We’ve gone after terrorists, but it’s long past time to go after errorists. The errorists have committed countless crimes against English, broadcast style and journalism. Even though they’re not evildoers, they should be sent to a correctional camp and re-educated (or, in some cases, educated).
Many offenses–including those against syntax, spelling and punctuation–have occurred in the crawls. Too often, they are the true underside of television news:
“DOES THE U.S. HAVE OSAMA BIN LADEN TRAPPED? CAST YOUR QUICK VOTE AT….” You’re asking me? Why ask dumb questions, or even smart ones? Suppose 99 percent of the people who bother to get up and log on to the website say yes. Or no. Who cares what their guess is? I tune in to get answers, not questions.
“ATTY. GEN. ASHCROFT ANNOUNCES 104 PEOPLE CHARGED ON FEDERAL CRIMINAL CHARGES.” Charged on charges? Sloppy copy.
“AMERICAN AIRLINES FLIGHT 587 TO DOMINICAN REPUBLIC FROM JFK CRASHES IN QUEENS, NEW YORK, AFTER TAKEOFF FROM NEW YORK’S JFK AIRPORT.” Reads likes a snake swallowing its tail.
“PENTAGON: BETWEEN 2,000 AND 3,000 U.S. FORCES NOW IN AFGHANISTAN.” A force is not a person. The writer meant troops. And please don’t refer to armed soldiers; if they’re not armed, they’re not in the armed forces. (Yes, there are a few exceptions, such as chaplains.) Writers should make sure they know the difference between wounded and injured, fatal and deadly, casualty and fatality, massacre and slaughter, persuade and convince.. And, while we’re at it, also the difference between come and go, bring and take.
“REUTERS: JUDGE ORDERS MOUSSAOUI TO REMAIN IN CUSTODY.” Now that’s a shocker! And why does a huge news organization rely on some other organization to cover a local court hearing?
“PETSMART SURVEY: 67% OF PET OWNERS NOT ONLY BUY CHRISTMAS GIFTS FOR THEIR PETS, THEY WRAP THEM TOO.” Even if true, it’s not news. Ideally, a national newscast carries stories meriting front-page coverage by newspapers across the country. We don’t know about that particular survey, but many surveys are invented by publicists. And most polls and surveys are merely devices to publicize a client. The PETsMART announcement also reported that 95 percent of the owners said they have a daily conversation with their pet. So if you can find a dog that’s even a poor conversationalist, you’ve got yourself a story—or a joke. P.S. Not only requires but also.
“SMOKELESS AND THE BANDIT: SHERIFF’S DEPT. IN PALM BEACH, FLA., WILL ONLY HIRE NON-SMOKERS.” A silly throwaway line at the top makes me fume: the item has nothing to do with the movie “Smokey and the Bandit.” Anyway, don’t borrow company slogans, movie titles, or song titles. You’re not entitled. What I mean is, if you want to be a writer, originate your own material. And only is a misplaced modifier; it should precede non-smokers. But most important, the news is not national.
“TURKEY SHOULD BE ONLY ONE STUFFED; AMERICAN DIETETIC ASSOCIATION URGES ALL TO EAT SENSIBLY TODAY.” How about tomorrow?
“HEINZ THROUGH ITSELF INTO WAR EFFORT….” That ran in a text box, not a crawl, but the problem is the same: inadequate supervision. Looks as though no editor threw himself into checking that copy. As we all should know by now, every writer needs an editor.
“PEOPLE OF TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO VOTING IN ELECTIONS TODAY.” So what? Anyone interested in the elections would have known about them three months before then.
“SAILORS ABOARD USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT LISTEN TO JOHN LENNON & YOKO ONO’S ‘HAPPY CHRISTMAS.’” Whoever thought that was news should be flogged, then keelhauled.
That’s why crawls give me the creeps. But some network newscasters also give me the willies. After many networkers said, correctly, Osama bin Laden was thought to be in an area of 30 square miles, one anchor said bin Laden was in a “30-mile-square radius.” An area that’s 30 square miles might be 5 miles long and 6 miles wide. But 30 miles square is 30 x 30, or 900 square miles. Radius–half the diameter of a circle–is a linear measurement, so a
“30-mile-square radius” is plumb loco.
Reporter: “It’s a short 35 miles to Tora Bora.” Not if you’re trying to avoid bombs, bullets, bayonets, mines, grenades, rockets, bandits and zealots. Thirty-five miles is neither short nor long; 35 miles is 35 miles. At least, he didn’t say, “Bin there, bombed that.”
Reporter: “[He] planned a plot….” Editor out to lunch.
Another reporter: “…in Kabul, the New York City of Afghanistan….” Does that make New York City the Kabul of America?
Same reporter: “His face looked weary.” My face frowned. The reporter should have said, “He looked weary.”
Anchor: “American soldiers share what it’s like to….” They may share their rations, but they tell their stories.
Pentagon correspondent: “Marines were on the ground less than a day when they sprung into action.” Sprung? The preferred past tense of spring is sprang.
A correspondent looking toward ground zero said many businesses “have been heavily destroyed, moderately destroyed or slightly destroyed.” He meant damaged. News alert: if something is destroyed, it’s finished.
An all-news channel website: “How viable are fears about more terrorist attacks?” Fears can’t be viable. (A fetus can be.) So the question is meaningless.
National radio: “There was a train derailment in upstate New York yesterday.” So why didn’t he tell us yesterday? And if he did, why is he telling us again? There was is a dead phrase. And don’t bury a verb in a noun. Better: “A train has derailed in upstate New York.”
A White House correspondent spoke of someone’s “fellow colleagues” (a fellow worker is a colleague) and told of “unemployed workers still out of work.” Better: “people still out of work.”
Anchor: “Two hundred centimeters of snow have fallen in Buffalo since Christmas Eve….” Will listeners measure up and multiply by .39 to convert to inches, then divide by 12 to get feet? And get it right? Answer: no.
An anchor asked a White House correspondent a question, then said of her own question, “It sounds like a dumb question.” When I was a cub reporter on a newspaper, a deskmate told me, You don’t need to proclaim your ignorance; people will find out soon enough.
Anchor: “It’s not what you expect.” How does she know what I expect?
Anchor: “There’s a lot going on here this morning at —–.” I have news for him: we’re not interested in what’s going on there. We’re interested in what’s going on out there.
Anchor: “Stay right there.” Please don’t treat me like a dog. Don’t tell me to stay, or fetch, or roll over. Does the anchor have so little confidence that he needs to beg?
Anchor: “You’ll want to hear what we found out.” No, I won’t. I’m sick of being hustled. I’m a news consumer; I resent being addressed like a customer—and one susceptible to cheap, pushy hard-sells.
Anchor: “First, let’s start with….” The redundancy is bad enough. But there’s no need for first or start. As soon he opened his mouth, I knew he’d started. But before starting, before writing, before talking, we need thinking.
No wonder people ask wistfully, Where are the pros of yesteryear?
The RTNDA Communicator published this column in March 2002.