Saturday, July 30, 2011

Obama Alinsky Republicans

There's a lot to marvel at in today's Two Minute Hate from The Fox Nation, but let's start with the hed. Who's a noun, who's a verb and who's an adjective? Those pesky nouns can be pretty flexible:
  • "Alinsky Republicans" could be a direct object; the NYT is helping some unnamed actor Obama them
  • "Obama Alinsky" could be a noun pileup (like "George row doc") modifying Republicans, and the NYT is helping those Republicans
  • "Alinsky" is the verb, and the Times is helping Obama to Alinsky some Republicans
If you've been keeping up with the Glenn Beck faction of the American right, you picked Door #3. Saul Alinsky's so well known* that he can be used as a verb (apparently meaning "to practice some concept that sounds like it ought to be in Rules for Radicals even if it isn't"). It's his tune that the Chicago thugs in the White House are playing as they march us toward the socialist abyss. Alinsky has reached the exalted level of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Planet Fox: He can illustrate a story even if he's never mentioned in it (or identified in the caption).

So what's going on with the story itself? Apparently malign L.A. Times dimbulb Andrew Malcolm picked up a story from the Daily Caller claiming that an NYT reporter had advised the White House media staff how to make its Twitter messages easier to follow. Malcolm at least follows up by acknowledging that there's a rather less dramatic side to "what's the hashtag you guys are urging people to use?" -- as in, maybe the reporter was asking for information. At Fox, it's too good to correct.

To paraphrase my favorite almost-certainly-apocryphal LBJ quote: Even if you can't come right out and say your enemy is pronging barnyard animals, you can always make him deny it.

* He gets around for having been dead nearly 40 years.

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Friday, July 29, 2011

On this old rockpile

Here's another one for the If You Want A Friend, Get A Dog contest.

Sorry, no. "Around 6:30 a.m. Tuesday" will be three or four minutes after sunrise, and the forecast calls for isolated thunderstorms with a 30% chance of rain. How much did you say you wanted to bet on "sunshine and balmy weather"?

But that gets us into quibbling -- whether what you see at 6:30 in the morning a few days hence counts as "sunshine" or not. And we need to be looking at a bigger concern. What do the predicted meteorological conditions have to do with this story?

Giant shock alert, kids. It's cold around here in February! That's a much safer prediction than declaring sunshine around dawn five days in advance. But random weather fabrications aren't the point. This seems to be a story about the former mayor's impending exit from jail. Shouldn't we be writing about that, rather than about what the reporter thinks will be happening in the clouds next week?

While we're here? I've grown deeply tired of heds and cutlines of this form:

Prisoner #702408, aka Kwame Kilpatrick, was jailed 14 months

I propose a ban on any and all text and/or display type that calls 'em by a number, not a name. That's for tabloids and country songs. Grownup newspapers don't do it.*

* Though if you don't like Lester 'n' Earl, you have deeply and seriously come to the wrong blog.

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Thursday, July 28, 2011

Yes, Virginia ...

See? Turn your back for a second to keep an eye on, you know, the budget process or those pesky Afghanistanianis and look what the libruls are up to! Good thing we have The Fox Nation to keep up with these developments for us.

I was going to say something like "Yes, Virginia, there is a culture war," but this isn't really a culture war. It's culture terrorism -- the random instilling of fear in stupid people, by way of influencing the larger political process through their fearful stupidity. Too bad it seems to work.

This has been a Very Busy Week, so here's your reward for being patient while Your Editor was revising and resubmitting and stuff:

Read more »

Danglers on the march

Quick, who threw what at whom in this Fair 'n' Balanced lede?

Police in riot gear clashed with an unruly crowd Wednesday night outside a Hollywood film premiere on the Electric Daisy Carnival rave, throwing bottles and vandalizing cars and refusing orders to disperse after they were forced to leave an overcrowded theater, authorities said.

I got it, but not immediately. You?

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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Now I might do it, Pat

Is there some sort of Law of Prescriptive Retaliation for Shakespeare too? Such that any attempt to pick on someone's Bard-quoting skills:

Explaining the swiftness of his resignation, he mangled a bit of Macbeth: “If ’twere best it were done, ’twere well it were done quickly.”

... will be followed, sure as winter of discontent by glorious fall summer, by something like this?

An Op-Ed article on Monday about the similarities between the Murdoch scandal and Shakespearean tragedies incorrectly described Claudius’s actions in “Hamlet.” Claudius has married his brother’s wife — not his brother’s sister.

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Monday, July 25, 2011

Preemptive forbidden hed strike

Just a reminder, as we get all sweetness 'n' light about the dawn of labor peace in the pro football ranks, that heds of the form "ready for some football?" in all its variants are forbidden unto the end of time Amen.

Yeah, I know it's what you did last year and what everybody else is doing. Do you start to see some sort of correlation here?


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

RTFS: Hearts and minds

Classic sports tale, isn't it? His heart told him it was time to retire? Too bad it's the exact opposite of what the story says:

Had he not reached 400 victories last season, Osgood would have played again. But he'd secured his legacy, and so an ailing body and sharp mind kept telling him no while his heart told him yes.
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Why you shouldn't make stuff up

What exactly is the AP's problem? What makes it so hard for "Ask the Stylebook" to answer a simple (and perfectly reasonable) question without falling on its face?

"Mill" is not short for "millage." A mill, dating to the late 18th century, is a thousandth of a dollar. (As an 1811 OED cite puts it: "Dollars of 10 Dimes, 100 Cents, or 1000 Mills.") Apparently it made perfect sense to Thomas Jefferson in 1791: "At 20 cents pr lb it is 8 mills per dish." If you're old enough to remember S&H Green Stamps, you might have seen their cash value listed in mills.
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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Perfect Fox hed of the decade

Do you figure there was a contest or something at Fox? With a week of parking in the executive spot next to Roger Ailes's for the first one to get "penis," "gay" and "your tax $$$" into the same hed?

The federal government helped fund a study that examined what effect a gay man's penis size has on his sex life and general well-being.

And should we lynch anybody in particular, or just string up the usual suspects? Let's ask Fox readers to comment!*

Obama must be thinking about switch hitting, huh? I don't blame him. That wife of his would make me cringe thinking about her going into the residential area of the White House.
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Monday, July 18, 2011

Your love is like a ... wait, what?

Kids, this is why we don't let the National Weather Service write pop songs:

Martha and the Vandellas said love is like a heat wave. The National Weather Service's definition is five days in a row with temperatures of 90 degrees or more.

Love is like a heat wave! No, love is like five 90-degree days!

Detroiters can decide for themselves this week which definition they like better, as Motown is expected to top the temperature charts at 90 degrees or more through next weekend.

Well, there's your problem. We can't tell if we have competing definitions of "love" or of "heat wave." But neither is of much interest if you're trying to take the heat into account for the onrushing work week.

It's true that this is Motown and that Martha Reeves actually did serve on the City Council. Neither of those conditions requires a reach into the Motown catalog for a weather story. When you've painted yourself into a corner, ledewise, stop digging. At least until someone mixes some new metaphors.

And let's be realistic. This is a 250-word weather story. It doesn't have to be all writerly and stuff. It just has to be written.

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

Active aggressive

I think there's a reason that first clause is passive. It keeps the "Ask the Stylebook" editors from having to say "The AP prefers the active voice for most news stories," which would probably set off loud guffaws from people who actually read AP stories and notice that -- whatever the head office thinks -- AP writers often use whatever voice helps them express the meaning they want to. As in this classic bit of AP lede writing from (ahem) April 1865:

The President was shot in a theater tonight, and perhaps mortally wounded.

I like stylebooks. I really do.* And I try to encourage close attention to them -- if for no other reason than "Why don't we see if we've already settled this one?" is almost invariably a better answer than "Let's invent some AWESOMELY STUPID rules!" It's genuinely convenient to have a handy answer to questions like "do we abbreviate that?" or "how do we spell ﺍﻟﻘﺎﻋﺪۃ in English anyway?" But the AP Stylebook in particular needs a bigger and more welcoming entry under "whatever."

Take John's discussion today about "that" and "who." That's the sort of style issue that could use a big old cross-reference to the "whatever" entry. It will say something like: Dude, whatever! Use the one that works! Good writers will figure out which one they need pretty quickly, and bad writers won't become good writers no matter how many rules you make them memorize.

* There are half a dozen of the things sitting next to me as I type, waiting to play their part in some project or another that might or might not get started after all the overdue and nearly-overdue stuff gets finished. Isn't summer awful?

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Stating the obvious

If you're the old-fashioned sort that thinks a hed ought to have something to do with the story it adorns, you've come to the wrong place.

That's not to suggest that the hed is false. There are rich people, and there are clueless people, and day-to-day life makes pretty clear that those two sets have a good deal of overlap. It's tempting to improve the hed by making it more definite -- "Someone is rich and clueless" -- but that's not really the point, is it?

Things don't get much clearer at the "More from the newsroom" section of the sibling fishwrap in Charlotte:

Is million-dollar lottery winner clueless?
Read more »

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Why do you think ...

... they're called "forbidden heds"?

"It's official" is perhaps the least useful two-word phrase in the hed lexicon. It does you no good. There are no circumstances under which it can do you any good. And here, it does you no good at the cost of a third of the lede headline.


Monday, July 11, 2011

Stop press!

Our top story tonight: Bears cross legs, look longingly at woods! Sources say church led by mysterious "pope"! And ... golf requires patience!

Traffic and weather next,  but first this word from our sponsors.

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Sunday, July 10, 2011

Annals of 'after'

More on the random syntax of news:

A tractor-trailer barreled into a Kroger in Harper Woods on Saturday evening after the driver was cut off on eastbound I-94, lost control, shot up an embankment and crashed his cab into the side of the market, authorities said.
So the truck hit the grocery store after it hit the grocery store?

Probably not. I think this one's a distinctively journalistic "after," meaning something on the order of "as part of this sequence of events" or "as a result of something I'm about to explain." (Or, if you're writing for local TV news, "Here's how it all went down.")

Part of the problem -- stop me if you've heard this before -- is the urge to jam the sequence of events into the lede, rather than starting with an outcome and giving the process a chance to catch its breath. In the course of all that, a fairly important outcome is relegated to the second graf:

The driver was killed and another was person injured.

"Another was person" looks like an editing error; was "killing the driver and injuring another person" (or something) part of the original lede? Whatever happened, it's another reminder of a good principle: When in doubt, slow down. You aren't going to beat TV anyway, so you might as well make the medium you're stuck with sound better.

Friday, July 08, 2011

How not to write ledes

Dogs flew spaceships! The Aztecs invented the vacation! And when it comes to lede writing, everything in your J-textbook is wrong!

The Oakland County Sheriff's Office said Thursday that police and U.S. marshals in St. Paul, Minn., arrested 34-year-old Darius M. McCrary, who is the suspect in the fatal shooting of his ex-girlfriend in front of her children last Thanksgiving.

Here are some mildly heretical suggestions to keep you from producing the same sort of thing:
1) The active voice is overrated
2) Outcome is more important than process
3) All facts are (ideally) true, but not all facts are equal

Notice how much active voice we have to wade through before anything interesting turns up. In the main clause, an office is saying something. Look at the size of the subject noun phrase in the complement clause: "Police and U.S. marshals in St. Paul, Minn." At last, we get to an interesting verb: "arrested." But its magic effects don't last long, because if you aren't keeping up with the daily doings of 34-year-old Darius M. McCrary, you aren't given much reason to read on.

Let's start with some basic assumptions. Sometimes it's more important to know who said something; sometimes it's more important to know what was said.  Most arrests are going to fall into the latter category. That's going to move the local constabulary to the far end of the lede. Second, your choice of verb voice should reflect what you want to emphasize. In most arrests, again, that's unlikely to be the agency doing the arresting. (Exceptions should be obvious: "A newly formed anti-cluelessness unit of the Grammar Police arrested three peevologists Thursday.") Third, your instincts about who qualifies as a "headline name" are probably better than you think. If you're thinking that most nonpublic people should be introduced by residence, occupation, the event that made them prominent, or something similar, rather than by name, you're right. Taken together, that points toward:

A man accused of killing his ex-girlfriend in front of her children on Thanksgiving has been arrested in Minnesota, police said Thursday.

Embrace the passive! Favor outcomes over procedures! You too can preserve all the pathos in barely half the space.

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Thursday, July 07, 2011

You can see how they might

How are things in Grand Rapids there, Most Trusted Name in News?

Police in Grand Rapids, Michigan, have surrounded a suspect who is believed to have killed seven people in two shootings, including one child, police spokesman Jon Wu said Thursday.

Police say they believe the two shootings are related.

You think?


Whom's there?

Her did?

The FBI has arrested a Georgia woman whom authorities said tried to hire a hit man to kill her ex-husband at a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Concord.

Sometimes I think the best who/whom rule for newsrooms would be: No, just do it the other way.


Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Always at war with Eastasia (a slight return)

Did you miss the top story at the Fair 'n' Balanced Network on Monday? That crazed Kenyan Muslim socialist is killing the turrists so fast we can't interrogate 'em!

White House's New Anti-Terror Strategy: Kill the Suspects?
Usama bin Laden has been killed. The U.S. is poised to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. And the Obama administration's shift in counterterrorism strategy from land wars to precision strikes and raids is raising concerns that the White House has adopted a policy of targeting killings for terror suspects.
Read more »

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Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Morning cannibalism report

Here's the NPR foreign staff, bein' all folksy as it introduces the nation to campaign-trail dining in South Carolina:

In more than a half-century of working here, Stroble has served up candidates from John Connally to Richard Nixon to Ross Perot.

Don't think so. Here's the same phrasal verb later in the story:

Tommy's Ham House in Greenville serves up country ham, grits, red-eye gravy and sweet potato pancakes.

"Serve" can go both ways: you can serve customers, and you can serve the food they eat. But "serve up" can't. It's for the stuff on the plate. Be careful when you're featurizin' up your campaign reporting, lest you end up shootin' yourself in the foot.

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Sunday, July 03, 2011

Getting it backward

That's a strange way to begin an argument for putting Alex Avila on the All-Star team, isn't it?

Making an argument for Alex Avila to get a spot on this year's All-Star team is simple: There isn't one. Or there shouldn't be.

The Tigers' 24-year-old catcher enjoys a hefty lead in nearly every offensive category at his position in the American League. In fact, his closest competition is the guy who gives him a day off every once in a while -- Victor Martinez.

One of the advantages of having a full-strength, in-house copydesk is that the editors get used to the writers and their peculiar ways of painting themselves into corners. (Your shop probably had its own versions of Libel Guy and Mangled Cliche Woman.) Here's a lede from last Sunday's sports front to help put today's into context:

Sparky Anderson is widely believed to have said this: "A baseball manager is a necessary evil."

The legendary manager of the Tigers and Cincinnati Reds no doubt believed that when he said it. For his sake, few who watched him do.

What would that last passage look like if you translated it from English to Afrikaans to Serbian and back to English? Let's ask Google:

The legendary manager of the Tigers and Cincinnati Reds no doubt believed that if he did not say. For him, a couple that looked at.

I think I like the new one better. Perhaps Google Translate would be a good coaching technique.

Q: So how bad could it get if Mitch Albom decides to take on Those Pesky Atheists?
A: Very, very bad.

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Friday, July 01, 2011

DTFM: You're going to need a bigger river

Well, there's a lovely idea for a pre-Fourth-weekend centerpiece: the Old Hometown's paper has a guide to watching the fireworks in Wilmington, where the retired battleship North Carolina is among the stars of the holiday.

Comes a point in every shift, though, when we need to put down the hot dogs and sparklers and actually read over the stuff in front of us. Even if you aren't familiar with that stretch of the Cape Fear, your editorial radar ought to be sending out the old alarm: Seven thousand feet is a lot of boat.

Now let's not hear any com- plaints about how busy it is on the rim and how we aren't supposed to check everything, are we? No, we aren't. But we are supposed to read everything, and and one handy hint for reading effectively is to stop at any number or set of numbers and ask where it stands in relation to other numbers.

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