Osama bin Laden, 1957-2011

May 3, 2011


First, can we stop with the criticism that the President is namby-pamby on national security? That corpulent drug addict Rush Limbaugh is already deriding him for alleged overuse of the first-person pronoun in his Sunday night speech, using a Jedi dark side trick to cleanse his own mind of the grotesque flight-suited MISSION ACCOMPLISHED preening of Mr. Obama’s predecessor. But one person has to say, GO: the commander in chief. One person has to, excuse me, pull the trigger. If things had gone better in the Iranian sand for Jimmy Carter in 1980, he would be a national hero and Ronald Reagan would have had to wait four years, maybe forever. That had to be on the President’s mind last weekend, because this was far from a slam-dunk mission. All praise to the brave SEALs, and everybody else who followed the President’s orders at great risk to themselves. But shut up, Rush, when the President of the United States cops to personally ordering troops into harm’s way.

Second, can we agree that American weekly newsmagazines are irretrievably broken? Both Time and Newsweek, which went to press before this happened, feature the royal wedding on their just-landed covers. They lost big on the timing, and now they’re newsstand laughingstocks, unless they rush “special editions” into press – but with what reporting, and who’s gonna pay for it? My hunch: we’ll catch ya next week, America! The only newsweekly which will have a current story is The Economist, which lands in subscribers’ mailboxes on Friday. Oh, by the way: they’re British! And here’s the complete coverage of the royal nuptials in what must now be regarded as the world’s best English-language newsmagazine:

A young man and his fiancée were expected to get married in central
London on April 29th. Millions of Britons took advantage of the
opportunity to take a foreign holiday.

Third, one’s initial reaction must indeed be jubilation: this lousy, privileged bastard who coerced so many down-class acolytes into missions he would be too afraid to perform himself finally got what was coming to him. He preached retrogression, yet chose luxury over the cause, like so many other hypocrites before him. But the American football-style celebrations I saw on tv looked very much like the Arab demonstrations after 9/11. Remove the audio, Photoshop-smudge the pickets and T-shirts, put up an Al Jazeera logo, and what’s the difference? I don’t like the way these images may be playing on the other side of the world. I am a firm believer in the adage, “People are alike all over,” but I fear that malefic others may decide to use our shared zealousness against us.

5/6/11: Time rushed out its next issue, which landed for subscribers by Thursday. It was 70 pages long and had five ads, three of them for drugs marketed to seniors. Newsweek also dropped early, on Friday, 62 pages, similar ad ratio but slightly more upmarket. Rather than doing “special editions,” both mags simply hurried up the next issue — Time even had some non-Osama stuff, but not Newsweek — to get those damned royal-wedding “commemoratives” off the frickin newsstand. They each faced an unusually long span before the next pubdate, and both better hope nothing else earthshaking happens in the meantime, in case they still want to be seen as part of a medium which responds to breaking news. The Economist, 104 pages landing on Friday as usual, complete with the rest of the world’s news, cover-lined: Now, kill his dream. Bin Laden was only one of many stories, and this British mag — now clearly best of breed, my friend — ignored the royal wedding.

7/1/11: Everybody with a deadline misses the big story occasionally, and this week it was The Economist’s turn. All anybody could talk about on Friday was the collapse of the Manhattan DA’s sexual assault case against former International Monetary Fund general manager Dominique Strauss-Kahn over his accuser’s credibility. And it was a big European story as well, perhaps the biggest of the day. But The Economist had already gone to press, and the issue that dropped on 7/1 had no mention of the surprise development.

Word On The Wire

June 15, 2010

The ignominious end of Helen Thomas’s career is a real shame. She’d become increasingly batty ever since she left her employer of nearly six decades to write opinion columns for Hearst Newspapers. She shouldn’t have said what she did; no journalist should. That kind of propagandizing is strictly for clowns like Glenn Beck. But I can remember a time when her objective, well-regarded writing was one of the crown jewels of her former employer. I remember her copy distinctly, because this company employed me too. It was called United Press International.

The UPI logo in its heyday. Surrounding it are the letter identifiers of local bureaus. Jackson was JK, center right.

It’s hard to imagine today, with Internet access to nearly-instant news, but for most of the last century and a half, almost all breaking news was delivered by one of three major wire services, whichever one got the story first. The Associated Press and Reuters date back to the mid-19th century and the invention of the telegraph. AP was originally a pool among five New York papers to share the cost of field reporting. Reuters, in Britain, did the same for the foreign coverage of European papers (it broke the story of the Lincoln assassination to Europe). UPI came along because of cold, hard business.

AP was, and is, an association of member newspapers. It refused to sell its services to the competition, which included Edward Scripps, founder of the US’s first newspaper chain. So, in 1907, Scripps combined some regional news services into the United Press Association. William Randolph Hearst entered the business by founding the International News Service two years later. In 1958, the two merged: thus, UPI.

UP, later UPI, was a fierce competitor to AP, and built a proud journalistic tradition. The most famous alum is Walter Cronkite, who did all his World War II reporting as a “Unipresser.” (He didn’t join CBS until 1950.) David Brinkley reported for UP. So did Howard K. Smith, Eric Sevareid, William L. Shirer, and many others. The rivalry between the two major American news services throughout most of the 20th century is the stuff of legend. When Cronkite, now on tv, told the country about the JFK shooting in 1963, he was reading a bulletin from UPI; Merriman Smith of the Dallas bureau, who had been in the press car, got to a phone first and hogged it, with the AP reporter pounding on his back. A UPI reporter – a guy I worked with! — was first on the scene at the fatal Jayne Mansfield auto accident in 1967. (By the way, she was not decapitated. That’s an urban legend that just won’t die.) To be way ahead like that was fantastic: every second that ticked by without a response from the other wire service meant your story would be appearing in papers, and on radio and TV stations, exclusively. Your side would be judged the authority: the other guys (in the tradition of so many tv commercials, we used to refer to AP as “Brand X”) were only catching up.

The way the two served their customers contained the seeds for a TKO that would eventually send UPI reeling. To repeat, AP is a group of associated newspapers. UPI was a service that could be retained by anyone. To AP, its papers were and are “members.” To UPI, they were “clients.” AP’s financial model was a cooperative assessment which could be raised at will. UPI’s was a flat fee. Many organizations subscribed to both services, including the dominant paper in Jackson, Mississippi, The Clarion-Ledger/Jackson Daily News. UPI teletypes were there in the newsroom – but AP had its whole bureau there.

I worked a few blocks away, at UPI’s Jackson bureau, as a “vacation and holiday reliefer” while I was in college. It was a five-man bureau, and all five people were needed to tend the print and broadcast output while taking the time to get into the field for original reporting. So while each of the full-timers took their vacations, or celebrated Christmas, Thanksgiving, or other holidays, or even fulfilled National Guard service, I became the fifth man. It was one of my best jobs ever.

Jackson is the state capital, so the legislature provided daily fodder when in session. Mississippi’s legislature wasn’t as dysfunctional as, say, Arizona’s or New York’s are today, but it struggled through the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act in the late Sixties very reluctantly. You could see some progress. You could also see enough dumb, mean Senator Foghorn Leghorn stereotypes to keep things colorful. But that was only my opinion, and it needed to stay in my head, never creep into a UPI story. Every state senator was entitled to the same respect – they all represented somebody. Impartiality wasn’t just sought, it was mandated. That’s one of the reasons I get so offended at the cynical yahoos on the “Fox News Channel.” How dare they misuse the word “news”?

Andy Reese, one of the finest newsmen I’ve ever known, was the bureau manager. Life in Andy’s domain was measured in seconds. A cardinal rule was, the phone must not be allowed to ring twice. Your answer is “UPI, Dupree.” Get to the point. That hair-trigger mentality sometimes bled over: I can’t count how many times I dove for the phone at my apartment and blurted, “UPI, Dupree. I mean, hello.” The rest of the guys in the bureau were just as intense and driven. Friendly enough, but they worked like carpenter ants. The first few days, I thought, I didn’t know there was this caliber of professionalism anywhere in Mississippi. I mean, I’d worked at the local newspaper for years, but these guys were so far beyond, I was amazed that they even let me join them.

On a typical day, the bureau sent out print stories in two versions: for morning papers and for afternoon papers. In Jackson, the two had the same owner and used the same presses, but the AM edition tended to tell you what happened yesterday; the “PMer” told you what happened this morning. This was UPI’s great strength all over the country, feeding afternoon papers, many of which wanted a different perspective than the AMer. Quite a few of our PM clients were in Mississippi, or close enough. Before shutting down for the night at 11:30, we transmitted “oniters” for the next morning’s editions. The broadcast wire chugged along all day, but every hour it would stop for a 20-minute “split,” during which you sent your state and local news in script form for disk jockeys and tv newsreaders. A broadcast script was ALL CAPS, with hyphens for initials (“U-P-I”), ellipses for pauses (“AND NOW…THE NEWS”) and “pronouncers” for tough names (“OH-/BAH/-MA”). A “rip-and-read” broadcaster was learning the news while speaking it, and particular jocks or stations had their preferences. I always thought ours were the tightest and easiest to read. I thought that because I often listened to AP rip-and-read stations to compare.

A TT transmitting station, a little before my time but not much.

OK, you’re jumping for the phone, rewriting AMers into PMers and transmitting them, and filling a 20-minute broadcast split every hour. You are doing this by using a keyboard to punch holes in a gigantic roll of paper tape that will feed into the teletype. You can’t read what you’re typing, because it’s just holes. (Well, real vets could, but not me.) I employ my own “advanced hunt & peck” method of typing, using only six of my ten fingers. I almost didn’t get the UPI job because of this: “Wait, you can’t touch-type?” The downside is, I can’t type without looking at the keyboard. But I managed to impress them with the upside: despite my unorthodox method, I am screamin’ fast, and fairly accurate too, as I somewhat nervously demonstrated. Warp speed comes in handy when you’re sitting at the TT console, because you have to go fast enough to keep a loop in the tape, as with a film projector. If the little metal bar rises to parallel because there’s no loop, the machine quits transmitting, and jocks from Southaven to Biloxi clutch their hearts. You can feel when you’ve made a mistake, and go back and fix it – if you have enough time. But more often than not, you’re racing that tape. In extremis, you’re even composing on the fly right into the TT, and you can’t read what you wrote until it’s already been transmitted from here to eternity. Let us say that I came out of my UPI years an even faster and more accurate typist. Let us also say that I laugh at “tough deadlines” these days. Muchacho, you don’t know what pressure is.

Toward the end of the late shift, 2:30 to 11:30, if there was nothing left to transmit, we might chat – more like tweeting, since the chats were very short – with the late-nighters in other Southern bureaus (“buos” to non-civilians, making it easier to type), who were all on the deep-South print feed, for many papers cover neighboring states too. Sometimes we would ask questions. One night the guy in Birmingham intended to inquire, WHEN DOES DUCK SEASON START IN MISS.? But he hit the key to the right by mistake. I was obliged to inform him that IN OUR STATE IT’S PRETTY MUCH ALL YEAR ROUND. Instant virtual howls from the other buos. I had killed, on a teletype.

The other end, the receiver. They used to be in newsrooms everywhere.

On July 20, 1969, I watched the moon landing live on a TT, because I was at work. Normally the national broadcast feed looked just like our own during the split: each story was one paragraph long, formatted to rip and read. Now somebody was listening to Mission Control and telling the TT operator in New York what to type. But as Apollo 11’s lunar lander approached the surface, they just handed the operator a headset, feeding directly from the astronauts. It looked something like this, in real time: 100 feet…some dust…50 feet…contact…shutdown…eagle has landed.

There are bells on the TTs. Normally they ring once or twice to let you know the local split is starting. But when something exciting’s happening, there are more, and they attract newsroom bodies like Pavlov’s dogs. You get four bells for a full story, or an important correction, that’s URGENT. Five bells for a short paragraph: that’s a BULLETIN; the full story will come later. The highest level of urgency is something you might see only a few times in your life. The bell goes apeshit, ten rings, and just a few words come out, with Times Square “zipper” precision. One came now:



I saved the transcript, including that FLASH. I still have it somewhere.

That same summer, we had more excitement. A guy had been transferred in because he had been through an unusually stressful recent hitch, and the company was actually concerned for his health. So they traded him to sleepy little Jackson – just in time for Camille, the second Atlantic hurricane in history to make landfall at Category 5. On the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Even after having traveled two hundred miles north over land, to Jackson, Camille was still powerful enough to make trees and cars her bitches. So you can imagine how she pounded the Coast at full strength.

One of our guys got in his car and drove down to the Coast as the storm was approaching. This daredevil was in a hotel, on the phone with us, as it struck. We heard glass smashing and the line went dead. We didn’t hear from him for almost two days. The first thing he said was, “Tell my wife I’m OK,” then he started dictating his story. His byline was on the front page of the New York Times for the next three days – an eyewitness account, from UPfrickinI. In the meantime, the rest of us had fanned out. I got to spend most of that first night in the governor’s office, along with other reporters. The governor had an emergency line that was still open, so we pool reporters could give out bits of info that made it seem like someone was in charge. But most of the time we just sat around waiting for word. The governor was John Bell Williams, a gregarious “good ole boy.” That was the first time I ever saw a politician with his hair down, completely candid, no agenda to pursue except to batten down the hatches as well as he could. Williams would clown with us – in fairness, to try and lighten the mood during the long scary stretches of nothing. For example, every time he felt a fart coming on, the veteran Congressman would say, “Message from the Senate!” and cackle when the deed was done. Hey, I was still in college, so I had every right to dig sophomoric humor. But gosh: that guy lifting his leg was the frickin’ Governor!

A few months later, I was rehearsing a play during the December 2 draft lottery, in which the 366 birthdays were randomly matched to order of conscription. A low number meant the army or Canada. A high number meant you were free and could start planning your life. (I and everyone I knew had “other priorities,” just like that great patriot Dick Cheney, but unlike him, we were plumb out of deferments.) I’d given a UPI colleague the birthdays of all the men in the cast, and as their numbers came up over the TT, he called the theater with the good or bad news. My “number came up” (literally!) toward the end: it turned out to be #47. Everybody stared at me; it was like hearing a death sentence. (P.S. I eventually found a solution: not Canada, not Vietnam.) That was probably the low point of my life with UPI.

Finally, I graduated from college and moved to Georgia to seek a Master’s degree in journalism. Lewis Lord, UPI’s Atlanta-based Southern Division news editor and a hero to us because he worked in Jackson during the heavy civil rights years (AP was too cozy with its Southern “members” to make them mad over genuine hard-hitting reporting), said, “Why? A journalism degree is about as useful as a male teat.” But he wrote me a great recommendation, and Andy Reese was also instrumental in getting me a half-time assistantship that made me able to afford grad school. When my prospective boss, checking my references, phoned “UPI, Reese,” he was simply told, “Hire him.” Get to the point.

Now began the slow dissolution of afternoon newspapers. If you were a “two-paper monopoly,” like Jackson and many, many other places, tv news – which was now more than just rip-and-readers – was eating into your PMer’s circulation. Independents too. When Dad (and Mom) came home from work, at cocktail time they increasingly flipped on the tube instead of reading the PMer. In most cities the first thing the publisher did was kill the afternoon masthead and consolidate the staffs. Now the morning paper was “thrown twice” on an all-day cycle: home delivery customers could still receive it in the afternoon if they wanted, with the front page maybe made over for late-breaking news. But soon even that pretense vanished. No makeover, no afternoon delivery of any kind. UPI lost client after client, its very backbone. The founding Scripps family sold out, and UPI bounced from bankruptcy to bankruptcy in the Nineties. The real end was in 1999, when it sold all its remaining contracts to – wait for it – AP.

In 2000, a media company owned by Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church bought UPI, mainly for the brand name, and the next day, Helen Thomas resigned after 57 years. There still is a UPI news service of sorts, but that’s only a name. The chug-chugging of TTs – the clichéd sound of news in movie after movie, the audio effect that used to introduce the CBS EVENING NEWS, the beating heart of UPI, is gone forever. I’m proud and grateful to have been a small part of it, and I miss those days like crazy.

7/20/13: Today we learned that Helen Thomas has passed away at 92. Despite some unwise outbursts toward the end of her career, she was a real trailblazer, she fought the fights, and today every serious female journalist is in her debt. If they’re White House Correspondents, male ones too.

12/29/17: Relief jobs, like mine at UPI, aren’t all drudgery. Yes, you have to work on holidays, but sometimes stuff still happens. The New York Times’s Mike Schmidt was on the presidential golfing beat when, to his astonishment, he got a major scoop. Congrats are due from vacation reliefers everywhere.

A Tale Of Two Headlines, Part II

May 25, 2010

As part of our continuing quest for journalistic edification, compare these Tuesday morning headlines, reporting the same story, Monday’s overnight ratings for the series finale of LOST:

‘Lost’ Finale Lifts ABC To Big Night

‘Lost’ Finale Finds a Base, But Not Too Many Others

Students, which headline came from a newspaper that does not own a television network, and which from a newspaper whose sister company is a direct competitor to ABC?

For extra credit, how huge will the overnights for the series finale of 24 seem Wednesday morning in at least one of these papers?

A Few Word’s About Language

January 6, 2010


When exactly did everybody decide that “begging the question” meant something completely different from what it actually does mean? Because believe me, everybody has decided: I’ve heard it in conversation, read it in newspapers and magazines, even recoiled from it in one of Seth Meyers’s “Weekend Update” monologues on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. I mean, his team is supposed to be full of Ivy Leaguers, right? But SNL’s head writer still misused the term.

“Begging the question” (petitio principii to reason nerds) is the logical fallacy of pronouncing something proven only because you say it is: “That guy’s mad right now.” “How do you know?” “Because he’s really angry.” It can sound OK if you don’t get more than an instant to think about it, so it works for Fox News blowhards all the time, but to the “reality-based community,” no proof has actually been proffered. My parents paid good dough to send me to college, where I learned the above facts in my Logic 101 class, and that was in humble Mississippi, hoss. What “begging the question” does not mean is, “causing the question to arise,” like this: “Dick Cheney is all over President Obama as weak on national security. Which begs the question, since when is criticizing a wartime president no longer unpatriotic?” Nothing in the term “begs” us to ask the question. That’s not what it means at all. (In real life, I beg to differ with former Vice and current Azkaban Dementor Cheney, but that’s for another topic.)

Now, the funny thing about all this is that, as a few more years pass and more and more people continue this “mistake,” it will eventually become accepted usage, and I’ll just have to lump it as thoroughly as anybody who still bemoans the loss of “thee” and “thou.” Our language changes, as all continually adopted ones do; it sinks to the lowest common denominator as surely as water finds its own level. It’s becoming harder for the zeitgeist to distinguish the error when someone says, “I could care less,” even though they mean the exact opposite, because everybody agrees on the mistaken meaning. “Like” is a generational delineator, meant to communicate intimacy – I don’t really know any more about what I’m describing than you do, that’s why we’re BFFs – but I’ll bet not even one kid realizes that fifty years ago it was a beatnik term meant to communicate societal derision. In the Nineties, “cool” re-emerged from that same coffeehouse usage, whether meant ironically or not (my guess is the latter), but it’s been replaced by “awesome,” which is easier to say than what’s really meant: “awe-inspiring.” Or maybe that’s not what the Olive Garden waiter means as you produce a valid credit card.

“Irregardless.” It sticks around, doesn’t it? It sounds better than “regardless”; there’s a certain erudition implied (maybe it’s a cousin to “irrational”), even if many can recognize the attempt as faux. But fewer and fewer of us can, every single day. And why shouldn’t that word exist? What are you gonna do with a language in which “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing?

But what’s really starting to take over, the one that frosts me the very most, is the unnecessary – and sense-muddling – plural apostrophe. It’s an instance in which lazy orthography has actually made our already murky language even murkier, but don’t worry, I’m not going to rant any more, just point it out. Because the first battles are already lost, dudes and dudettes: I have some facts coming up that will sear your hair and melt your faces.

The apostrophe I accuse, the hated punctuation that I would hire a hundred hitmen to eradicate, is this:

1950’s hit singles.

Does that mean hit singles of the entire decade of the Fifties? Or what it has looked like to me ever since I learned about the possessive form in the third grade: those only of the year 1950? Well, these days your guess is as good as mine, because creeping into current usage is that indeterminate apostrophe. Just from looking at that phrase, without diving into the context and trying to pry out the precise meaning, you simply can’t tell. Once upon a time you could: the whole decade’s chart-toppers would have been rendered, and instantly comprehended, as

1950s hit singles.

But now you can’t. And it’s not just numbers, either:

ICBM’s Removed From Disneyland.

How many Cold War missiles were there in the theme park before we got them out? I say only one, because that’s what the frickin headline says: the apostrophe stands for the letter “i”! But – ladies, please avert your eyes – the unfocused apostrophe has even been found, incredibly, in the New York Times! They’ve written about CD’s, DVD’s, G.I.’s, A.T.M.’s – the only way I could take it was by doing a good stint of yoga every morning before I unfolded the blasted thing. (Nintendo Sold More Wii’s Today!) I actually complained to the Times’s wonderful city columnist, Clyde Haberman, when he made the mistake one day of writing about punctuation errors in commercial signage. In a very gracious email exchange, I learned that this apostrophe was indeed enshrined in the Times’s stylebook. The example cited was (I’m not making this up) “MIND YOUR P’S AND Q’S” in an ALL-CAPS HEADLINE. Setting aside how seldom such a usage would be needed – all-caps Times heads only appear on the lead stories above the fold on the front page, and letting this tail wag the dog made the entire rest of the paper look like its fly was unzipped – what’s wrong with “MIND YOUR Ps AND Qs”? Later, Mr. Haberman told me the old copy chief who supported this policy had retired, that the offending apostrophes – which the columnist himself admitted he’d always frowned upon, though he did pose a conundrum: how do you print the plural of “ho”? – were now being reconsidered. The Times’s hated rival, the Wall Street Journal, gets along fine without any of them, and I understand every word in Rupert Murdoch’s entire godforsaken paper, even the primitive cave etchings of Karl Rove.

I’m bothered whenever inanimate objects come to own media banks. I worry that some day they might go all Terminator on me.

I wail because precise meaning is being surrendered in favor of sloppy mistakes which we’ve just decided to let go, and that road leads us to IDIOCRACY, which over time is becoming less funny and more scary. I’m not trying to be the old grammarian coot who’s always chasing the imprecise whippersnappers off his lawn. It really doesn’t matter to the pageant of history whether you say “irregardless” or misuse “begs the question,” because your intended meaning is still coming through loud and clear; in cubicle-speak, “at the end of the day” we’re “on the same page.” Not so with this goddam apostrophe: you’re making it impossible for anybody to figure out exactly how to pluralize, or indicate a possessive, ever again. And you just sat there and let it happen, you copy-editing wimps! Where’s the pedantry when we frickin need it?

Now, if my wife Linda reads this piece, I’ll have driven her nuts about twenty times, by including a second “s” after a possessive. The Times’s stylebook. Seth Meyers’s flub on SNL. GEORGE LUCAS’S BLOCKBUSTING, a new book I really hope you’ll buy, and there it even is, right there on the frickin cover! I say it doesn’t bother me because I’m indicating pronunciation: “Jesus’s sermons” would be pronounced JEE-ZUS-IZ SERMONS, not JEE-ZUS SERMONS. Linda says, yeah, but it’s still not needed! And she’s absolutely correct. In print, the final “s” is utterly unnecessary, a fifth wheel, a male teat, unhelpful in even the slightest way. But come on: airbody does it. Including, God help me, me!



Since I name-checked the New York Times’s Clyde Haberman, I thought it would be courteous to let him see the piece. With his permission, here is Mr. Haberman’s response:

Many thanks for sending me this. I deeply appreciate the generous shout-out –- along with your grammatical points, of course. Indeed the offending apostrophe in 1950s, DVDs and the rest is now gone from Times usage.

But the part of me that shares your fastidiousness about grammar could not help noticing this sentence in your piece:

Our language changes, like all continually adopted ones do; it sinks to the lowest common denominator as surely as water finds its own level.

Unless you were being deliberately ironic, a strong possibility suggested by the words that follow the semicolon, that “like” should be “as.”

I’m sure there must still be some instances that call for use of the apostrophe to indicate the plural form. I stand by my example of “ho’s.”  I think “hos” would stop the reader short. The purpose of punctuation is to enhance comprehension. But as best as I can tell the apostrophe as a pluralizing agent is, for all intents and purposes, gone in NY Times usage.

And my response:

Hilarious! Nope, I confess it, that piece of “deliberate irony” was non-deliberate. But the best thing about a blog is that I can go in, Orwell-style, fix the bad word, and pretend it never happened!

Oops…did I just say that out loud?

9/23/11: The opening of the big new movie MONEYBALL (it’s great, even for non-baseball fans) is driving copyeditors crazy, because the major-league team featured is the Oakland A’s. Yes, they wear that silly apostrophe on their uniforms. (It stands for “Athletics,” which is how they billed themselves way back when they were in Kansas City.) So even the Wall Street Journal, which consistently gets this issue right — the Times continues to slip back into incomprehension — was challenged by Joe Morgenstern’s movie review this morning, which includes these phrases: “Billy finds salvation from the A’s relative poverty…” and “…whenever the A’s general manager is in camera range…” Rather than adding an even sillier apostrophe at the end and coming up with “A’s’,” the Journal printed these sentences exactly as I have just shown. The apostrophe shifts around in your mind and becomes possessive, or something like that. Of course it’s imprecise. Too bad: nobody cares.

10/6/13: The Times continues to blow it, big time:


12/30/13: It’s something I hoped I’d never see: Clyde Haberman’s final piece for the New York Times, at least as a contractual employee, after 37 years with the paper. Maybe there’ll be some one-shots in the future; my fingers are crossed. For a taste of his beautiful work, read my favorite of his many “NYC” columns. Ave atque vale, Sir Clyde.

A Tale Of Two Headlines

December 21, 2009

Compare these six-column banner headlines on Monday morning, reporting the same story, the weekend box office:

Snow and a Shortage of 3-D Screens Keep Numbers Down for ‘Avatar’

‘Avatar’ Opens Strongly, in Test For Industry

Kids, which head appeared in a paper whose sister company released AVATAR? And which one in a fierce competitor based in a major metropolitan area?

For bonus points, which story did not use the words “fell short of industry expectations” and “plummeted”?

Comedy’s Central

August 27, 2009

Five years ago, when I saw the first story reporting that significant numbers of college-age TV viewers cited Jon Stewart and Comedy Central’s THE DAILY SHOW as their primary news source, my response was derisive laughter (much as Stewart’s own might well have been). But that was during the heartbreaking John Kerry campaign, and five years is a game-changing span. For one thing, George W. Bush was gradually revealed to be no more adept at executive competence in government than he was in pro baseball or oil exploration, so baldly that even the “base” could see it. The earliest-sniffing conservatives were already deserting Bush’s sinking ship when his response to Hurricane Katrina made the vast reason-oriented nonpartisan middle realize, hey, these guys can’t even handle a catastrophe they know is coming. What if something surprises them again?

The DAILY SHOW gang from about seven, eight years ago. From left: Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, Jon Stewart, Rob Corddry, and Samantha Bee.

The DAILY SHOW gang from about seven, eight years ago. From left: Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms, Jon Stewart, Rob Corddry, and Samantha Bee.

That seemed to mark the tipping point. FEMA, one of the best-respected and most effective of all federal agencies in the Clinton years, was now being managed by the recent Judges and Stewards Commissioner of the International Arabian Horse Association – who had just been forced to resign from that job. The level of deceit and incompetence which had propelled us into two horrific wars somehow wasn’t as scary when, after their successful election (you can’t really call it a “re-election”), the Bushies put away the mushroom clouds and ratcheted back the doomsday howling a notch. But part of the reason they became, in the end, subjects for ridicule, is that for year after interminable year, THE DAILY SHOW had been speaking truth to power and saying out loud, these people are so bad, it’s funny! Not only did the emperor have no clothes, he was nevertheless doing a pretty good job of pantsing himself! Once you concede that the purpose of THE DAILY SHOW and its sister broadcast, THE COLBERT REPORT, is to entertain, not to inform, it is possible to view through an ironic filter and catch up on an issue or two each day, especially when you take a forlorn look at the alternatives waiting for you at the big networks. I’m not laughing any more, except at the two shows’ brilliant writing.

Besides whip-smart writers, these shows possess two other not-so-secret weapons: superb video librarians and the agility of their “correspondents,” especially Stewart and Colbert themselves. George Allen may have been derailed in Virginia over his “macaca moment,” but he’s not the only one to mistakenly think, if I said it yesterday, it’s yesterday’s news. It’s one thing to read about a gaffe or a flip-flop, another thing entirely to see it with your own eyes. If you’re in the public view, your history lives forever on video tape, and future candidates forget this at their peril. Both Stewart and Colbert (who satirizes right-wing cable TV through a comic character, a self-important conservative windbag bearing a strong resemblance to Bill O’Reilly, whom Colbert calls “Papa Bear”) are great improvisers. In a reversal among late-night broadcasts (Monday through Thursday here), their featured guests are sometimes showbiz types, but usually authors who write on an array of subjects demanding wide-ranging and extensive prep, yet both guys can coax substance along with laughs. One of the greatest talents they share is instinctively knowing when to shut up.

You as a potential guest either get them or you don’t. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the nonvoting Congressional delegate of the District of Columbia, has shrewdly used THE COLBERT REPORT to publicize the fact that nearly 600,000 Americans in the “lower 48” are not represented by a voting member of Congress, a fact of which 78% of the country was unaware, according to a survey conducted in 2005, before COLBERT went on the air. (License plates in DC read, TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION. Imagine the uproar if Norton, and the citizens of DC, happened to lean Republican!) Colbert began his years-long mock battle by attacking the delegate’s voting record: “You have not recorded a single vote since your election!” Norton, a great sport, gives as good as she gets, and this past year DC came very close to advancing a voting seat forward (Democrats offered to create a new Congressional seat somewhere very red, like Utah, to balance things out and appease the GOP). Nancy Pelosi once warned back-benchers not to appear on Colbert’s “Better Know A District” segment, in which he twists interview questions to make fun of Congress, one member at a time. But Norton knows exactly what she’s doing – and why.

The most recent non-getter is Betsy McCaughey, whom New Yorkers will remember as the ditzy lieutenant governor who remained standing during one of Gov. George Pataki’s State of the State addresses, for reasons that are still unclear. Did she not notice that everyone else in the room except the governor had taken their seats? Was she pretending that people were looking at her rather than at Pataki? Was she trying to get on his nerves? We may never know. McCaughey, who began lying about national health care plans during the Clinton administration, bounded onto the DAILY SHOW stage on August 20 carrying a thick binder full of paper, which she claimed was only half of the text of the current health care bill. One of the leading purveyors of this “death panel” bullshit, McCaughey offered to find the passage in the bill that provided for pulling the plug. Stewart, who had read the section in question, helpfully offered that the consultations, which the bill would pay for, were over life-sustaining measures, and were meant to happen long before an urgent need arose. McCaughey riffled through her binder without success. Stewart called for a commercial while she continued to look. When she came back, she brandished a page and charged that doctors’ evaluations under the plan would be affected by whether or not such discussions had taken place. This was evidently the bureaucratic molehill on which McCaughey had built her mythical Star Chamber. Stewart had said little during the two interview segments (twice as much time as most guests receive), but McCaughey was still revealed to the DAILY SHOW audience, and thousands of subsequent YouTubers, as — like they say down in Crawford — “big hat, no cattle.”

Stephen Colbert: perhaps the greatest performance artist of his time. Certainly the funniest.

Stephen Colbert: perhaps the greatest performance artist of his time. Certainly the funniest.

I didn’t realize how dead-on Colbert’s parody was until he and O’Reilly pulled a stunt switch one night and appeared as guests on each other’s programs. I had never watched THE O’REILLY FACTOR before. There’s a segment on Colbert’s show called “The Word,” in which he delivers a diatribe while Chyron letters at screen right comment on and undermine his point of view. This, I discovered, is inspired by a real O’Reilly segment called “Talking Points,” in which the Chyron on his screen simply repeats what he’s saying! It’s as if you’d want to read Bill’s Teleprompter while he’s talking! Instant hearing impairment! (Note: I’m not talking about closed captions. I’m talking about simultaneous transcripts.)

Colbert’s greatest moment so far, not counting his sensational recent week in Iraq, was undoubtedly the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on April 29, 2006. It’s unclear (i.e., doubtful) whether the Cheney/Bush machine realized that “Stephen Colbert” is a parodic character. But this night, which is annually devoted to the lighter side of politics, gave the comedian a chance to spout, in full-blowhard regalia, directly at the President of the United States, who was seated only a few feet away:

“I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message: that no matter what happens to America, that she will always rebound – with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.”

“We’re not so different, he and I. We go straight from the gut, right, sir? That’s where the truth is, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say, ‘I did look it up, and that’s not true.’ That‘s because you looked it up in a book.”

“So the White House has personnel changes. Then you write, ‘Oh, they’re just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.’ First of all, that is a terrible metaphor. This administration is not sinking. This administration is soaring. If anything, they are rearranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!”

The first reports from the dinner were that Colbert had bombed. The president hadn’t seemed amused in the slightest. The keynote speaker just hadn’t been funny. Then we noticed that the first reports had tended to come from media and commentators more sympathetic to Bush. When we finally got to read a transcript or see the speech on YouTube, we realized that Colbert – with the REPORT barely a year old — had been able to surprise a room full of journalists and speak directly to George W. Bush in a way that had probably never been done before.

That’ll never happen again, the surprise. Stewart and Colbert are well-marked locations on the cultural map, with Emmys and Peabodys cramming their mantels (in Colbert’s case, a mantel that’s actually shown on the air, in keeping with his character’s narcissistic persona). But it’s no longer a ludicrous idea, the ability to infer actual news through the prism of satire. A few times during the Bush years, it seemed like THE DAILY SHOW was all we had. That’s because in the depths of the Iraq war, when even the front page of the New York Times consisted of administration stenography, it just about was. But it’s not so lonesome out there any more. Welcome to the MSM, Jon and Stephen. Now don’t screw this up.

EDIT, 9/16/09: Never let it be said that we stifle opposing views. Here’s Christopher Hitchens from this month’s Atlantic.

4/10/14: Today we learned that Stephen Colbert will succeed David Letterman, who announced his retirement last week, as the CBS late-night host. So in a few months the phony conservative blowhard character will be retired, but not Colbert’s prodigious improvisational skills.

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