Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Stop eating children

That pesky comma of direct address! You can't fool it by putting the thing you're addressing at the beginning of the hed. It will have its revenge.

The command after the semicolon helps a bit, but I don't think it's conclusive. This is a letter to the editor, so the Donner Party meaning could be a plausible reflection of the get-off-my-lawn randomness of day's letters.

Whether the intended meaning is accurate is another question altogether. Its intent appears to be drawn from the last sentence:

It's time people start being responsible for their own futures, and not rely on the government for handouts.

But the letter as printed makes no mention of Occupiers or Occupying. The Observer is known to whack the letters pretty hard, so it's certainly possible that the cutting-room floor is littered with 700-some carefully crafted words damning the Occupiers for the stalinist lizard creatures they are. Or the hed writer might have simply made it up. And fundamental cluelessness about the Donner Party comma hardly fills one with confidence.

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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Put a quark in it

Surely you jest, Nation's Newspaper of Record:

The Vows column last Sunday, about the marriage of Sunny Jacobs and Peter Pringle, misspelled the name of the city in Ireland where Ms. Jacobs had a speaking engagement. It is Cork, not Quark.


Thursday, November 24, 2011

Journalistic fraud made easy

Surprised it took nearly a day for the Fair 'n' Balanced Network to come up with a story from the latest batch of leaked "Climategate" e-mails? Well, it appears to have been worth the wait:

Did $16 Stand in the Way
of Climate Science?

The head of a key British climate lab, a central figure in the 2009 "Climategate" scandal, thought requests made under Great Britain's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) were a nuisance that should be stonewalled while crucial correspondence is deleted -- unless someone pays up first, that is.

My, my, my. In order, I guess:

1) There's no indication $16 stood in the way of anything
2) Don't feel bad if you don't recall the key players of "Climategate." It was only a scandal in a small part of the world

3) We don't know what anybody thinks about FOI requests in general. That's just made-up

But on Planet Fox, Phil Jones of the Climate Research Unit is a household name, so let's see what drives this tale to the top of the front page:
Read more »

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Your winnings, sir

Stop press! The WashPost ombud is going to get to the bottom of those shocking allegations that George Will might be hiding a secret political bias or three amid the hard-hitting analytical impartiality of his column!

The Post’s prickly, Pulitzer Prize-winning, conservative columnist George F. Will is one-half of a Washington political power couple. His wife, Mari Maseng Will, is a longtime Republican operative who was President Reagan’s final communications director and performed the same role for Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign.

The couple, over the years, has been splashed by the sometimes stinging but purifying hot waters of transparency and disclosure, especially as those waters flow by their two careers and their closeness to senior Republicans.

Those purifying hot waters of transparency! Anyway:

... So it was not surprising that Politico revealed in three stories Nov. 11 that Maseng Will worked for Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) early this year, flirted with Mitt Romney’s campaign in June and was hired full time by Texas Gov. Rick Perry early this month.
Read more »


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What light through yonder winder shines?

If you're going to indulge in irksome hed cliches -- and you aren't, are you? -- at least try to get them to read correctly. Go ahead. Live dangerously. Spend the space on that first "a"!

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Then I don't know Arkansas

Can it be? The return of Spinoculars, only now with added Science®?

Bull beware: Truth goggles sniff
out suspicious sentences in news

You’re reading a wrap-up of the Sept. 22 Republican presidential debate when you land on this claim from Rep. Michele Bachmann: “President Obama has the lowest public approval ratings of any president in modern times.”

Really? You start googling for evidence. Maybe you scour the blogs or the fact-checking sites. It takes work, all that critical thinking.

That’s why Dan Schultz, a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab (and newly named Knight-Mozilla fellow for 2012), is devoting his thesis to automatic bullshit detection. Schultz is building what he calls truth goggles — not actual magical eyewear, alas, but software that flags suspicious claims in news articles and helps readers determine their truthiness. It’s possible because of a novel arrangement: Schultz struck a deal with fact-checker PolitiFact for access to its private APIs.

You can call it "truthiness" all you want, but it's still going to rely on someone else doing the work first -- if some semblance of the phrase is in the magic database to start with, and it's close enough for your algorithm to recognize it, and if you really need a bullshit detector to tell when Michele Bachmann is lying.

I don't think we ought to blame the grad student here, but the people who set out to write about what grad students do might want to consider recalibrating their credulous featurization machinery.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011


What is it about the 1A rail that brings out the secret cliche writer in people?

No. Please. No "big chill." And when the snow comes, it won't be "white stuff."

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Poynter needs a clue

Most of what needs to be said about the great Poynter-Romenesko flap has been said already. I will add that if the hed above is an example of the new! improved! way of doing things, someone needs to go back to the drawing board.

No online newcomer is going to become the "conservative New York Times." We already have a conservative New York Times. It's called the New York Times.

If the Poynter Institute has joined the credulous ranks of those who see the NYT as the home of the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy (press division), it's going to fall very quickly -- and deservedly -- from the ranks of must-see-daily sites.


Monday, November 14, 2011

The horror

The story online is corrected now, but here's the original lede:

The tiny Chevrolet Spark will launch next year as General Motors’ first mass-produced pink car for U.S. markets.

Really? Look, I know Chrysler is the one with the ads that say "This is the Motor City," but ... the Sunday bizness section had nobody within shouting range whose first reaction to that was "then who made pink Cadillacs?"

(While we're at it? Don't begin corrections by saying an article "contained incorrect information." That's why it's a correction. Tell us what you did wrong and get it over with.)

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Speak for yourself

Q: Why do mean-spirited old editors insist on crushing the souls of the vibrant young spirits who write for the modern press?
A: Because they can!

No, not really. It's because no matter how often the message is shared, somebody has always just stepped out for coffee. Christmas is going to be right on time this year, no matter how tempted you are to say otherwise. And no, we do not scream for ice cream.

I don't know if there's a correlation between the frequency of Forbidden Ledes and the rise of editing hubs, but it's worth looking at. Maybe the howls of pain and gales of derisive laughter from within your own newsroom were enough to break youngsters of these habits.

Perhaps one of our technologically advanced friends could come up with an alternative solution? An app that throws a dictionary across the room toward the workstation at which a "there's an app for that" lede has been entered?

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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Polling sins: Don't do this

I suppose it's that time of year again. You've had your annual cautions about Christmas, so let's proceed with the routine warnings about the abuse of surveys and survey data. Here are two broad concepts to remember:
  • Polls only say what they say
  • Numbers only do what they do
And two larger-scale concepts that bring in some issues of news practice and media routines:
  • Bad habits that good organizations adopt are still bad habits
  • Polls are never as interesting as you think they are 
First up is the hed shown above, which reflects an offense at the top of the story itself:

Eight GOP presidential candidates will debate national defense issues tonight in South Carolina, where conservatives have been steadfast in supporting national defense and military spending.

... But a new poll, out this week, suggests the candidates might be better off talking more about their proposed cures for the country's domestic troubles.

No, it doesn't. It doesn't "suggest" anything about what candidates would be better or worse off talking about. The poll says the economy is the top issue for 73% of older people (average age 64) in South Carolina. Given the situation of the past three and a half years, it'd be a surprise if the economy wasn't the top issue, and since 73% is what Gallup found nationally on roughly the same question, it's hard to see why anyone thought this was an unusual result.

But "most important issue" isn't the same thing as "only issue," so the real question is: Who cares what the reporter thinks?* The candidates have talked a lot about the economy. This is the debate that's supposed to be about "national defense." For most of the candidates, that's some variation of "turrists ayrabs eye-ran obama SHARIA LAW!!1!!1!!," but it's still a set of issues they ought to be put on the spot about.** Interesting things can result; if I'm recalling it correctly, Gerry Ford's famous semi-flub about Eastern Europe came on questions from an NYT foreign correspondent.

We'll take a look at the rest of our questions and propositions in the next few days, time and deadlines permitting.

* And while we're at it, no. "Woot, woot!" is not appropriate for a Twitter message announcing that you're about to go cover a debate among presidential candidates.

** I have this recurring fantasy of getting to ask a question at one of these debates: "Congresswoman Bachmann, here's the view from David Ben-Gurion's grave at the collective farm where he retired. As president, how would you love Israel while chastising them for having so much socialism and communist health care and stuff?"


Fox hed verb of the morning

The Fox Nation -- where schooling, smacking down and clock-cleaning are standard hed fare -- takes a seafood-counter turn with this one. One can only imagine what lies ahead:

Hannity Previously Freezes Liberal Politico
Rush Peels And Eats Pig Maher
Coulter Refreshes Occupy Savages

(If there's ever a contest for Right-Wing Radio Host who Sounds Most Like a 1940s Cartoon of Father Coughlin Morphing into Joseph Goebbels, by the way, Mark Levin would be a consensus preseason Top 20 pick.)

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Friday, November 11, 2011

A toast for Veterans Day

While we're celebrating the return of basketball with a Carolina game on an aircraft carrier in San Diego, let's pause for a toast to the folks who will get up tomorrow and go to work aboard the Vinson, and their past and present comrades in arms.

Raising a glass here are members of the "black gang" of LST708, in San Diego en route to the Pacific in December 1944. Language Czarina's dad, Joe, is second from left. They had, as you don't have to imagine, a fairly dangerous year ahead, but it was at least finite. On this day in 1945, Joe was at Guam and waiting for the carrier that would take him back to the States.

Joe had worked at one of the Ford plants and spent a little time training as a cook, but after the war he wasn't interested in working indoors, so he got a job at the city cemetery. He stayed there until he retired as superintendent, and when he died -- 60 years after the photo above was taken, give or take a few days -- that's where he was buried.

I had a chance to wave to Joe for Veterans Day, because I took the kitties in for a checkup. We use the same vet that they used even before Language Czarina came along, and it's -- literally -- across Main Street from his corner of the cemetery. You don't need the flags to know Joe has a lot of company. You can brush away the leaves and see all the wars that people and their families remember.

Many ordinary-seeming people we run across in our ordinary lives have done very extraordinary things. I hope journalists always remember that, but that's a special case of hoping that everyone always remembers that.


Thursday, November 10, 2011


"In general," says the AP's "fewer, less" entry, "use fewer for individual items, less for bulk or quantity." That's a good general rule; you can follow it and recommend it with no fear of setting off a which-hunt. And it should be pretty clear pretty fast that, in this case, the general rule calls for "less." 

The sentence is a quantity, measured here in years but equally measurable in months -- or, at the county jail, in weeks or days. "Fewer than 34 years" would be, oh, 33 or 32 years; "less than 34 years" is an amount under* 34 years, whether it's measured in years and months, months and days, years and days, or fathoms per hogshead.

It's tempting to say the hed at hand follows the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit, but that's not really true. It ignores the letter of the law as well. Here's the AP:
Wrong: She was fewer than 60 years old. (Years in this sense refers to a period of time, not individual years.)
Read more »

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Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Well, that was quick

That pesky agenda-setting effect of mass media!

... White House spokesman Matt Lehrich told Fox News on Wednesday afternoon that the administration is putting a stop to the proposal.

"I can tell you unequivocally that the Obama administration is not taxing Christmas trees. What's being talked about here is an industry group deciding to impose fees on itself to fund a promotional campaign, similar to how the dairy producers have created the 'Got Milk?' campaign," he said. "That said, USDA is going to delay implementation and revisit this action."

"Ridicule" barely begins to cover it, but do feel free to make sport of any parties to this media-policy-public transaction you wish.

And there went out a decree ...

The short answer is "none." The longer answer -- well, that's why we have a Fair 'n' Balanced Network, isn't it?

Our story so far:

One of Christmas' most recognizable symbols apparently needs a PR campaign -- and a new tax to pay for it.

"One of the most recognizable" -- meaning what? Rudolph? The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come? The little dude in swaddling clothes?

The Obama administration has imposed a 15-cent tax on Christmas trees in order to pay for a new board tasked with promoting the Christmas tree industry.

Aha! That's why we get to run the picture of the scary Kenyan Muslim socialist sizing up his next victim.

The new fee and board were announced in the Federal Register on Tuesday, to be effective Wednesday. According to the Agriculture Department announcement, the government will impose a 15-cent-per-tree charge on "producers and importers" of fresh Christmas trees, provided they sell or import more than 500 trees a year.
Read more »

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Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Bring your own gloves

That pesky comma of direct address! Why does it give Our Nation's Tabloids such fits?

No, you can't say the comma is hidden by the subject's hair. Then I really wouldn't know whether you meant "Come, Clean Mr. Cain" or "Come Clean, Mr. Cain."

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Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Question-beggar's banquet

Q: At which major national news organization is this actually a story?

 A: That's tough. Could it be the one that has a whole beat devoted to ....

The House of Representatives passed a bi-partisan resolution Tuesday night reaffirming “In God We Trust” as the official motto of the United STates. The 396-9 vote came at the request of Rep. Randy Forbes (R-VA)  – in part over President Obama’s refusal to correct remarks he made that misstated the motto as “E pluribus unum” instead of “In God We Trust.”

Lawmakers voting against “In God We Trust” include Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-NY), Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich), Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), and Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA). Voting present were Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Rep. Melvin Watt (D-NC).

I'm inclined to add the War on Christmas to John's evergreen list of holiday bilge to spike on sight. But it's worth noting that in the view of (ahem) some agencies, the War on Christmas is only a skirmish in the main battle. If you cannot bring yourself to ignore those folks, please be sure they are publicly ridiculed at every opportunity.

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Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Forget flood. Interview Mammon.

A senior clergyman resigned Monday over St. Paul Cathedral's handling of anti-capitalist protesters camped outside the iconic church, the second cleric lost in a tense standoff involving God, mammon and their earthly representatives.

Maybe the LAT doesn't mind spending a few extra lines on the overheated prose, given that it's investing 570 words in the story. But when the provincial press chops things down to the 200-plus range, the morality play in the lede should have been the first thing to go.

The broader point is that newspapers should be careful about taking sides. That's true in empirical disputes and even more so in nonempirical ones. We don't get to proclaim who's on the side of the angels and who's a minion of Basement Cat. We don't rule on which scriptures are divinely revealed, and we don't declare that one set of mortals or another is doing God's work. Period.
Read more »

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