Saturday, August 20, 2011

And the problem with this is ...?

I'm of several minds about the top story in Saturday's Sun-Sentinel.

Naturally, I'm pleased when the long arm of the law reaches out and touches people who make off with other people's money. The paper seems a bit overimpressed with the sheer number of zeroes; on the old comfort-the-afflicted principle, it'd be nice to know that the paper is ready to stand up for people who are scammed out of $20 in the same way it's standing up for people scammed out of $20 million. But there appears to be a bigger problem here, and it's a problem with substance.

I guess we need to spell it out for our friends in Fort Lauderdale: Fraud is what fortune tellers do. It's in the job description. People come to you with a problem, you look at some sheep livers or a spread of cards or the flight of birds, you tell them what to do, you take their money. Nice work if you can get it.

There is, of course, an annoying First Amendment problem. If you advertise readings from sheep livers, spreads of cards and the like and someone comes along with a few dollars, or a few million, and wants to know what the livers and cards and the like say about dear departed Aunt Harriet, you're perfectly entitled to tell them and take their money in return. That pesky lack of correlation between what the livers and cards say and Aunt Harriet's fate in the hereafter doesn't signify. The mark paid for a reading, you provided a reading, and small business is the engine of job creation Amen.

Can you see why the Sun-Sentinel ought to be a little cautious?

Among the victims was a bestselling author who gave an estimated $20 million to the family. The woman, who prosecutors refused to identify, lost her 8-year-old son in a motorcycle accident and was allegedly exploited by at least one of the defendants, Rose Marks, who she considered a friend.

"She was under, for want of a better word, the curse of Rose Marks," Assistant U.S. Attorney Laurence Bardfeld told the judge at the hearing in federal court in West Palm Beach. The fortune teller reportedly told the author that her son was "somewhere between heaven and hell."

Imagine that. A fortune teller facing federal charges for suggesting that a minor child was caught "somewhere between heaven and hell" and that, you know, maybe a little scratch could tip the scales. Hope nobody's thinking about running for office on a Faith 'n' Values platform.

... While some may scoff that people gave cash, gold coins, jewelry and other valuables to the fortune tellers, Bardfeld told the judge the victims were going through very vulnerable phases of their lives.

This is a grammar issue. I can't tell whether "some may scoff" is the reporter's opinion or the prosecutor's opinion. If you want to pin it to someone else, we have some well-established syntactic signals for that. Give them some thought.

"If you understood the severity of what these victims were going through, it makes more sense," Bardfeld said. They were told that if they didn't follow the psychics' advice, terrible things would happen to them or the people they cared about, he said.
"More sense" isn't the problem; everybody knows that people aren't at their decision-making best under stress. The question, I think, is who we're going to haul in for questioning if the threat of terrible supernatural consequences for dead or living relatives is the corpus delicti here.

We could go on. In a sentence like Most of those charged are members of the Marks family, a so-called Romanian gypsy clan whose members were born and grew up in the United States, we can't tell what the writer's problem is. Does she not believe that there's such a thing as a "Romanian gypsy clan," or does she not think the defendants qualify as one?

... "From the people I've interviewed so far, I've found nobody pleased with their services," Stack testified.

Well, there's a challenge. If reading sheep livers is an allowable career choice, it's hard to see how there's -- literally, mind you -- a federal case in complaints about the results of any particular bit of extispicy.

Syntactically, the most interesting thing here might be the pronouns. I count three "who" cases in the story that by prescriptive newsroom standards ought to be "whom." Has the Sun-Sentinel decided to join the Whom Is Dead crowd, or is the desk just getting careless? But the real issues are the social and cultural ones. I'd like to see these clowns in jail, but I'm wary of the old categorical imperative. If every complaint about false claims on the supernatural is a story (or a federal case), whom are we going after next?

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

How much do you want to bet that it should have been "Romany" (one of the actual names of the people commonly called "gypsies" in Europe) sted "Romanian" here?

3:10 AM, August 21, 2011  
Blogger fev said...

Yeah, I'd say there's a better chance of that than I'd like.

7:52 PM, August 23, 2011  

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