Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Who did what to whom?

Diagramming party, stand by for surface action:

During a cross-country trip, Robbie Paul Howell repeatedly beat his wife while their 2-year-old watched and allegedly tried to suffocate her.

Here's a test. If the person sitting next to you can't tell who did what to whom, try another lede.

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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Failure to communicate

Oops! Looks like somebody at the Boston Herald didn't get the day's marching orders:
The mash-up that is the tabloid front page is a thing of beauty, isn't it? But our point of interest is the "WE'RE FED UP!" and the deck, because -- did you guys really not get the message! This rally wasn't political! It was about ... God! And the troops! And how America's finding its path out of the dark again!

Standing on nearly the same marble steps from which Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech 47 years ago, Mr. Beck, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and others called on the crowd gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to honor the country's military members and to return the country to the traditional religious values and principles of "faith, hope and charity" that made it great.

"Something that is beyond man is happening," Mr. Beck declared. "America today begins to turn back to God. For too long, this country has wandered in darkness."

Despite his attempt to bill the event as "nonpolitical," Mr. Beck's remarks were based on the belief that the country had lost its moral compass and lost its respect for the individual -- problems he often blames on President Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress.

More on Pastor Beck's development as a theologian may be found here. One suspects that the laying on of hands could end up being his best hold --- you know, for cancer and paralysis and such.

Mailbag: Don't do this either

Here's a query from distant climes: "Care for another lecture on 'arrested for' vs. 'charged with'?"

Yes, and it's a short one: Don't.

"Arrested for" is a gatekeeper question -- a way of telling whether you were paying attention back in your callow youth. I got the sermon on (literally) my first night on the job: Close on time and never say "arrested for." The AP's explanation suggests why, trivial as it might seem, we still like to be picky about the matter: "To avoid any suggestion that someone is being judged before a trial, do not use a phrase such as arrested for killing."

No, no one's saying you'll be hit in the face with a libel judgment the second you walk out the door. Paris Hilton doesn't read  your paper, she has better things to do than suing you, she's on the bubble of being an all-purpose public figure anyway, and if push came to shove, you could probably invoke "substantial truth" or something.* But we will judge you by how well you tie off your loose ends. Remember what Updike said about Ted Williams: "The classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill."

We'd rather you didn't say "Vegas" and "busted" in heds, sure. And it'd be nice if you gave your work at least the cursory read that would have caught the typo; in this font, you can't tell "HIlton" from "Hllton." That's your problem. "Busted for" means you don't respect the game, and that's our problem.**

* As in the Michigan Supreme Court's ruling that a report saying someone had been "charged," when he'd been arrested "on suspicion" though not charged, wasn't libelous. Here's the NYT's account.
** Quick, name the building behind the bull. What a great little park that was.

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Friday, August 27, 2010

Never, ever do this

OK, kids, let's start the semester with a Rule of Journalism: Write what you know, not what you guess or speculate.

Writing Thursday for Friday's paper, then, you might know that X number of people "were" in jail at some point on Thursday. You do not know whether any or all of them "are" in jail. Plainly and simply, you are making stuff up, and that is not allowed. You have no idea what might have happened between when you made your last phone call and when the fishwrap hits the sidewalks.

You can take Your Editor's word for it in the abstract, or you could simply read your own deathless prose:

Agro and three other employees -- a manager and two people dispensing pot -- were arrested and released without charges later.

It doesn't matter whether they were released without charges, or whether they made bail, or whether Butch and Sundance busted 'em out while Andy and Barney were looking the other way. Your story is what you know -- not what you want to say because you want to spin your story forward. Same goes for "is in critical condition today"; if you can see into the medical future that well, you're in the wrong business. Make it "was in critical condition Thursday night."

The Quote of the Day, drawn from the story, suggests an equally serious offense somewhere:

"This is Michigan. This is not a Cheech and Chong movie," Oakland County Sheriff Mike Bouchard said.

Hee hee! Sheriff Mike ought to spend a little more time on the mean streets of Language Czarina's little hometown here. But somebody else needs to spend a little more time hunched over the tape recorder. Here's the other paper's take:

"This is Michigan, not some Cheech and Chong movie," Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said Thursday at a news conference.

The two stylebooks can mud-wrestle over Mike vs. Michael all they want, but quotes aren't optional. Quotes -- we like to claim -- represent the exact words of the speaker, and only one of these can qualify.

This isn't a big difference or a change in meaning; it isn't even really a change in tone. But it's a difference, and it means at least one of the papers at the press conference doesn't mind making stuff up. That's not good.

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Thursday, August 26, 2010

Forbidden heds

Heds of the form "And then there were ..." are banned under all circumstances for all time, amen. Your election is not and never will be an exception.

Please make a note of it.


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Down these mean streets

When you have the urge to write the hard-boiled lede -- that low-scudding-cloud lede, that despairing-crunch-of-gravel-underfoot lede, that down-these-mean-streets-a-writer-must-go lede -- try to make sure you don't leave the audience giggling:

A body's journey in the back of a hearse is grim but usually brief.

OK. Admittedly, I've never seen the journey from that exact perspective, but I've always gotten the impression that the body didn't have very strong feelings about it either way.

That was not the case, though, for Linda Walton.

And why not? Was her journey grim but unusually long, or typically brief but a barrel of laffs a minute?

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Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Even the (alleged) good guys apparently can't help it:

"Allah akhbar," called out Ali Mohammed, a contractor who works at the Pentagon, raising his hands to his face as he chanted the call to prayer.

Bet he didn't. Bet he said "Allah akbar," but somebody (writer or editor) at the Post didn't think it looked foreign enough, so out comes the "kh."

That's unfortunate. They don't just look different and sound different (yeah, the "kh" is usually supposed to be a fricative, while poor "k" is just another stop along the road), they end up producing words with entirely different meanings. "Akbar" is a degree of an adjective. "Akhbar" is the plural of the noun "khabar." It means "news," as in the newspaper name Akhbar Al-Khaleej.

To add a bit on to what some commenters were suggesting here a few days ago, there are few perfect solutions When Alphabets Collide -- especially, as is painfully evident these days, when a fairly large political faction is eager to turn any such differences into a political billy club. As Fowler put it a century ago in arguing the various transliterations of Muhammad, we want one name for the one man -- but coming up with the right answer to what that one man should be called has never been as easy as Fowler wanted to make it look.

It's easy to make the case that the AP* ought to simply send out a memo declaring Feisal Abdul Rauf's family name to be "Abdul Rauf" from here on out, but nobody -- no journalists I know of, and few if any academics -- would decree at this point that we ought to do the same for Gamal Abdel Nasser. (Think of the indexes that would have to be rewritten.) Some of the audience will be confused by such a change, some won't, and many, perhaps most, won't be paying attention at all. The loud and stupid ones will complain that you're a willing tool of the coming Muslim takeover, but they're probably still annoyed that you went to "Muslim" rather than "Moslem" in the first place. If they've never heard the sound of a dial telephone  being slammed down into its cradle -- well, perhaps some wise youngster will ensure that there's an app for that.

Meanwhile, journalists ought to do what they can to tamp down the hyperforeignizing, by way of keeping idle hands off the panic button. I don't know what the current Post style guide says, but even the AP has caught up with the simple idea that the best way to spell "akbar" is -- you know, "akbar." We have all the consonants we need already.

* Don't want the NYT getting a big head here; it has a long track record of carelessness and obtuseness in this department as well. Though it was actually USA Today that coined the phrase "fatwa on the bunny."


No. And they can't see for miles, either

Point the first: If you're in a hurry to wheel out your pop-culture cliche, stop. Lie down. The urge will go away.

Point two: If you still find yourself unable to resist temptation -- try not to be deliberately obtuse about it, all right?

The nice folks who made the movie -- the current one, that is -- were kind enough to use the standard "all right," just as your stylebook tells you to do. (If you're very nice, it might even tell you whether The Who take a singular verb.) And as prescriptive rules go, that one's fine with me. I don't have a problem with enforcing a preferred spelling, and this happens to be one I like.

Might as well complain about the lede, while we're here:

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials say they have taken "all the necessary" steps to ensure the safety of hundreds of students gathering before dawn this week to catch one of the district's new shuttles.

There's nothing inherently wrong with partial or fragmentary quotes, but you can't expect them to behave the way you want without a little attention. Partial quotes work best as a unit, and what we have here is an entire noun phrase except for the pesky noun. Smaller units are often better than bigger ones. You could get away with "all the 'necessary' steps" or "all the 'necessary steps,'" or even "'all' the necessary steps," but not the one in the lede. I'm left wondering how the exchange went:

Q: Mr. Superintendent, what steps have you taken to ensure the safety of hundreds of students?
A: All the necessary!

Which gets us to another point: Don't use quotes to highlight the ordinary. If our notional superintendent had been asked to guarantee the safety of hundreds of students milling about in the dark and he'd replied "Unconditionally" or "abso-f***ing-lutely," maybe. But not "all the necessary."

And while you're there, be careful of the chorus effect. When you tell me "officials" said "all the necessary," you need to say how many officials and which one had the baritone part.

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Monday, August 23, 2010

Linguifying the countryside

This morning's press brings an amusing example of the political linguification of Arabic in the popular press. Take it away, The Washington Times!

There is also the president's full name, Barack Hussein Obama, which as the Associated Press gently put it, "sounds Muslim to many." In fact, the name "Barack" derives from the Arabic word for "blessing" and is not necessarily Islamic, but when paired with "Hussein," which refers to Muhammad's grandson, acts as an adjective.

The sheer quality of the reefer that must obtain on the mezzanine at New York Avenue these days! No, seriously. Under what circumstances would you believe an assertion like that about the grammatical structure of your own name? Well, guess what? It doesn't do that here either. The Times just flat-out made it up. Whee!

The bulk of the piece is a fairly standard-issue bucket of lies, innuendo and race-baiting (hey, it's an editorial; it isn't even subjected to TWT's minimal editing for news standards). That's why it works. Most people in the audience aren't interested in questioning dark assertions about what the double-secret bylaws of sharia might or might not say, and even the notionally professional media give full credence to Franklin Graham's inane natterings about how the "seed of Islam" is spread. But you'd like to think that when it gets down to how names work, somebody -- even a TWT reader -- would sort of glance at the page a bit funny and say: Nah. You guys are kidding about this one.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tyranny of the stylebook

This looks like a bad case of the "false title" rule overruling common sense (and, to be direct about it, ignoring not just the spirit of the law but its letter as well).

You NYT readers have no doubt noticed that the Times is exceedingly snooty about the distinction between "real" titles and what the trade knows as "occupational" titles. The Times's reading goes more or less like this: If you wouldn't address someone by the title you're assigning in print, you need to use "the" to make clear that it's not a Real Title. In real-life terms, since you wouldn't say "good morning, Shortstop Tinker," you can't call him "shortstop Joe Tinker" in text. It has to be "the shortstop Joe Tinker." Period, no exceptions. Check in when you've found a dozen examples from any weekday Times.

The trouble in this 1A example, of course, is that "Imam" is exactly not that kind of title. It'd be perfectly appropriate to say "Good morning, Imam Abdul Rauf" -- that's just a more formal version of what Nick Kristof is doing in the Week in Review section when he calls the guy "Imam Feisal." It's no different from calling your local man o' the cloth "Pastor Joe" or "Pastor Tinker": a register issue, not a grammar issue.

We need to set aside the Times's overstarched cluelessness for a moment, though. First, it's nice to see somebody call the guy "Abdul Rauf" on second reference; that's a fairly obvious point of style that -- you'd like to think -- the AP should have copped to a month or so back.

A name in that style is formed from the noun "abd," which for convenience's sake we'll render here as "servant," and a name or attribute of God. So, "ar-ra'uf" being "the gentle," a name like "Abdul Rauf" (someone else might prefer "Abdelrauf"; same thing*), meaning "servant of the Gentle," would be a single genitive compound wherever it occurs. Don't shiver at the weirdness** of it; if you ever saw "Abdul Jabbar" in a box score, you've already seen the same thing. Why the Times is the only -- best I can tell -- US news outfit with the sand to either ask the dude how he renders his last name or simply do it the obviously correct way until told otherwise is beyond me, but it's nice to see somebody paying attention to the details.***

More to the point is the profile itself. It's the sort of thing that didn't used to be all that unusual but amid the general plunge of journalism toward the nether pits is becoming rare. And it makes stunningly clear that that this guy -- this scary-named Ayrab who somehow fails to leap at every chance to call Hamas a gang of terrorist thugs, who dares to entertain the idea that there might be some relationship between state policy**** and substate violence -- is one Kumbaya-singing cheeseball pussycat. He could hardly tie the shoes of the conniving mastermind of evil you've been reading about these last few weeks in the mainstream press.

If there's a point to take away from all this, it's that journalists in the main risk abdicating their responsibility here. The biggest mistake we -- that's "we," as in a group of notional professionals who generally agree on a set of standards that stuff has to meet to qualify as "journalism" -- could mistake is allowing this remarkably overblown non-issue into the public sphere on the terms set by the paymasters of the hard right. The Times is not the "left" side of this debate. For all the Times's manifest failings, which I'm as happy to catalog as anyone, it's the professional side. The other side is the camp of lying, fearmongering and naked race-baiting. That's the side of Fox News and its friends. They can, and should, be the objects of relentless public ridicule. Journalists are no more obliged to take Fox at face value than they would be to take the Klan at face value. There's really not much difference.

* Gentle Readers who wish to knock themselves out on the topics of sun-letter elision and pausal vs. continued speech (yo! Cowan!) may go ahead. I'm still hoping to get some revisions out tonight.

** I used to work with an especially annoying rimrat who was a preacher in her spare time. She was perpetually amazed at the apparent irony of terrorists named Muhammad. Since she covered sports on the occasional weekend shift, we finally asked her if she was equally weirded out by shortstops named Jesus. I'm not sure the idea really sank in, but it did shut her up for a day or two.
*** Yes, that means that for all its other virtues, Frank Rich's column is wrong in using "Rauf" on second reference. Some editor should have corrected him. Imagine how much real editing could be done if people paid attention to actual grammar -- the Arabic genitive compound being such -- rather than bizarre fabrications from the Siegal era.
**** Because we hear the Pearl Harbor analogy so often these days, it's worth mentioning here. Would anyone out there really like to contend that there was no connection whatsofreakingever between US policy in 1941 and Japan's decision to go with the Pearl Harbor attack? If so, I'd like to suggest that you're a babbling loony.

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Bond. Kit Bond.

If your newspaper managed to mash your name up with somebody on your beat, who would you choose?

A theater entry in the Week Ahead report last Sunday misstated the given name of the reporter. He is Charles Isherwood, not Christopher Isherwood.


Saturday, August 21, 2010

Do I contradict myself?

Gee, what sort of story could possibly replace the stab in the heart salt in the wound slap in the face of the Ground Zero Victory Dance Mosque at the top of the Fair 'n' Balanced news agenda?
Now let's not always see the same hands.

Anyway. Slight problem with this ground-breaking exclusive. To hear the front page tell it, Clinton "joins other officials in claiming deadly Pakistani floods are linked to climate change as scientists say such a connection to individual disasters is difficult to prove." In the text itself, though, she sounds a lot more like the "scientists" than like the power-hungry, carbon-abating, freedom-destroying shrew we know:

Clinton, in an interview with Pakistan's Dawn TV, said "there is a linkage" between the recent spate of deadly natural disasters and climate change.

"You can't point to any particular disaster and say, 'it was caused by,' but we are changing the climate of the world," she said.

But the nice thing about being Fox is that it doesn't matter what she says. It matters what you can make people think she said.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Your winnings, sir

The Times (picking up Bloomberg) informs us that News Corp. donated a million dollars to the Republican Governors Association this summer:
The donation makes News Corporation the Republican group’s single “biggest corporate donor,” according to Bloomberg.

Ready for the tap dance?
... Mr. Murdoch is generally described as conservative, and many of his publications’ editorial pages skew in that direction. He owns the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post, among others.
Take it away, Capt. Renault:


Monday, August 16, 2010

Diagramming party to action stations

... AP crime lede right ahead!

The yellow crowbar that dropped with a thud on a courtroom table Monday still had a dried blood droplet that led a man to suspect that a former friend who gave it to him used the tool to kill a pregnant fellow Marine.

Let's go to the videotape on that!

Today's quiz: How did you read "Major ____ de Coverly" when Catch-22 first swam into your ken?

Being, oh, 14 or 15 at the time, I saw and (mentally) heard "Major F*cking de Coverly." I have no idea if that's what the author intended, but that seemed (and still seems) to reflect basic common sense about Those Naughty Words: They go where the f*cking blank space is, not somewhere else.

Thus one can only hope that the tender eyes of the children and horses were averted when Coach Ryan took to the practice field for the events that produced this column.

Read more »

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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Macbeth: Ambitious or politician?

Hey, kids! How many laffs can you find in this chuckle-choked hed?

First, stupid-question-wise: Yes! Or no. Or "both." Or perhaps it's "neither." Whose opinion is "tactless," and who decided that value judgments belong in 1A news heds? (And why did we pick a judgment that isn't expressed anywhere in the story?) No, you really can't coordinate a noun and an adjective this way, even if they both start with "tac." The deck is simply false. The e-mail shows that one campaign -- not "campaigns," which is plural -- is card-stacking the comments.

And then there's the big one. What's this story doing at the top of the front page anyway? That's the goof from which all the others spring. Somebody decided this was the day's top story, and that meant it got a news-style hed. The basic test for whether a story can handle an old-fashioned vertical count like this one is whether the lede will produce a plausible subject-verb-object* hed -- "Quake kills hundreds," say. How are we doing so far, coach?

The Internet has become a new public meeting place for political campaigns, as supporters and opponents line up to post comments -- often anonymously -- after news stories about candidates.

So our top story today boils down to The Internet: We're Using It!

Are these comments spontaneous and genuine?

That's hard to answer,
(not really) but one suburban campaign for Congress recently instructed volunteers to add comments to the talk-back section of a story about their candidate, the Daily Herald has learned. (Sweetheart, get me rewrite!) The campaign even offered specific quotes for the volunteers to post.

The revelation came after Kelly Klopp, the spokesman for 10th District congressional hopeful Robert Dold, accidentally sent an e-mail to a Daily Herald reporter Wednesday with instructions to "please get some positive comments up" in the comments section attached to a story about a Dold television commercial.

No, I suspect the revelation came "when," not "after," the bumbling e-mail arrived.

In the e-mail, Klopp suggested possible messages for the volunteers to post, including "Heard the ad and liked it" and "Nice to see the candidate talk about himself without just attacking his opponent."

To summarize: Other campaigns say they don't do this, poli-sci prof says nobody should be surprised, and you could basically write the rest yourself. So what's it doing at the top of the front? At a guess, it's a burst of injured propriety the paper is exercising on behalf of the readership: We work all day over a hot public sphere, and all you people do is play sock-puppet with it!

If that's indeed the problem, here's the solution. Cut off the comments. Start small if you want: No comments on campaign stories. It's narrowly tailored and content-neutral, and (this should go without saying, but there's always some moron yelling "censorship!") it's not really restricting speech at all. You aren't telling people they can't lie about candidates; you're just declining to open another electronic forum in which they could do so.

Who knows? Before long, people might form the idea that comments on news stories in general are a waste of time.

* OK, or subject-verb-adjunct: "Scores die in quake." You get the idea.

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Saturday, August 14, 2010

Political rhetoric and political pathology

OK, editors, it's time to step back and put some of the deep-catalog paranoid lunacy into perspective. Take it away, Fair 'n' Balanced Network:

Entering the highly charged election-year debate, Obama surely knew that his words would not only make headlines in the U.S. but be heard by Muslims worldwide. The president has made it a point to reach out to the global Muslim community, and the over 100 guests at Friday's dinner in the State Dining Room included ambassadors and officials from numerous nations where Islam is observed, including Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.

I really hope that at this point, no one is still going to contend with a straight face that Fox (or the New York Post, whose bizarre double entendres above would generally be called dog-whistle politics except that they're well within the range of human hearing) is the sort of news organization that plays by commonly accepted professional standards. Nevertheless, here is a news flash. Islam is observed in the United States too! If you're genuinely unable to figure that out, you have no business playing with sharp objects, let alone writing about news for an audience with some idea of minimum acceptable standards for journalistic performance. Evidently that isn't who Fox has in mind.
Read more »

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Forbidden heds: A slight return

I haven't been formally keeping track of the frequency of campaign cliches or how they come and go,* but I'm going to nominate "under the bus" for the Mrs. Joyful prize for Stupid Politics Cliche of the Past Two Election Cycles. Please consider it banned forthwith. Even if the candidate himself is the one who said it, keep it out of the hed.

Why this bit of Tuesday-morning-quarterback whining should be a 1A story is a different issue:

Losing Republican guber­natorial primary candidate Pete Hoekstra said Friday that the head of one of the most in­fluential groups in state GOP politics — Right to Life of Michigan — should be fired.

He's actually one of a bunch of losing GOP primary candidates, and not even the stupidest or most malevolent (given that he is Pete Hoekstra, that's going some). But the circular firing squad is only news under rare circumstances, and this doesn't seem to be any of them.

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Forbidden heds

In case they didn't get the memo down at the Miami Herald, the [blank] + [blank] = [blank] construction is permanently banned under all circumstances. This hed must not be used. Offenders' fields will be salted, their cattle will be slain and thrown into their wells, and their children will be sold unto Media General amen.

Somewhere in this favored land lives someone who has never seen this hed before. That person may be among your readership, but don't bet on it. It's old. It's weary. It was a cliche when Great Caesar gave a passing glance to Ides + Brutus = Trouble and went straight for the sports page.* Try something different.

* Cicero used to complain that there was too much idle crap about the "gladiatorial pairs" in the news he got from home. Rly!


Turn, turn, turn

You have to appreciate a paper that corrects a botched figure of speech:

An article on Wednesday about Tiger Woods’s golfing struggles heading into the P.G.A. Championship described incorrectly his change of heart about playing on the United States Ryder Cup team. His new willingness to be a captain’s pick for the team represents a 180-degree turn, not a 360-degree turn.

The sometimes annoying literal-mindedness of the copy editor doesn't earn a lot of party invitations. But it can have a way of keeping corrections out of the paper.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Annals of elegant variation

And today's Elongated Yellow Fruit award goes to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette -- with double bonus points, because the elongated yellow fruit itself is a form of "hand-held nosh."

Mildly off topic: Not much have I traveled in the realms of Arkansas, but "fancy a ..." for "do you want a ..."? Is that really part of y'all's dialect? Seems to me sort of like hearing "I've done considerable in the doctoring way" on the streets of Mayfair.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Today in history: War on Fox, 1942-style

What did the War on Fox look like on this day in 1942? Pretty much like this.

Back in those days, kiddies, the War on Fox pitted the World's Greatest Newspaper (and its cousins in New York and Washington) against the reckless, decadent Europe-loving commie in the White House. The artist is Carey Orr (he's been featured here before), and the occasion is the convening of a grand jury to determine whether the Chicago Tribune should be indicted under the Espionage Act of 1917.

Two months earlier, on the Sunday after the epic U.S. victory at Midway, the Tribune had committed a slight (ahem) indiscretion: a front-page story strongly suggesting that the good guys won because they knew in advance what the bad guys were up to. That being largely true, the story was a stunningly dumb idea.

The Trib thought it had been cooperative and appropriately penitent in the wake of the story. The Navy wanted the spotlight to go away, but frequent Tribune targets like Walter Winchell kept plugging it back in. Under heavy pressure from the White House, the grand jury investigation went ahead. And the Trib fired back at the "Knox-Biddle Smear."

If you're scoring along at home, the guy on the left, pointing at the target, is Frank Knox, FDR's Navy secretary (not coincidentally, publisher of Chicago's largest evening paper, the Daily News; the hed to the left of the cartoon, not shown in this view, proclaims that he's using his position to boost his newspaper). Francis Biddle, the attorney general, is hauling ammunition. At right on the cartoon front page is Stanley Johnston, the reporter whose work set the story in motion. Next to him is Pat Maloney,* the Trib's managing editor, who wrote the hed and compounded the damage by adding bogus attribution -- "reliable sources in the naval intelligence" -- to the story. The heds are from the Trib's first-day coverage (the news broke on Friday, and "Knox uses Navy post to favor own paper" was Monday's take on the story.

Beats Photoshop, doesn't it?

* Yeah, the "Dewey Defeats Truman" guy.


On making stuff up: Don't

Well, at least one of our two metro dailies managed to look around for a news story for the Monday front. And this is sort of like one. Trouble is, nothing in it supports the headline, leading to the inevitable conclusion that the hed was made up to reflect what was talked about at the budget meeting.

The News is the right-wing part of our entertaining little JOA, but that doesn't and shouldn't suggest a left-right split on every issue. The Freep is a loud, silly tabloid in broadsheet form that occasionally ends up on the Democratic side of the aisle; the News runs more stories for grownups but is burdened by the foil-helmet crowd running the opinion pages. It'd be inappropriate to suggest that the News ran a fabricated hed just to make the Kenyan Muslim socialists look bad, because this is the same sort of fabricated hed the competition (like many newspapers around the nation) runs all the time. It takes a data point and, entirely without evidence, turns it into a Trend, because -- well, if it isn't true, it ought to be, dammit.

For desk hands, the takeaway point is this. If you want to assert a fact in a hed -- something's increasing, or some candidate has clawed his or her way to the top, or These Kids are stepping on Our Lawns more often -- you need to know exactly where in the story your readers can find the evidence that supports the alleged fact. Once you get there, you can start tearing apart the evidence, but that's another lesson. For now: If the story doesn't say it, don't use the display type to pretend it does.


Monday, August 09, 2010

Cancer cured! Mideast at peace!

The sun stands still, the waters part, the trumpets and hautboys sound: We have a new leader in the race for Stupidest Front Page of the Third Millennium!

The reefers more or less speak for themselves (yes, the judges would still like to meet a mild-mannered flesh-eating bacterium). And the centerpiece -- if you guessed "cartoons with mug shots and talk balloons," step forward! But it's the lede story* that pushes this one over the top:

Republican gubernatorial nominee Rick Snyder likes to think of himself as someone who will give Michigan the kind of leadership "where all Michiganders can win together."

In his 10-minute victory speech Tuesday, Snyder referred to "Michiganders" coming together or working together or winning together four times.

In fact,** he uses Michigander in almost every stump speech, in answers to questions, on his Web site.

Getting the idea where this is going?

But many fellow citizens think they're Michiganians. (Press, comma, stop the!)

Those include Gov. Jennifer Granholm and at least
(suggesting the depth of reporting here) her two immediate predecessors: John Engler and Jim Blanchard.

From what we
(is this you and your tapeworm, you and Queen Elizabeth or who?) can tell, the only advantage to Michiganian is that it allows us to show off our Midwestern, nasal twang.

Go ahead, say it out loud.

The Free Press official
(that's the only kind there is) stylebook says: "Michigander -- not Michiganian." Based on what we read in the other Detroit newspaper, theirs says the opposite.

The Free Press rule was a result of decades of research, a tiny fraction of which was scientific, leading us to believe Michigander is more popular.

It also has the better pedigree, having been attributed to Abraham Lincoln before the Civil War (speaking derisively about a former Michigan governor).

Well, no. Lincoln's comment ("I mean the military tail you Democrats are now engaged in dove~tailing on to the great Michigander ") is from 1848, according to the OED, by which time "Michiganian" had already chalked up three cites -- the earliest in 1813.

Virg Bernero, the Democrat running for governor, hasn't used either term noticeably.

We asked his preference.

"Michigander" was the one-word response from his spokesman.

So, kumbaya, brothers and sisters: Whoever wins, we'll soon all be Michiganders.

From the most charitable perspective possible, this is a couple of grafs in a Sunday roundup (say, the mindless "Poli-bites" feature that appears in the Sunday Freep). It has all the news value of the occasional Missouri-Missouruh spat, or the periodic betting of state foodstuffs against each other as the playoffs draw near. But the top right-hand side of the front page -- you know, wars? Rumors of wars? Plague, famine, pestilence, year-on-year auto sales? That stuff we used to call "news"? Wasn't there any of it across the planet on Sunday?

* Hint: if you have to run the hed in two different colors to get attention, you do not have a news lede.
** There's a lot of "in fact" going around today. This is from the centerpiece:Kutcher, in fact, has the second-most followers of anyone on Twitter with nearly 5.5 million.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Dyed man walking

Want to know what the NYT's Sunday offlede looked like in the earlies? The gunmen had "long died-red beards."

It'll be interesting to see whether the Times corrects an error in the jump hed (9A in the national edn* on sale in the nether bowels of the Denver airport):

10 Aid Workers From The West Are Slain in Afghanistan
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Saturday, August 07, 2010


It's not enough to just read the story before writing the heds. You (ahem) need to look at the pictures too. 

Techically, there's no correction here: the story is all about jets, after all, and no doubt they'll be roaring and soaring, just as the kicker says. But that's not what the package says. The brain has already put "jets" together with a picture of propeller-driven aircraft long before the eyes get to the boring old text.

Hard to believe how many sets of eyes this one must have gone past without even a flicker of curiosity. And there's about as easy a fix as you could ask. Just take out "jets" and leave it as "roaring and soaring." It isn't Shakespeare, but odds are nothing else you write this year will be either.

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Wednesday, August 04, 2010

No, but thanks for asking

The capacity of the American newspaper to delude itself about public opinion while patting itself on the back about public service will never cease to amaze me:

With the Casey Anthony trial still months away, and a seemingly insatiable appetite for every morsel of information in the case, journalists and bloggers must make do with the scraps of news they can find.

How do we know there's a "seemingly insatiable appetite" for "every morsel of information"? We don't. We just made that up. Presumably to justify putting this sort of stuff on the front page:

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Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Crash blossoms of 1943

Quick, sports fans: Identify the subject, verb, direct object and indirect object in the main hed.

(For reference, it's a follow to the case discussed below.)

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Housewarming gift

The verdict is in, and the Fair 'n' Balanced Network moves to the front row in the White House briefing room. Let us suggest that not much sleep be lost. (Indeed, Your Editor plans to continue his current research project of rating the IPAs of the Lower Peninsula and lose exactly no sleep at all.) But do let's look briefly to the traditions of the past to see if they hold any lessons for the present.

Here's some spot coverage of one of the great moments in White House press history: FDR's handing an Iron Cross to a radio reporter with instructions that it be passed on to John O'Donnell, Washington bureau chief of the New York Daily News. No, there's no evidence in the story that "correspondents" were "incensed," but if you're accustomed to the way that (ahem) some networks invoke anger and outrage at the drop of a fedora, you won't be surprised to see it in a Tribune hed from December 1942.

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Monday, August 02, 2010

FOY 'ready'

The slow birdinating days of summer are still with us, but signs of fall migration season are at hand. There's one now, down at the bottom of the Denver Post's 1A feature: the first "Ready for some football" of the year.

Allow us to hope it will also be the last. Editors: Don't write "Ready for some football" (yes, it should be expressed as a question, but don't do that either). Don't approve it. Don't allow it to be spoken around the newsroom without snorts of derisive laughter. No "Tebowmania," no made-up records, and above all no "Ready."


Sunday, August 01, 2010

Gee, do you think ...

And for the time and location of a spontaneous outburst of popular anger against your congressman next month, be sure to click the link below!

The "inverted pyramid" is a bit of a misnomer. Up close, a news story tends to look more like a series of upward-pointing triangles: there's a broad assertion at the top of the triangle, followed by specific bits of primary and secondary evidence that support it or show why contradictory voices are wrong. So a story asserting that the public is angry might typically start with that claim, then follow with a couple of survey results or an anecdote about a demonstration, then follow that with some individual voters' anger, then bring in some experts (who indicate that "both sides" are at least talking about the issue), and so forth. From the frontpage teaser above, this looks like a news story, but when you get inside, it's different:

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