Rolling Away The Stone

July 20, 2013

rscov1188Rolling Stone [full disclosure: my grad-school beer-money provider and record-shelf-filling helper] is in the hot seat just now for selecting as its current cover photo not an Annie Leibovitz or Mark Seliger portrait of a celebrity, but a “selfie” cameraphone shot of 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the alleged Boston Marathon bomber who’s still alive. This image has caused a tsunami of outrage, especially in New England, where the vicious April 15 attack that killed three and wounded 264 others still has many in a state of shock.

Some companies have banned the issue outright. First, New England-based CVS/Walgreens and Tedeschi Foods announced their refusal to sell it. They were later joined by – as of this posting – Rite-Aid, Kmart and 7-Eleven company-owned stores (the home office will encourage its franchisees to follow suit). Knee-jerk cries of “censorship” have inevitably followed, but this is a tough moral call for many of my well-meaning friends, who are really wrestling with the issue. I am too.

The first thing we think of has to be the hundreds of victims and their anguished loved ones. That’s why we can understand the outrage even when we don’t share it in a visceral way. What would we do in their place? Probably scream and shout – and weep – as well. Grief isn’t rational, and it hasn’t been that long since half a million people came out on a beautiful spring day to celebrate a Boston tradition and cheer on their heroes. This wound is only beginning to heal; it’s still there.

Note that there’s little objection (in fact, I haven’t heard any at all) to Janet Reitman’s cover story itself, a fine piece of journalism that you can read here (make note of the editors’ response to this controversy at the head of the piece). It calmly depicts how the kid next door could turn into a radical and ultimately a monster, the precise word used on the cover. The troublesome part isn’t even the image itself. It can’t be. Back in May it was printed on the front page of the New York Times, in color, in the center, above the fold, and nobody said a word.

The May 5, 2013 front page.

The May 5, 2013 front page.

What bothers people is the juxtaposition of this image with Rolling Stone, and the outrage has to come largely from people who don’t read Rolling Stone (let’s be honest, that’s most people). I infer this from comment after comment decrying the magazine’s “glorification” of an alleged murderer. From the outside, Rolling Stone probably looks something like Tiger Beat: it’s only youth culture, the cover should rightly depict nothing more profound than the latest rocker or pop-culture sensation. Heck, getting on the cover even inspired a Top Ten novelty hit in 1973. What outsiders don’t realize is that Rolling Stone is one of the last bastions of long-form journalism, and has been practicing this venerable profession since its founding. Not a single issue goes to press without at least one piece, maybe even the cover story, which has nothing to do with show business but is meant only to inform and illuminate its readers on the issues of the day. Longtime RS readers were not surprised to see this image on the cover, only found it remarkable for its stated purpose. Here’s your bomber, this…kid.

“They made him look so glamorous.” Nope, it’s only a selfie, that’s you doing that, by virtue of his proximity to the Rolling Stone logo. What you can’t tell from looking at the digital image above, what you can only suss by holding the printed copy in your hands, is that unlike most of RS’s cover portraits, on which you can damn near see individual hair follicles, this photo began so low-res that, blown up for the RS cover, it almost loses focus; here, you can see pixels. In person, it registers instantly that this shot was clearly taken by the subject with a cameraphone. Like the selfies you take. He’s a tousle-haired teenager with a mobile phone, just like RS’s core audience, and that can’t help but unnerve some of them. The image’s power issues from its very normalcy: to any even remotely contemplative kid, it’s uncomfortably like looking into a mirror. Which leads to…

“He’s become a role model. He’ll inspire others.” Any kid unhinged enough to view what Tsarnaev allegedly did as a good thing, to conclude that being on the cover of Rolling Stone is worth an act of mass carnage, will be sorely disappointed to find that they’ve already done their terrorist cover. Besides, we’re full of enough self-hating, gun-toting, random-snuffing “role models” to satisfy a nation of over-armed, sick depressives, and nobody does boo about that, not even when the victims are a room full of first graders.

Another role model?

Another role model?

“They just did this to make money.” I would strike the word “just,” but they publish every issue to make money, and choose every cover subject to attract attention. Will newsstand sales of this issue spike? You’ve already seen the cover, and you can read Ms. Reitman’s story with a single click, so maybe not – especially since it won’t be available at all those outlets. But as New York Times media columnist David Carr wrote, when’s the last time somebody asked you, “Have you seen the cover of Rolling Stone?”

You have the right to decline to sell anything you like. (As a Times editorial pointed out, in CVS’s case, this means cigarettes are fine, Rolling Stone not so.) You also have the right to refrain from patronizing a particular company for whatever reason you like: an ugly logo, a surly server, an act of censorship — or a cover image that offends you. It’s as simple, and as complicated, as that.

Coming Soon: New York Times E-Bestsellers

November 11, 2010

The New York Times announced today that it will begin printing weekly e-book bestseller lists beginning next year. The Times is the gold standard for bestseller lists, by far the most prestigious of them all. When these lists begin appearing, pay special notice to books issued by Random House and its many imprints. This is the only major publishing house which has resisted Apple’s “agency model” for selling e-books, thus allowing e-retailers to set whatever price they choose. In Apple’s model, the publishers set the prices.

This equates to a $9.99 (loss-leading, for the retailer) price point for the electronic editions of most new Random House hardcovers, including the recent books by John Grisham and George W. Bush. That price alone helps you identify a Random House title. With most other publishers, the e-price on a new hardcover is $12.99, $14.99, $15.99 and north. Some publishers even have the gall to charge more for an electronic edition than for the paperback reprint, and I’m sure they think they’re being smart by implicitly dampening e-demand in favor of more lucrative hardcovers. But once again, making it more difficult and/or expensive to buy your product is bad marketing, always has been, always will be — especially when it’s the fastest-growing segment of your industry.

For veteran users of electronic readers, there’s a knee-jerk resistance to an e-edition for sixteen bucks. It reminds us of the way record companies used to gouge their customers before Apple’s iTunes made it easy to buy individual songs, as cheap as $.99. (Note that iTunes retail prices have begun to creep upward; now a single is $1.29, and Taylor Swift’s new album, the hottest record in America right now, costs you $13.99. This is why many people are flocking to Amazon’s digital music store, where the same album in MP3 format — indistinguishable to all but audiophiles — is $3.99!) Newer users, like those who get their first e-readers for the holidays this year, won’t know the difference. I talked to one lady this summer, an ardent Kindle user, who said she didn’t mind paying a premium for the electronic edition, because of the convenience and the ability to satisfy an impulse: a book can be hers before she’s even finished reading the review. OK, we want to know how many people bite at the higher price point, whether it really makes a difference to business in general, whether you can make money by letting the retailer go as low as he likes (Random House, and just about every marketer of packaged goods in the world), or whether early adopters were unwisely coddled with an unsustainably low price point (Apple, and most other publishers). We need to know — and very soon now, we will.

So here will be the fun with the coming Times e-lists. Will $9.99 Random House titles dominate? Today’s Times also reported that George W. Bush was blowing out in its digital edition. Compare its e-price with the physical hardcover, even discounted. Grisham’s new novel, the first to go digital upon release (and, to be fair, a return to his bread and butter, the legal thriller), is also rocking the Kindles. Is the price point a tailwind for these e-editions? Next year, we’ll have much more information to help us find out.

March 2011: This month, Random House joined the rest of the major publishers in switching to an “agency model” and setting its own prices. Goodbye, $9.99, and we’re now routinely treated to the spectacle of e-books which cost more than paper editions. Separately, HarperCollins has placed a limit on the number of times an e-book can be lent by libraries. Some libraries have struck back by boycotting the publisher’s e-titles.

April 2011: In two separate stories, we get the first indication that e-pricing does make a difference in sales, and Amazon opens the Kindle to library lending.

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”?

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