Friday, September 23, 2005

Bad K-R! Bad! Bad!

The mighty collective news force that is Knight Ridder has been justly praised for smart, dogged reporting on the current Iraq venture -- quite a leap forward for an agency whose Washington coverage provided little more than entertainment value during the 1990-91 war.* So it's a bit dismaying to see K-R slipping back into its bad old habits, particularly the Random Policy Pronouncement and the Adverb Lottery. Copy and wire desks, be warned:

An agreement by North Korea on Monday to scrap its nuclear weapons programs is a significant step toward dispelling a decades-old threat of war in East Asia, but not a resolution to the crisis.
This is a classic bad result born of good intentions. K-R, petrified of being caught back in the pack with the AP by merely reporting what went on, is going to add value by telling us what the news means -- even if it doesn't have any idea.

If this state of affairs is a "crisis" and the agreement is indeed a "significant step," then it's probably the sort that might indeed end the crisis (people who keep track of international crises have good operational definitions of what crises are and when they begin and end, and one good sign would be a significant reduction in the risk of war). So the sentence makes as much sense, if not more, when the elements in the predicate complement are switched: "... a significant step toward resolving the crisis but doesn't dispel a decades-old threat of war in East Asia."

Which brings us to the bigger problem: What's the real effect on the "decades-old threat of war"? The short answer is probably "who knows?" The effect of nukes on the likelihood of conflict is far from certain. One hypothesis that's gotten some support is that they don't prevent disputes but do seem to limit escalation, maybe, depending in part on whether the parties have been dancing long enough to have some norms worked out.

The moral: If you don't know what the news means, better to let it speak for itself and be thought clueless than to analyze it and remove all doubt.

Here's another bad old habit, based on the quaint folk belief that good writing has lots of modifiers and a "writer's paper" is one that tosses adverbs into the stew at random:

HOUSTON -- Four hundred miles of dread stretched along the Gulf Coast on Thursday evening as a powerful and unpredictable Hurricane Rita approached an area that included Galveston, Houston and -- unbelievably -- New Orleans.

Oh, come on. Have none of the three heavy hitters in the byline been watching television for the past four days? As the hurricane moved past Florida and into the Gulf? Where New Orleans is? The casual reader can think of a lot of concepts -- cosmic injustice, bizarre coincidence, royal pain in the hem-hem -- to associate with the chance of New Orleans' being hit again, but "unbelievable" isn't any of them. Copyeds, to the barricades: Don't let this sort of slop get by.

* Not "the first Gulf War." The first Gulf War is the one that began 25 years ago Thursday.


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