Monday, November 14, 2005

Y'all still smoke crack before you write?

Couple of quick examples from the missed-opportunities front, but first, welcome to all you new visitors and tnx to all the Usual Suspects who've helped keep things lively. Hope you'll all continue.

[Sermon mode on] One reason for all the complaints about fake rules of grammar, usage or what-have-you is that they take your eye off the ball. Not only do they eat up desk time, which is always limited, but like a sort of carbon monoxide of editing, they keep real oxygen from getting where it needs to go. So whenever somebody's doing the sack dance for turning a "last" into a "this past," or a "said" into a "stated," there's usually a real error sneaking toward open territory. Meaning -- unless somebody has another metaphor to throw in the stew here -- somebody's overlooked an actual structural feature that, for example, makes a sentence say something the writer manifestly doesn't want. [Sermon mode off]

In this case (moved Friday for K-R papers and clients), several common features of news writing -- obsessive variation, careless packing, and brainless attribution -- leave the writers carrying Mr. Bush's water for him:

President Bush on Friday offered his most vigorous defense yet of his decision to invade Iraq, rejecting as "false" and "baseless" accusations that his administration twisted intelligence to support its case for war.

The attempts by Democratic lawmakers and others to rewrite history are demoralizing U.S. troops and encouraging their radical Islamic foes, Bush said.

This is our old friend the fallacy of presupposition, better known as the complex question: Do you still smoke crack before you write your ledes? In the second graf, Bush isn't saying that the Democrats are trying to rewrite history; he's saying that those attempts are demoralizing U.S. troops. The writers have established for him that the Dems are rewriting history.

That comes about, first, because of the elongated yellow fruit syndrome. We can't just say "those accusations"; we need a new name for them. Space is limited, so we need to pack in another indirect quote from the Newsmaker-in-Chief. And attribution is magic; it does whatever the writer wants, without regard to where it fits in the sentence. It happens most often when the attribution or a substitute shows up as the subject of a subordinate clause: "The [noun] [verb] when police [verb]." Here's a related example from the files:

The most recent child’s death occurred in the early morning of June 21, 2004, when Moberly police responded to the Clay home.

Our writers thought that by tacking a "Bush said" on the end, the attribution would jump the gap. It didn't. Result: Propaganda. Ouch.

And a couple from today's 1A that wanted a touch of sandpaper:

Employees said the 75 tickets sold out in about five minutes.

Whenever you have two numbers in a sentence, do something to them. 75 tix in five minutes, hmm -- 15 tickets a minute, or a ticket every four seconds. Assume each customer's buying two and the Ragtag [indie movie house, for you visitors] is still processing a customer every eight seconds. One has one's doubts.

I'd guess this is a 2+2=22: Ragtag seats 75, somebody guessed that tickets only lasted about five minutes on this day, and nobody wondered how many tickets, say, had been bought in advance.

A few grafs later, the writer gets cart before horse:

“Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price” covers many aspects of what some find wrong with the corporation. It contends that Wal-Mart’s health care plan is too expensive, that the corporation forces out small community businesses, discriminates against women and minorities and doesn’t pay overtime. The format intermingles snippets of Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott talking about the company with facts and figures about the corporation and vignettes of the experiences of former employees, business owners and community members.

The Ragtag screening was Columbia’s first publicly scheduled viewing of Robert Greenwald’s controversial film, which calls out the corporate giant.

Generally, news writing moves from the general to the specific. Freedonian troops suffered their deadliest day since the invasion of Ruthenia three months ago will be followed by grafs giving a breakdown of the deaths in different parts of occupied Ruthenia. Moving from the specific to the general -- from detailed accusations to "calls out the corporate giant" -- is almost invariably redundant. Here, it looks as if the writer is straining to get in a pet phrase, and the story suffers for it.

There is a practical reason for cutting deadwood too. Considering that an actual accident-with-injury (two grafs, judging from the Web presence) was among the items that didn't make the print edn, a line here and there in each overwritten feature can quickly add up to -- well, news. Or something.


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