Readers' Representative Journal

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Word choices from the political season

October 8, 2008 | 11:30 am

As the campaign heats up and the number of politics stories increases, so do the complaints and comments about coverage.  A post on this journal in coming days will tally reaction to recent front-page stories on Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama. Meanwhile, word choices from three stories last week each brought multiple comments. In two cases, readers said they saw editorial opinion: in one, a headline that seemed to suggest that the $700-billion financial bailout proposal was in the national interest, and in the other, a story that seemed to bestow on a Democratic candidate an honorific that wasn't given to the GOP candidate.

The third was a matter of subject-verb agreement. In an indication of how grammar can incite in some people the same passion that politics does in others, that one brought nearly 20 complaints.

'National interest'

Beth Uyehara of Reseda was one of more than a dozen who wrote about the headline on a front-page story about the House's blocking the $700-billion bailout package. The headline in print editions said, "Voters vented, lawmakers listened: In a reelection fight, constituents' outrage beat national interest."

"If The Times believes that the bailout bill proposed by the Bush administration was in the national interest," Uyehara wrote, "then please make your case on the editorial page, not Page 1. As one of the 'outraged constituents' who wrote my congressman and senators urging a no vote, I believe that that bill was NOT in the national interest. In fact, it was setting up another national disaster. A last-minute, panicked $700-billion Band-aid."

Steve Devol was the National desk copy editor who suggested that language in the headline. He conceded in an e-mail exchange about the reader's point, "I've never seen a head or deck yet that couldn't have been crafted better, and this is no exception." But he says the intent wasn't to inject opinion.

Devol thought that the rest of the headline, as well as headlines on two related stories also on A1,
made it clear what he'd been thinking: that "national interest" was what was being pitched by those who wanted the bill to be passed, and voter outrage was on the other side. Devol concluded, "While it certainly wasn't my intent to define a 'yes' vote on the 'bailout' as being in the national interest, as classically defined, I can see where the reader might take it that way." (Deirdre Edgar was on the desk that night also overseeing headlines; she added that space was a consideration -- the deck was one column, three lines -- "so we didn’t have a lot of room to elaborate.")

Governor, senator
Norm Bernier of Los Angeles called on Oct. 2 about the opening lines of a story reflecting on the popularity of Gov. Sarah Palin going into that night's debate. The opening paragraph included a reference to "Sarah Palin" but also to "New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton."

Said Bernier, "One politician gets the full honorific:  'New York Sen. Rodham Clinton.'  The other female politician gets called 'Palin,' or 'Sarah Palin.'  Not the honorific 'Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.'  Is there any coincidence to this that the one that gets the full honorific is a Democrat, and the one that gets no honorific is Republican?" He pointed, too, to a front-page piece on Sen. John McCain's views on regulation that started, "As financial collapse threatened Wall Street and consumed Washington, John McCain appeared to undergo a dramatic transformation." Bernier's phone message continued, "A full article about John McCain and never refers to him as 'Arizona Senator John McCain.'  He is always 'McCain' or 'John McCain,' never 'Senator McCain.'” 

The McCain piece did refer to him as "the Arizona senator" not too far down in the story. And that practice is consistent with The Times' guidelines, which say, "The use of a title like Rep. or Sen. in first reference is usually appropriate, but it is not mandatory if an individual's title is given later in the story."

As for the first story, while the reader was focused on the females, he didn't notice that the opening passages also referred simply to "Joe Biden" and "Barack Obama" -- and the second paragraph referred to Palin right away as "the Alaska governor." In a follow-up phone call, Bernier said that he still believes that the two female politicians should have been treated equally, and that it seemed to show bias to use the title for the Democratic, and not the Republican, politician.

There's two ways to look at this

The third detail that brought so many calls was a nonpolitical one, a subject-verb disagreement noted by nearly 20 readers. Monte Montgomery of Los Angeles cited the problem headline, which ran inside over the continuation of an article about McCain and said, "There's two sides to McCain's story." Wrote Montgomery, "I concede that fussy old grammatical rules such as agreement in number are on their way out, and that soon enough we'll all speak -- and write -- like inarticulate teenagers.  But for God's sake, does The Times have to hasten the process?"

Clark Stevens, who as chief of copy desks oversees copy editors and those fussy rules of grammar and usage, responds: "The singular 'there's' might be colloquially acceptable, but a headline on that type of story would have been better with a more formal tone."