puppy Jack was in a cage in the back of the house, directly under the spot where the tree had fallen.

Anyway: Dog's fine, home somewhat less so, English language likely to survive another onslaught by journalism.


Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Advances in hed writing

Behold, a genuine break- through in the art of hed writing from the friends at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network!

If you're like me, you probably wasted a lot of time in your early career trying to take things from the story and turn them into headlines. If we'd only known then what we know now! Engineers at Fox have apparently figured out a way to write the hed without any reference at all to the story. You can root all the way to the bottom of this epic and find no support at all for the assertion (the purported "ban" on "Islam" and "jihad") in the hed.

But it's not just a time-saver! See, if you want to get a particular reaction out of your audience, you no longer have to wait for the right story to come along. Just put the right hed on and you'll get results in seconds:

Are we as a nation sleeping? Wake up America before irreparable damage is done to our country. I never thought I would say this but this SOB needs to be impeached. Is this the beginning of the downfall of the United States, I hope not, but it will be if we keep on sleeping.

I can't stand this niggger* any more. If he wants holy war, we'll give him a dose of Christian justice. An eye for an eye....

As far as I am concerned, the name obama should be eliminated from the books. .. it's a very scary name to the average citizen

This is just another way for the Big O to divert Americans attention from other far more important topics such as his failure with the economy and his dissidence with health care. He has just proven his alliance to anti-Americanism.

So at what point do the Republicans voice an opposing position against this M-sl-m** President? Just keep sitting back everyone and let him destroy this country! Does anyone realize that if we wait until the November vote for change it will be too late!! SOMEONE PLEASE STOP THIS MADMAN!!!!

Obama is going to do what he can to change the USA. As you all watch this happen consider this... You all think that Obama will be voted out in 2012, and I tell you, don't think that he (Obama) doesn't know this. There will NEVER be a vote in 2012 for President. Think about it...

* Spelling it with three g's (or two q's) apparently gets you past the filter at Fox.
** Same idea.

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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Strange pairing

So apparently I still have grammar -- or the strange intersection of grammar and not-grammar that we teach and practice -- on the brain* this week, or I wouldn't have been struck by this one. In a pair like "Noun, noun among mine victims," I'm expecting some sort of lexical coordination too: two nouns of family relations or two of pastimes, sure, but not one of each. That just seems random, in more or less the sense Those Kids Today seem to mean it, if indeed they still say it.**

Kind of a coincidence, because on the way in this morning,*** we were talking about the slippery ground of who's who -- or maybe more precisely, who's what compared to whom -- in heds. If you're a loyal Fox reader, for instance, you probably get the point pretty quickly in

Ax-wielding man kills mom at swingset in park

... but there's a reasonable chance you'd get a different reading on a different family-status noun:

Ax-wielding man kills son at swingset in park

... because "mom" does things that "son" doesn't. There's a category of being "a mom," but not all moms fit it (Language Czarina's mom wouldn't qualify as "a mom" at Fox). And we don't really have a category of being "a son" without a particularly rare kind of ActionNews9 setup that introduces another family noun first: "A father angry. A son dead. We talk to the relatives after this from Belle Tire."

Great fun to talk about, but it really underscores the need for those disarmament talks. If copydesks ever start hiring again, we don't want to be sending our younguns out all stoked up about the headline ambiguity of family-status nouns if you guys still want unsplit verbs and virginal infinitives. Your move.

* Paper's finished. Sort of. Yes. Soon! Really.
** I'm pretty sure this is the AP's suggested hed, rather than one that originated at the paper. In the Good Old Days, using the AP hed unchanged was something good desks just didn't do.
*** It being one of those nice semesters, for a few more weeks at least, in which we both start at the same fairly civilized hour.

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Sunday, April 04, 2010

For want of a hyphen

OK, it's not the best noun pileup of the week, because it has a verb and an object and all, but don't you just sort of wish you could sneak in and hyphenate it a little bit?

It helps to know the story in advance, and the lede does a reasonable job of explaining:

A British man and woman jailed in Dubai for kissing in public have lost their appeal against their conviction.

... but you're still left wishing for the hed that could have been written from the last graf:

In 2008, two Britons accused of having sex on a beach in Dubai were sentenced to three months in jail, though the sentences were later suspended.

Inkissingcredible, huh?


Cancer cured! Mideast at peace!

No complaints about the grammar. No complaints about the word choice -- I suppose we could debate "glom onto" vs. "glom on to," but that takes as a given that a story about people glomming onto electronic devices is legitimately the biggest story of the day. For such indeed is the case at the Miami Herald, where "IPAD: DAY 1" is the 1A lead.

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Saturday, April 03, 2010

If at first ...

What with all the other distractions the Marxists are throwing at us -- the health cares, the international policies, the border crises, the bar codes for your forehead -- it's a relief to know that Some Networks are still keeping an eye on the biggest story of the year: the doings of ACORN. And it certainly looks as if they're going to keep on trying until they get it right.

The world's most super-important story on March 23 was a warning from Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa,* not to be fooled. ACORN can change its name all it wants, but it's still going to sell your daughters into slavery in Honduras. In other words, an ACORN by any other ... wait, that's the world's most super-important story on March 26, when Darrell Issa of California (also known as "lawmakers") warned that all this "disbanding" stuff was "just another scheme to get its hands on taxpayer funds."

Now fast-forward to April 2, when Issa (now demoted to "lawmaker," singular) is releasing his -- oh, let's go straight to the videotape:

A Republican lawmaker released a report Thursday that he says proves the controversial community activist organization ACORN is alive and well, contrary to its announcement that it is disbanding.

Can't wait for the next thrilling installment!

* Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., has to be grateful every day that there's more than one correct answer to "Who's the stupidest Republican in Congress named King?"

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Friday, April 02, 2010

Sky unfalls, pits of hell unyawn

The nice folks at Wichita are welcome (indeed, encouraged) to check in on this, but I speculate there was some concern over this raw burst of headline audacity: Using "over" instead of "more than" with a number. I mean, everybody knows that "over" refers only to spatial relationships!* So sayeth the holy writ!**

So there may well have been some trepidation, and everybody closed their*** eyes, and then someone pushed the button, and ... the heavens did not darken. Because, well -- why should they have? The hed says what it wants to, and (much as you or I might prefer the sound of "more than," which I do here) there's no evidence on the face of God's green English under which to declare "over $200,000" wrong. And thus, perhaps, does another secret handshake of the editing cult die a lonely death.

Long term, there's a reasonably valuable takeaway point in there.**** Editors are grownups who have a pretty good idea of how to use their native language. When push comes to shove and the clock is running, perhaps we should let them say "over $200,000" in a narrow hed without getting the old knickers into a wad.

Thoughts? I'm genuinely interested in feedback on this one (that being the whole point of the paper that went in last night). Should we stop teaching the "over"/"more than" distinction if we promise to teach some real grammar instead? Hit the comment button and talk.

* Except the spatial relationship between Britain and the US, in which it's sort of like "Flint Hill Spatial." Yes, the world would be a better place if Lester Flatt were secretary of state.
** The one I cited was Friend, Challenger and McAdams, "Contemporary Editing"; I'd welcome other specific references.
*** Copy editors are slightly but not significantly more likely to approve "everybody/their" than "anybody/their." You heard it here first.
**** Yes, the aforementioned deadline was met. Virtual Heidelberg!

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