Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Maggot story of the week

There's a long story, which some of you know, leading up to the punch line "get the maggots in the lede!" But a maggot lede is only as good as the supporting quotes:

"I felt like they were crawling all over me because it only takes one maggot to upset your world," she said. "And as they're telling us to stay calm and seated, I see a maggot looking back at me and I'm thinking, 'These are anaerobic, flesh-eating larvae that the flight attendants don't have to sit with.'"

Thank you, America's Newspapers!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Trending topic

One of those enduring topics over at certain Fair 'n' Balanced Networks is evil bureaucrats getting in the way of patriotic impulses, particularly veterans who are just trying to fly the flag:

Students Sue Over Removal of American Flag T-shirts (June 23)

Mom: R.I. School Bans 8-Year-Old Son's Patriotic Hat With Army Figures (June 17)

Wisconsin Veteran Must Remove Flag After Memorial Day, Wife Says (May 26)

WWII Vet Ordered to Remove American Flag From Outside New Hampshire Home (May 20)

Decorated Veteran, 90, Fights to Raise Flag in His Yard (Dec. 3)

Pennsylvania Firefighter Suspended for U.S. Flag on Locker (Oct. 17)

Oregon Apartment Complex Bans Flying the American Flag (Oct. 14)

... so you'd like to think that when it's the Marines and the Tea Party-favored "Don't Tread on Me" flag, maybe somebody could be bothered to read the heds before publishing?

Is "don't trend on me" a Cupertino error? Is it a fingerfehler by some new hire who heretofore couldn't imagine a Cooler. Verb. Evar. than "trend"? I don't know, and I don't want to spend too much time picking on one-off typos. But when you're holding the line alone against Those Liberal Media and all their minions and catamites, you should expect a tad bit of public ridicule for being such a public doofus.

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Monday, June 28, 2010

Summit editing fail

Ahem. CNN, do not make me come down there:

Obama presented Cameron with Goose Island 312 beer from Chicago while Cameron gave the President 5.2 percent Hobb Goblin beer.

As you should have let your instincts tell you, the Wychwood product in question is called Hobgoblin.* Hard to see why we're bringing in its alcohol content,** since 312 is Chicago's area code, not the ABV of the eponymous wheat Our Side brought to the summit.

Let's step up the game a bit there, kids. Copy editors are supposed to know this sort of thing.

* Despite what you might have just heard on The Daily Show, it's not made up. It's actually Language Czarina's favorite bitter.
** Cameron was being a bit of a supercilious twit. It drinks fairly well at fridge temp.

Christmas cometh not early

Two things:

1) There really are rules of English! One of them says that when all that grammary stuff moves to the auxiliary, it doesn't stay on the main verb too. The future of "this hed bites" is "this hed will bite," not "this hed will bites." You can say "the taxman cometh," but not "he will cometh."

2) You can, but you wouldn't, because -- it's official; call it the first sign of spring -- see if you can guess what brilliant, heartbreakingly original idea occurs to hed writers every spring, along with most summers and the occasional autumn:

The taxman cometh for private-equity's bigwigs.
(New York Post, May 21)

Taxman cometh -- but not for 41% of NYers
(New York Post, April 14)

The health care taxman cometh
Senate Democrats plan to tax the middle class
(Washington Times, Oct. 5)

Taxman cometh
Hard-pressed politicians produce flood of irritating revenue streams
(Washington Times, Sept. 28)

Taxman cometh
Obama plan targets top earners
(The Oklahoman, Aug. 3, 2008)

Taxman cometh?
Potential six-figure hit dulls Intercontinental's offering for the CBOT
(Crain's Chicago Business, June 2007)

Funds eye IPOs
(New York Post, June 21, 2007)

The Internet taxman cometh
(Washington Times, April 25, 2007)

It's every parent's worst nightmare to find these things by thousands, so in a way it's refreshing to report that -- except for the right-wing press and business pubs -- it's not as widespread as we feared. Still, that's not an excuse for indulging. Pencil "taxman cometh" into your stylebooks under Cliches I Should Be Eaten By Rabid Bears If I Use.

And if you must, get the damn grammar right. It'll give us something nice to tell your family about as the slavering jaws close 'round your head.

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Sunday, June 27, 2010

Oh, shut up

Note the particularly awful case of dummy type on Thursday's Miami Herald front? Awful, as in it seems to have replaced a news story, while allowing the clueless-beyond-clueless, cliched-beyond-cliched, smarmy-beyond-smarmy column above it to work its evil magic on corneas and retinas around the nation?

This is what I hate about sports writing (yes, it's before the US defeat at the weekend, but I'm resurrecting it so as to continue ignoring the Freep's "Not Ghana happen" hed):

Did you see that? Did you call your friends? Did you hug strangers? Did you share?

Well, no. And no, no and no.

This is why we love games. This is why we invest and care and cry and scream and get angry -- for the one breathtaking moment that Landon Donovan gave us Wednesday, when a little balding guy summoned the strength to lift our big country and give the United States a 1-0 victory against Algeria to advance in the World Cup.

No kidding? The whole thing? By one little bald dude?

There is nothing better in sports than patriotism. But hope is pretty close. And winning, too.

I was going to say "make up your mind," but on second thought, don't.

Over here, bars and offices erupted with joyous noise, and grown men wept. (Oops. Missed that.) Most of life is not lived in this arena, of course. Most of life is bills and responsibilities and bosses and oil spills, and we need vacations from all that. But games, in moments like this one, allow us to exist and emote on a different and higher plane, living vicariously through that team's bond, which can grow so large that it allows us to wrap even something as big as our entire country in something as small as a single flag.

Talk about the batting-practice fastball that was not so much telegraphed as engraved on company letterhead and delivered by passenger pigeon on tortoiseback to the sound of trumpets and hautboys -- didja see it coming? Bills, responsibilities, bosses, unprecedented slow-onset ecological disaster ... we needed this one, America! And we got it!

It is why America spends so much money and invests so much more emotion on sports -- to escape, to vacation from life in this magical paradise. How often does anything outside of sports make you scream at a television (we don't watch much Fox News down at the Herald, I see) or dance around your couch or jump up and down?

Not to be rude or anything, but -- sheez, what sort of quiet desperation do you imagine your readers lead lives of? What hell must we wander through, that only the magic of sports can liberate us?

Sitting here in the very room where operatives "Boris" and "Natasha" came up to join us last year for the dismembering of the Spartans and the celebration of another title, I will not be called a sports denier. I've seen Satchel Paige pitch in spring training. I can name two defunct Chapel Hill* bars in which I saw the Tar Heels lose championship games. If I had to pick a best baseball moment, it'd be watching the 1978 AL East playoff with my best bud from high school, a shameless Bankees fan. I don't claim to be a footie maven, but I did watch most of the 2006 US-Iran World Cup match at a mobile beer garden in Dresden. It's with all that in mind that I ask if we could please -- please -- do away with the Relieve our Sordid Misery routine?

No, I don't really think there's much a copy editor could have done about this. But if sweet reason isn't going to work, at least we could try public ridicule.

* All right, one in Chapel Hill and one (Bullwinkle's) in Carrboro.


Friday, June 25, 2010

Goin' rogue, 1964-style

Whence the feral elephant? Well -- this is why I love my job. Sometimes I actually have to go to the library, and to get to JK and JQ, you have to go through the music section, and because it's a library and not a way station in the intertubes, it actually rewards the occasional browse.

As is the case with Purnell, F., and Wells, H. (1964). The Republican song book. New York: Bobbs-Merrill. Strike up "Let's Forget that Medicare," maestro:

Now Mister President, forget that Medicare
We got troubles enough, don't you think?
With the taxes goin' up and the dollar goin' down
You're gonna drive us all to drink

We will never know just how the pioneers
Ever got across the great Divide
But we know for sure it wasn't a subsidy
That put 'em on the other side

So Mister President, I wanta emphasize
That two and two make four
Tho' there's lots of folks down there in Washington
Who think that ain't true anymore

I know we got the doctors, we got the wealth
But there's too danged many people who enjoy ill health!
So Mister President, forget that Medicare
We got troubles enough as it is!

This is hardly a breakthrough in American politics. Check out "The Democratic Donkey (Is In His Stall Again)" here,* or go enjoy the cover by Norman and Nancy Blake. And for that matter, one of the fun things about summer teaching is spending a little time on the Good Old Days of pre-mass-literacy political communication (knock yourselves out, Maddy Prior fans). But it's certainly a nice chance to look back at what was going on around the campfire at another turning point in the mass-mediated creation of meaning.

* It's really annoying to find out that there's a copy of "Democratic songs, poems and jokes for the 1936 campaign" as close as Central, but it's listed as library use only.


Thanks, liberal media!

Quoth a hed in today's letters column at the Foremost Newspaper of the Carolinas:

Act now to prevent Iran from gaining more nuclear weapons

Slight problem. A precondition of getting "more" nuclear weapons is having some nuclear weapons in the first place. If the Obs (bastion of forward-looking Near East reporting that it is) has this one pinned down, we probably ought to be thinking about a 1A story -- not up there with the John Wall teaser or anything, but maybe somewhere nice and genteel below the fold.

Stop me if this is a surprise. People don't always read critically. They remember what they read or heard after they've forgotten where they read or heard it. They're often not very good at discriminating between evidence and assertions (and it's worth noting that the letter, at least as edited by the Obs, doesn't assert that Iran has nuclear weapons).

So anyway -- thanks, liberal media! If this is what the dictator-coddling weenies of the international left do, you have to wonder why we even need Fox.

We look forward to the correction.

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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Get your hand off that key!

Scanning the Freep from afar, an alert reader wonders about the punctuation in the second and third grafs here, from the latest installment in the Kwame Kilpatrick saga:

The indictment did not include public corruption charges, a point Kilpatrick spokesman Mike Paul seized upon.

He called speculation that the former mayor was involved in bribery schemes "lies from the pit of hell!"

"The FBI found nothing remotely close to that in their investigation because it never happened!"

Specifically, why does the ex-mayor's spokesman get to award himself a couple of bangers, whereas the feds (one can only hope that the Freep's relentless drive toward tabloidism will turn them into G-men before long) are stuck with some measly periods and commas?

Granted, some quotes are just not amenable to the magic of the exclamation point, so you can see why the Freep resisted the temptation. We'll just Photoshop one in to an actual quote for you here, by way of illustration:

"Investigation into corruption in municipal government continues!" U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade said late Wednesday.

And yes, in case you were wondering, that's how the quotes and attribution appear in print as well. Is there a good reason for this sort of punctuational deck-stacking?

Best guess (as always, better or more informed ones are welcome), the response is pasted from an e-mail. That's not illegitimate, though it's fairly common to distinguish written responses ("said in an e-mail") from spoken ones -- particularly when there's a graphic feature that the writer is trying to reproduce. In an unorthodox case like this one, that practice looks particularly important.

I think there's a case for losing the damn thing altogether, particularly in the second example; paraphrase and trim the quote down to "because it never happened," stick in some attribution (which wouldn't hurt anyway), and pick up with the following sentence. The first is trickier. When it comes to correcting the comma splices and greengrocer's apostrophes that writers stick into other people's quotes, I'm in the "people don't speak punctuation; just fix it" camp. The question mark is the obvious exception. I wouldn't make the same case for every stray exclamation point, but "lies from the pit of hell!" is the sort of case that tests the rule.*

We don't know, of course, how much tweaking might have already been done. Evidently, the original has already been truncated. What if it said "LIES from the pit of hell!!!!!" -- are we justified in taking it down to one exclamation point, or should we go further?

Thursday-morning-quarterback-wise, I'd push for adding "in an e-mail" to the attribution. Then I'd see if anybody wanted to talk a bit about whether the pervasive reliance on electronic text for attribution calls for some new style guidelines.

* Probably because it sounds like one of those Evan Meacham panels from the golden days of "Doonesbury."

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Straight to the moon, AP

If you're a certified Testy Copy Editor, you don't need a weatherman to know what's coming after a hed like "By the numbers":

And if you put the oil in gallon milk jugs and lined them up, they would stretch about 11,000 miles. That's a round trip from the Gulf to London, BP's headquarters, and a side trip from New Orleans to Washington for Hayward to testify.

For you civilians out there, the gallon milk jug is part of a continuum that includes the 12-ounce soda can and the Washington Monument. Writers use those measurements* to calculate the number of trips from the Earth to the Moon, or from Kabul to Kankakee, that some heretofore abstract number can be made to represent. It's called "context," geddit?

The trouble is --as the AP makes perfectly, annoyingly clear in this case -- that it's no such thing. What does it mean for some quantity of something not to fill the Superdome? Is that better or worse than not being able to fill the Silverdome? What about an open-air stadium, and can we do it while they're still playing soccer?

I'd say it gets worse, but it doesn't. The tale starts off stupid and runs a series of variations on stupid, stupider and still more stupider:

Overwhelmed and saddened by the gargantuan size of the Gulf oil spill?

Not to minimize the environmental catastrophe, but adding a little mathematical context to the spill size can put it in a different perspective. The Mississippi River, for example, pours as much water into the Gulf of Mexico in 38 seconds as the BP oil leak has done in two months.

Well, you just did -- minimize the catastrophe, I mean. Changing the scale of measurement isn't context, it doesn't provide a "different perspective," and it offers no indication whatsoever of why such an allegedly different perspective would do anything to relieve your whelmedness.

I'm pretty sure the third sentence there isn't deliberately comparing water to water, but even so, it's hard to see it as anything but an especially blinkered version of the Coke-can fallacy. "Context" would be --- oh, telling me how the proportion of oil to water is changing week on week; if X much water "pours into" the Gulf each day, how much is leaving, and how is that affected by the different estimates of the size of the BP spill. What's the proportion at which different levels of harm occur? Is that different in deeper water than in shallower water? For different types of ocean life. Can you draw any comparisons between a steady flow and an all-at-once accident? Those might take some work (also known as "reporting"), which presumably is why you have "science" writers on the payroll. But they might be enlightening, and at least they wouldn't be as embarrassing as this:

Want your own piece of this spill? If all the oil spilled were divided up and equal amounts given to every American, we would all get about four soda cans full of crude oil that no one really wants.

Maybe the AP's looking for ways to keep the Gulf story prominent after nine weeks. Fine. But playing context-free calculator tricks isn't the way to do it. This is technically the AP's fault, but member papers who ran it -- Charlotte's online play is at top, followed by the Freep's 1A teaser -- aren't innocent. You aren't obliged to print crap just because the AP transmits it. You'd be better off to spike it, and in this case to call the AP and politely suggest that it stop transmitting crap.

* In case you're wondering, yes. We make fun of you when you do it. Every time.

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Sunday, June 20, 2010

2 steps forward, 1.634 steps back

OK, maybe you saw this one filleted at the Log, if not on Comedy Central: an "unusually content- less" bit of pseudo-observation masquerading as political analysis. Couldn't agree more; after all, it's the million-word dude, getting some more free advertising for his bogus linguistifying. You might have missed the folo (shown below, and posted at 10:20p Thursday), which continues to kick the fundamentals around the infield but does show a promising flash or two.

Here's the original lede:

President Obama's speech on the gulf oil disaster may have gone over the heads of many in his audience, according to an analysis of the 18-minute talk released Wednesday.


Tuesday night's speech from the Oval Office of the White House was written to a 9.8 grade level, said Paul J.J. Payack, president of Global Language Monitor. The Austin, Texas-based company analyzes and catalogues trends in word usage and word choice and their impact on culture.

Not to recap the Log's analysis or anything, but large buzzers should be going off in your head at this point. Paul J.J. Payack isn't a language analyst; he's a hack who runs a for-profit company specializing in Wizard of Oz jiggery-pokery that's designed to keep your attention away from the shell game. If you needed another hint, you might notice that he's talking about speech but using a measure of writing. Speech. Writing. Different. Good so far?

Why is he an expert for CNN? Well, because they've called him one before. (Nor is CNN alone; the NYT has fallen for the schtick too, though it's also been professional enough to quote experts debunking the more openly fraudulent claims.) Note how different things look a few hours later, though:

Language experts weighed in Thursday after poring over the nearly 2,700 words of President Obama's Oval Office speech on the Gulf oil disaster.

"It was straightforward and easy to understand," said Ron Yaros, assistant professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, referring to the explanations of the crisis and its possible solutions. He divided the speech into 1,200 "idea units," each of which represents a point the president was trying to make.

..."If you look at the entire speech, and you look at the amount of jargon, it came out to 1.5 percent," he said.

But Obama's speech may have gone over the heads of many in his audience, according to an analysis of the 18-minute talk released Wednesday by Paul J.J. Payack, president of Global Language Monitor.

Real analysis comes ahead of fake analysis. Good start. But there's more!

Though the president used slightly less than four sentences per paragraph, his 19.8 words per sentence "added some difficulty for his target audience," Payack said.

Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, was unimpressed with Payack's criticism of the sentence length.

"I think we can all agree that those are shockingly long professor-style sentences for a president to be using, especially in addressing the nation after a disaster," Liberman wrote on his blog.

"Why, they were almost as long as the ones that President George W. Bush, that notorious pointy-headed intellectual, used in his 9/15/2005 speech to the nation about Hurricane Katrina, where I count 3,283 words in 140 sentences, for an average of 23.45 words per sentence! And we all remember how upset the press corps got about the professorial character of that speech!"

Yaros challenged the value of Payack's analysis. "There's a tremendous amount of difference between analyzing the written word and interpreting the spoken word," said Yaros, a former science reporter who studies how to make complex topics understandable.

See why the new hed is still misleading? Language mavens are people like Bill Safire: semi-enlightened amateurs who may or may not be hiding an ideological ax behind their analysis. (I don't know who holds Payack's partisan leash, but as we've noted here before, he's no neutral observer of political language.) These aren't dueling "language mavens"; two people who have a clue about the topic at hand are dissecting the shell game of someone who manifestly doesn't. Nor are they trading words; the real experts are coming in after the fact to address the damage done by building a single-source story around a "language maven."

It's an improvement, no question. You can't read the rewrite and come away with a good impression of the original analysis. But it's not a cure. We're still stuck in the Iben Browning pattern of "dueling science": One side says the moon is made of green cheese; the other says it's a lifeless, airless rock; and our hed says "Scientists Spar About Nature of Moon." CNN needs to prune the Rolodex of all purveyors of junk empiricism, and the Global Language Monitor is a good place to start.

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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Diagramming party to action stations

How many meanings can you extract from this hed?

Nobody likes to draw the story with the minefield hed. If you do, go back and get enough space (this isn't the longest hed on the page, by the way) to create as little snickering and head-scratching as possible. I'd try to hold out for something like "Ex-mayor kills self after shooting wife's companion," but the solutions in these cases are usually bad and less-bad, not good and better.

Break out the clue bat

Is it polling season again already? All right, let's let Motown's Oldest Daily show us how to get almost everything wrong, on the off chance some of us want to get it right before the next round.

First question: Is the hed true? (this is the 2A hed; a truncated version of the story is also the 1A lede.) For several reasons, probably not. First, the survey measures intent, not cause. We have no way of knowing whether "conservative endorsements" made a difference because we didn't ask about it. That may make intuitive sense, since the poll followed the endorsements, and it may be what the pollster claims, but it's still a post hoc error, and asserting it as a fact is sloppy practice.

Question 1A, though: Is Cox (Mike Cox, the state AG) actually "on top"? That's less of a yes-or-no question than a "how likely" question, and the way you answer it sets a precedent that can affect your credibility. Cox is ahead by 2 points* in a sample of 400 Republican likely voters. Let's see what the paper thinks about that:

Cox's 2-percentage-point advantage over U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Holland was within the poll's margin of error but still statistically significant, especially since he overcame a 12-percentage-point lead Hoekstra had in late May.

Um, no. You can't be "within the margin of error" and "statistically significant" at the same time, any more than a basketball player can be 5-foot-6 and 6-foot-5 at the same time. (And a change in Candidate A's support from Time 1 to Time 2 has nothing to do with the significance of the A-B gap at time 2, but that's dogpiling.) So let's recap those terms briefly.

A randomly drawn sample gives you a picture of the population you're trying to generalize about. How good a picture depends on a lot of things, but for today's purposes, it's primarily the size of the sample. (That's why you should always use "margin of sampling error" on first reference; that's a statistical function, and it has nothing to do with error introduced by, say, faulty question design.**) If you draw a lot of these samples, they'll eventually form a normal distribution around the "population value," or the result you'd get if you asked all Republican likely voters in Michigan. The margin of error describes the width of that curve at its base. Nineteen times out of 20, a sample of 400 will fall within 4.9 points on either side of the population value. There's a 5 percent chance (the 20th case) that it won't.***

Where does statistical significance come in? A "significant" difference means that at a predetermined level of confidence (traditionally**** 95%), your sample difference represents a real difference in the population. In a case like ours, a 50-44 difference between A and B wouldn't be significant: draw the curves yourself and you'll see the overlap.

That doesn't mean there's no difference. If we turn down the confidence level to about two-thirds, the overlap goes away (draw the same curves with a base of 2.5 points on either side of the sample, rather than 4.9 points). A is probably leading B, but we're a lot less confident than we used to be. And when the gap gets down to 2 points, the best thing you can say is that there's an uncomfortably high likelihood that the difference came about by accident.

Not only is the difference in today's story nonsignificant, but we need to be careful about those changes from last month too. Given same-size samples, neither change (Cox's 8-point increase and Hoekstra's 6-point decline) would be significant. Both are more likely to be real than not, but you can't proclaim one set of rules and play by another.

Is it appropriate to compare the May and June samples? Well, sorta. This month's poll has 800 likely voters, 400 from each party, yielding a margin of sampling error of 4.9 points at 95% confidence for the two party subsamples. May's poll reports an N of 600, with a margin of 4 points, but it doesn't give subsample sizes. Not necessarily apples and oranges, but at the least two different varieties of apple.

Couple of lessons to take away. One, there's not a lot of news value in this poll. Phrase it as "holder of statewide office looks more like being about even with congressman in non-incumbent race for governor than a month ago" and you get a better picture. Two, the standards you set now are the ones you're likely to be held to later. Readers won't be able to tell statistical ineptitude from partisan bias, and if you're this careless about what gets a poll story to the top of the front, you can expect them to infer the worst whenever they disagree with a result.

* Hi, Fish!
** "If the election were held today, would you vote for A or do you hate America?"
*** If you want proof, go to seminary.
**** There's still no excuse for not reporting it.

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Silly rabbit

OK, friends and neighbors, we can probably agree that the Foremost Newspaper of the Carolinas has gotten a little slack with its edpage commas:

Hey Mayor Foxx, keep your nose out of county operations

Hey Obama White House, your double standard is showing

Hey candidates, come back and pick up after yourselves

It's a mild (and hard to confuse, though as cliches go it's getting annoying in a hurry) form of the Donner Party comma: your friend, the comma of direct address. It'd be good to stop things before they spread beyond the letters, though, because that pesky comma can make a difference. A "sorry congressman" isn't unheard of, but he's not necessarily the same one you address as "sorry, congressman."

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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Yes. Like a top. Why do you ask?

Mind if we suggest that it would have been all right to think through the play of this action-packed 1A story a little more thoroughly? And that a perfectly reasonable decision would have been "nah, three grafs inside and kill the art"?

If you missed this one, or if you're one of the unlucky few for whom news judgment doesn't begin and end with what "dominated cable television Monday," or if you'd managed to forget about the whole thing by Tuesday morning, the "angry congressman" is Bob Etheridge of the N.C. 2nd District, and he's grabbing an, um, interviewer. So, at least, we're told.

Here's a bit of transcript accompanying the story:

Man 1: Hi, Congressman!
Etheridge: How are you?
Man 1: How are you?
(Etheridge walks by)
Message on screen: What happens when a US Representative meets a college kid on the street in Washington?
Man 1: (holds small camera a few inches from Etheridge's face) Do you ...
Etheridge: Who are you?
Man 1: ... fully support the Obama agenda?
Etheridge: Who are you? Who are you? Who are you? (Video shows Etheridge's face filling the frame)
The video camera gets knocked away and Etheridge grabs the man his wrist.
Man 1: Whoa.
Message on screen: He goes BERSERK!

Who are Man 2 and Man 1? We don't know, and neither (allegedly) do the heroes of modern journalism at the Breitbart empire who loosed this on the world, because the video was apparently sent in on condition of anonymity. But the recipients at least seem quite clear about their purpose:

It is going to be a long, hot summer. But, you’ve been shown a politician who can be beaten this November. Act accordingly.

How'd they do? Perhaps McClatchy will tell us!

[Renee] Ellmers, Etheridge's Republican opponent, had received cash from hundreds of supporters in California, Wisconsin, Georgia and other states by late afternoon.

Now. Granted, grownups in public life are supposed to have a pretty good handle on their tempers, and Old Bob fell spectacularly short. For Ben Smith at the Politico, a video recording of such an epic fail is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know:

Big Government, then, did more or less the same thing that I did, and that dozens of other bloggers did, in posting the video on the strength of its content. A reasonable decision given that it's very hard to imagine a context in which Etheridge's actions would be acceptable, but one which does cede a fair amount of control to the guys who shot and edited the video.

Somebody has a very limited imagination. I'd rather not hand over my front page -- which is more than "a fair amount of control" -- to people who purportedly aren't even known to the loonies who allegedly didn't hire them, at least until some of the routine qualms that occur to my pedestrian brain are satisfied. (Nor is it unreasonable to infer from this that Ben Smith is a tool.)

Generally, when we go to sleep dreaming of news judgment, it's in the positive sense. Judgment is about something we run: that's the press, baby, and there's nothing you can do about it. Worth all the enraged phone calls and canceled subscriptions, right? Same's actually true of stories you don't run. Today's bottom line is that the mendacious, morally vacant sleazebags who brought you the ACORN tapes have now figured out how to get their first-day story on the front. Wouldn't it have been fun to be the editor who looked at that, decided it was a crock and put it on the spike? Let's revisit this in five months or so and see what it looks like.

So, cousins at the Obs (and the N&O, which played the same tune, only turned up to 11): You were spun. Like a stack of plates on the Ed Sullivan show. With a bilingual cloth rat looking on. Please try to do better in the future.


Sunday, June 13, 2010

De all that you can de

A report last Sunday about the marriage of Carolina Ventura and Dr. Zoë Rosenbaum misspelled part of the Ms. Ventura’s middle name. She is Carolina De Los Angeles Ventura, not Be Los Angeles.

"How's it look, spellcheck?"

"Fine, sir!"

(Note also the suturing error in "the Ms. Ventura's middle name." That looks like someone -- writer or editor -- getting the old feet tangled up in one of those unwritten rules that make the Times sound like the Times. A similar topic was discussed at the Log last week while Your Editor was knee-deep in the seminar.)


Saturday, June 12, 2010

Forget flood. Interview God.

"Can we abbreviate states in heds?" you ask. Well, yes and no. Sure, if it's one of the two-word states. Usually, according to your general stylebook rules for abbreviating states when they accompany cities or counties, if it's something obvious like "Calif."* You want to be careful when the abbreviation is also a word itself -- especially when it modifies another noun in a particularly meaningful way. Like, oh, "Ark. flood."

It isn't hard to make these up to scare the undergraduates:

Ill. Man Denies Mass. Murder.

But sometimes the journalism gods hand you one on a platter, like the TV station's

Mi. Man Accused of Raping Oh. Boy

from last year. So it's nice to have another one from real life for next term.

* I tend to like those better when they modify stuff, worse as subjects, but that's entirely a personal preference. I probably won't even enforce it if and when HEADSUP-L hires a copydesk.


Failure of the Will

Hey, time to dust off an Orwell Award for George F. Will, bull-goose quantitative linguist of the Washington Post editorial page!

Here's a passage from Politics and the English Language in which Orwell is complaining about words that have become "strictly meaningless, in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader":

When one critic writes, "The outstanding feature of Mr. X's work is its living quality," while another writes, "The immediately striking thing about Mr. X's work is its peculiar deadness," the reader accepts this as a simple difference opinion.

Will's going to reverse field on himself and go Orwell one better. Here's his most recent:

Using perhaps the royal plural -- a harbinger of grandiosity to come -- Obama cited the size, cost and complexity of his campaign: "Our ability to manage large systems and to execute, I think, has been made clear over the last couple of years," and "indicates the degree to which we can provide the kinds of support and good service that the American people expect."

Ha! That damn plural pronoun "we"! Apparently it means ... well, maybe it means the same thing that the first-person singular pronoun means:

"I," said the president, who is inordinately fond of the first-person singular pronoun, "want to disabuse people of this notion that somehow we enjoy meddling in the private sector."

Oops. Plural pronoun went unnoticed in that one. Why? Let's hypothesize that it's because -- as Orwell suggested -- some commentators use polar-opposite, exclusive concepts to refer to the same thing because they really aren't referring to some phenomenon in the empirical world that the rest of us can see. It doesn't matter what sort of pronoun Obama is using; it could be the fourth-person dual umlautive of his native Kenya for all Will cares. His point is that anything Obama says can be used against him in the court of public opinion. It's his ego, it's his clueless serenity, it's his arrogance, it's his overweening self-confidence, it's something that underscores his unfitness for office.

Will has a solid track record of making stuff up when it suits him (we've discussed that here before, and I trust a mere link will be an appropriate introduction to the Log's extensive work on the linguistic significance of presidential discourse). Nor is he alone. Stanley Fish makes stuff up from the ivory tower; Fox does it with the happy ineptitude of junior-high kids with their first calculator. They all have different functions. Fox's job is to foment outrage among people who would be dangerous if they could only remember that the eyeholes go in the front of the pillowcase. Will's is to put a scholarly gloss on it: Erm, hem, yes, the rabble do sound vulgar today, but there's actually a linguistic point behind their angry shouts, d'you see?

Translating the observed into the theoretical isn't a hopeless task. It's actually what honest, competent writers -- columnists or academics or bloggers or whatever -- do when they take what they see, compare it with what's known and draw sensible conclusions from it. Will and his ilk start with conclusions, making the evidence itself irrelevant. One kind of wonders what the Washington Post sees in that sort of discourse.


Tuesday, June 08, 2010


Hey, if you could design three stories to encompass the whole of your coverage of one forgettable high school graduation speech, could you do better than:

Man Needed Medical Attention During Obama Graduation Speech

Student Nods Off During Obama Speech

... and, of course, Exhibit A up there, which is the one Fox actually originated and the one we should take a brief look at -- because that's awfully prominent play for a spot news story that, from all appearances, might just as well have been written three days ahead of time:

Don't point fingers. Don't make excuses. Don't pass the buck.

That was the advice President Obama gave to a graduating high school class in Michigan Monday night -- advice that sent off an irony alert among Republicans who accuse the president of having "spent his tenure" doing exactly that.

Obama offered his guidance during the commencement speech at Kalamazoo Central High School.

,,, He told the students that "pointing fingers" and "blaming parents" and everyone else in their lives is not the road to follow.

Senate Republicans reacted quickly to the speech, sending out a "best-of" list of instances in which Obama was "looking around for someone to blame." The quotes showed Obama using Bush as a scapegoat for everything from the deficit to America's image abroad.

In the general-to-specific way that news works, this is where you provide a few of "the quotes," rather than describing what they do. And indeed, by the conventions of news, that's what the hed is promising. When a hed gives you subject, verb and object (Dewey defeats Truman, Navy had word, Sox thrash Bankees), the story is supposed to fill in the details. Instead:

Obama over the past 17 months has selectively blamed the Bush administration for the big problems he now faces.

One of the president's favorite rhetorical devices is the figurative "mop" he uses to clean up what he says were the mistakes of his predecessor.

"I don't mind cleaning up the mess that some other folks made. That's what I signed up to do," he said at a Democratic fundraiser last October.

Obama even chalked up Republican Sen. Scott Brown's upset victory in the Massachusetts special election to Bush-directed outrage in January.

"The same thing that swept Scott Brown into office swept me into office," Obama said in an interview with ABC News. "People are angry, and they're frustrated. Not just because of what's happened in the last year or two years, but what's happened over the last eight years."

And that's the entirety of it -- suggesting that rather than being a standard A-slags-B story of political give and take, this is a story about Fox's prepared response to the speech. Wonder why this story has drawn (at this writing) 991 comments? Well, for the past six months, the "blame game" has been one of Fox's favorite fantasy themes, and today is no exception:

After spending his entire Presidency and even prior to that blaming Bush for everything he could possibly think of, he now has the audacity to stand up before a crowd and lecture them on taking responsibility! This man is a joke!! If it were not so disgusting it would be comical.

Now, if we could just get him to take his own advice, the blamer in chief may start acting like a commander in chief.

Everyone know what type of leader President Obama is, he's the "DO AS I SAY, NOT AS I DO" type of NARCISIST who really believe that everything he does is OK in his mind.

OBAMA is funny is he going to quit blaming BUSH for everything and learn to take responsibility for the things he's doing.. A sad case of do as I say NOT as I DO.

Maybe our Teleprompter in Chief should sign up for "Blame-aholics Anonymous"

I hope they laughed in both his faces. He's not called Oblame-a for nothing.

I don't want to suggest that the world needs more coverage of high school graduation speeches (certainly not the sort of reverential pap that's on offer down at the Freep). But the mask doesn't have to slip too far before it becomes clear that Fox is a wholly owned lackey of the dead-end wing of the Republican Party, and from the editor's perspective, that's worth noting.


Monday, June 07, 2010

Sweetheart, get me ... no, don't

Today in 1942, the World's Greatest Newspaper (that'll be Col. McCormick's Chicago Tribune) produced a 1A story that nearly brought the wrath of the Espionage Act down on its pointy little head.

Tucked among the stories proclaiming the week's huge news -- the momentous battle at Midway -- was this sidebar, and the problem with the hed is that (ahem) it's true. Thanks to the cryptographic breakthrough that enabled the US victory at Midway, the Navy had indeed known that a preliminary attack at Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians was a feint. Thus, the Navy (and the White House, inhabited by the target of the Tribune's fervent Roosevelt-bashing) really, really wanted to know how this story had come about and why the Tribune* had, you know, decided it was a good idea to run a 1A story whose implicit point is YOUR SEKRET NAVY CODEZ WE CAN READZ DEM!

The Trib almost certainly didn't mean to say that and might well not have known it. What seems to have happened was the sort of collision of news routines, deadlines and egos that ends up making stuff look a little -- or a lot -- sexier than it should.** The managing editor decided to sex up some muddy writing from a star reporter who was just back from the Pacific with a stunning tale of the battle of the Coral Sea, and in the course, a few fictions (a Washington dateline*** and an attribution to "reliable sources in the naval intelligence") got in. The reporter was apparently impressed that his material had been cleared through censorship so fast; in reality, the ME had decided on his own hook that the story didn't need to be submitted.

Amid the din, a grand jury in Chicago eventually refused to bring an indictment (not all of the administration was as eager to prosecute as FDR) -- likely because the Navy balked at providing evidence of any damage the story might have done. Truth be told, we don't know today whether the Japanese either knew of the story or managed to put two and two together about it. Bits and pieces turn up to this day: the Japanese embassy in Lisbon putting out a request for as many copies of the Trib as possible, for example. But as is often the case in media-security issues, the gap between what's known and what's feared may never be closed.

The Trib case is still resonant partly because the polarity looks so weird in today's environment. We're used to demands for the arrest of the left-librul media for its carelessness with security issues, but the Trib was a megaphone of the isolationist right. And the perps aren't the sort of coddled, America-hating weenies you'd expect if the story broke at Fox. Pat Maloney, the managing editor,**** had flown with Eddie Rickenbacker in World War I. Stanley Johnston, the reporter, was an Australian veteran of Gallipoli who was naturalized as a US citizen the week of Pearl Harbor.

The investigation went on for several months, producing along the way some of the fireworks that a good press war -- FDR's Navy secretary ran the biggest evening paper in town -- is likely to yield. We'll look at some examples later. Meanwhile, enjoy this classic example of press performance in wartime.

* It also appeared in the Patterson cousins' papers in New York and Washington and in unrelated properties as distant as Kansas City and San Francisco, but the Trib is the one that went down in history.
** The best account from the newsroom perspective that I know of is in Richard Norton Smith's "The Colonel," on which I draw here.
*** On the copy I have, the dateline reads June 7, which doesn't square with the "last night" in the lede. I don't know of any explanation for the discrepancy.
**** Most famous for a later hed: "Dewey Defeats Truman." He's sort of the Bill Buckner of Chicago journalism.


Sunday, June 06, 2010

For who the bell tolls

For the world's longest-suffering pronoun, the final indignity is that there is no final indignity:

Twenty mostly elderly people were killed in the tragedy during a sunny fall sightseeing cruise, 19 of who were from southeast Michigan.

That's a lot of generic awful news writing to pack into a single graf: the ill-placed "mostly," the vague "elderly," the irrelevant "tragedy," and the sheer lonesomeness of the poor clause at the end. But it's the "of who" that makes this one stand out. One wonders (again) whether the folks downtown realize how much better they'd do at the who-whom distinction if they just tossed a coin.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Don't flatter yourself, Otter

This isn't just a Stupid Question, it's a self-sealing, perpetual-motion, Escheresque collision of bad decisions on the grammar, design, and news fronts.

"H1N1 threat wasn't great?" isn't an ungrammatical way to form a question, but it it is an ungrammatical way to form this question. When Mandy tells Otter it wasn't that great, "Not great?" is an echo question:* a restatement of her assertion, not a new question in and of itself.

Now, we could form a more appropriate question by asking "Was H1N1 threat not great?" -- but it wouldn't fit, and it's ambiguous in a way that relies on the sort of context heds can't supply: "Was it not a great party?" Again, bad idea, but we're still waltzing around an even larger point: The hed misstates the underlying assertion. The story isn't about whether the threat was great; it's about whether the threat was exaggerated (less great than it was made to seem).

That suggests some news judgment issues. Not every story in the world can be told in four lines of 6 units each. To an extent, that's a design problem, but here it might cause us to wonder why a tale that rated page 14A at the originating paper is a lede in Illinois. We're shooting in the dark a bit here, because I can't find the story at the Herald site (here's what appears to be the Post's print version) and don't know how it was promoted on the bgts (so maybe it was fronted in the first edition). As it stands, though, it looks like a bad case of the sort of he-said-she-said that really calls for the news organization to introduce a third party as referee.** The Post does that in what looks like an early online version, though by the time we get to print, the substance of the defense is gone.

The classic sort of hed that's made for this count is "Quake kills 8,000" or "Thousands flee Gotham" -- you don't need a weatherman to know what "thousands flee" means. Here, you do. If this is the day's top story, it's obliged to give people enough context to make sense of it.

It's tempting to declare this one Worst. Question. Evar. But you guys stole that one for your centerpiece, didn't you?

* Hey, what are the chances we could get a searchable Cambridge Encyclopedia of English Grammar online?
** You'll notice that Fox does this a lot -- it just always selects a referee (Dana Perino, Karl Rove, Dan Gainor) from the home team's bench.

Labels: ,

No, don't. And don't do that either.

Given the chance to write a lede about something interesting, like a 4-year-old falling from a balcony, bouncing off a palm tree and surviving with no broken bones, why do reporters insist on proclaiming a miracle and wrapping it all up with a "Call it"? And why do editors let them get away with it?

There's this added bonus if you read on:

After the boy landed near the pool deck, she saw the boy's reported grandfather carrying his grandson before the paramedics arrived and that "the mother was so shocked she nearly fainted.''

If it's "reported grandfather," shouldn't it be "alleged grandson"?


Friday, June 04, 2010

Dewey defeats ghghghgh

And the Ancient & Mystic Order of the Dummy Type welcomes another initiate into its secretive fraternal ranks! Let's all buy a virtual round for the subs at the Times & Citizen and bedfordtoday. (You have to admit that, as question heds go, "Did you see naked man in Bedford?" has a lot to say for it.)

The carrier pigeon from Bedfordshire was late today, so we're grateful to alert readers* across the water who shared this electronically.** In the Big Picture department: It matters not how pure your soul, how good your beer,*** or how urgent your other tasks. Do not turn your back on dummy type. Ever. Not for a moment. You're asking for toothmarks in the sirloin and a permanent spot in the Com3210 Hall of Fame.

* Thanks to Stan and Rich.
** Eventually we'll have to explain to the tenure committee why International Clearinghouse for Pied Heds and Dummy Type counts as "scholarship," rather than "service."

*** In the "who knew?" department: Your Editor's favorite bitter is from Bedford! The stuff you learn from the Intertubes.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Theoretical Thursdays: The play's the thing

Hey, kids! Welcome back to the occasional detour into the land of "exactly what are you people doing up there on the fifth floor, anyway?" Today's theory is symbolic convergence, which --- among other things -- tries to figure out what people are talking about by looking at the sort of dramas they jointly construct from the stuff they encounter in their lives. SCT started life as a small-group theory but has proven lots of fun for media and political comm too because -- well, where else do people get their information about the political world?

The world is a big and confusing place, after all, and the quicker we can slot something into a familiar category, the quicker we can figure out who the good guys and bad guys are and how we ought to interpret things. When you say "I'm starting to get a really bad feeling about this,"* you're not just being Han Solo for a day -- you're also suggesting which side of the room the Empire is on, with you and your friends as the rebel alliance.

Our example here is Saturday's entry in the Impeachment-Worthy Scandal of the Century over at ... aw, we told you not to peek! It's another "Rahmbo" storm, but it's a Rahmbo storm that you're supposed to think about in a particular way. And even though the story itself (and, to be blunt, the "facts") never mention the magic words, the audience knows exactly when it's supposed to go "Aaaaaaay" or "Dy-no-MITE!"

Here's the hed:
Sestak Case Puts Rahm Emanuel's Backroom Politics Back in Spotlight

Sure, it's a question-begger's banquet, but the fun thing is how little the manifest content of the story has to do with its intent:

The White House official behind the controversial offer to Rep. Joe Sestak is no stranger to hard-nosed political horse trading.

Fine. Is this a case of that?

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who enlisted the help of his former boss Bill Clinton to approach a congressman about sitting out a Senate primary race, has been involved in several political controversies during his 20-year-plus career in Washington. And the current controversy is only the latest for Emanuel in the past 16 months, since he joined the Obama administration.

... Now Emanuel's brand of bare-knuckled politics is back in the spotlight following Friday's release of a White House explanation on Rep. Joe Sestak's allegation of a job offer last summer.

So for all this to be true -- right, this would have to be a particularly bare-knuckled offer, yes? Which is a place the story never goes. It doesn't have to, because the point isn't to shed any light on what happened; it's to let readers know which drama they're watching and who's playing Al Capone:

It just wreaks of old style corrupt Chicago politics.

Why are we surprised at this? Who did we think we sent to the White House? It's now "Chicago Politics" in the White House!

Funny, since the only geographic locations mentioned in the story are ... what's that, Ben Stein?

"The whole thing has about it a Huey Long or Deep South political machine or Boston political machine or Democratic political machine or Republican political machine," he said.

Indeed, "Chicago" never makes an appearance in text or hed. But it's in the url, as "rahms-chicago-style-politics" (meaning it could well have been in an earlier draft), so it's hard to escape concluding that Fox knows exactly what sort of drama it's writing. After all, that was the theme of the Sestak story 10 days ago:

Truth has no place in liberal Chicago thug politics! It's politics as usual for BO.

... and the discovery that the Census (hullo, Stalin!) hired a convicted sex offender:

I just hope someone blows the whistle on all the Chicago thugs and their cronies before someone get killed for knowing too much.

... or legislation on how Puerto Rico might vote on its status:

The "Chicago Way" enhanced! Need votes to stay in power? Just add another poverty minority state! Voila!

... Obama lets Bibi cool his heels:

It's about what I would expect. Chicago politics at its finest.

... the possibility of giving "national monument" status to some lands in the West:

Obama using the Chicago Way! It is so easy to accomplish things when you are a criminal and hopelessly corrupt!

... subpoenas over the leaks of security modifications:

This is a Chicago style warning to all journalists.

... "Crashergate":

This is just like a Chicago Drive by shooting, 25 Witnesses but no one knows anything, no one saw anything, and the Gang Leaders won't let anybody talk. Soooo Transparent!

... "Climategate":

This is what we expect from a corrupt Chicago Politician. The will of the people means nothing... only his objective of destroying the economy and for show.

... and, of course, Obamacare:

Please don't tell me anyone is suprised that O and his ilk are using strong-arm Chicago tactics.

Lies, threats, intimidation, payoffs ... just more of Obama's Chicago-style antics to push his agenda.

He only knows Chicago brute force approach, and that won't get him far.

When you've been writing the script long enough, you don't have to say "Hi, Norm." Hell, you barely have to get out of the commercial and into the theme.**

* As John's entertaining and well-observed post today suggests, journalists do symbolic convergence as well as anyone.
** If you like where this one's going, come see it in Denver in August.


Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Weasels on the loose

There's a lot of interesting stuff to talk about in the FTC's upcoming roundtable about the purported reinvention of journalism, not least Jeff Jarvis's petulant wah-wah-they-didn't-say-"blog"-enough rant. (Yeah, we'll get to that shortly; do you people not realize how busy it is around here?) Meanwhile, enjoy this paranoid fantasy from a longstanding pillar of the far-right press. It's mostly straight-up ZOMG the Kenyan Muslim Socialists are Coming:

Mark Tapscott: Will journalists wake up
in time to save journalism from Obama's FTC?

Release of the Federal Trade Commission's working paper on "reinventing journalism" makes it clear that there is no more time for diplomacy about this issue: President Obama is determined to federalize the news industry just as he has banking, autos, and health care.

... but there's a particular touch toward the end that helps put into perspective the deep, ahem, reverence that these people have for the Constitution:

Conservative journalists will do well not to roll their eyes impatiently with liberal colleagues who don't understand that government always expands its control over any activity it either funds or regulates, and therefore must be limited at every level to well-defined, narrowly circumscribed powers that only it can fulfill, as was done by the U.S. Constitution.

Better to explain yet again that the original intention of the Founders with respect to the media -- "Congress shall make no law respecting ... the freedom of the press" - is the key to saving independent journalism.

We have no idea what the Founders' "original intention" was "with respect to the media," any more than we can comprehend their original intention with regard to powered flight, the internal combustion engine and the ability of those phenomena to deliver nuclear weapons around the globe. Those things were simply inconceivable when the Founders got around to the Bill of Rights. We're fairly sure of what they thought about "the press," though we really have no idea whether "the press" as operated by Ben Franklin's older brother is supposed to be the same thing as when it's operated by Gannett or McClatchy or News Corp.* That's sort of the practical minefield we operate in when we genuflect toward the 18th century.

More to the point, though, that third graf is a remarkably incompetent -- or dishonest -- elision of a fairly plain bit of text. The First Amendment doesn't say anything about the making of laws "respecting" speech and the press. The "respecting" clause is about religion (as is the subsequent one, in which the verb is "prohibiting"). The clause about the press says that Congress shall make no law "abridging" freedom of the press. The federal Freedom of Information Act is self-evidently a law "respecting" the freedom of the press, but it doesn't "abridge" that freedom. You'd like to think the "buh-buh-buh ... the CONSTITUTION!!!!" crowd could figure that out -- certainly in the guise of an alleged journalist warning other journalists about the coming Kenyan Negro Muslim Socialist apocalypse.

We have in many ways a very Miltonian -- which is to say blinkered, naive and culturally biased** -- concept of the virtues of free speech. But it's the one we have: the cure for weasel-speech is more speech, not restrictions on speech. Go forth and do battle against the weasels.

* Starting to see where we're going to go in class tomorrow?
** Good thing I'm driving in the morning, as it more or less ensures that Language Czarina will not kill me before 10 a.m. for this.