Wednesday, March 31, 2010

War on Christmas: Spring training

Just a reminder that in the culture war, everybody's on the front line.

It's not nice to speculate, but perhaps certain Fair 'n' Balanced networks want us to think that ... y'know, maybe people who play soldier with real rifles in the forests of Michigan have a point after all.

This station now goes offline temporarily. Transmissions will resume after a certain deadline, and best of luck to those of you who are racing it.


Tuesday, March 30, 2010

She came in through the bathroom

Another case of wishful hed writing at the Freep. As the lede says, the aforementioned brick was "hurled through the window of the Michigan Repub­lican Party’s office in Howell." But "through the window" and "through the office" aren't the same thing, projectile-wise.

Easy fix: The brick was lobbed "through" the window, but "into" the office.

While we're at it? No commas around the appositive in had the words, “Long Live the USA” and “God Bless the USA,” scrawled on it. It's OK to edit the text too!


Sunday, March 28, 2010

And speaking of ...

... that unheated cattle train to Siberia, here's the top story at Fox as of this writing. Apparently someone hasn't learned the distinction between "public will love new B" and "A says public will love new B."

Unlike cop reporting, where not knowing the difference between "Smith hit Jones upside the head with a Louisville Slugger" and "Police say Smith hit Jones upside the head with a Lousiville Slugger" can have a genuine impact on your financial well-being, this one isn't going to get you sued into the next county. But it does have the disadvantage of making the editor look not just professionally inept, but supremely inattentive to Fox's normal routines.

Usually, it's not much fun watching wild beasts eat their young. For occasions like this, though, God made buttered popcorn and Good 'n' Plentys.


Let's see how long this one lasts

"Tough on terror," you say?

Fox News copy desk, reserving two coach-class seats on the unheated cattle train to Siberia in 3 ... 2 ... 1 ...

Saturday, March 27, 2010

On second thought, don't

What could be more unimaginably clueless than a lede like this?

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Country roads, take me home.

Or better yet, Indianapolis.

I know! A third graf like this!

It's almost heaven, West Virginia. Da'Sean Butler and the Mountaineers are off to the Final Four for the first time since 1959.

I see where you're going, but ... no. Indulge my literalism. Work young Mr. Butler into some clause that doesn't make him eligible for Social Security.

Joe Mazzulla scored a career-high 17 points in his first start this season and West Virginia handled a cold-shooting Kentucky team stocked with future NBA players almost from the opening tip for a 73-66 victory in the East Regional final Saturday night.

That's the sort of sentence that makes you laugh out loud at those claims about the dazzling creativity of sports writing. I'd say it's exceptional, but it isn't. It happens every day.

So: Spike the lede. Terminate the second graf's command with extreme prejudice. 86 the double-dip on the cliche at the third graf. Kill the first three words of the following sentence, and you have the fairly lame beginnings of a lede. Sounds like a good time to get to work.

Now back to your regularly scheduled triumphant march through the NIT.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Run for the ... oh, stop that

And today's prize for hard- hitting investigative journalism goes to ... let's not always see the same hands, all right?

Presented for your consideration is the No. 3 Most Super-Important Story in the World. As you gaze on its strange unnatural beauty, ponder for a moment how it might have slipped past the Lamestream Media:
Female homicide bombers are being fitted with exploding breast implants which are almost impossible to detect, British spies have reportedly discovered.

The shocking new Al Qaeda tactic involves radical doctors inserting the explosives in women's breasts during plastic surgery — making them "virtually impossible to detect by the usual airport scanning machines."
OK. It is a truth universally acknowledged that the British press is generally more fun to read than the American press. One, the British press is less bound by fusty prudishness; if some foreign dignitary calls your PM a "dickhead," the Times is likely to run a hed on the order of "Blair is a 'dickhead' says Spanish critic." Two, the British assigning desk is -- oh, how to put this without offending the transmarine visitors? -- historically better at putting the old telescope to the old blind eye when a story comes along that looks screamingly false but is just way too cool to be subjected to a critical reading.

Such is what your threat radar ought to be gently suggesting when Fox picks up a story from its Murdoch stablemate the Sun: "Radical's deadly 'booby trap'." Let's have a look and see if we can figure out the tale's provenance:

It is believed the doctors have been trained at some of Britain's leading teaching hospitals before returning to their own countries to perform the surgical procedures.

MI5 has also discovered that extremists are inserting the explosives into the buttocks of some male bombers.

Notice something missing? News is recursive in specific ways; when you circle back to reinforce a point, you work in some message-quality signals along with the general-to-specific new information you're adding. One of those signals is how you know (or how well you know) what you claim to know. So far, we're all "reportedly" and "it is believed" and "MI5 has discovered." Can we get a little help here?

"Women suicide bombers recruited by Al Qaeda are known to have had the explosives inserted in their breasts under techniques similar to breast enhancing surgery," Terrorist expert Joseph Farah claims.

You mean the Joseph Farah? The Mr. Song of aluminum foil? Editor of WorldNetDaily? And he's now a "terrorist expert"?*

Well, sorta. As WorldNetDaily reported back on Feb. 1, "Joseph Farah's G2 Bulletin" ("the premium, online intelligence news source edited and published by the founder of WND") was putting forth this claim:

Agents for Britain's MI5 intelligence service have discovered that Muslim doctors trained at some of Britain's leading teaching hospitals have returned to their own countries to fit surgical implants filled with explosives.

OK, but we still don't know how we know, do we? Back to Fox:

The discovery of these methods was made after London-educated Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab came close to blowing up an airliner in the U.S. on Christmas Day.

Fox is professional enough to credit the Sun -- which, on the other hand, is pretty much flat-out plagiarizing WND:

The discovery of these methods was made after the London-educated Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab came close to blowing up an airliner on Christmas Day with explosives he had stuffed inside his underpants.

But telling us when the discovery "was made" doesn't get any closer to telling us who it was made by or who passed it along to the press. Keep an eye on the pivot foot:

Hours after he had failed, Britain's intelligence services began to pick up "chatter" emanating from Pakistan and Yemen that alerted MI5 to the creation of the lethal implants.

A hand-picked team investigated the threat which was described as "one that can circumvent our defense."

Top surgeons have confirmed the feasibility of the explosive implants.

Explosive experts allegedly told MI5 that a sachet containing as little as five ounces of PETN could blow "a considerable hole" in an airline's skin, causing it to crash.

See? Attribution and experts, but they never get us to the point: Does anybody ever say the things that we claim are said?

It's not entirely a new trick; here's an example from three years ago that shows most of the same features. And as long as the British press keeps doing it, Fox will keep picking the stories up. Bear that in mind as you glance at your fellow citizens in the next lane during tomorrow morning's commute.

* Or a Terrorist expert; that's an editing error created when Fox moved the attribution to the end of the Sun's original graf. Fox also changed "suicide bomber" to "homicide bomber" in the lede. Glad to know they're paying attention on the desk.


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Run for the hills!

Today's lesson in survey methodology comes to you from -- aw, you peeked!

Long story short, the way to ask people whether they fear the economy could collapse is to ask them whether they fear the economy could collapse. Not -- though let's give credit to Fox for putting a link to the pdf right up top -- a question like this:

Do you think it’s possible the nation’s economy could collapse or is the nation’s economy so big and strong that it could never collapse?

"Possible" questions on their own don't tend to be very interesting, because it's hard to know what they're tapping: "possible, but not bloody likely," or "ZOMG pick up some ammunition and bottled water at the Wal-Mart 'cause the Kenyan is coming for your guns and daughters," or something in between? In this particular case, there's also "possible, because the morons in Congress have yet to pay attention to the sorts of regulation that would make it far less likely." But that doesn't seem to be the point, does it?

In short, be scared. Which is sort of the whole point of this screen-grab, except for the ACORN blurb, about which you're supposed to feel triumphant. Isn't journalism fun?

UPDATE: And this just in! The current lede story, hedded "Revenge at the polls":

The economy hits unspeakable lows. The immediate provisions of health care reform fail to ease opposition. Anti-incumbent fever sweeps the nation, and Republicans ride the wave of discontent to take control of Congress.

This is the elusive sequence Republicans appear to be banking on to translate voter dissatisfaction over health care reform into a 1994-style GOP tsunami.

Am I seeing things, or is Fox more or less openly acknowledging that the core Republican strategy is now "hoping for the economy to go to hell"?


Monday, March 22, 2010

Making the writer look dumb

Here's the tag end of an AP obit from the Friday paper:

Fess Elisha Parker Jr. was born Aug. 16, 1924, in Ft. Worth, Texas.

He later received a bache­lor’s degree from the Universi­ty of Texas.

That fun-loving AP! Even if you go to summer school and everything, it's almost impossible to graduate before you were born!

Anyway, though. You can tell that some editing has been done: the Freep has turned "Fort Worth" in to "Ft. Worth," per house style. And if you look around a bit, you can see that there's more work here than meets the eye:

Fess Elisha Parker Jr. was born Aug. 16, 1924, in Fort Worth, Texas — Parker loved to point out Crockett's birthday was Aug. 17. He played football at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene but was injured in a nearly fatal road-rage knifing in 1946.

"There went my football career," Parker had said.

He later earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Texas.

Parker was discovered by actor Adolphe Menjou, who was Oscar-nominated for "The Front Page" in 1931 and who was a guest artist at the University of Texas.

Oh. So not only does the transition make sense, it actually leads to a cool bit of trivia -- Fess Parker, discovered by the second-best Walter Burns ever!

Instead, we get another classic case of an editor opening the patient up and forgetting to count the scalpels before closing. There's more to editing than chopping things out at random until you reach the specified length. If your computer can turn "Fort" into "Ft." while you sleep or get coffee or whatever, it can probably be told how to zap clauses, sentences and paragraphs until the line count is correct. And the computer doesn't get overtime.


Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sentence of the week

Here's the AP in Saturday papers, describing a storm in Haiti:

One of the heaviest rainfalls since Haiti’s Jan. 12 earth­quake swamped homeless camps Friday, sweeping screaming residents into ed­dies of water, overflowing la­trines and panicking thou­sands.

It's another iteration of the triple-participle AP weather lede (wait for the next big weather event and you'll find another AP lede that has three participial phrases after the main clause), which makes it a cliche but not an error.* The bigger problem is how to read "overflowing latrines"; is it another object (like "eddies of water") that screaming residents were swept into, or is it the second of three participles describing what the rainfall did?

It doesn't help that "overflow" as a verb is out of position; it has transitive uses, but "cause to overflow" isn't one that comes readily to hand. The best answer is to dismantle all AP storm ledes, just on principle; simple elements before complex elements is a good guideline. But when in doubt, grab a pencil and start diagramming those prepositional phrases. Neither of the readings I got from this one is incorrect, but it's the writer's -- and editor's -- job to make clear which one is right.

* The Missouri Group will tell you that the sentence contains an out-and-out grammatical error: because the participial phrase "sweeping screaming residents ..." is closest to "Friday," it's modifying "Friday," so native speakers will naturally assume that Friday is what's doing the sweeping.
Please don't spray beer on the keyboard.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Today's basketball tip II

When you have two home-state teams to work into the promo, be sure you don't play favorites with the wording!

(Sorry, Jayhawks. You need at least a 20-point margin for a "cruise.")

Today's basketball tip

Hmm. Let's see. Score more points than the other guys?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Lying and ... what's that other one called again?

The health care debate is taking up most of the air in the room, but the cousins at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network haven't forgotten about the rest of the War on America. So let's look outside the spotlight for a bit and see what we can discover about how the routines of journalism are practiced at Fox.

Here's the No. 3 tale from the Fox front page at late morning. It's kind of a short one, so let's see how new Fox superstar John Stossel handles himself in the news limelight:

People who commit their lives to going green are just better people. They're more moral, more honest. At least, they keep telling us that, and apparently many students believe it, say University of Toronto psychologists: (Let's stop the tape for just a moment. The first claim is made up in a sort of random way, but it ought to suggest where this hard-hitting report is going. The second claim -- oh, heck. It's pretty much an out-and-out lie. The "University of Toronto psychologists" don't make any such assertion, anywhere in their paper, because that's not the sort of "study" they're doing.)

They initially quizzed the students on their impressions of people who buy eco-friendly products, and for the most part, they considered such consumers to be more “more cooperative, altruistic and ethical” than ordinary consumers...

Yeah, the "more 'more cooperative'" is sloppy, but this isn't much of an experiment either; what the researchers are doing is dividing a bunch (n = 59) of extra-credit-seeking students into two groups and asking each group how it would rate the altruism, cooperativeness and ethics of an imaginary shopper. One group rated a shopper who bought "organic foods and environmentally friendly products," and the other rated a shopper who bought "conventional foods and products." Generalizing from there to what "many students" believe would be amazingly stupid, which might be one reason two assistant profs who are trying to get published didn't do it.

Then the researchers took it an extra step: They ran a test to see who would be more likely to cheat and steal: Greens? Or conventional shoppers?

They divided the greens and conventional shoppers, and then gave the students a test that tempted them to steal money. (That's a lie, plain and simple. The study doesn't divide "the greens" from "conventional shoppers." For the second part,* it recruits a whole new pool of undergraduates and assigns them randomly -- that's how you make it all scientific and stuff -- to conditions in a 2x2 matrix: rate vs. buy and "green" store vs. conventional store. We have no idea what "the greens" do because nothing in the study identifies "greens." We tell some undergraduates (chosen at random) that they should either rate some products or add products they like to their shopping baskets, and we send them (randomly) to one of two types of "store." A "green" store is a Web site with nine "green" and three "conventional" products; a "conventional" store is a Web site with nine conventional and three green products. That's a long, boring way of pointing out that the reason the study doesn't make assertions about "the greens" is that it's designed to do something else entirely.)

The researchers found:

The green consumers were more likely to cheat than the conventional purchasers, and they stole more money when asked to withdraw their winnings from envelopes on their desks.
Here, at least, the typography implies that Stossel is quoting from someone else -- a New York Times blog that, in turn, is quoting Conservation magazine. He doesn't bother to credit the people who did the work, but at least he isn't pretending it's his own. Unlike his second paragraph, which looks suspiciously like this one from the Times:

Using student volunteers, the Toronto researchers tested this notion as it relates to green consumerism. They initially quizzed the students on their impressions of people who buy eco-friendly products, and for the most part, they considered such consumers to be more “more cooperative, altruistic and ethical” than ordinary consumers, according to Conservation.

What's that other ethics thing called? When you take other people's words and ideas and pretend they're your own?

Stossel's conclusion suggests why the whole thing -- given that Fox generally detests social science, especially when it's funded by the gubment (even the Canadian gubment) -- is a story:

Maybe that’s why sanctimonious stewards of the environment like Al Gore are comfortable lecturing the rest of us while living large in mega-mansions.

A couple things are worth taking away from this. One, journalism in general -- even at the level of the Times -- is still pretty incompetent at reporting on research. Two, social science is tentative stuff. When you're tempted by the sweeping conclusions you see in the press, go back and look at how the conceptual definitions are turned into operational definitions. A "green shopper" in this study isn't someone who buys "green" products out of habit or conviction. It's an undergraduate who went to a Web site where the products are 3:1 green (rather than 3:1 "conventional") and was "invited to select products" for purchase rather than being asked to rate them on their attractiveness. Ready to bet the farm yet? Didn't think so.

That suggests, or ought to suggest, another question: What does any of this have to do with Al Gore? And the answer is "nothing," which is the biggest takeaway point. The Times is inept by accident; nobody in power at the Times has yet decided that the methods section is as important as the box scores. That's curable. Fox, on the other hand, is deliberate. It lies because it can score a point that makes Roger Ailes happy. If you're interested in journalism, that's an important distinction.

And here's another distinction. Slow as the process might seem, the Times will actually get around to firing you if you are a liar and a plagiarist. At Fox, on the other hand, fabrication and plagiarism seem to be valuable career skills. They seem, at least, to be working for John Stossel.

* You can download the paper, in its apparently "in press" form, here and read the methods section for yourself.

Labels: ,

Break out the clue bat

How do copy editors -- paragons of virtue that we are -- manage to get a reputation as the Inspectors Clouseau of the Grammar Police? Probably because we do stuff like this (page 16A of today's Freep, if you're scoring along at home):

Today, there are just more than 2,300 housing units in Ramat Shlomo. Israel’s approval of 1,600 more has triggered the worst feud in decades between Israel and the U.S.

So you've already guessed what the AP wrote, right?

Today, there are just over 2,300 housing units in Ramat Shlomo. Israel's approval of 1,600 more has triggered the worst feud in decades between Israel and the U.S.

We must have a lot of time on our hands, mustn't we? So much that we could ignore this lede on the biz front:

Ford’s stock price zoomed passed $14 per share for the first time in five years Wednes­day and could go higher.

"Zoomed passed" is just an out-and-out error. Whether it's a writer in a hurry or a careless editor leaving a scalpel in the patient, we don't know, but one has to admit it does sort of jump out at one. I don't like the lede for other reasons; if we're trying to coordinate stuff that happened Wednesday with stuff that might (or might not, ahem) happen at some unspecified future time, I'd rather have separate clauses than a compound predicate, but that's an ear question. We can deal with that after fixing the (kaff kaff) blindingly obvious.

The "over" vs. "more than" question is firmly fixed in news practice, however shaky its foundation in real life. In its straightforward form, editors don't seem ready to reject it; last summer's grammar survey* found that only about 21% of print editors thought "Over 100 people were arrested ..." was fine as it stood, with about a third calling it wrong and about half going for "OK but not preferred." The idiomatic "just over" or "just under," though, is a different creature. "Just more than half of participants" just sends fingernails down the blackboard of my spine. Prosewise, these are trying times I find it hard to take any such writing seriously.

The bottom line, alas, is the bottom line. If the copydesk is making the wire copy worse while ignoring flaws in the staff copy, it shouldn't expect much of a sympathetic ear the next time it has to justify its existence to the higher-ups.

* Thanks to those who have written inquiring about the progress about this thing, by the way. It got sidetracked last fall, but I'm writing it now, hopefully** for summer presentation.
** Gotcha!

Labels: ,

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Actually, no. Not at all.

Here's a health care tale from the front of Ohio's Greatest Home Newspaper:

Opponents said they are concerned about increasing the federal deficit and expanding the role of government. Some likened the bill to a socialist-style takeover.

"This is how Germany took over Austria. It scares me to death," said Marc Studley, 45, of Upper Arlington.

No, it isn't. It's not at all how Germany took over Austria. It's got as much to do with the German takeover of Austria as it does with how and whether the spearmint loses its flavor on the bedpost overnight. How long is it going to take before reporters figure out* that the obligation to listen to loonies does not entail an obligation to present their loony utterances as unvarnished debating points?

As a general principle of newspage editing, the best thing you can do with a history analogy is to shoot it on sight (in the present case, the least we could do is ask who's Austria and who's Germany in our little shadow play). Here's a remarkably dumb one from a review last week of "The Pacific":

Although the miniseries focuses on a conflict waged more than a half-century ago, it carries a chilling, modern-day resonance. The Japanese, after all, were similar to al-Qaida in the way they eschewed conventional warfare and fought with a fanatical, self-sacrificial fervor that, at times, resorted to suicide bombings.

Is there some reason professional journalists run this stuff, rather than laughing gently to themselves as they hit the "delete" key?

* Editors, that's your hint.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Today in journalism history

On this date in 1980, the N&O in Raleigh had a fire. Owing to the comity that then prevailed among publishers, the N&O was printed that night at the Herald plant in Durham, and the next day's edition of the N&O remains a collector's item, because it looked just like the Herald: Awful.

A couple dozen miles away, a bunch of people at my first newspaper were watching one of the staff favorite bands (the guitarist worked in the composing room, and they did genuinely rock). And that, believe it or not, was Your Editor's first date with the lovely and talented Language Czarina.

(Different club entirely, of course, but those of you who remember that era will enjoy this collection of posters from the old Cradle.)


Um, not quite

Just wondering: In our haste to make sure we didn't repeat verbs from the lede or anything untoward like that, did we happen to look this one up?

Don't get us wrong here. Extensions of meaning happen all the time; if we couldn't use words figuratively, we wouldn't get paragraphs like "Nothing would desecrate the Michigan image more than having its hallowed football program subjected to even the tiniest whiff of investigative scrutiny."*

But in this case, "desecrate" has a particular meaning -- to treat as non-sacred, to profane, to "divert from a sacred to a profane purpose," to hear the OED tell it -- that makes it just a tad bit out of tune for vandalizing or defacing (two verbs the story uses) ads placed by atheists.

Was the hed writer being especially witty? Doubtful. For one thing, a deck that boils down to "Group: Group faces prejudice" doesn't signal the sort of deft touch we'd like to associate with a genuinely clever hed. And for another -- OK, if you're going to have a good time, go for it:

Atheist bus ads are consecrated

Sounds a lot closer than "desecrated" to what happened: The buses featured advertisements earlier this month that read: "Don't believe in God? You are not alone." The signage was paid for by a coalition of atheist and agnostic groups. In one ad, the word "Don't" is torn off, according to photographs provided by the group.

We should be clear here: Your Editor neither endorses vandalism nor finds it a priori funny. But you'd like to think that if any organization could crack a moderate smile over "Dude, they snuck in and consecrated your ads" ...

* Not that the world would be a worse place if sports writers were knocked around a little more often.


Sunday, March 14, 2010

And speaking of disaster myths ...

How the conventional wisdom gets to be so conventional:

An article last Sunday about the morality of dealing with looting in times of disaster incorrectly stated that a blackout in 1965, which did not bring disorder to New York, resulted instead in a baby boom nine months later. There was no baby boom. A widespread belief that there had been one originated with a New York Times article, nine months after the blackout, reporting that some New York hospitals were experiencing higher than normal numbers of births; later scientific studies, however, found no evidence of a statistically significant spike in the birth rate.

Because, well, nudge-nudge, Study Says, how many words does your tribe have for "heuristic editing" -- why fact-check it if it makes such perfectly good sense the way it is?

Friday, March 12, 2010

One Of America's Newspapers

Some days, life just imitates the Dacron Republican-Democrat harder than others.

We also have an early favorite in the Lede of the Year competition:

Deep in the night, on the other side of the equator, inside a disco in a remote beach town in southern Chile, Carissa Elenbaas and Amanda Rose were dancing, spinning around and around when the floor started shaking, and the power went out, and the music died, and bottles of booze fell off the bar and burst on the ground, and glass windows shattered, and everybody was screaming, but one sound, more than any other, dominated the darkness.

Keep it coming, America's Newspapers!

Breaking news

This just in at Language Log: NYT hires actual linguist Ben Zimmer to write "On Language" column!

I'd have been happy to be part of the rabble cheering for Jan Freeman had she wanted to mount a challenge (a gun moll in a McIntyre tale has to carry some weight), but what a remarkably prescient move for the Times nonetheless. Next thing you know, they'll be hiring somebody who has a nodding acquaintance with ethics to write "The Ethicist."

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Hope not

To hear 'em tell it over at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network, the "Reagan test" goes sort of like this: Open textbook to part about Reagan. Does it say Reagan won the Cold War? If not -- fail.

Such, at least, is the happy result you get when you have a limited pool of Usual Suspects for your sources and the pride of the lot is, um, Larry Schweikart:

Schweikart says the majority of books he’s examined credit former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev with ending the Cold War, and not Reagan. That's “a joke,” Schweikart says. “I lived through the Reagan years, I remember.”

So did I, pal. And so do more than a few of us.

Schweikart says the textbooks' authors bring an inherently liberal viewpoint to their work.

“They all tend to come from New York, Boston, Washington and Philadelphia,” giving them a “drastically” different viewpoint from the rest of America, he says.

Ah, the relentless logic of the people we trust our ... wait, what?

Anyway, we could make fun of Larry Schweikart as long as the fish food, the barrels and the explosives hold out, but there's a larger point at play. The Fox cousins are pumping a lot of air, both "news" and editorial, into the Texas "textbook wars":

Again, that’s part of why the liberals attack. They don’t like the concept of American exceptionalism, both by those who were born here and by the other great high-skilled men and women who are so attracted to the United States that they moved here from other countries.

Thankfully, the conservatives on the SBOE once again held the line. Edison and Einstein are back in World History. An attack to remove “B.C.” and “A.D.” -- denoting historical time periods before and after the birth of Christ – also lost, and, so far, the attempt to remove the statement about the religious basis of the founding of the country has failed.

OK, fine. I think it's a big story too. Fox has the heroes and the villains distinctly backward (not much of a surprise), but when it stumbles on a real story rather than a manufactured one, I'm all for a bit of agenda-setting. The question is why no one else -- the NYT being a fairly diligent exception -- seems to think there's a story here.

I don't expect the local fishwrap to start carrying national news again; that's more or less a lost cause. And "national" news at places that still make an occasional stab at it tends to look like -- what do you say, Foremost Newspaper of the Carolinas?

Panera Bread customers around the country soon will be able to tally calories for their smokehouse turkey panini and broccoli cheddar soup with just a glance at the menu board.

Well, stop the press.

National news doesn't (and shouldn't) always have a direct value. It works indirectly; it helps you figure out how the rest of the country works, whether the sorts of goings-on it describes end up on your doorstep or not. And when the Talibs are running the school board, it's worth sitting up and taking notice. In this case, as Fox quite correctly points out, faraway decisions can have a big local impact.

If you haven't seen a nice, heavy takeout on the Texas textbook spat, perhaps it's worth calling the AP and politely asking it to get its nose out of the menu and pay attention to the news.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Get it?

In case your newspaper hasn't hired an interpreter for the metaphor-impaired out there, imagine the conversation downtown: Hey, could you do, like, a Tundra? And it'd be, like, on the tip? Of an iceberg!

OK, as metaphors go, it's a little on the mixed side. We don't have an actual iceberg of Toyotas, let alone Toyota troubles; we have an iceberg of ice, with a Tundra on top. Not an unusual pose for your Final Four ad campaign, but just fractionally out of tune (something can be "on the tip" of your tongue, but it's "the tip of the iceberg"). And, of course, subtle as the day is long. Get it? Tip of the iceberg, Ma!

Lest you be tempted to write this one off to Those Wacky Kids and their Photoshops, bear in mind that America's Newspapers have a long tradition of throwing visual elbows on the front page when there's a point at stake. Here's Carey Orr* of the Chicago Tribune, with a mild form of the FDR- bashing that decorated the Trib's pages right up until the presses rolled for the bulldog edition of December 8.* If it reminds you of any number of recurring themes at the Fair-n-Balanced Network, like the "apology tour" and the "who's your buddy?" riff, there's probably a reason for that.

* Orr, who has been featured in these pages a couple times before, was among several Pulitzer-winners in the Trib stable. He's not the only one who drew FDR standing, or walking, or doing backflips, but based on the sample that this project drew on (November 1941 through mid-January 1942), he was the most likely to.
I was trying to find a really good one from the Trib's near-indictment in 1942, but some boxes in the basement have yet to yield all their secrets, and it's probably in one of them.

Labels: , ,

Monday, March 08, 2010

Hed noun prang head scratch

It isn't just the nouns in this one, it's the adjective and all the things it could modify. Once you've figured out who's doing what to whom,* you still have to decide whether the brain, the "wash out" or the hope is premature.

It's a bit more prosaic when you click through to the lede:

A technique that "washes out" the brains of severely ill premature babies may aid survival, a study suggests.

I expect native Beeb-speakers read this as a missing expletive -- "(There is a) premature brain 'wash out' hope" -- right away, but I wonder if the hed was any clearer on that side of the ocean. Does British English use "preemie" enough for it to make sense in a hed?

* And assured yourself that the nouns are all nouns; it's not a bust for "Premature brains 'wash out' hope," for example.


Saturday, March 06, 2010

The social construction of reality

O hai! Light posting of late as a couple of projects trundle toward the runway, but here's a nice example of how reality is built between the Fair 'n' Balanced Network and its audience. These are comments on an article last November that begins: "Al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden was within the grasp of U.S. troops in the mountains of Tora Bora in December 2001, but U.S. military leaders decided not to grab him, resulting in the long-term terror war that continues today, a new Senate report says."

What happened to Osama's name. Since January whenever his name comes up in the news it is Usama instead of the CORRECT Osama. I wonder if the King Ubama had something to do with this?

Who is Usama? When did his name change from OSAMA? Has OBama infiltrated the free press to distance himself from his roots?

Irony meters engaged? Fox News is the only US news organization I know of that renders bin Laden's given name as "Usama" (the AP-standard rendering of the Jazeera subscript here* is "Osama bin Laden, leader of the al-Qaida organization"). Everyone else has been using "Osama" more or less since he started showing up in the news. The earliest AP reference Lexis-Nexis has for "Osama bin Laden" is from February 1994; as far as I can tell, AP has only used "Usama" once, not counting the occasional quote from federal documents or indication that there's more than one transliteration. The NYT used "Usama" a few times in the early and mid-90s, and the Post has some from the early 2000s (at a glance, references to official documents in articles that use "Osama" on first reference). Even the Murdoch print properties (the WSJ and the New York Post) use "Osama."

So, um, WTF? I think this suggests for a notable part of the Fox audience, facts never get in the way of a good conspiracy theory. These are suspicious-enough readers to notice something, but not suspicious enough to notice that Fox has been using "Usama" all along (which means the added effort of changing it in AP stories that, following AP style, use "Osama") -- or that the commie-riddled organizations that Obama would have infiltrated first have been consistently "Osama." There's no way, short of some serious messing with the space-time rift, that this is a deliberate outcome for Fox, but it is sort of like finding a few $20 bills lying on the sidewalk. Readers get to dogpile on both the lamestream media and the Kenyan Muslim commie usurper, and Fox doesn't even have to buy the ink.

See? Who says your research agenda can't be fun?

* Windows is a pain; the given name is the أﺴاﻤﻪ


Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Get your gubmint hands off ... wait, what?

Quick, call yer congersman! And pick up some ammunition at the Wal-Mart. That Kenyan fella is coming for our guns!

Even by the standards of the Fair 'n' Balanced Network, "under heavy fire" is a bizarre reading of this lede:

The Supreme Court appeared poised Tuesday to issue a ruling that will expand to the states the high court's historic 2008 ruling that individuals have a federally protected right to keep and bear arms.

Overlooking a minor quibble (the Chicago handgun ban in question seems to be about keeping arms, not bearing arms), you have to wonder if anybody's even reading the copy anymore at Fox. What happened to that zero-tolerance policy for mistakes we were reading about last year?

There is always the possibility that it's not a mistake.* Here's one of those unsettling truths about journalism (parents, if you have impressionable young reporters in the room, you might want to cover their ears). People don't read the deathless prose word for word. If they've gotten what they want out of a hed, they're quite likely to move on to the next hed. So if you're a gold-hoarding Fox reader just waiting on the second coming of John Galt, it's a great way to start the day. And if you go on to read the story, well -- you got a nice surprise, didn't you?

* And as long as you control the operational definition of "heavy fire," you can guarantee that it's not technically untrue.

Labels: ,

Annals of attribution

A chart on Feb. 20 with the continuation of an article about the F.B.I.’s closing of its investigation into the mailing of anthrax in 2001 misidentified one of the four nucleotides present in DNA sequences that are part of what the F.B.I. contends is a code in notes mailed with the anthrax. The letter "A" represents adenine, according to the F.B.I., not guanine. A corrected version of the chart can be found at

Thanks, FBI! And you too, Nation's Newspaper of Record.

On the bright side, if we're turning to the FBI for authoritative information on DNA sequences, maybe we'll start turning to scientists for a definition of "person of interest." Perhaps the puzzled looks will be instructive.


Monday, March 01, 2010

They're looting the Food King!

Here we have a couple of lede stories (WashPost at top, below) that appear to be about the same country but were actually written about entirely different worlds.

Fox first. There's no evidence in the story to support the hed "Looting mounts," but it's not fictional in the same way as (say) Fox's coverage of the ACORN pseudo-scandal. It's a fairly common bit of news routine: proclaiming a statistical relationship that ought to be there, even if it isn't, because this is important stuff we're telling you about here. And, after all, if you're reporting a Trend, you can overlook how little your coverage has advanced from yesterday's.

The bigger point, though, is how quickly and persistently the mythology of disaster rises to the top of disaster coverage. It's been noted for decades that the staple elements of disaster stories -- looting,* panic, disorder, helplessness -- often bear little or no relation to what's happening on the ground. That's not to say your eyes are deceiving you, or that people aren't taking food (or microwave ovens) out of grocery stories, but it should suggest that it's rarely if ever as widespread, pertinent or threatening as it's made out to be.

Disaster myths are by no means the sole province of Fox and the tabloid sector. Coverage on public radio's "The Takeaway"** today has been fairly apocalyptic -- more precisely, apocalyptic in the studio and fairly calm at the scene. Is Chile on the brink of collapse? (No, it's a stable democracy.) Will America rush in and save the day? (Chile was among the first to get S&R teams to Haiti, we're told.) Has the country gone dystopian on us? (No, says the US ambassador, stores are open in the capital and government is back at work.)

And in a way, that gets us back to the Washington Post hed, which is exceptional for two reasons. One, it's about mitigation, which is the phase of the disaster cycle*** that never gets covered -- certainly not at the top of the front. That's understandable, because mitigation tends to be about stuff like warning systems and building codes, but unfortunate, because warning systems and building codes often have a very direct relationship to how well you (and your property) survive the next disaster.

Two, as you've probably noticed, this is an era of deeply screwed-up political discourse. If any sentiment seems more commonplace than "show me where it says the gubmint can take mah money," it's "when did you ever see a gubmint program that works HUH?" Well, that's what mitigation does. The gubmint takes your money and holds developers' toes to the fire (or raises the levees), and fewer houses fall apart in the next hurricane. Neat, isn't it?

Fox is just doing what journalism does when the peasants start looting the Food King. The Post is actually contributing to the overall conversation about disasters, gubmint and money, and for that it ought to be commended.

* What exactly constitutes "looting" is a different issue; The Ridger gathered some good discussions of the topic during the Haiti quake's aftermath.
** Which I still find pretty execrable, but compared with the commercial radio networks ...
*** One fairly standard way of breaking it down is warning, impact, recovery, mitigation.