Saturday, June 30, 2012

Wrong cliche

The nice thing about daylight? Whatever your problems are, "in the dark" is a lot less likely to be one of them. Here, our friends at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network went from the sensible "Deadly storms leave millions without power during heat wave" (around 9 a.m.) to "Millions in dark" (around 11 a.m.).

This is a fairly serious event. Heat waves are a different sort of slow-onset disaster; their toll on life and health can be ambiguous, obscure and non-timely, making it harder for them to find a place on the news radar. If you have to resort to stock phrases in covering them, try to pick a stock phrase that doesn't contradict your dominant image.

Today's tip for all you junior-league players out there: Put the exact death count in as few places as possible. That reduces the risk of reporting "5 dead" in your homepage blurb and "7 dead*" in the hed you reach by clicking through.

* As of this writing; it could change as the story is written through.

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Fun with dialect: Pot heds

I expect everyone knows exactly what the hed ("'Stunted' pot plants cannot grow" on the homepage, where space is tighter) means, so ...

1) What does the hed mean?
2) Where are you from?
Read more »

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Friday, June 29, 2012

Today in 1A art

Have I told you guys that I miss the days of the 1A editorial cartoon? Fortunately, thanks to Mr. Murdoch and the gang, I never have to miss them for long. The twinkle on the front tooth is an especially good touch.

No doubt you've heard quite enough about this already, though.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Our friend the pronoun

You have to admit, the pronoun is a handy part of speech:

A nurse who had finished her shift at Presbyterian Hospital was stabbed early Wednesday morning during an apparent robbery near the Charlotte hospital, authorities say.

See? Without having to repeat the noun, you can tell me exactly who the relative clause is talking about. And if you belong to the subset of the population that's still a bit freaked out at the idea of boy nurses and lady doctors, you don't have to take any of your cultural prejudices public; you'd be just as clear if you had said "a doctor who had finished her shift" or "a nurse who had finished his shift."

Great stuff, that grammar.* So great that you wonder where the pronouns went in the third graf:

Authorities say the nurse was attacked by a man who stabbed the nurse while grabbing the woman’s purse and tote bag.

The nurse was attacked by a man who stabbed the nurse while robbing the woman? Excuse us while we review the cast of characters.

An ongoing theme of the Monster Editing Research Project is it doesn't take a lot to make a story more attractive to the audience -- but it does take something. About a minute's worth of work could have taken the headscratchers out of this story and left time to take a deep breath and look over it all again. I can't tell you that hiring a few extra editors to work out the kinks in paragraphs like this one will drive your stock price back to where it was. I can tell you, with a fairly high degree of confidence, what a general audience thinks. Your audience would rather have the editors.

* "The Charlotte hospital" doesn't add much to the lede; a smoother edit would have put it in the second graf (not shown): "in a parking lot across from the hospital, on Third Street in Charlotte."


Friday, June 22, 2012

No, probably not

Think so?

Jerry Sandusky's lead defense attorney told reporters Friday that "he would probably die of a heart attack" if his client is acquitted on all 48 counts of sex abuse of young boys.

That's not what the sensibly paraphrased hed says ("Jerry Sandusky's lead attorney Joseph Amendola: I would 'probably die of a heart attack' if he's acquitted"), and it's not how the broadsheet competition renders the quote:

“I’ll probably die of a heart attack,” the lawyer, Joseph Amendola, said.

And if you don't trust the Nation's Newspaper of Record, there's a fuller version -- following a bizarre truncation in the lede -- at The Nation's Newspaper:

BELLEFONTE, Pa. – Jerry Sandusky's defense attorney said he would die of a "a heart attack'" if the jury returned with a full acquittal of the former Penn State University assistant football coach.

"Look at the odds against him,'" Joe Amendola said Friday, while awaiting a verdict in the case. "I'll probably die of a heart attack if he is acquitted of every charge."

Just another reminder, should you need one, that you don't have to spend the whole evening with a magnifying glass to make a story look substantially less clueless. Sometimes, you just have to remember that people don't generally talk about themselves in the third person.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

Eggclone, snowcorn, whatever

Anyone seen this particular blend before?

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has issued a full-throttled endorsement of “Dispatches From Bitter America,” a new book written by Fox News Radio’s Todd Starnes.

Perhaps the author* was reaching for "full-throated" but saw "full throttle" on the next shelf and decided to take one of each? Anyway, that's not as much fun as the endorsement itself:

“It’s especially relevant because Todd lays out in detail the Obama Administration’s war on religious liberty,” Palin said. “Todd sheds light on this and other ‘fundamental transformation’ acts using homespun humor and Twainesque irony.”

And look at the company she's in. Ain't that a majority in any town?

Palin joined a list of prominent conservatives who have endorsed the book including Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, and Pastor Robert Jeffress, and Gretchen Carlson. Thousands of people turned out to hear Starnes speak on his “Dispatches Across Bitter America Book Tour.”

“Todd uses Southern sensibilities mixed with homespun humor to take us along his journey across America,” Hannity said.

Alliteration sure does seem catchy out there in Bitter America, doesn't it? 

* The item is currently the lede at "top stories" on Starnes's blog


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Syria: It's bigger on the inside

Today's space-time travel tips, brought to you by Bill O'Reilly and Chuckles Krauthammer:

And we just had the news that the Russians are preparing to send three ships from their Black Seaport to the Syrian port of Tardis (ph), where the Russians have a base and naval facilities, that Putin has revived for the first time since the Cold War.

But there's more going on than those pesky seaports! Here's the takeaway point:

KRAUTHAMMER: The second thing I picked up is the subtlety of the gibberish he offered on Europe, which was the only thing he can do, because the fact that he didn't have anything to say or to offer is the perfect reflection of the decline of American influence everywhere in the last three and a half years.

I think it's a bigger decline in U.S. influence in all area of the world -- in the Middle East, in Syria, in Europe, economically and every other way -- than any three and a half years since the end of the is Second World War.

You should probably plan, in other words, for a few more months of Greatest Hits, starting with the one at right.

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Monday, June 18, 2012

Another day on Planet Fox

The short answer is "no." Nobody buried any interviews; this is the one you saw and heard ad infinitum last fall, if you follow this sort of case obsessively or were chained to a radio or TV when it came out. So have a look and see if you can figure out how this became the top story of the day, Fox-style:

Accused Penn State pedophile Jerry Sandusky came off a lot creepier in that exclusive sitdown with NBC last November than anyone knew, but the Peacock Network oddly chose not to air what sounds a lot like an admission of guilt -- and now prosecutors want the whole transcript.

All news is laden with judgments, sure. Some of it is thick with value judgments. Here, though, we're straying into the sort of territory usually reserved for people who are really, really guilty -- or foreigners or something.

"I didn't go around seeking out every young person for sexual needs that I've helped," Sandusky told Costas in footage that never made the November airing.

Read more »


Saturday, June 16, 2012

And then again ...

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that -- actually, no. There are no cases under which fans' private choices of nether garb can influence the outcome of the game.

Would it be too much to ask for, maybe, a rating system for 1A stories? So we can tell in advance which ones the paper itself believes and which ones it doesn't?

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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Hold the 'phone

If there's any place you can fearlessly call an alligator a gator without fear of audience confusion, you'd kind of think it would be south Florida, right?

At least, it was as recently as Monday, under the hed "Here's your chance to get close to a hungry gator." Nor did it seem a problem last month: "Men busted for illegally capturing then killing gator outside of mall."

What exactly did the (ahem) "big reptile" do? At the front of my mental file drawer for "eat off," the preposition is pointing toward the thing the food is sitting on: you can eat off a paper plate, or get the floor so clean you could eat off it, whatever. The meaning here, though, is the one conveyed in the online hed: "Alligator bites off hand; illegal feeding suspected." Slight difference, you think?

Add this from the second paragraph:

Wallace Weatherholt, an operator for Doug's Airboat Tours, was taking six passengers on a tour of the Everglades City area about 3:45 p.m. when the Weatherholt was bitten.

... and you can be forgiven for wondering if somebody didn't have something better to do than worry about putting an apostrophe in front of "gator." Let's not take this page along when we make the pitch in the glass offices for more editing jobs.

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Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Today in vizcomm theory

Well, we could say several things about the top story Tuesday morning over to the Drudge Report. For one, it's bogus. The drawback to writing the headline before the election is held is that -- pesky voters! What were they thinking* when they (hem) "resoundingly rejected" (kaff) the measure in question?
More interesting, I think, is the ear in the upper left corner, which in typical Drudge fashion says "Revolt ..." But that's not nearly as cool as the American flag waving against the cerulean sky, reminding us all the the Founding Fathers fought and died so we could abolish the hated property tax and fund all those pesky teachers and cops and things from some other source the legislature finds appropriate.

Your Editor is partial to the era of the 1A editorial cartoon, so of course he's interested in such modern-day incarnations as the random use of the flag to illustrate DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN-style blunders. More to the point, though, he sort of hopes the New York Times and the few other remaining serious papers will try to get through the campaign season without consulting the Drudge Report before filing their campaign stories.

There's a fundamental difference between grownup journalism, which has a tendency to screw up in the course of trying to get things right, and the likes of Drudge, Breitbart, and the Murdoch empire, whose native purpose is to lie and mislead. Please let your favorite professional news organization know that you appreciate the difference. 

* Maybe they were thinking about this sentence from the AP report: "The measure required the North Dakota Legislature to replace the money lost from eliminating property taxes." That'll put you right off your fresh-fried lobster.

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The random language of headlines

Same question as yesterday, sorta: What's the first way you read the hed?

I did all right with the "2 urged" and the colon, but I really stumbled on "bar band," for which I have an already accessible meaning. Amazing how opaque an headline can get when we have too much faith that the civilians will read it the same way we do.


Monday, June 11, 2012

Metastatic hed fail

Would anybody like to come up with a level on which this hed works? Or, if that's out of the question, take on the simpler but time-consuming task of listing the ways in which it doesn't?

If you want, just provide your first reading of the hed.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Correction in waiting

This is not a casualty of the War on Editing. This one predates the War on Editing, and it will live on when editing is a memory kept alive only by reenactors in scratchy wool uniforms and homemade green eyeshades. For the record, though, no: Bush was a highly decorated combat aviator, but he wasn't a fighter pilot. Those planes are called "bombers."

Tip for editors: Whenever a writer refers to a political candidate/business leader/whatever as a "fighter pilot," ask what sort of plane he or she flew.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

Common cold cured! Mideast at peace!

... so there must be some 1A space left over for letting local experts recite cliches and semi-truisms about the power of mind over matter, or something:

Survive at all costs. Dig deep. Believe. Focus. And the superhuman is possible.

If you've ever wondered what that will to live looks like in action, you saw it in LeBron James' laser-focused eyes, his trance-like determination, as he led the Miami Heat on a one-man scoring bonanza that caught the stunned Boston Celtics flat-footed and forced Game 7 of a sudden-death playoff series Thursday night.

Call it fight or flight, but don't mistake this all-consuming desire to overcome as an asset isolated to the sports world — this resolve, to persevere despite the odds, resides in all of us, experts say.

Could we just watch the game, please?

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Friday, June 08, 2012

Please, just stop

The Herald isn't the only paper to commit this sin:

In a basketball arena that was a cauldron of hatred toward James on Thursday night, the NBA’s MVP was big enough and strong enough to lift a city 1,500 miles away, and to carry his team all the way back home — still alive, still chasing a championship.

... but a flip through the archives suggests that it's a persistent offender at this time of year:

This is why we invest and care and cry and scream and get angry -- for the one breathtaking moment that Landon Donovan gave us Wednesday, when a little balding guy summoned the strength to lift our big country and give the United States a 1-0 victory against Algeria to advance in the World Cup.

With each ebb and flow of this turbulent playoff riptide, Heat fans have been caught in an emotional tempest, flying high with every win, and burning with anger upon every defeat.

Sports hyperbole is rarely fun to read and frequently painful when taken as an evidence-based statement about the world -- right, Nation's Newspaper of Record?

“All I can think of is how this incredible group of young men has unified this city and this state as never before,” said Clay Bennett, the owner who brought them here.

Do you figure he's heard of the other game they play in Oklahoma? The one with the punkin  and the cow pasture and the convicts?

On those grounds alone, please feel empowered to challenge breathless claims about supernatural feats and historical precedents. Let readers enjoy sports as they see fit.


Thursday, June 07, 2012

Tricksy whereaboutses!

Dear AP: There are so many, many answers:

1) Toss a coin. Everybody else does
2) What does it sound like it should be?
3) Well, what if you looked it up?

Door No. 3 might lead you to a reference like the Merriam-Webster Concise Dictionary of English Usage, which would tell you that (a) the "s" has nothing to do with number, (b) singular and plural verbs are both standard with "whereabouts," and (c) plural verbs appear to be more common

In other words, if you want a rule, knock yourself out. Go ahead and write one; you won't be wrong, whatever you decide. A sensible usage rule might be: OK, usually plural, but go ahead and make it singular if you're really feeling it. The world won't end either way.

What you should never -- as in, please stop wasting the time of hard-working editors -- do is invent a rule based on a nonsensical reading of the matter at hand. Why would noun-verb agreement be affected by the number of a possessive pronoun that precedes the noun?

My house is big

Our house are big

Your attitude sucks
Their attitude suck

This would seem less absurd if we weren't in the middle of the War on Editing. Time wasted on stupid questions is time diverted from the main effort. Pronouncements about bogus rules only underscore the glassholes' contention that editors are a waste of time. If this is the impression we give of editing as a craft, we should not expect editing to survive as a craft.

The AP shouldn't be wasting time on questions for which the first answer is "did you look it up?" If it must, though, it should at least avoid doing harm. Like most people in my line of work, I teach AP style as part of the basic professional toolkit. If "AP style" continues to manifest itself as a set of unintelligible, unfounded claims about some mystical grammar world, I'm going to revisit that decision in favor of some style guide that makes sense.

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Saturday, June 02, 2012

Pronoun purge: Curiouser and curiouser

As you may recall from Friday's episode, serial fictioneer Charles Krauthammer has brought the Ike/Obama/"I" fable around for another turn in the spotlight. Imagine my surprise on opening the syndicated version to find that the I's had been plucked out -- purged like an unperson from the Big Soviet Encyclopedia.

Here's the fifth graf of the Krauthammer column, as posted at Charlotte, Sarasota, Indianapolis, Sumter (SC), Charleston* (WV) and the National Post (Canada):

A campaign ad had Bill Clinton praising Obama for the courage of ordering the raid because, had it failed and Americans been killed, "the downside would have been horrible for him." Outraged veterans released a response ad pointing out that it would have been considerably more horrible for the dead SEALs. Obama only compounded the self-aggrandizement problem when he spoke a week later about the military "fighting on my behalf."

That's the fifth and seventh grafs of the Post version, with the sixth -- the one including the ad's pronoun claim and the Eisenhower comparison -- excised. It seems reasonable to conclude that the edit occurred upstream from the papers that carry the column; all six versions** also have a slightly tweaked lede. (The Post version begins "A very strange story, that 6,000-word front-page New York Times piece ..."; the others have "
A very strange story, a 6,000-word front-page New York Times piece.")***

Several explanations present themselves. The syndicate could have been aiming for a stricter word count than the home team. Someone could have thought the pronouns represented an irrelevant detour from the core of the column's argument. Someone might have been concerned that the ad has been critiqued for selective editing. Or someone could have decided to hold opinion columns to a rudimentary standard of truth-telling.

That last would be a nice outcome, but it'd be even nicer to learn that the Post was extending such a standard to the stuff it publishes in print and online too. Observations and comments from the Post would be welcome.

* The paragraphs are cut differently here, but the order is the same
** The Hartford Courant omits the first two sentences of the fifth graf but shares the lede tweak.
*** If I were Krauthammer, I'd complain about this, though he owes the editor who deleted the pronoun fib..

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Friday, June 01, 2012

'I' likes Ike: More pronoun fables

OK, who out there had "Krauthammer" and "June 1" in the great Post/Ike/Obama pronoun pool?

That ad also highlighted the many self-references Obama made in announcing the bin Laden raid: “I can report . . . I directed . . . I met repeatedly . . . I determined . . . at my direction . . . I, as commander in chief,” etc. ad nauseam.* (Eisenhower’s announcement of the D-Day invasion made not a single mention of his role, whereas the alternate statement he’d prepared had the landing been repulsed was entirely about it being his failure.)

By now, this has the makings of a drinking game: Columnist makes specious psychological inference based on direct misreading of the data introduced to support the claim, and the last one to find a direct refutation of the claim has to buy a round. I'll just assume that if you're a regular visitor, you know how easy it is to document Ike's pronoun use and how completely the fables about Obama's "spectacularly promiscuous" and "incontinent" use of the first-person singular have been debunked. The question, given this wealth of data, is why no one from the world of punditry seems interested in calling bullshit on such a spectacularly promiscuous lie.

That's really up to the Washington Post, whose ombudsman has come out foursquare in favor of a world in which columnists don't make things up -- to the point where he publicly dressed down a humor columnist who booted an ill-sourced fact claim about Rush Limbaugh. Perhaps the Post owes its audience -- and not coincidentally, the newspapers that pay to run Krauthammer, George Will and the like -- a more thorough explanation of its standards here. Is it OK to lie about presidential candidates, but not about popular propagandists? Is it OK for political opinion leaders to lie, but not humor writers? Or has Walter Lippmann been right all along?

If I lie in a lawsuit involving the fate of my neighbor's cow, I can go to jail. But if I lie to a million readers in a matter involving war and peace, I can lie my head off, and, if I choose the right series of lies, be entirely irresponsible.**

* It's a free country, and Dr. Krauthammer has a First Amendment right to be disgusted by anything he wants to. Given, again, that the evidence runs contrary to his argument, he risks creating a public perception that "ad nauseam" is Latin for "uppity."

** "Liberty and the news," 1929

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