Saturday, September 3, 2016

Post traumatic headline disorder

Entrance to the Mine Shaft (source of photo: Lenny Waller)

   A recent headline on Politico triggered in me an episode of post traumatic headline disorder, setting off a flashback to a Page One headline that appeared in the New York Daily News in the early 1980s. I  was still working in the sports department of the Daily News so it must have been prior to 1983, that's what, 33 years ago. By the way, why is it that reporters often say "prior to" instead of "before," but that's a nag for a different race.
   Jim Willse had recently been hired as the new editor of the Daily News. He wasn't in the position long before the News ran one of its trademark exclusives: A gay nightclub called the Mine Shaft was rented from a landlord who had some connection to the city and was getting a big tax break. Great story. The blaring Page One headline, however, was "How the city got shafted."
   Whoa, I thought. "Shafted" is a euphemism for f***ed. I had always considered that to be a no-no. I mean, to me, saying "How the city got shafted" was no different than saying "How the city got f***ed." What would the housewife in Queens, considered to be a typical Daily News reader, react to that?
   This took place in November or December. At the Christmas party that year I approached Willse, whom I'd never met, and asked him about the headline.
   "That was a good headline," he said. Who knows, he might have written it. His point being that shaft, as in the club's name, and shaft, as in what happened to the city, was a clever pun. No arguing with that, so I let the issue go.
   That headline opened the floodgates, even in the sports department. A few days later, my colleague Freddy Cranwell, for an article about how the New Jersey Nets basketball team got blown out in a road game for the umpteenth time, wrote a very large back page head that said "Road Apples."
   Now, I grew up in the city and had no idea what a road apple was, so I asked him, "What's a road apple?"
   "You don't know what a road apple is?" Fred, who lived in New Jersey, asked incredulously.
   "No I don't," I said.
   "They're what a horse leaves behind on the road," he said.
   In other words, horse shit. He was writing a headline that said the New Jersey Nets were horse shit.
   Fred was the night sports editor that night, so there was nothing I could do about it, doubly so since the city had just been f***ed.
   Which brings me, 33 years later, to a headline on Politico.
   "Critics ream Trump immigration address," the headline said.
   Whoa, I thought. Just to be sure, I looked up "ream" on the Internet, and here is the definition from the Urban Dictionary:
v. to be reamed
usage: To get fucked painfully. Can be replaced in most instances of f**k.
Jon f***ed Shelly -> Jon reamed Shelly
I got f***ed over on this assignment -> I got reamed on this assignment
   Now, some people, including I'm sure Jim Willse, who went on to a prize winning career as the editor of the Newark Star-Ledger, would find Trump's immigration speech getting "reamed" to be perfectly acceptable. Maybe Arianna Huffington would find it OK as well, although to the best of my recollection this is the first time I saw it used in a headline on any news site.
   Further, one might argue, the purpose of euphemisms is to make acceptable in language or usage acts or things which would otherwise be perceived as unacceptable.
   And then it occurred to me that as dinosaurs such as myself fade from the copy editing scene, a much younger generation is cranking out the news both in print and on the Internet. Which raises the possibility, perhaps even the likelihood, that someone who only heard "reamed" in a usage whereby it was substituted for "harshly criticized," as in "I got reamed for trying to sneak that headline through," that copy editor might not even know he had just written the equivalent of "Critics painfully f**k Trump immigration speech," and thought that they were only being harshly critical of it.
   That's what I'd like to think, in which case I could attribute my reaction to a case of Post Traumatic Headline Disorder, even though the initial headline was in the Daily News and not the New York or Washington Post. Daily News Traumatic Headline Disorder doesn't carry much weight as a malady, although it would be hard to argue with WaPo Traumatic Headline Disorder.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Why I am unfriending Steve Collins on Facebook

image from

Je suis Edward Clarkin.
On April 15. 1912, the ocean liner Titanic, on its maiden voyage, struck an iceberg in the north Atlantic Ocean and sank, taking "1,517 women, men and children to the bottom of the ocean with her, including some of the most famous names of her time," according to
Now that was an epic, the kind of epic that would place Leonardo DiCaprio on top of the world one moment and at the bottom of the sea the next.
On Sept. 28, 1980, the Washington Post published an article titled "Jimmy's World" by reporter Janet Cooke about an 8-year-old heroin addict. "She described the 'needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin, brown arms,'" according to Wikipedia. "The story engendered much sympathy among readers," leading to a search for the boy. They couldn't even find him on Facebook. Oh, wait, Mark Zuckerberg wasn't even born yet. Nevertheless, none other than the legendary Bob Woodward, also according to Wikipedia, nominated Cooke for the Pulitzer prize for feature writing, which she won. "Two days after the prize was awarded," Wikipedia notes, "Post publisher Donald E. Graham held a press conference and admitted that the story was fraudulent. The editorial in the next day's paper offered a public apology. ... Cooke resigned and returned the prize."
That was an epic breach of journalistic ethics.
On May 11, 2003, the New York Times published an article titled "Correcting the Record; Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception."
"A staff reporter for The New York Times committed frequent acts of journalistic fraud while covering significant news events in recent months, an investigation by Times journalists has found," the article begins. "The widespread fabrication and plagiarism represent a profound betrayal of trust and a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.
"The reporter, Jayson Blair, 27, misled readers and Times colleagues with dispatches that purported to be from Maryland, Texas and other states, when often he was far away, in New York. He fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He lifted material from other newspapers and wire services. He selected details from photographs to create the impression he had been somewhere or seen someone, when he had not.
"And he used these techniques to write falsely about emotionally charged moments in recent history, from the deadly sniper attacks in suburban Washington to the anguish of families grieving for loved ones killed in Iraq."
Step aside, Janet Cooke. This was an epic breach of journalistic ethics on steroids.
Which brings me to what my former colleague Steve Collins calls "journalistic misconduct of epic proportions."
"I have watched in recent days as [the publisher of the Bristol Press] has emerged as a spokesman for a billionaire with a penchant for politics who secretly purchased a Las Vegas newspaper and is already moving to gut it," Collins wrote in his Dec. 24 letter of resignation. "I have learned with horror [pardon me, but do I hear the tap tap tapping of a raven as Edgar Allen Poe turns in his grave?] that my boss shoveled a story into my newspaper – a terrible, plagiarized piece of garbage about the court system – and then stuck his own fake byline on it. He handed it to a page designer who doesn’t know anything about journalism late one night and told him to shovel it into the pages of the paper. I admit I never saw the piece until recently."
I am the copy editor to whom the publisher handed the story "late one night" -- it was actually sometime around 8:30 p.m., as the deadline for the New Britain Herald -- where the story originally appeared, being reprinted with some additions in the Bristol Press the next day -- was 9:15 p.m.
I carefully placed the story on a blank page. I corrected a couple of grammatical errors and eliminated some redundant lines after checking with the publisher. The piece was about business courts -- the Herald is very attuned to the workings of the business community in New Britain, and the publisher is active in the local Chambers of Commerce as well as the Rotary Club -- and he made a case for the need for business courts in Connecticut. The section criticizing Nevada judge Elizabeth Gonzalez seemed like something personal for a person other than the publisher, but it didn't seem libelous so I didn't raise the issue. The article would have been more appropriate in the opinion section, but I didn't suggest that.
Since then it seems like every media watchdog has been barking about the relationship between a Las Vegas billionaire and the publisher. The staff of the Las Vegas Review Journal is supposedly upset with the sale of the paper to the billionaire's family. But has he already "started to gut" the paper, as Collins claims? So far only the managing editor has left, with a buyout.
If I have not yet put this in perspective, let's say, for argument's sake, the publisher unintentionally crossed a line in an article that appeared in a pair of newspapers with a total circulation of a few thousand, on a page which was so poorly designed -- a virtual sea of grey with only a couple of subheads -- that only a handful of people were likely to read it -- is hardly a breach of ethics along the lines of a Janet Cooke or Jayson Blair. Yet Steve Collins would have you believe that the future of journalism is at stake, and the media watchdogs are lapping it up.
Three factors went into my decision to unfriend Collins.
The first was a couple of days after Collins posted his letter of resignation and started a gofundme campaign. Jeremy Stone, the son of I.F. Stone, created an award and gave the initial one, worth $5,000, to Collins. Stone called it a "whistleblower award."
There wasn't one iota of whistle-blowing involved in Collins' act. He wasn't fired. He was neither demoted nor disciplined. If Collins were indeed all about journalistic integrity as he claims to be, he should have said thank you, Jeremy, but I can't accept this.
The second was on Dec. 29 when he posted a link to a column in the Day of New London that suggested the publisher's purchase of the Block Island Times was a front for the Las Vegas billionaire so  he can bring a casino to Block Island. And in a Dec. 30 post Collins mocked the publisher's sincere column in his first issue as publisher of the weekly.
"We're an independent company, and the buck stops at my door. There's no connection to anyone or any thing," the publisher wrote. "Our only commitment is to the communities we serve."
In the five years I've worked at the Herald, the publisher's door has always been open, and while he won't always be on Block Island, I've no doubt he'll be accessible to the workers there, and that he meant what he said.
The  third was a Facebook post by Collins, who has taken to comparing himself to George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life" and other icons of American idealism:
"There's battle lines being drawn," the headline reads.
"This is a watershed moment for American journalism," his post begins.
Las Vegas. He's talking about Las Vegas.
"The strange, secret purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by a billionaire who has never hesitated to use his riches to advance his political agenda has stirred us to long-delayed, much-needed action," he continues. "That brave little band of journalists in Nevada, who know their future is dim, are fighting back while they can..."
Excuse me if a vision of Peter Finch shouting "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!" didn't just flash through my mind.
In the sports department of the Daily News, where I spent five years in the 1980s, there was a copy editor named Eddie Coyle. Eddie was a recovering alcoholic who traded his addiction to booze for an addiction to running. The older copy editors at the News liked to tell a story about the "old days." The News Building had a large globe in the center of its Art Deco lobby. One night when he came to work inebriated, the story went, Eddie climbed on top of the globe and shouted "I'm on top of the world!"
Today Steve Collins is feeling like he's on top of the journalism world. Tomorrow he will have one less friend on Facebook.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A headline writer's view of the presidential race

Debbie Wasserman Schultz for president (Politico photo)

   One thing that has emerged from this hotly contested presidential primary field: If you want to be the leader of the free world, you'd better not have a lengthy surname.
   Why do you think Donald Trump is leading in all those polls? I'll tell you why. Because not only does his name fit neatly in large type on the front page of a tabloid newspaper, not to mention on the screen of a smartphone, but because it rhymes with so darn many words -- dump, thump, frump, pump, rump, hump, bump, Forrest Gump -- that the nation's next poet laureate is probably working today as a copy editor at the New York Post.
   But the Donald is far from alone in the anorexic surname department. There's: Cruz, Rubio, Biden, Graham, Fiorina (she's got four syllables, but only seven letters, and is likely to be identified more as Carly as the campaign heats up anyway), Bush, Jindal, Christie, Perry, Walker, Kasich, Clinton, Paul, Carson, Sanders, Santorum (three syllables, eight letters, he's lucky's he's not a Santorini, then he'd have four syllables and would split the Italian vote with Fiorina, but I digress), Huckabee, hell, there's even only one apostrophe in the bunch, O'Malley.
   What this race needs is a few more candidates like Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Although I'm not sure how well she would fare in a primary race against John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Here's to you, Forrest Dixon

Forrest Dixon

   I was not having the best of Veterans Days. The former president of the Kassel Mission Historical Society is upset with me because I didn't write a president's message for Veterans Day. This morning I went to Dunkin Donuts and the lady behind the counter asked me if I was a veteran. I knew what that meant. A free cup of coffee if I said yes. She probably wouldn't have even asked me for an ID. I said "No, but thank you for asking." She did give me the senior discount. Heck, last week I asked her what time it was and she took five minutes off.
   As I was driving this morning, listening to National Public Radio, I shouted "Dammit!" Because one of their reporters played a tape of an interview he did with a couple who didn't plan to be on the radio, but agreed to let him use the interview. It was truly heart-wrenching, in which the couple described the night the doorbell rang and they saw two Marines outside, and they knew immediately that something terrible had happened to their son in Afghanistan, or maybe it was Iraq. He had been killed in a helicopter accident, barely a month before he was due to return home.
   So why did I shout "Dammit!" in my car, in which I was the only occupant? Because just the night before I'd been thinking how the media doesn't know the difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day, Memorial Day is when you talk or write about the men and women who died for their country, and Veterans Day is when you talk or write about people who lived to relive their experiences. To its credit, after I shouted "Dammit!" the rest of the show was devoted to discussions of post traumatic stress disorder, and other Veterans Day appropriate material.
   Maybe I'm full of shit. That's just the way I think it should be, although I was surprised by the strength of my reaction.
   And then it happened. In the afternoon I got an email informing me that one Lori Greiner had posted a comment on my oral history blog informing me that a link was broken. Well, the rest of the email is what, to me, Veterans Day is all about.
    "In honor of Veteran's Day, I googled my grandfather, Forrest Dixon, and came across this page with the audio link. However, the link does not appear to be working. Can this be fixed? Also, I would be interested in purchasing the audio CDs that contain stories from my grandfather. Can you provide me additional information? I would love to be able to share these stories with his great-granddaughters. Please contact me at ..."
Needless to say I was not looking to sell a couple of audio CDs to the granddaughter of a veteran I interviewed, and told Lori that I would send her the audio of Forrest's interview. I also attached a transcript of a 1993 interview I did with her grandfather at his farmhouse in Munith, Mich. She emailed me back with the remark "This is great stuff." Which indeed it is. But the fact that my work had helped Lori's children learn about their great-grandfather's experiences -- and what experiences they were -- redeemed this year's Veterans Day for me.
  Forrest Dixon was a farmer, an onion farmer in Michigan. He once told me a story about an accident on a nearby farm. A worker had fallen into a piece of farm machinery and his body was mangled. He used the phrase "tossing their cookies" to describe the reaction of the EMS workers who arrived, maybe they weren't EMS workers but whoever they were they faced a difficult challenge extracting the worker's remains from the machine. Forrest said he told them, "Here, let me help." He had seen things during his 11 months of combat as a maintenance officer in my father's tank battalion that made him used to sights like that.
   I met Forrest at the first reunion of my father's tank battalion that I went to, in 1987, in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Following the 1989 reunion in Detroit, he was diagnosed with rectal cancer. The doctor doctor told him it was helpful to talk about it. He said that within a few days, everybody in Munith knew he had rectal cancer. He lived more than another ten years.

Forrest Dixon's obituary 

   A couple of times Forrest's son Tom, Lori's uncle, came to the reunion with his dad. Once a few of us were sitting around a table in the hospitality room and Forrest was telling some of his favorite stories and one of the veterans addressed him as "Major."
   Tom turned to his father and said, "I didn't know you were a major!"
   There was one story Forrest didn't tell, or at least didn't volunteer. I had to hear it from another veteran of the 712th Tank Battalion. It was about the time Forrest climbed into a tank with no engine -- it had been removed so the mechanics could work on it -- and singlehandedly knocked out a German tank that had broken into the maintenance area.
   The last time I saw Forrest, he had just been robbed. Not at gunpoint. He had a thriving vegetable garden in the back yard of his farmhouse, and some thieves drove up in the night and made off with his entire crop of butternut squash.
   Thank you, Lori, for googling your grandfather on Veterans Day. I hope many others did the same.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A slow news day in the neighborhood

   In the world today, an epic battle that already is being compared to Stalingrad and Bastogne was in its fortysomethingth day on the border between Syria and Turkey, U.S. military troops were being quarantined after helping out in Ebola-stricken countries, Pentagon workers were being warned they might be targeted for lone-wolf terror attacks, and the Fed was ending quantitative easing.
   So what did I see as I passed the newspaper stand in the supermarket this morning?
   A blaring headline in the New York Post that said "Fiddler on the roof" about a fellow jerking off in his window who was photographed by a popoffrazzi. And a blaring headline in the New York Daily News about a guy somewhere who some court said could marry his niece. Naturally, the headline was "Speak now or forever hold your niece."
   Here's a headline for you: "Vinnie Musetto turns in grave." (Poor Vinnie, who died last year, was the Post copy editor who wrote "Headless body in topless bar.")
   "Pervy peeper plays his pickle." I wonder if Rupert Murdoch wrote that one himself. Now, WTF is quantitative easing? Or is it qualitative easing? Whatever.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Frozen in time in a vast portfolio


I daresay I've been on a bit of a warpath the last few days. A bit of a warpath, heck, stick a few feathers in my hair, if I had any hair to stick them in, go to Home Depot and get a pint of Glidden eggshell white and slather some streaks along the sides of my face and I'd probably be shouting for the Washington Redskins to change their name to something less racist, like the Washington Tea Partiers, oh, wait, it doesn't get more racist than that, now, does it?

Or just the other day, when I was getting gas for my car in New Jersey, granted, the place was one of the lower priced gas stations in the area, it only had four pumps and was a little crowded so I had to angle my car in a little, and while the attendant was filling my tank a woman of at least forty in a white SUV squeezed past my car, stuck her head out the window and said "Really Grandpa" because she didn't like the way my vehicle was almost blocking hers. Luckily for her her vehicle was out of the station by the time I realized it was me she was addressing. If that had been Connecticut or Texas and not New Jersey, I could have had an AK-47 in my glove compartment.

And then today, I figured I'd check out my friend Victor's blog, which I hadn't seen in a few days. Victor started a blog that is slightly critical -- mind you, slightly is a bit of an understatement -- of the newspaper that fired him a few years back. In his blog he sometimes goes out of his way -- like that woman should have gone out of her way to avoid calling me Grandpa -- to expose the paper's flaws. I don't agree with everything he criticizes -- the Israeli-Hamas war, for instance, does belong on the front page and not on the "nation/world" page way the heck inside the "A" section.

But today, I daresay, he didn't nearly go far enough in his criticism. He posted the lead to a story and made some negative comments about the story, which I didn't read, nor will I, because I don't subscribe to the paper and rarely visit its web site. But this was the lead:

"For years, the Port Authority Bus Terminal in midtown Manhattan has seemed frozen in time, a forgotten giant in the agency's vast portfolio of transportation facilities" (A-1).

Some people will think this is a good lead. It wouldn't surprise me if the reporter got a bunch of pats on the back. But an editor should learn to trust his gut, and my gut was seeing all sorts of red flags, how's that for a mangled metaphor. Frozen in time? The Port Authority bus terminal has morphed dramatically over the past two decades, with fancy eateries sprouting up inside and around it, hell, five years ago you didn't have to spend two dollars for an eight ounce bottle of water if you were dying of thirst while waiting for the bus to Hoboken. Okay, so there's an occasional homeless person late at night. And forgotten giant, vast portfolio, hell, Donald Trump may have a vast portfolio but what the heck is a "vast portfolio of transportation facilities"? Actually the Port Authority is probably the flagship of the Port Authority's portfolio..

Truth be told, I'm not entirely sure what it is that pisses me off about this lead. Maybe it's the first two words, "For years." The reporter says "For years" like he's been there more than a dozen times. Now if a commuter who passes through it every day for umpteen years said to the reporter, "For years, this place has seemed frozen in time..." that would have been way better. Maybe the reporter has been to the bus terminal a lot. Maybe it's just the flowery exposition here that gets under my skin.

Like I said, I didn't read the rest of the story nor will I. So if you're the reporter who wrote it, I hope you got a lot of compliments and a raise. As for me, your lead was just the icing on the upside down cake of my week.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The unknown soldier

From left, Bob Anderson, John Owen, Rollie Ackermann, Ted Duskin
   On NPR today there was a blurb for a program on things people learned at their first job. I got a phone call today that reminded me of a lesson I learned not at my first job, but at my first job in the newspaper industry that I've never forgotten, even though I ignored that lesson in the publication of a recent book.
   I was a clerk in the sports department of the New York Post when some team -- I forget which league and I even forget which sport even, this was a long time ago -- exercised a fairly high draft pick to acquire a player nobody, at least nobody in the sports department of the New York Post, had ever heard of.
   I don't know if I wrote the headline or somebody else wrote it, or if it even made it into the paper, and I'm not sure even if it was in the headline or the lead of the story. What I do know is that the player who was drafted was referred to as an unknown.
   Nor do I remember if it was me who was admonished or somebody else. But the night sports editor said "He's not unknown to his family or his loved ones." Of course I'm not quoting exactly, but the point was made. He was not an unknown player, he was a little known player, or a relatively unknown player except by his relatives."
   So today the phone rings. "Is this Chi Chi Press?"
   "Yes, this is Chi Chi Press."
   A word of explanation. When I self-published my first book, "Tanks for the Memories," I didn't want it to appear self-published, so I made up the name of a publishing company. My mother and father used to call each other Chi Chi, although it was pronounced kind of like Chitchy or Chitch. Either way it was short for Cicciolino or cicciolina, which is Italian for dumpling. After two or three books I incorporated Chi Chi Press, although after five or six books I dissolved the corporation because of the high corporation fees. Chi Chi Press is still my imprint, and I use it on the books that I publish through Amazon for the Kindle and Create Space programs.
   "I'm calling about the picture that's on the cover of the book "Big Andy," the one which shows Bob "Big Andy" Anderson  butchering a cow that had to be put down because it had a broken leg ("That cow's leg was no more broken than yours or mine," Andy said in the interview. Still, it's a pretty well-known picture in the annals of the 712th Tank Battalion from World War II.
   "On the inside of the book you identify the people in the picture as "Bob Anderson, John Owen, Unknown and Ted Duskin," the caller said.
   "Are you related to one of them?" I asked, or words to that effect.
   "The one you identify as unknown," the caller said, "he was my father."
   Kaye Ackermann, who said the unknown tanker was Rolland "Rollie" Ackermann, and I spoke for about half an hour. She said her father died in 1971, and that he never talked about the war, and her mother never allowed her and her sister to ask about it. But that once when she was young her father was kind of dozing in a chair and he opened his eyes and saw her and said, rather softly, "The only mass grave I saw had 250 bodies in it."
   She said her dad was buddies with Big Andy, but that he never went to a reunion. The battalion didn't really start having reunions until, well, I'm not sure, it might have been the mid to late 1970s, it might have been later. There were a couple of smaller reunions before they became a battalion-wide thing.
   Rollie Ackermann was a tank commander and he was wounded, she said, on Feb. 6, 1944, which likely would have been at a place called Branscheid in Germany, in the heart of the Siegfried Line. She also said they gave him "blue" somethingorothers, the term I'd heard was "blue 88s," the term was different but I'm sure the pill was the same. She said she thought it was sodium pentathol.
   The great thing about print on demand and e-books is it doesn't take a lot of time or money to make a correction, so I went in and revised to publications to add Kaye's father's name. And I remembered that lesson of so many years ago.