Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Cronkite moment

Saturday was the anniversary of another of those Great Moments in Journalism History: The Walter Cronkite comment on the Tet offensive that allegedly caused LBJ to lament that if he'd lost Cronkite, he'd lost Middle America, after which the rest is history.

Think again, says the proprietor of Media Myth Alert: Even if there was agreement on what LBJ said, he was probably too busy toasting John Connally at a birthday dinner in Austin to have seen and said all the things that make Cronkite's editorial such a perennial favorite in the Great Stuff Journalism Does Hall of Fame.

That doesn't make Uncle Walter a bad person. It does suggest that journalists are as prone as anyone else to use history as way of organizing the world to put themselves and their role in a comfortable light (that's one reason the occasional j-history syllabus still crops up with "we've got the best press EVAR" at the top). The world is a tidier place when heroic reporters can bring down a presidency by themselves, but it's the sort of phenomenon we're going to have trouble replicating in real life.

I've enjoyed W. Joseph Campbell's work before, and I'll be looking forward to the myths book.

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Friday, February 26, 2010

Imagine the conversation

Our old pal* Strayhorn imagines the conversation for us:

Old editor: Get me some artwork on strokes
Young copydesker: No problem!

No more need be said.

* By which I mean there was still a shah in Iran back when we started trading shifts on the wire desk.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Kenyan Muslim socialists in space!

Today's triumph of hard- hitting investi- gative journalism comes on the heels of Tuesday's keefing in California (be sure to watch the video for the full effect). Your top story, from the Fair 'n' Balanced Network:

Is this Logo-gate? (No, but thanks for asking.)

The Internet is abuzz (really?) with comparisons of the "strikingly similar" logos of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency and the ubiquitous Obama 2008 campaign. (I think we mean the logo was ubiquitous, not the campaign. But onward!)

The Missile Defense Agency, which is part of the Defense Department, now features a circular red, white and blue logo on its Web site that has been characterized in some reports as "scarily" similar to President Obama's former campaign symbol. (That's "one" report, not "some" reports, and it appears to be a blog post from the online producer of the WashTimes' editorial pages.) Others have noted that it has a crescent and star design, evoking a common symbol for Islam. (Uh, yeah. It's sort of a star, yes, and sort of a crescent, but ... oh, hell, if Fox is going to cut and paste from Wikipedia, we can too. Behold an earlier Missile Defense logo, with star and crescent, and the dread stars-crescent-and-mattress logo of the Strategic Defense Initiative!)

The logo, which first appeared on the Missile Defense Web site in the fall, was designed by TMP Government, a marketing and communications firm that has managed Web site redesigns and logos for numerous government agencies, including and more than a dozen Defense and intelligence-related sites.

But this particular one has caught the eye of critics of the Obama administration. (I wonder if there's a reason for that.)

"I'm having trouble seeing past the crescent and star in the new logo," one critic posted on "Is this our signal to the muslim world that we're not going to shoot down their missiles?"

Another poster on likened the logo to that of a "corny science fiction movie." (In quoting a few of the less certifiable posts, Fox manages to overlook the late-breaking resemblance to the Iranian space agency's logo, which -- aw, you peeked! -- is conspicuously lacking in stars. You can see how you wouldn't want that to get in the way of a good story.)

But others said it was all in the eye of the beholder, and that they saw little or no similarity between the Obama and Missile Defense logos.

Richard Lehner, a spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency, dismissed the comparison entirely.

"It's ridiculous," Lehner told Fox News. "It isn't a new logo to replace the official logo. It's a logo developed for recruiting materials and for our public Web site. Also, it was used prior to the 2008 election and it has no link to any political campaign."

So either he's lying or what the WashTimes calls the "Obama Missile Defense Agency logo" actually dates to the -- what do you call it, the Bush administration? Yeah, that's it.

This is a slightly more paranoid -- oh, all right, vastly more paranoid -- version of the perpetual deity-on-a-taco story, except that at Fox, it's actual high-end political discourse. It's not technically made-up, as long as you have a very loose operational definition of "abuzz" and the critical thinking skills of a garden slug. But it's more or less impossible to think of any circumstances under which it would qualify as "journalism."

Words don't often fail me, but some days you can hear the old rivets popping more distinctly than others.


Monday, February 22, 2010

Editing fail

This one has all the hallmarks of a really bad bit of editing -- made worse because the end result isn't just entirely grammatical, it makes sense in its own way too. It's very much not the same kind of sense that the original would have made, though, and "submit copy to copydesk at own risk" isn't the sort of message we want to be spreading.

Disclaimer: I'm speculating here. I wasn't at the scene and didn't see the original, so I'm trying to put the crime together from what's left at the scene. But I think it's a fairly good guess, so follow along and see what you think. Let me know if you disagree.

What we have here is a fairly nice feature story about a native who made good -- a guy bitten by the foreign-affairs bug in a seventh-grade debate class in a Detroit school who's coming back to talk about his career with the State Department at a couple of schools before taking up a new job in Washington. Cool so far?

The smoking gun is the transition into the second sentence: "He'll watch officers handle everything from ..." Walk it back a little. He's going to Washington to be a watch officer at the State Department. My guess is that the writer came up with "He'll handle everything from [blah] to [blah]." Somebody on the desk decided no, he can't be doing all that hisownself, and decided to make it "Watch officers handle everything from [blah] to [blah]."

In the course of the operation, somebody forgot to count the surgical tools. A scalpel was left inside the patient, and our protagonist, who's been a consular officer in China for the past couple years, ends up sounding like an intern: "He'll watch officers handle everything from [blah] to [blah]." And it's harder to pick out as an error because, aided by a little noun-verb ambiguity, all three subject-verb-object combinations work:

He'll handle everything
Watch officers handle everything
He'll watch officers handle everything

As I said, a guess. The writer doesn't seem too completely clued in, and the sentence could be original. But it looks a lot more like interference gone bad.



Coach, let's talk about your record

Here's a nice example of how to lie without really lying. The Fox hed here is taken directly from the lede and is utterly grammatical, but it's pragmatically flawed:

Democratic governors said Sunday they worry about President Barack Obama's track record on fighting Republican political attacks and urged him to better connect with anxious voters.

The cousins at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network aren't stupid. They know that a good proportion of readers are going to get everything they need (or want) from the hed. Why mess up their lives by introducing the context in which the hed would be true?

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Of talking pens and crash blossoms

Yes, and I think it sat next to me all the way to Houston yesterday.

I'd copy the relevant grafs that allow the hed to make sense, but so far I'm unable to find the story anywhere but on the AJ-C front over at Poynter (where it won't last past the day). Long story short, the spy pen belongs to the retiring manager of the World's Busiest Airport,* and officials from Delta Airlines found it on a table after some negotiations about the airport had concluded.

How it got there might be interesting, but it'd be a lot more accessible if the hed wasn't so much fun.

* Please tell me you guys don't have a stylebook mandate for this or anything.


Thursday, February 18, 2010

What rough beast?

Surely there's something in one of the Geneva conventions that covers this. Five weeks after the earthquake, the Freep pulls out the stops with three days.

Of Albom.

In Haiti

It's the print version of American broadcasting's obsession with getting the anchor to the scene of the big story, with all the depth and nuance Albom brings:

They never had much.

But there was love.

And then the ground shook.

There isn't really much advice for the copy editor in this, because the copy editor is sort of like the undertaker who owes Don Corleone a favor: It's not going to be much fun, but it's too late to look for a way out.

At least there's something nice to say about the truncated home delivery schedule. There won't be a hard copy of Part 3 around the house to scare the kitties.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Today's do-it-yourself tip

Suppose you get an irate phone call or eighty over the next few days from readers demanding to know why you and your Marxist colleagues are suppressing the bombshell story in which the chief Climategate perp confesses that global warming is a hoax. (It has to be true; after all, Rush said it, and there it is at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network!)

Well, sorta. Here's how Fox puts it:

The embattled ex-head of the research center at the heart of the Climate-gate scandal dropped a bombshell over the weekend, admitting in an interview with the BBC that there has been no global warming over the past 15 years.

Wanna know what he really told the BBC?

Do you agree that from 1995 to the present there has been no statistically-significant global warming?

Yes, but only just. I also calculated the trend for the period 1995 to 2009. This trend (0.12C per decade) is positive, but not significant at the 95% significance level. The positive trend is quite close to the significance level. Achieving statistical significance in scientific terms is much more likely for longer periods, and much less likely for shorter periods.

See why we keep on complaining about people who ignore confidence levels? He's not saying there isn't a trend; he's saying it's a trend that's close to significant at conventional levels (95%) but not quite there.

So what do you tell the reading public? OK, imagine you have some dread disease -- infectious palinitis or something, usually fatal within a year of diagnosis. There is no cure. But there's a new miracle drug we've been testing, and people seem to be symptom-free two years later. Want some?

Dunno. How good is the study? It's very good, but as with any such study, there's a chance we got our result by accident; it could be a false positive, meaning we got a good result by some accident unrelated to the treatment. There's about a 7 percent chance that it won't help if you take it. Still want some?

I would, even though we're hovering around 93% confidence rather than the arbitrary 95% level that the story mentions. That's the difference between "approaching significance" and "significant," or the difference between "no global warming" and "no statistically significant global warming" if you get your news from Planet Fox.

Your callers aren't necessarily stupid (though you shouldn't rule that out). But they've demonstrably been lied to -- by Limbaugh, which isn't a surprise, but also by a purported news outlet, which should be. Who knows? They might appreciate finding out what they're missing.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

How many is that in real money?

Ohio's Greatest Home Newspaper heard something over its shoulder and overcorrected just a little too much in the lede hed here. Somebody's thinking numbers need to get a "many," not a "much," but forgetting that not all numbers are alike. We're interested in the amount of snow you get -- how "much" snow -- not in whether the weather gods parcel it out to you an inch at a time.

That's why you ask "how much" something costs, not "how many dollars" it costs, even though you're going to pay the bill in dollars. It's one of those Sam Spade rules of editing: Five hundred dollars is a lot of money. Nine inches is a lot of snow. It's one unit, not a bunch of units. The right hed would have been the instinctive one: As much as 9 inches.

What's the second hed doing here? I'm still looking for a term for that. It's letting two things get grammared together when they shouldn't be.* "12" isn't modifying "Afghan civilian deaths" in any meaningful way; it's not like 12 is a tipping point, or like it's these 12 deaths (and not those others) that are causing complications. The hed's providing two separate bits of information: 12 Afghan civilians were killed, and civilian deaths are complicating the military push. It's not trying to make the these-not-those connection, but it's doing so anyway. Easy answer: "Civilian deaths/complicating/military push/in Afghanistan."

Is it less information? Not really; it's just information that goes together.

* You linguistics people can help out any time, you know.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

The eight-inch rule

Here's another of those trade secrets we don't always tell you guys about. It's called (with some variation among shops) the eight-inch rule: If you see a story longer than eight column-inches on a topic you know something about, you'll probably find a mistake in it. So here's the Nation's Newspaper of Record on the Huntsville shootings:

Mr. Garner said Dr. Bishop, who arrived in the 2003-4 academic year, was first told last spring that she had been denied tenure. If a tenure-track professor is not granted tenure after six years, the university will no longer employ them, Mr. Garner said. This would have been the final semester of Dr. Bishop’s sixth year.

True, true, not so true. If she started in 2003-04 and went up for tenure in her sixth year (08-09*), she would have been denied last spring. The lab-coat sciences may differ, but on our side of the tracks, that would likely mean a terminal contract: a seventh year with no renewal, in which -- with the handwriting distinctly on the wall -- one looks for a job. So appeal or not, this would have been the final semester of her seventh year, and even if you didn't have an obsessive interest in the tenure process, the arithmetic should have tipped you off.

As news stories go, this isn't an especially interesting or important one, but it does seem to be one that's producing a lot of bad journalism. Here's the AP, represented at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network:

Bishop, a rare woman suspected of a workplace shooting, had just months left teaching at school in Huntsville because she was denied tenure.

The sentence isn't trying to say she's a rare woman** who happens to be suspected of a workplace shooting; it's trying to say that it's rare for women to commit mass workplace murders. "Suspected of" is one of the strategic rituals of objectivity; we skirt the laws of libel by saying that suspects are "suspected of" offenses, which is true (and thus by definition not libelous), rather than saying they committed the offenses (which, if false, is libelous). Readers, as a rule, aren't as interested in how often people are suspected of things as they are in how often people do things.

This one appears to be all Fox:

Bishop, who has four children, was arrested soon after the violent Friday shooting at the University of Alabama and charged with capital murder.

Are we paying attention, S&W-bashers? Nobody's complaining about adjectives. We like adjectives! But if you're looking for an early candidate in the Stupidest Adjective of 2010 contest, could we suggest "violent" for a shooting that left three people dead and two in critical condition?

One more brief point. We spend lots of time here picking on Fox News,*** and occasionally on the people who comment on its interesting perspectives on how the world works. It's worth noting, based on this story, that people who comment on NYT stories are every bit as arrogant, bigoted, narrow-minded and self-serving as the people who comment at Fox. They use longer sentences and don't appear to be spraying quite as much saliva on the keyboard, but that doesn't make them smarter. Professional journalism organizations should simply disable comments on news stories forthwith. Right now. Period.

* Assuming she hadn't stopped her tenure clock for some reason; news accounts seem to be making much of her having four kids.
** Language Czarina, on the other hand, is an extremely rare woman, to whom happy Valentine's Day.
*** Well, we all have our paths toward tenure.

In the land of the tabloids

Noun these mean streets a verb must go. What makes a tab hed like this (from the Boston Herald) distinctive isn't the length of the noun pileup but the Wuxtry-Wuxtry-spinning-front-page clipped forms: "'86 bro kill" belongs in the Tabloid Hall of Fame.

Relatedly, if you haven't checked in at You Don't Say recently, hurry out to the lobby and get a bag of popcorn before the newsreel ends. John is everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be, and it's Pulp Diction time.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Crazed Harvard veterans

Quick, what's the academic equivalent of the crazed Vietnam veteran in news language? The Harvard graduate:

A Harvard-trained biology professor is facing murder charges in the shooting deaths of three faculty members at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, police said early Saturday.

If we asked the Most Trusted Name In News why Harvard was in the lede, we'd probably get something like "but ... but ... Harvard!" Which really isn't good enough. The lede is a concentrated form of agenda-setting; it doesn't tell you what to think, but it does tell you what to think about and how to think about what you're thinking about. Evidently, CNN expects us to think about Harvard-trained biology profs differently from how we think about the ones who got hooded at Carolina or Kentucky or Johns Hopkins. For a story that's so utterly free of context (given that it appears to have been posted around 8:30 a.m. Saturday), that's not much help.

We look for stuff in stories that we're socialized to look for, and what crossed my mind when I saw this one last night -- shooting in a faculty meeting, suspect had been at the U since 2003, 2010 minus 2003 -- was ... urk, tenure case? And that's what everyone who asked around a little seems to have found. (The AP's a little overboard on talking to students in this version, but it manages to hold off on the Harvard until the seventh graf; the NYT gives in by the fourth graf, and the AP moves it up to the second graf in a writethru today.)

Tenure is an opaque and complicated topic, but -- like rejection in employment, love, or the production and distribution of the Great American Novel --it rarely leads to public homicide, which helps suggest why the "who knows why people do stuff sometimes?" category is so big. "Harvard," though, seems designed to give the bottom-feeders something to talk about:

Harvard grad, hummm...

Yikes, apparently not so stellar if an Ivy League "genius" only knows how to cope with a gun and shooting it at people. I wonder if she grew up where she got a ribbon or cookie anyways even though she came in last or misbehaved at the party.

I guess Barry-O has found a new Education Czar....

She just got upset because they laughed at her for pronouncing “corpsman” the Harvard way.

You can't stop people from drawing conclusions, but you don't have to hand them the crayons.

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Noun slam

No peeking: Who did what to whom in this Fox hed?

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

A great disturbance in the Force

Sometimes you can wrap some slightly related devel- opments together with a single figure of speech and get a lede out of it. Other times -- but Michigan is a peaceful planet!

I think the real failure is the "Wednesday," which suggests a whole bunch of out-of-control stuff happened all at once that knocked a perfectly innocent state out of its orbit and into some sort of post-political, post-nuclear dystopia -- a Mad Max-scape, only with snow and increasingly mediocre hockey.*

Real life is duller, as usual. There are two news developments here: a very rich candidate (and university regent) with fractional political experience dropped out of a race she hadn't really entered, and a congressman decided not to run again. I have a hard time seeing either as a lede story, and the saga of the Republican slagging match doesn't come near tying them together into one.

Too bad, because it's the most interesting of the lot. I started noticing one of the ads in question a couple of weeks back: a couple of the standard-issue yippy-yip voices lighting into Pete Hoekstra for not being enough of a fearmongering right-wing crank. Srsly?? Somebody's opening up on Pete Hoekstra from the right for (inter alia) not letting DC citizens arm themselves against other DC citizens?** We're at risk of having an entertaining season up here.

Short of all-out war, you always want a little headroom in your lede story -- readers need to know that you know the end of the world hasn't been reached quite yet. When you knock the world off its axis in February of a nonpresidential year, you're giving yourself a tough act to follow and a lot of months in which to make that abundantly clear.

* Nor any copy editors in sight, but you probably figured that out already.
** No, really. You need to be driving around Detroit when Reproachful Princess Leia Girl says "But Washington, DC, is one of the most violent cities in the country!"


Tuesday, February 09, 2010

And don't you forget it

This could really mess up your menu planning:

A headline on Monday with a report in the “Arts, Briefly” column about plans for the actor Taylor Lautner to star in the movie “Stretch Armstrong” misidentified the creature he plays in the “The Twilight Saga: New Moon.” He is a werewolf, not a vampire.

Honestly, Nation's Newspaper of Record -- did you try the garlic trick?

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Monday, February 08, 2010

Adventures in multimedia

Originally posted at Failblog and (surprise!) still intact as of this writing.

Just a reminder that no matter how many platforms your content crosses, those old-fashioned words still need a final look from a dirty mind.


Sunday, February 07, 2010


Strange recombination of the day, collected while waiting to fill the growler at the local. Two guys are comparing notes about some of the other brewpubs* and trying to figure out which of the waits at a rival establishment is the one who was making fun of customers behind their backs:

A: I know most of them. What does she look like?
B: Kinda dishy -- mousewater blonde.
A: Oh, yeah.

Which meant Czarina and I spent much of the afternoon looking for ways to use "mousewater" in conversation:

Mousewater Jack bought a shotgun
Mousewater ... I am the lost Dauphin!
Did the cat pee on the bookshelf again? No, that's mousewater
MoH2O: Mousewater conservatives

Procrastination is a beautiful thing.

* Our Little Town is just eat up with brewpubs.

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Saturday, February 06, 2010

What rough beast?

Sometimes, even at the Paper o' Record, a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest:

A report in The Caucus column on Friday about President Obama’s remarks to lawmakers and religious leaders at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday rendered incorrectly part of a quotation by Mr. Obama about the current political debate. In noting that “we become absorbed with our abstract arguments, our ideological disputes, our contests for power,” he went on to say, “And in this Tower of Babel, we lose the sound of God’s voice.” He did not say “this tower of babble.”

Were it up to me, the first part of the first sentence would read "A report in the Caucus column on Friday" or "A report in Friday's The Caucus column," sted as published. The article's modifying "column," not "Caucus."

That 38-word thicket of irrelevant detail is a lot to wade through to get to the point: A comment by the president at the National Prayer Breakfast on Thursday was rendered incorrectly. And given that the Times is rigid about noting when "an editing error" led to a correction, I wouldn't mind a little more frankness here: "A report in Friday's The Caucus column rendered a quotation from President Obama incorrectly because a biblical allusion went right over the reporter's head."

One reason I like the Grauniad is its ability to acknowledge its errors without the NYT's ponderous solemnity:

In an auction story, Giacometti's thin man makes fat price, the artist made additional appearances as Giacommeti and Giacommetti (4 February, page 5).

Or, more to the point:

Also swept into Homophone Corner was some confusion, in an article headed Stick another cowpat on the fire, between palettes and pallets: "I think that anyone trying to keep warm by burning wooden palettes (as used by artists) … would do far better by burning wooden pallets (as used in industry). They're much bigger and longer lasting," said Peter J Roberts from Bewdley in Worcestershire.

I'm not holding out hope for "The Lord went down unto the Washington burean Friday and there confounded their language. President Obama referred to 'this Tower of Babel,' not 'this tower of babble,' in his remarks to the National Prayer Breakfast." But it'd be nice.

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Thursday, February 04, 2010

Cheesy hed makes reader hork

Addressing the reader directly in heds is never a good idea. In this case, it's out-and-out misleading. The hed says the pasta could make me sick. And the story?

Pierino Frozen Foods Inc. is recalling some of its Jumbo Shells with Cheese because the labels don’t list eggs.

The company says those allergic to eggs may suffer serious or life-threat­ening reactions if they consume these products.

Oops. The hed writer lied to me. Quite a few foodborne illnesses might indeed make me sick. But since I'm not allergic to eggs, there's no risk to "me" -- or to anyone else who doesn't have this allergy.

Direct-address heds are usually just annoying. Here, by applying a load of cheesy, Gannetty personalization, we cross the line into ineptitude. That's not a good way to make yourself welcome over breakfast.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Stop the ... wait, don't

Shall we start a pool on how long this remains the top story at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network?

The Nigerian man accused of trying to use a bomb hidden in his underwear to bring down a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas has been cooperating with investigators since last week and has provided fresh intelligence in multiple terrorism investigations, officials said Tuesday.

Funny -- comments don't seem to have been enabled on this one. Still, seems likely someone's getting a reservation on the unheated cattle train to Siberia.


Actually, let's not

And how did this exciting collage end up as the 1A centerpiece at One of America's Newspapers? Because, um ... we're hosting a Web chat with some therapists? Yeah, that'll be it.

It's always a bad sign when your story contradicts the alleged trend you claim in the hed: "There's more help than ever" doesn't translate into "More seek help amid Tiger Woods revelations." But in general, when my morning paper tells me that we should be talking about something, my instinctive response is: Nah. Why don't we talk about the news instead?