Saturday, July 31, 2010

No man is a coney

Today's quiz: Name three places where you could expect to find candidates for governor this weekend. (Non-US readers especially encouraged to play.)

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Friday, July 30, 2010

Don't do any of this

First rule: Never do no G-droppin' in your heds.

Second rule: Never, ever make an exception to the first rule just because -- well, pickin'!

That's really the point here: pickin' isn't just a gratuitous bit of dialect ostentation. It's the first thing the lame writer finds when reaching into the "bluegrass" section of the cliche toolbag. And it's the first of several signs that the writer (to be fair, let's say "the paper," so we can throw in the line editor, the rimrat and the design desk too) isn't making any real effort to observe and reproduce some event from the real world in a way that would make people think, or wish, they'd been there.

The second sign is the online version of the hed (below the print version). Allow me to suggest* that if the same pickin' is hot and cool at the same time, somebody has an adjective problem. "Hot" and "cool" often mean hugely different things when you're talkin' about music, and nobody here seems to be botherin' to relate what was played to what's bein' written and shown. The video link starts with a nicely restrained version of "The Old Home Town" (here's a take by the 1988 BGBs for comparison, though as far as I know it's a Lester tune). That's not "hot," and it shouldn't be; if your banjo player starts nudging it up toward "Flint Hill Special" range, you either need a new banjo player or a skillet with which to whack the current one upside the head. But let's proceed to the text:

"You gonna have a pickin'?" an elderly man asked Vivian Hopkins as he passed through the store's open door.

"Yes, sir," she told him.

"Good, good," he nodded.

Three direct quotes, not a "said" in the bunch, and one patently illegal verb of attribution: "nodded." The writer's overplaying. You could do this whole sequence with only the first attribution.

... It's the kind of place that thickens a Southern drawl. [What does that even mean? No, really: What would it take for this to be true, and how to you propose to measure it, and what would it mean on the off chance it was true?] The kind of place where the only things moving faster than stomping feet are the mismatched paper fans people use to waft away the summer heat. [The writer's digging into the cliche bag, not watching the crowd. If there's a no-dancing rule, as the story says later, I want to know who's "stomping" -- and how fast, because that's going to help set the pace for the paper fans. The music is going to have one tempo, and that's going to cue a lot of the feet, and if the fans are faster than ... I mean, where's the guy with the video camera?]

... The pickers' fingers moved faster with familiarity when they began to play the classic "I'll Fly Away." But voices coming from the lawn chairs nearly overpowered them.

Sigh. Same thing. I don't think you're telling me what you saw, which means I don't think you saw very well. You mean they can't hold a tempo on a straight gospel tune? Are they playing it faster than "The Old Home Town"?  Do you mean they know it better? Or did the banjo player pick up a bunch of goofy left-hand stuff from Eddie Adcock that Earl simply doesn't bother with? You're alliterating, not reporting. But the talking lawn chairs are cool.

Well, enough of that. The Observer has traditionally been distinctly inept at writing about bluegrass.** Considering that Bill and Charlie Monroe cut their first sides in Charlotte, and considering how closely entwined the genre has always been with the southern Piedmont, and considering that the Observer has long prided itself on being an honest regional voice, that ought to be embarrassing. I think that's because the Observer never thought of bluegrass (unlike jazz or blues or mediocre Southern fiction) as something people actually do. It doesn't have rules and norms and standards -- the kind of things that would cue an open-eyed writer to the ways in which the Hot Club of Naptown and "hot pickin'" might actually have something in common. It's just something quaint that you send a feature writer out to watch every few years so you can say "pickin'" on the front page.

The cousins across campus wonder sometimes why journalists are such sloppy professionals when it comes to describing the social sciences. I think it's probably because we don't have a very good handle on how we ought to describe anything -- or, put another way, that we haven't yet learned to distinguish between "observing" and "slapping in a couple of cliches."

* Again, this is technically an "Orwellian" phenomenon, since Orwell warned against it. It's not entirely original to me.
** The N&O in Raleigh, an independent competitor for many decades before becoming a stablemate, has generally been far better.

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Thursday, July 29, 2010

I can has whacking great libel judgment?

I shall not cease from mental fight Nor shall my O hai! The British media system is a thing of beauty sometimes, innit?  There's an actual diversity of opinion among the print press! A public broadcasting sector that doesn't spend two weeks begging for money every six months!* Heds that call the prime minister a "dickhead"! A complicated system of noun formation that yields 108 words for "nude pic row vicar"! And a widespread tendency in some outlets to, um, just make stuff up -- particularly when it comes to smearing people and groups you don't like: politically, socially or culturally.

British libel law** is stacked toward the plaintiff in ways that can do real damage to the robust discussion of public issues. Less chillingly, it also has a habit of extracting the sort of admission that the Sun ran today (continuing from the screenshot above):

We now accept that these allegations are totally untrue. Mr Subramanyam, whose sole aim has always been to promote the Tamil cause, did not eat any food at all during his hunger strike.

We apologise to Mr Subramanyam and his family for any upset and embarrassment caused and are paying him a substantial sum in damages.

In other words, the Sun (and the Mail, which also ran the burger story) made it up and got caught, and now they have to admit that they lied like cheap rugs.

That might seem like just another of those quaint British traditions, like the TR3 and genuinely good beer, that are interesting on paper but irrelevant to daily life in These United States.*** Consider, though, how many fabrications from the right-wing British press find their way into the news on our side of the pond: Muslims gum up NHS by making nurses turn beds toward Mecca five times a day! Qaida prepares breast-bombers for attack! Obama thinks we can beat the terrorists by watching "Star Wars"! When those start to work their way onto the national agenda, you might want to consider the source.

* And giveth us Monty Python and Dr. Who in its spare time amen.
** We started diverging from the mother country's libel laws while we were still a colony; Zenger was settled in 1735. Raise a glass next Thursday to the principle that truth is a complete defense!

*** Unless you're following the flap over the NYPost's bogus con liver outrage story. Heh.

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Did too! Did not! Did too! Did not!

America's Newspapers weigh in on the impact of the Wikileaks revelations about the war in Afghanistan, and what's their verdict? Creates doubt! Deepens doubt! Panic! Don't panic! Change! No change! Big deal! No deal!

It's hard to have a clearer illustration of the rule about "may" heds. You can always replace a "may" with a "then again, may not." And when you can replace your hed with a negated version, you almost certainly have the wrong hed.


Monday, July 26, 2010

At the fiction factory

The wheels never stop turning over at Mr. Murdoch's Fiction 'n' Fear Emporium. You can be forgiven if you haven't seen this one,* though the Post or the AP might yet be bullied into reporting on it. The point, after all, isn't to see that every lie gets into the mainstream; it's to keep a steady stream of lies churning at every level, so that sooner or later some of them slip through. Let's have a look at how Fox gets some help from its overseas bedmates in advancing the tale of the Lockerbie bomber.

Headlines -- surprise -- are often the only thing a reader needs to make a judgment about a story, so it doesn't matter that Fox's hed is transparently false. Note the subordinate clause in the lede:

The Obama administration told Scottish officials last August that, although it opposed any release of the Lockerbie bomber, it would rather see him released in Scotland than transferred to a Libyan prison, according to a secret memo obtained by The Sunday Times in London.

Just a bit different from "backed freedom, not prison," wouldn't you say?

Anyway. Fox's story is a condensed version of the one carried by the Sunday Times, but the point is the same one the London paper** made in its hed: "Revealed: US double-talk on Lockerbie." In other words, the administration had a bad case of shocked! shocked! when it claimed to have been "surprised, disappointed and angry" to hear of the bomber's release. Broadly, then, you're supposed to categorize this as a "you lie!" story, not a foreign-policy story -- which is good, because policy-wise, a lot of questions are still hanging in the air:

"Nevertheless, if Scottish authorities come to the conclusion that Megrahi must be released from Scottish custody, the US position is that conditional release on compassionate grounds would be a far preferable alternative to prisoner transfer, which we strongly oppose," the memo reportedly said.

What goes into "conditional release," for example? How closely is it supervised? Did anyone raise any concerns about whether a prison transfer would be tantamount to immediate release at home? The memo doesn't appear to go into the history of the UK-Libya prisoner agreement, but apparently Megrahi's status was central in the negotiations, with Britain assuring the UN that he wouldn't be covered. Were any (ahem) multinational corporations asserting an interest in the agreement?

There's an interesting aside in the next graf that knocks a bit of a hole in the hed's "Revealed" claim:

According to The Sunday Times, Scottish officials viewed U.S. resistance to the release as "half-hearted." The Guardian reported on the existence of the memo last year, but the U.S. government reportedly has tried to keep its contents secret. The Sunday Times was the first to publish the memo's text.

Funny, here's what the Grauniad reported last August:

Informed government sources said the US embassy letter still firmly rejected sending Megrahi home to his family: the US wanted Megrahi to stay in Scotland, effectively under house arrest.

And in October:

Speaking on his first official visit to Scotland since becoming ambassador, [Louis] Susman said in an interview with the BBC that Megrahi's controversial release in August had surprised Washington.

"We never anticipated his release," he said. "I think if we ever thought we had a release, we probably would have asked for extradition early on."

Which may or may not be true and may or may not contradict either what the embassy letter said or how it was interpreted. But it should suggest that the "surprise" narrative -- remember, that's the one you get to if you read past the direct lie in the hed -- is hardly the revelation Mr. Murdoch wants you to think it is.

The Times, of course, works at a high level of journalistic discourse. Elsewhere in the spectrum, things are blunter. Here's the story in its entirety at the News of the World, the Sunday version of Murdoch's tabloid Sun:

USA wanted bomber freed
THE US government secretly told Scottish ministers they wanted the Lockerbie bomber set free.

Officials asked for Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi to be freed on compassionate grounds and remain in Scotland rather than be switched to a Libyan jail under the Prisoner Transfer Agreement.

A letter from Richard LeBaron, deputy head of the US Embassy in London, to Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond emerged last night, stating: "It would be a far preferable alternative." Meanwhile Scotland's Justice Minister Kenny Mac-Askill last night denied striking a deal with cancer sufferer al-Megrahi after it emerged he visited him in his cell a week before his release. He was jailed for life for the 1988 jet blast that killed 270.

US senators are investigating if al-Megrahi was freed so BP could seal an oil deal with Libya.

The buffoonish cyber-thug Andrew Breitbart took up most of the air in the room last week with another set of lies aimed at different levels of the media market. He was, surprisingly, called out on it by a few of the media who had been hoodwinked or bullied into giving him publicity. The reminder for grownup media, I think, is twofold:

1) There's no obligation to supply these clowns with the oxygen of publicity. These are the people who brought you Climategate and ACORNgate and Logogate, the War on Christmas and the War on Fox, and the unending campaign against the American flag. The default response should be gales of derisive laughter, followed by the slamming of the phone into its cradle.*** We can and should assume their stories are false until proven true.
2) Should we write about them, we should point out those occasions on which they, um, make stuff up. The Log's post on Breitbart last week summed matters up nicely in its hed: 'Context is everything'. And the context in which this sort of assertion needs to be taken is that it's part of an organized campaign of lies.

* The NYT appears to have worked in a mention into the Sunday final edition, so you might well have missed it if you read the national edn. The Times notes that the Murdoch fishwrap "appeared to have misrepresented the American position."
** The Times has put up a pay wall; I'm going by the version at Lexis.
*** If you can get a ringtone that sounds like a real telephone ringing, can you get an app that sounds like banging the phone down on a drunk with a bar bet to settle? I fear that kids these days aren't getting a true picture of what a Saturday night on the desk looks like.


Friday, July 23, 2010

Heds without clues

Sigh. Yes, we teach that one of the best ways to write a straight-up news hed is to look for a subject, a verb and a direct object. The first case of who-did-what-to-whom you run across in the first independent clause is likely to be the reason the story is in the paper in the first place.*

There is, of course, a sanity clause -- or, put another way, a common-sense clause. At each step of the process, you're supposed to step back and ask "so what?" or words to that effect. And in this case, "Mommy! Billy's throwing gasoline!" is probably not the story you were looking for. What the wise copy editor wants here is another complement as well. Say, for example:

He appeared before a Wake County magistrate Thursday to answer charges that he threw gasoline on his girlfriend and her son while the two sat inside a motor vehicle, court records show.

For the record, he says he did not try to set them on fire, either. But if you need to call the originating paper and track down enough detail to write "Man accused of assaulting woman, child," there's the phone.

Get the idea? When your first hed idea amounts to "Man drives car," see if you can find a prepositional bread crumb or two -- "off cliff," "into bank lobby," "at speeds topping 300 mph" -- that makes matters a bit more interesting. News is supposed to be, you know, newslike. If you wouldn't read beyond the lame hed you wrote, why should anyone else? 

* For convenience's sake, we're going to leave out the "accused of" part, OK? Naturally you'll be mindful of the presumption of innocence when you put these lessons into action.

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Thursday, July 22, 2010

[Sic] semper

Let's call this genre the "sheds light" story -- meaning roughly "we can't show that it has anything to do with the main topic, but we think it's close enough to run anyway." The tale is the latest on the NCAA's don't-call-it-an-investigation of doings in the UNC football program, courtesy of the now nearly indistinguishable N&O/Observer sports department. Perhaps the most interesting light, though, is shed on the N&O's attitude toward dialect, slang and appropriate style rules for transcribing interactive media communications.

Side note: this post began Tuesday evening, but owing to the hospitality, grilling skills and plentiful cooler of operatives "Boris" and "Natasha," it went unfinished. The story has since been substantially modified (more bluntly, we could probably say it was actually "edited" for print in a way that it wasn't for online publication Tuesday afternoon). Some of those changes are noted as they occur.

Twitter posts shed light on UNC player under investigation
 (The new hed is Tar Heels' Austin a prolific Tweeter -- which, you'll have to admit, is rather a climbdown from "sheds light"*)
Before his Twitter account went dark, UNC defensive tackle Marvin Austin posted more than 2,400 updates and built up a following of more than 1,800 people.

... It is not clear whether NCAA investigators were aware of Austin's Twitter account, but his posts provide a portrait of Austin's life off the field in recent months. Austin bragged about trips to Washington, D.C. (his hometown) and Miami and his penchant for shopping sprees.

"Not clear" meaning "we don't know," "we didn't ask," or both? Anyway, light is about to be shed, so shut up and pay attention:

In a May 29 Twitter post that went up at 3:07 a.m., Austin wrote, "I live In club LIV so I get the tenant rate. bottles comin [sic] like its giveaway," a reference to a 30,000-square night club at Miami Beach and champagne bottles.

Well, thanks for reminding us what "bottles" might mean. But seriously -- "comin" is worth a [sic], but the incorrect "its" isn't? (In the updated version, this sequence has been pushed down to the 29th paragraph, and it's followed by this sentence: "The post, however, is a direct quote from "Sweet Life" a song by rap artist Rick Ross." I'd call a (sic) on the "however," which is supposed to indicate a contrast with something you've said earlier. And the missing comma before the appositive is just wrong.)

In the past four months, Austin also posted pictures of a watch for his younger sister, a bag from an upscale sunglass store in Miami and a $143 bill from The Cheesecake Factory in Washington, D.C..

[Sic]-wise, we might ask: What do you buy at a sunglass store -- sunglass? It certainly doesn't sound like a place where you buy sunglasses (or insert an otiose period after "D.C.", but that risks piling on).

"Jus got to DC an [sic] I'm feeln [sic] a shopn [sic] spree … nobody gon [sic] be fresh as ME!!!" Austin tweeted on April 23.

So "an," "feeln," "shopn" and "gon" rate a [sic], but "jus" doesn't? Jus trying to get a grip on your understanding of dialect here, N&O sports des!

Between Feb. 25 and March 8 (the exact date was not available on Google), Austin also lamented his lack of income.

He wrote: "Im [sic] so tired of being broke…somebody make it rain… where is packman [sic] jones when u need em."

"Make it rain" is a euphemism for throwing money, typically single $1 bills, at dancers in an exotic club, a maneuver made notorious by former NFL player Adam "Pacman" Jones.

No, that's not a "euphemism." That's a "figure of speech" or "metaphor." What we have here is a "clueless reporter" spending too much time at "Urban Dictionary" and coming back to "share the wealth." You think the subject is wishing somebody would go throw bills around in a strip club or wishing that someone might throw some money at him -- the sort of rain-making that's been hanging around American English since the late 19th century?

Austin, who's from Washington, could have left for the NFL after his junior season at UNC, which featured a career-best 42 tackles and four sacks.

We don't have a [sic] for this, but -- since you said earlier that Washington is his hometown, is there a particular journalistic virtue in repeating the point here?

Given a second-round grade by the NFL's underclassmen advisory committee, he could have entered the draft and expected to receive a signing bonus of at least $900,000.

He chose to return for his senior season, which is now in jeopardy if the NCAA finds he received improper benefits from an sports agent.

Austin referenced money when he announced his decision return to UNC on Twitter on Jan. 1.

"… yea I could go get paid but in some things it aint all about the money … I love carolina point blank!" he tweeted on New Year's Day.

Sigh. At this point it'd be appropriate to see a [sic] after the "aint," but what would it be siccing -- the use of "ain't" itself or the absence of the apostrophe? And -- being so attentive to young Austin's syntax -- could we maybe pay just a little attention to our own? For example, the missing "to" between "decision" and "return"? (NB, the longer version of the story now includes a list of all the people who wouldn't comment and a number of irrelevant comments from people who would.)

Well, enough. Our writer here seems convinced that he has a Story, even though the hed is substantially dialed-back and at least one of the more damning quotes is, um, somebody else's quote entirely. (Hint: If I tell you it's too rough to feed you, it's not because I think we're about to founder somewhere short of Whitefish Bay.)

What sort of story is it? At the end of the day (and at the beginning of the next day too, after substantial editing and further reporting), it's a story about somebody being loquacious -- and perhaps stupid, but that calls for a lot of inference -- on a social media site. I think it's also a story about how some loquaciousness -- specifically, scary "urban" loquaciousness -- is presumptively more interesting to newspapers than other forms.

The obsessive siccing suggests that the paper doesn't have a very good handle on what people do with things like Twitter. That's partly a style issue, and one that lots of papers could stand to discuss. It's also a matter of deciding whether any particular pile of information amounts to a story -- and if so, why. In this case, I'd say we've been misled under time pressure and did a poor job of putting matters into context when we had a moment to reflect.

We shouldn't expect reporters to kill their own stories. That's why we have editors, and why editors have cats.

* Nor, [sic]wise, do I see much reason to make "Tweeter" a proper noun.

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Monday, July 19, 2010

Word of the day

Unifuentismo (Colombia): The habit of relying on a single source (specifically, the military and security services) in reporting on conflicts.

Yeah, we have the same concept, and it doesn't really matter if one language makes the concept into one word and another needs three or four, and it's not like the wily Inuit have 118 words for command-post reporting or anything. It's still kind of cool to find out how other people talk about stuff.

Having wonderful time, wish you were here, regular transmissions resume shortly.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Loss of sensation

Ladies and gentlemen; prescriptivists, descriptivists and children of all ages; Mr. and Mrs. America and all you ships at sea! Let's ban a phrase from news language now and forevermore, shall we?

The phrase is "become an Internet sensation" (in all its inflected variants), and the story at right -- Friday's Freep, page 2 -- is the one that set me off.

First and for the record, personal-peeve-wise: I have a basic dislike for being told by the AP (or the local fishwrap) what constitutes a "hard" or "disturbing" question. If the question is "how much business do I have telling Holocaust survivors what to do when they visit Auschwitz?", I find the answer pretty easy: Not much, thanks. And you?

The larger point, I hope, is about how and why and whether things become news stories -- specifically, whether "Internet sensation" is either true enough to be meaningful or meaningful enough to be measured for truth. Here's the top of the AP tale:

JERUSALEM — He’s a Holocaust survivor dancing with his family on what easily could have been his own grave.

A video clip of Adolek Kohn awkwardly shuffling and shimmying with his daughter and grandchildren to the sound of “I Will Survive” at Auschwitz and other sites where millions died during the Holocaust has become an Internet sensation. It’s also sparking debate over whether the images show disrespect for those who perished — or are an exuberant celebration of life.

The fight — on Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere — poses uncomfortable questions about one of history’s greatest tragedies: What’s the proper way to commemorate it? Can a survivor pay homage in a way that might be unthinkable for others?

Good thing the AP is here to remind us of the Holocaust's positions among the world's greatest tragedies. But those don't sound like very challenging questions. One, there isn't a "the" proper way to commemorate it. There are lots. And two -- OK, let's try phrasing this a little differently. Can you think of any particular words that members of a (say) an ethnic group can use with each other but remain utterly off limits to the majority?

Wow, that was tough. Anyway, if this was a feature story, this is the point at which we'd say "He is not alone," because, sensation-wise, he isn't:

The spot became an Internet sensation, drawing more than 13 million views on YouTube.
(NYT, July 16)

Kratzer is the associate general counsel for Lexmark who became an Internet sensation a couple of years ago after he decorated his basement with $10 in Sharpie pens.
(AP, July 14)

Her rant became an Internet sensation and Cohen, who graduated from East Stroudsburg High School South in 2001 and was attending Montgomery County Community College with the hopes of becoming a veterinarian, parlayed the exposure into more media appearances. (Allentown Morning Call, July 12)

Anna Chapman, the Russian diplomat's daughter whose photos have become an internet sensation, played with her red hair, attempting to tie it back.  (WashPost, July 9)

Five years ago, Mr. Rebney's profane caught-on-video rants posted on YouTube made him an Internet sensation. (NYT, July 9)

Wall also fielded questions from the camp participants, one of whom asked if the point guard could perform the John Wall dance that became an Internet sensation during this past year when he played his only season at Kentucky. (WashPost, July 8)

Ariel Antigua, the 5-year-old Jersey City boy who's become an Internet sensation with videos of him hitting baseballs at around 90 mph with a 33-inch baseball bat, continues to turn heads in the professional media world. (Jersey Journal, July 7)

Cotter has become an Internet sensation by doing silly, morbid things with the dress, and then posting pictures and writing on the darkly humorous website, which he started with help from his brother, Colin, in May. (AP, July 7)

Organizers asked TV crews and reporters to stop filming, perhaps afraid there could be a repeat of last year, when camper Jordan Crawford of Xavier dunked on James, and the video became an Internet sensation. (AP, July 6)

The 28-year-old Ms. Chapman has become an Internet sensation, described as a "model look-alike who specialized in sultry-eyed, pouty-lipped, come-hither stares." (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, July 1)

Justin Wagoner, who became an Internet sensation for his campout that started last week, could barely keep his eyes open as he talked about his weeklong stay in a tent on Knox. (Dallas Morning News, June 25)

That interview-slash-sermon-slash-rant, in which Louis C. K. lamented that modernity was being wasted on ''spoiled idiots,'' became an Internet sensation. (NYT, June 20)

This AP lede from the end of May could be the best in show:

The hypnotic video of mud, gas and oil billowing from the seafloor has become an Internet sensation as Americans watch to see whether BP's effort to plug the gusher in the Gulf of Mexico succeeds.
(AP, May 29)

Get the idea? It's awfully easy to declare an "Internet sensation," but nobody seems to have much interest in explaining how we might measure or recognize that phenomenon. As such, it's hard to tell from any of those other myriad forms of journalistic shorthand for "Some of my friends are talking about this, so here's a made-up reason you should be interested too." It's more or less the same thing as "raises eyebrows" or "stirs controversy."

Here's a news flash, kids. Whatever it is, the public isn't nearly as interested or attentive as you think. When Fox asked about views of Elena Kagan in the regular poll a few weeks ago, it found that views were "mixed." That's technically true -- but favorable (24%) and unfavorable (17%) views added together barely exceed the proportion of the sample (40%) who said they'd never heard of her.

Journalism ought to be actively working to make sure that people who want to pay attention to minor stuff like Supreme Court nominations can do so productively. That's fine. But we can afford to spend a lot less time seeking out and purporting to confirm the latest alleged supernovae of popular culture. Check back in six months and see how many of these Internet sensations raise anything more than a look of puzzlement.

Anyway: Ban is thus proposed. Offenders, take note.


Friday, July 16, 2010

Murder by ... wait, what?

Should we count this as a variant crash blossom, or is it just a dangler in disguise?

You can, of course, be forgiven for thinking you knew exactly what "murder by" means:

You'll likely never look at office supplies the same way again after director Fouad Mikati's gory close-ups of murder by staple remover, scissors, bookend and paper cutter. (LAT, July 16)

In 2008 Andrei Lugovoi—wanted in Britain for the murder by poison of defector Alexander Litvinenko—was elected to the Duma on the LDPR party list. (Newsday, July 15)

The phone conversations between Sam Fleishman and myself continue around themes in my forthcoming Murder By Computer. (HuffPo, July 12)

The District Attorney's Office added special circumstances to the murder charges, including murder by lying in wait and murder committed in the commission of a burglary. (Visalia Times-Delta, July 9)

The story, alas, is less interesting than the hed:
Together, they stabbed and bludgeoned a 41-year-old tattoo shop owner to death with a sledgehammer — and hatched some of their plans in typo- and expletive-laden text messages, Florida detectives said.

And you can see why this one raced to the top of the news agenda.


Thursday, July 15, 2010

Ax beach teach in kid drown tragedy

Even by tabloid standards, this is pushing the rules. I think the idea of "drown kid" is that  "drown" -- like "slay" in "slay suspect" -- is a noun modifier, because once you turn the verb into a gerund, it's still a noun when you remove the "-ing" if you really, really want it to be. I'm more used to seeing that noun being modified, as in "'86 bro kill," discussed a few months back, but -- hey, language changes.

"Teach" as a clipping of "teacher" always sets off a chorus of "Officer Krupke" in the back of my head somewhere, but it's standard hed fare at the Post, especially in -- come on, you know you want it:

Sex teach caged (Dec. 18, 2007)
Bx. 'sex' teach faces music, major rap in minor 'rape' ( March 7, 2007)
'Montessori sex-teach' victim 'crossed' up* (March 6, 2007)
East side 'kid sex' teach bets on a trial (Oct. 19, 2006)
Sex teach: I'm a very bad girl (Sept. 12, 2006)
Sex-teach a slow learner -- jailed for writing tryst teen again (April 28, 2006)
'Free ride' for sex teach -- court-shy victim saved from stand (March 22, 2006)
Sex-teach judge slams her victims (Mov. 22, 2006)

The hammer hed ("Sea of hurt") doesn't really go with the subject-verb in the deck; is it the death (which was three weeks ago) or the firing that sets off the "sea of hurt"? And is "axed in beach tragedy" a reference to an already existing tragedy or one we haven't yet been told of?

Sometimes we look back upon the great traditions of journalism syntax and wonder what exactly we were thinking. At right is a 1A story from the World's Greatest Newspaper on this very date in 1942, and you sort of think -- wow, subjects, who needs 'em? Oh, wait. Perhaps someday the great tab hed NPs will look the same. Meanwhile ...

* Special bonus points if you can translate this one on the spot. Here's the story, should you be curious.

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Lovecraft, Asimov, Clarke

Hem. Apparently with the blog hat on, Your Editor writes like Lovecraft (with occasional doses of James Joyce). Most recent journal article, Asimov in both the intro and the conclusion. Best paper for Denver,* Arthur C. Clarke.** People just won't stop coming up with amusing  algorithms to play with in the intertubes, will they?

I could stay up and keep trying for a Tolkien, but that could take years and cost millions of lives.

* The grammar survey will be there too! I will send results out soon, honest. It also rated a Lovecraft.
** As was a chunk of the diss. Plus ca not so much.


Monday, July 12, 2010

Actually, no. It doesn't.

You know, you can just overplay a "study" from a group that wants to stroke your audience all you want, but you don't really bump it across the goal line unless you cook the hed a little too.

Here's the story, in case (for some reason) you didn't see it on the front page of your local paper:

The six-month election recount that turned former "Saturday Night Live" comedian Al Franken into a U.S. senator may have been decided by convicted felons who voted illegally in Minnesota's Twin Cities.

That's the finding of an 18-month study conducted by Minnesota Majority, a conservative watchdog group, which found that at least 341 convicted felons in largely Democratic Minneapolis-St. Paul voted illegally in the 2008 Senate race between Franken, a Democrat, and his Republican opponent, then-incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman.

Which is a big deal because?

The final recount vote in the race, determined six months after Election Day, showed Franken beat Coleman by 312 votes -- fewer votes than the number of felons whose illegal ballots were counted, according to Minnesota Majority's newly released study, which matched publicly available conviction lists with voting records.

And of course ...

"The only way we can be wrong is if someone with the same first, middle and last names, same year of birth as the felon, and living in the same community, has voted. And that isn't very likely."
Still wondering about something? Like, say, how we know who all the felons voted for? Oh, please. We're going to let that get in the way of a good story exactly why?

We've frequently made the point here that it's hard -- in some cases, nearly impossible -- to tell Fox's fundamental dishonesty from its fundamental incompetence. This sort of blunder is easy to make in a hurry, especially if you see what you expect to see. Better editors don't make that sort of mistake. It'll be interesting to see what happens if Fox ever starts to hire editors for their skill, rather than their adherence to the party line.

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Saturday, July 10, 2010

Pronoun fever: Catch it

Language Log sheds some further light on Charles Krauthammer's latest pseudo-psycholinguistic fabrications about presidential discourse, with the excellent addition of an entry from Safire's Political Dictionary:

my (use of possessive pronoun): Used as in "my ambassador," either a slip of the tongue leading to an attack for royalist tendencies, or a deliberate presidential effort to undercut the State Department.

Brief detour. Bill Safire was by most if not all accounts a genuinely decent and collegial guy (Language Hat's poignant tribute is worth revisiting). But for all the different personae he assumed in his writing (Foxy Grandpa with a steel-trap memory for campaigns past, Mr. Marple summoning his platoons of irregulars to crowdsource the truth), he was at bottom a political creature. When the push of observation came to the shove of ideology, the latter tended to win -- at least, often enough to make him a lodestone of the particular brand of fiction-posing-as-analysis that seems to be in fashion on the WashPost's op-ed pages of late.

Thus, when Safire introduces historical evidence to support a current assertion about language and its effects, it's often a good idea to take a splash in the archives first. Back to the Dictionary:

Dwight Eisenhower, a team player, consciously avoided the possessive pronoun. "I don't believe," wrote reporter* Robert Donovan, "that Eisenhower has ever used the expression 'my administration' or 'my Cabinet.' He speaks of the Cabinet or the administration."

It takes all of two or three minutes to find this letter from Ike to Konrad Adenauer, discussing the disposition of confiscated German assets, reported in the NYT of Aug. 11, 1954:

Several bills dealing with the subject are now pending there [in Congress], and members of my Cabinet and other Government officials have appeared and expressed their views. None of the measures thus far proposed have the approval of my Administration, but you may be assured that this problem is receiving earnest consideration and it is my hope that a fair, equitable and satisfactory solution can be arrived at.

I like Ike's writing here: no Oxford comma, no strained attempt to avoid the perfectly well-placed preposition at the end of the sentence, comfortable use of the passive voice where it's appropriate ("you may be assured"). And, of course, what I would interpret as an assertion of personal responsibility in "my Cabinet" and "my Administration."

An interpretation is exactly that -- an inference you draw about what evidence means in its context. No doubt we could construct a "my Cabinet" sentence that means or implies something entirely different: "My Cabinet will look like America," meaning "and yours doesn't, you Skull-n-Bones elitist." I like my reading of the Ike letter, but I'm open to other ones, partly because I think there's a high risk of overstretch in drawing broad psychological conclusions from isolated examples of language.

The point, though, is that you get to conclusions by starting with evidence. And the message to America's Newspapers is the same: Charles Krauthammer doesn't use evidence. He makes things up, and he draws broad psychological conclusions from stuff he makes up. You have every right to ask for a refund from the Post syndicate. Why do you continue to pay for this stuff?

* And a tip of the hat to Hat for not following NYT style, which would have called for making him "the reporter Robert Donovan."

Friday, July 09, 2010

The echo chamber: Pronouns again!

Always nice when Jon Stewart's working in a holiday week, isn't it? Some of those otherwise hidden gems of Fair 'n' Balanced journalism might not otherwise get the audience they deserve -- this one, for example. (Its Web incarnation -- top story Monday evening -- is above.)
The random fear-stoking is really secondary to all the other buttons this one pushes in the audience. This evening's No. 2 story is an example: once again, those damn liberal media are ignoring a major story broken by the fierce watchdogs of Fox:

Last year, it was Van Jones and ACORN that slipped under much of the media's radar. But despite pledges to pay closer attention to the "polemic world of talk radio, cable television and partisan blogs," two new stories have taken their place in the annals of things not much reported.

But more broadly, it's a chance to light up the echo chamber for everybody's favorite themes (so, yes, it's going to hit the mainstream media, whether the news desk has the good sense to ignore it or not). Cal Thomas has the Apology Tour/kowtowing beat (now with added Racism®!):

It is a continuation of the president's subjugation of himself (bowing to foreign leaders) and the country he is charged with leading by obsequiously kowtowing to a people for whom advancement to the Middle Ages would be a step up.

And Charles Krauthammer -- maybe George Will was busy elsewhere and Chuck was the only one available who could spell "exceptionalism":

There was no finer expression of belief in American exceptionalism than Kennedy's. Obama has a different take. As he said last year in France, "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism." Which of course means: If we're all exceptional, no one is.

But -- wait for it, grammar fans -- there's more afoot here. Dr. Krauthammer is going to show you his psychoanalytic chops again, and he's going to do it with pronouns!

... It's fine to recognize the achievements of others and be non-chauvinistic about one's country. But Obama's modesty is curiously selective. When it comes to himself, modesty is in short supply.

It began with the almost comical self-inflation of his presidential campaign. ... And it carried into his presidency, from his posture of philosopher-king adjudicating between America's sins and the world's to his speeches marked by a spectacularly promiscuous use of the word "I."

How many times to we have to dig up the links and go through this again? "Spectacularly promiscuous" is Krauthammer-speak for "less than his predecessor, and probably significantly less, but who has time to test it when the original lie won't go away." It's not new. It's old enough that someone at the WashPost (people used to call them "editors") should be asking the little doctor when he'd like to document it and how exactly he got through medical school anyway with that sort of attitude toward the world of falsifiable propositions. But there's a new twist on the pronoun phenomenon just ahead:

Notice, too, how Obama habitually refers to Cabinet members and other high government officials as "my" -- "my secretary of homeland security," "my national security team," "my ambassador." The more normal -- and respectful -- usage is to say "the," as in "the secretary of state." These are, after all, public officials sworn to serve the nation and the Constitution -- not just the man who appointed them.

It's a stylistic detail, but quite revealing of Obama's exalted view of himself.

OK, we've got your conceptual definition. What's your operational definition? If "habitually" means something, it means something with decimal points -- if you want anyone to believe it, you're going to have to measure it and then show that it happens in Obama's speech at some predetermined degree higher than it generally does in presidential speech. That's basically a reliability question, meaning it doesn't address the validity question: Is this a detail "quite revealing" of an "exalted view of himself," or did you just make that up too?

Because it seems to cause such trouble at Fox, we should probably note that not all words and phrases carry the same meaning in every context they're spoken in. I'm going to bet that even Dr. Krauthammer doesn't see this post-election comment by Bush Senior as evidence of rampant narcissism:

"I would like to see my Secretary of State continue that which George Shultz has done in terms of the numbers of meetings with the Soviet Foreign Minister."

Clearly that's contextually differerent from Bush Junior's comment in November 2004:

"I'm proud of my secretary of state -- he's done a heck of a good job.''

Or Reagan from June 1987:

"And I shouldn't perhaps go out of the way to say that the thing that he himself has proposed, the zero-zero of intercontinental -- or intermediate-range missiles, that I proposed that four years ago and got in trouble with my then Secretary of State -- not the present one -- for saying such a foolish thing."

Or Bush Senior again, writing to (ahem) Saddam Hussein shortly before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990:

"Let me reassure you, as my Ambassador, Senator Dole and others have done, that my Administration continues to desire better relations with Iraq."

Or even Jimmy Carter amid the Andy Young flap in 1979: "He's still my ambassador to the UN, with restraints"

It's worth noting here that a search of the NYT database at Lexis-Nexis for stories containing "obama" and "my ambassador" on Thursday night turned up no hits. None. Which certainly doesn't mean the combination hasn't occurred, or that the Times is the same sort of archive of political speech it was three decades ago, but might start to suggest that the little doctor is simply making stuff up. But another those key phrases -- "my national security team" -- does yield some material for direct comparison. Here are two examples of Obama's speech, from January 2010 and September 2009 respectively:

"My national security team has led an interagency effort overnight."

"It was my judgment, informed by my national security team, that releasing these photos would inflame anti-American opinion and allow our enemies to paint U.S. troops with a broad, damning and inaccurate brush, thereby endangering them in theaters of war.''

You might conclude -- unless you'd been reading Kathleen Parker's unmitigated bullshit about girly-manhood or something -- that presidents use that sort of phrase when they're taking responsibility for a potentially controversial action. Based on these examples from Bush Junior (September 2007 and January 2007), I'd call that a fair guess:

"I have consulted with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, other members of my national security team, Iraqi officials, and leaders of both parties in Congress."

"It is clear that we need to change our strategy in Iraq. So my national security team, military commanders and diplomats conducted a comprehensive review."

If you turn the dial back another notch, you might even conclude that this is a way presidents talk when they're trying to underscore the importance of a security issue. Here's Bill Clinton:

"I have just been meeting with my national security team on today's tragic events in the Middle East, and I would like to make a brief statement." (October 2000; the Cole bombing)

"I want to explain why I have decided, with the unanimous recommendation of my national security team, to use force in Iraq, why we have acted now, and what we aim to accomplish." (December 1998)

"And so this morning, based on the unanimous recommendation of my national security team, I ordered our armed forces to take action to counter an immediate threat from the bin Laden network." (August 1998)

That's not the way to do content analysis; it's a way of starting to explain how the things you're going to measure might have some plausible relation to the real world of news content that people see and hear. Unless you're Charles Krauthammer, who interpreted "My national security team" this way in his column of December 18, 1998:

He then proceeded, pathetically, to enumerate every single one of them -- "the vice president, secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff," etc., etc. The commander in chief and leader of the free world has fallen so low that he needs to draw authority from those under him.

So much for that "more normal -- and respectful -- usage," eh?

All right, America's Newspapers. Charles Krauthammer is a hack and a fabulist. You already know that if you run his column. Consider this advance notice that this particular column is a pack of lies from top to bottom. You should consider calling the Washington Post Writers Group and asking for your money back. And if you're the Washington Post, you should consider asking your columnists to meet minimum professional standards or confine themselves to the studios of the Fair 'n' Balanced Network. I really don't think you'd have a problem filling the space with competently written, accurate, provocative material.

If it was up to me, I'd start by soliciting the official Language Log take on Kathleen Parker. That might provide the Wills and Krauthammers of the world with a gentle hint that open fraud is no longer an appropriate mode of op-ed discourse. Sound like fun?

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Hey, here's an idea

Want to keep people from holding all those silly media events so you can stop writing all those stop-me-before-I-write-again columns about the sheer breathlessness of it all?

Try starting all off-season transactions in the agate. Keep them there until you hear otherwise. That's why we have a "sports" section.

No, I don't actually, clinically think we're at risk of overlooking the real end of the world because of the distractions posed by the fake ones. But just in case ...


Today in quote-mining

Well, that'd put you right off your Wheaties, wouldn't it? Never mind that the Wehrmacht is driving on Voronezh,* the Redistributor-in-Chief is going to have the tires right off your Hudson!

Well, he sort of is. Here's the story, by the redoubtable Walter Trohan, writing off the presidential press conference of July 7, 1942:

President Roosevelt today said if the war gets worse he may have to commandeer every automobile tire in the country.

He told his first press conference in two weeks he is trying to save the country -- not gas or tires. He declared he is confident the people are ready to make any sacrifice necessary to win the war.

The chief executive advanced tire requisitioning as a possibility in stating he hoped to separate the tire problem from the gasoline problem.

All due respect to Mr. Trohan, but bear in mind that he's writing for the next morning's paper -- not what we'd call banging it out on deadline. So let's skip a few grafs of mediocre transcription and see if we can figure out how we got to "TIRE SEIZURE LIKELY" from  "advanced tire requisitioning as a possibility":

... He said he knew more about the situation than any one in the room and yet was not anywhere near the answer. The problem is so complex no one understands it completely, he said. Suppose the situation gets worse, he said, then he might have to take every single auto tire.

It actually gets cooler:

... It is obvious and copybook stuff that an increase in steel wages would be a factor in increasing the cost of living, he said. Asked whether he would like the cost of living to go up, he replied that was kindergarten stuff, adding he was most certainly against any further rise.

No, nothing further about the imminent demise of your tires. Nothing for the next six weeks, either (the naming of experts to the tire board moves to page 6A in mid-August, if you're scoring along at home). But -- y'know, why try to take your 8 or 10 or 12 hours of leeway and try to put the press conference into some form that makes sense, when you can simply scare hell out of the good people of Chicago?

The World's Greatest Newspaper is worth bearing in mind when we ponder some of today's manifestations of Fear and Balance, do you think? And old front pages** are fun on their own.

* Sister city of Charlotte, for you Queen City readers out there!
** You have to work pretty hard to find the story if you aren't used to the typographic signals. Note that all the secondary heds have a hairline rule all the way across except the one in column 5? That's where the lede hed drops to.There were giants in those days.


Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Don't do this

Here's one of those annoying journalism habits that I had thought was gone with the -- I don't know, gone with the flying-verb hed* or something. How is the Daily Herald of "suburban Chicago" going to come up with a 1A story about the Blago case? Hey, let's ask some psychologists for a little armchair analysis!

Ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich's denial that anything was wrong, selling himself to reality shows, even his always-perfect hair have caused some to question his state of mind. (How do you tell Fox from real journalism? Well, when it comes to "some" ledes, you don't! But seriously -- this is a benchmark for 1A stories? Big hair makes you a nutcase?)

But now that Blagojevich's federal corruption trial reveals his interest in running for president, his jealousy of others, and his struggle to get money while he and his wife spent $400,000 on clothes over six years, some psychologists say they believe they can put a name to his mental status. (Other than the "mental status" you have to have before running for statewide office anyway?)

Specifically, two prominent Chicago psychologists said Blagojevich displays symptoms of a condition officially known as narcissistic personality disorder. (How do you mean "prominent"? Do they sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" at the seventh-inning stretch? Or were they on the heavily attended citywide panel discussion on personality disorders? Or were they ...)

Dr. Daniela Schreier, a forensic psychologist at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, said it's impossible to make a clinical diagnosis without a personal evaluation, which she has not done. (Since she's -- how do we put this? -- "right," do you suppose this would be a good time to kill the story?) But, she said, Blagojevich definitely has traits of the condition. (How long did it take for her to come up with this diagnosis? Surely the reporter wouldn't have ... I mean, surely a reporter wouldn't actually call up a prominent psychologist and plant the seed of a suggested malady? Wouldn't that require shopping around for just the right psychologists?

Scott Ambers, a Chicago psychologist, said Blagojevich appears to "hit the jackpot" in meeting the criteria for narcissistic personality disorder.

If by "just right" you mean "will reliably use colorful figures of speech on demand," it looks that way.
Owing to selection bias, we don't know what "psychologists" -- even prominent Chicago ones -- think about the propriety of this. I'd like to know how many disagreed with the reporter, how many pointed out the ethical issues of doing jackleg diagnosis based on fragmentary media reports, and how many hung up on the reporter outright.** (Considering how nice "quoted as an expert source by ..." looks on the vitae, we should all plan to buy the dissidents a beer next time we see them.) And I don't know of any specific prohibitions in the assorted bits of journalism canon against enticing other professionals to bend their own ethics guidelines.

I don't think we even have to go there, because what we have here is simply crap journalism, raw and fragrant. It's a newspaper pretending to be a daytime TV show and not realizing that it's singularly lacking in noise, lights, motion and morons -- though I'm pretty close to conceding that last point.

I'm sorry for the rimrat who had to write the hed, because it's a brutal count.*** But it's nice to think, if only for a moment, that the rimrat turned to the slot and said "The specs aren't the problem. I can't write a hed because the story sucks."

* Quiz 8 in ax fest!
** It's more than possible that, having found two sources, the reporter stopped right there. (Hey, if two sources was good enough for Woodward and Bernstein ...)

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Monday, July 05, 2010

No evidence: Better than fake evidence?

The 30-second Kathleen Parker:

I'm not saying Obama is a girlie president, but he is the first girlie man to be president! Here are some random observations, some misinterpretations of a genuine rhetorical scholar and some bogus pseudo-linguistic assertions I don't understand either! More Pulitzers, please!

Thanks to the eternal vigilance of the cousins at the Language Log, this summary can be appended: Yes, it appears possible to analyze the speech in question so as to yield the asserted proportion of "passive-voice constructions." But even if the Global Language Monitor was able to recognize the passive voice at better than chance levels (it isn't), there's no correlation between the grammatical construction we call "passive" and the concept of "passivity in a leader" -- and a good thing too, since the manly boil of George W. Bush's speechmaking appears to contain significantly more of it than the mincing simmer of Obama's.

That's getting to be a familiar refrain: Columnist makes stuff up, Post fails to exercise minimal due gatekeeping diligence, and yet another steaming cartload of bullpoop is loosed upon the world of political discourse. So it was hardly a surprise to click over to the Foremost Newspaper of the Carolinas this morning and find this:

Is Obama paying price for acting too much like a woman?

Which is the same column, with a notable deletion:

His lack of immediate, commanding action was perceived as a lack of leadership because, well, it was. Campbell's research, in which she affirms that men can assume feminine communication styles successfully (Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton), suggests holes in my own theory. She insists that males are safe assuming female styles as long as they meet rhetorical norms for effective advocacy - clarity and cogency of argument, appropriate and compelling evidence.

Whoa! I don't think Kathleen Parker's a very good writer, but I do think she's a less clumsy writer than that -- I mean, going straight from her core assertion to the acknowledgement that her own "theory" is unlikely to hold water. Here's her original:

His lack of immediate, commanding action was perceived as a lack of leadership because, well, it was. When he finally addressed the nation on day 56 (!) of the crisis, Obama's speech featured 13 percent passive-voice constructions, the highest level measured in any major presidential address this century, according to the Global Language Monitor, which tracks and analyzes language.

Granted, the century is young -- and it shouldn't surprise anyone that Obama's rhetoric would simmer next to George W. Bush's boil. But passivity in a leader is not a reassuring posture.

Campbell's research, in which she affirms that men can assume feminine communication styles successfully (Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton), suggests holes in my own theory. She insists that men are safe assuming female styles as long as they meet rhetorical norms for effective advocacy -- clarity and cogency of argument, appropriate and compelling evidence, and preempting opposing positions.

The "13 percent passive-voice constructions" is gone. That's pretty obviously an editorial change, but where did it happen? Is it just the Observer omitting words at random to make the column fit in the designated hole?* Or did the syndicate have a belated change of heart? Or is something else afoot?

My bet is on random -- though having spent 11 years omitting words, needless and otherwise, under that very roof, I'd like to hold out hope for "belated attack of conscience." The column appeared today, and the Logsters first nailed it last Thursday. It's run in quite a few places since then, but I haven't seen that omission anywhere else.

Promising sign, but not conclusive. Columns, unlike news stories, tend to have conclusions, and the Observer omitted Parker's:

And, perhaps, next time will be a real woman's turn.

Yeah, it's lame, stupid and irrelevant, but it is a conclusion. And that suggests that space was the main issue -- meaning that any couple of sentences could have brought the thing down to length. Why were the ones referring to Paul Payack's fabricated data the ones that went? And if it was an attack of conscience, why not kill the damn column altogether?

Accounts from those at the Obs are thus solicited. And anyone who wants to explain why deleting the faulty evidence makes it all right to run a column based on faulty evidence can step to the head of the line.

* In case you were wondering, kids, a change in the SAU column width from 12p4 to 11p ain't just whistling Dixie.

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Sunday, July 04, 2010

Solar system exceptionalism

Me and my brother against my cousin, me and my cousin against the world, me and my world against ... dude, wait. What?

Whatever you might think of as "leaving space," this ain't it.
(Nor, of course, does the flag in the story have anything to do with the one in the picture.) The flag is on Voyager 1, plugging along on its way toward the far suburbs of the solar system.

Happy Fourth of July, kids!

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Blame game: From man to pig ...

We spend a lot of time around here picking on the Fair 'n' Balanced Network, so let's take a brief glance at how the world looks from a fresh, distinct, radically different angle:

(CNN) -- When signs of a severe economic downfall emerged more than two years ago, then-candidate Barack Obama was quick to point a finger at the man he hoped to replace.

Seventeen months into his administration, the message is often the same, and Republicans say it's time for him to drop the Bush bashing and take ownership of the problem.

"Nothing makes a president look weaker than pointing the finger at past administrations," said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean. "By blaming somebody, it looks like you are playing politics and people just want jobs. They don't care about whose fault it is. Playing the blame game only boomerangs on yourself."

Sound familiar? It should. It's been a running theme for many months over at ... wait, what's that other network? The one that everybody's always holding up as the anti-CNN? Here's Sean Hannity from a year ago:

President Obama claims that he wants the American people to hold him accountable for his decisions, but as Peter Baker of The New York Times points out, since taking office the president has dodged responsibility for any of our nation's problems.

Instead he's been engaging in one of the liberal left's favorite pastimes: blame Bush, blame Bush, blame Bush.

Let's take a look:
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA, 2/9/2009: We also inherited the most profound economic emergency since the Great Depression.
OBAMA, 2/24/2009: With the deficit we inherited.
OBAMA, 3/6/2009: We inherited a big mess.
OBAMA, 3/12/2009: Because of the deficits we inherited.
OBAMA, 3/18/2009: Because of the massive deficit we inherited.
OBAMA, 3/19/2009: Because of the massive debts that we've inherited.
OBAMA, 3/20/2009: Because of the massive deficits we inherited.
OBAMA, 3/25/2009: And because we've inherited a historic fiscal mess.
OBAMA, 6/1/2009: We inherited a financial crisis unlike any that we've seen in our time.
OBAMA, 6/9/2009: The financial crisis this administration inherited is still creating painful challenges for businesses and families alike.

This is a broken record. Isn't it time for the president to retire that line and maybe start to take some responsibility for his own?

Amazing coincidence! That's the takeaway message CNN has too!

The White House needs to go on a confidence campaign and perhaps take a page from President Reagan's playbook, Epstein said.

Let's do just that. Here's Reagan from 1982:*

Sept. 16, 1982: ",,, if we had not brought inflation down as far as we have from the double-digit rates we inherited."
July 1, 1982: "A year and a half ago, we inherited 21.5 percent interest rates, double-digit inflation and a trillion-dollar debt, the worst economic mess in post-war history."
June 16, 1982: ''Some diehards are now declaring the present recession was caused by our program,'' Mr. Reagan said in a speech at the Albert Thomas Convention Center here tonight. ''May I just point out - we had the recession before we got the program.''
April 30, 1982: "And they have every reason to because that 12.4 percent inflation rate we inherited has been running at only 3.2 percent for the last six months."
March 19, 1982: "Our Administration has been reminding the American people that the economic mess we inherited last year - and the recession we're in now - is the legacy of years of misguided policy. ... Well, we inherited many mistakes by others - but we're not going to just bemoan the past."
Feb. 19, 1982: "A year ago, I went before the American people to say that we'd inherited the worst economic mess in half a century."

Nothing makes a president look weaker, huh? Good thing Reagan had gotten out of the habit by the time he ran for re-election:

Oct. 2, 1984: Mr. Reagan told the business group that his Administration ''inherited the legacy of 42 unbalanced budgets in the last 50 years.''
Aug. 24, 1984: "The Census Bureau confirms that, because of the tax laws we inherited, the number of households at or below the poverty level paying Federal income tax more than doubled between 1980 and 1982."
Feb. 23, 1984: "May I give two examples? We've not only cut down the rate of increase in spending that we inherited and that we found when we came here, but no one has added up the proposed spending increases that we have denied. "
Feb. 1, 1984:In an address to executives of the concrete and gravel industries, Mr. Reagan cited a dozen different aspects of the economic recovery, saying, "We inherited despair and turned it into hope."

The right time to drop the bashing and take ownership, in other words, seems to be sometime toward the end of Year 4. Unless you're a major cable network trying to build a bogus politics story around a fictional talking point about one party passed along by a strategist for the opposition, that is.

The point is not that CNN and Fox are the same thing. They aren't, though when it comes to buying this handful of magic beans from this huckster, it's hard to tell. But it's equally important to note that they aren't polar opposites or left-right anchors on a Likert-type scale of ideology in journalism or anything like that.

CNN is building a story in a very old-fashioned way: some people in the pundit class are saying X, here's an expert saying Y about that, here's another expert saying sort-of-Y, and here's an opposition expert saying not-Y. The gatekeeping fail comes at the outset. As when it buys into, say, Paul Payack's loopy assertions about presidential speech, CNN isn't bothering to ask what properties would have to be in place for X to be worth talking about. And as with other such pseudo-quantitative assertions, the first thing to do is -- ready for this? look around a little and see what the terrain looks like. If the pundit class is chattering about some phenomenon that amounts to Water Flows Downhill or Sun Rises in East, that's a sign that you don't have a story and should tell the strategist to bugger quietly off into that good night. CNN evidently doesn't make a habit of that sort of reflection, but if we ask nicely, there's always a chance that it might.

Fox is a different creature. It can turn out stories built exactly along this pattern (claim, support, contradiction, coinclusion), but it only does them for some political actors. Fox would never run an assertion that George W. Bush was a girly speaker because of his use of the passive voice, or that his use of the first-person singular pronoun marked him as a blithe narcissist unfit for leadership in times of crisis. Fox is a propaganda organization, and propaganda organizations don't buy magic beans from the enemy. That's why CNN is easy to game and Fox isn't.

Takeaway point for editors? If the reporter can't tell you what a "blame game" would look like and how this alleged instance compares to your good old null hypothesis, you don't have a story. You don't have to show it's false. The reporter has to show it's true.

* Not what you'd call a thorough content analysis, but a ranging shot; it's what you get by searching the NYT archive for "reagan" and "inherited."

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Friday, July 02, 2010

Drugs, sex, furriners, Bible, flag

Most perfect front page in Fox history! Murderous Mexicans stalk your border, spurned commie spy rat's ex-hubby spills all to the Torygraph, godless schools scorn the Bible, and California pees all over the flag* and the memory of September 11.

The last of these comes with a genuinely Frankensteinian lede:

Governor Schwarzenegger issued an apology Friday after California residents are up in arms that a flag mural — paying homage to victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks — was painted over after the state ruled it was graffiti.

... and the usual sort of evidence to support a claim like "California residents are up in arms":

Sandy Kraft said, "I drive this every day and to not see it up there waving at me, even though it doesn't wave, it's still waving at you."

Ever wonder why Planet Fox seems so different from the world you saw when last you peeked outside? That's the basic agenda-setting hypothesis, summed up in a metaphor that Max McCombs and Don Shaw** borrowed from Bernard Cohen's "The Press and Foreign Policy": The press isn't very good at telling people what to think, but it's really, really good at telling people what to think about. Thanks largely to the groundbreaking 1972 M&S article, Cohen's book has probably got the highest ratio of times-quoted-to-times-read of anything that doesn't claim to be scripture, so here's the sentence after the famous one, just so you can say you've seen it:

It follows from this that the world looks different to different people, depending not only on their personal interests but also on the map that is drawn for them by the writers, editors and publishers of the papers they read.

The big papers donned the sackcloth and ashes in a hurry last year as they bemoaned their failure to take the Tea Party folks and the climate deniers seriously. That was a mistake; for as long as we've had "objectivity" as an ideal in journalism, malicious people have been able to beat the system at its own game. We don't need to give these folks the time of day. But we do need their map, and -- conveniently -- some days they publish alarmingly detailed copies.

* It's hard to find any plausible meaning in English under which Schwarzenegger could have "nixed" the flag mural, but was it over when the Austrians bombed Pearl Harbor?
** For the record, yes. Your Editor got a C in journalism history from Don Shaw back in the (ahem) Ford administration.

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Oh, grow up

It might not look that way from the outside (and for that matter, doesn't always look that way from the inside either), but mainstream journalism's turn against open sexism on the newspages was actually a fairly successful bit of social engineering in language.

Not that it lacked its amusing moments. The zealous hunt for adjectives in a story about Hillary Clinton was in general quite blind to the endemic anti-Arab racism marking the stories next door. Some attempts to formalize the effort (the famous "isms" chapter in Working with Words comes to mind) remain landmarks of epic clue fail. And the tabloids, bless 'em, have been blithely immune to the onrushing 20th century, well into the onrushing 21st. But generally, we did OK in establishing the broad principle that news writing shouldn't talk about what people look like unless it's clearly germane to the topic of the story. (If Star Writer thinks it is, that's a conclusive hint that it isn't.)

It is thus a regrettable sign of the ongoing tabloidization of the once-respectable broadsheets that the Freep has found "sexy politician" an appropriate hed for the 1A centerpiece. That's the nicest thing we can say about it. Are you freaking dimwits kidding? Are you writing about the commissioner in her official role, or in her role as a purported accessory to whatever alleged mischief her husband is supposedly accused of, or in her role as poster person for your adolescent offspring's bedroom wall?

"Sexy" (or "hot," which Commissioner Torrice is alleged to be in the jump hed) is a judgment of a particularly annoying kind. It tells your readers where they can get off if they happen not to share your particular aesthetic standards. Imagine the poor reader out there somewhere in Freep-land who's generally annoyed with vacant-looking blonde women but finds Jennifer Granholm to be a complete and utter babe. (Or the prime minister of Australia, and if you didn't know one of our major allies had a new head of government, you can and should draw conclusions about the competence of your neighborhood fishwrap.) Is there some reason those folks -- or (ahem) the roughly 90% of Detroit's population that happens to be (ahem) black -- should feel welcome in your pages?

Occasional moments of self-inflicted hilarity aside, the inclusive language movement actually did some good. It helped make newspapers look a little less stupid on occasion. If the Freep is still trying to convince me of how little I need to have a newspaper in my life anymore, it's found a genuinely effective new trick.