Columns

The Daily Apocalypse

George Fetherling

Deliberate inaccuracy, bad writing, horizontalism—it’s all part of the newspaper wars

These days the phrase newspaper war could refer to the newspapers’ war to continue to exist, at least in printed form as well as in digital. Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., the fifth of his clan to be chairman of the New York Times, is on record as saying that the paper may be an online-only affair in as little as five years’ time. Of course he may have to revise the date of the apocalypse now he’s sold a big chunk of equity to a Mexican zillionaire. That happened the same week that the Rothemere family in Britain, who still own the Daily Mail, sold, for the sum of £1, the Evening Standard, a perfectly healthy newspaper were it not for a huge debt. The buyer is a nouveau riche from la nouveau Russie: a former KGB agent who quickly accumulated a fortune once the USSR transmogrified into the Russian Federation.

The long list of other newspapers on the ropes these days includes the technically bankrupt Chicago Tribune, which for generations identified itself on its nameplate as “the world’s greatest newspaper” (a phrase that explains the cable station WGN). For decades it was owned by Col. Robert R. McCormick, whose money originated with his grandfather, the inventor of a farm implement known as the McCormick reaper. The colonel was an isolationist with fascistic tendencies, a blustering fellow who once threatened to punch George V in the nose for being British. His nemesis was the equally moderate William Randolph Hearst, who owned Chicago’s Herald-Examiner. In the first decades of the twentieth century, these two tried to out-report, out-dramatize and out-spend each other while resorting to such tactics as hiring associates of Al Capone to set fire to the other company’s trucks and rough up newsstand operators who dared offer customers both papers rather than only one.

In his beautifully written book The Uncrowned King (Random House Canada), Kenneth Whyte, editor-in-chief of Maclean’s, examines how, in 1895, a far younger Hearst perfected his technique. At the time he was in many ways a semi-progressive trust-busting Republican of the sort later characterized by Theodore Roosevelt. He bought the derelict New York Journal and declared war on Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World: a war for circulation and advertising as well as for simple facts and the melodramatic scoops that sometimes proved spurious.

Whyte came to everyone’s attention a decade ago as the founding editor of the National Post. Lord Black had no sooner picked him to edit this new venture than the pair of them went up against the Globe and Mail—a genuine enough newspaper war, too, one that the Post survived but only in a much-weakened state. People think of this recent outbreak as the one that defined the term newspaper war, for by now society has erased the memory of Canada’s most remarkable one.

The Toronto Telegram was a devoutly Conservative voice that, when it finally closed in 1971, had spent more than fifty years in cutthroat competition with its Liberal rival, the Toronto Star, a paper some claimed Mackenzie King read in order to find out what his current policies were. The two publications were so fiercely competitive that the Star would send ten reporters racing to the site of a story when the Tely sent one, or else, to show its contempt for its enemy’s judgement, would dispatch only one when the Tely sent eight. Much of this activity took place in a world in which the word television was never used in certain newspapers (a prohibition not extended to radio, because publishers felt they had already neutralized that threat). Even I can recall when Canadian newspapers, with deliberate inaccuracy, always referred to cigarettes as “cigars,” mainly because cigarette manufacturers advertised on television incessantly. No, really. But then I also remember when fire-reels, chesterfields and escapers were common in Canadian papers, whose classified sections had column after column of “Flats to Let.” Such words and phrases sound so antique now, but they persisted in common usage in the still somewhat British Canada that seemed to survive until (if one must pick a date) the Pearson era melted into the age of Trudeau.

Were I responsible for stemming the current spread of poor newspaper prose, I would mandate elimination of dangling participles (and other dangly bits) that don’t modify what they believe they’re modifying. An example might be: “Climbing all 3,000 steps, the CN Tower afforded me a wonderful view of the city below”—as though the tower were somehow trudging up its own stairs. This construction is now ubiquitous even among people who know better. Its banishment would improve the quality of life.

I would also change the policy on the comma between two adjectives. For years, editors had what was called the “And Test” drilled into their heads in order to prevent such misuse. In certain situations, you see, a comma is a shorthand substitute for and. Thus “a big red barn” requires no comma, because the phrase “a big and red barn” sounds ridiculous. This error is so common that I have given up counting instances before I’ve finished a news story. The problem is so acute that it makes the fillings in my teeth hurt. The Globe and Mail, which should set a better example, is among the worst offenders.

A third monster is the policy of tiny artificial paragraphs (not “tiny and artificial”—see?) instead of organic ones covering one complete subsection of the article. The theory is that paragraphs must be chopped into bite-size bits to relieve pressure on the reader’s attention span. The one-sentence paragraph has a long if not especially distinguished history. In the early eighteenth century, Daniel Defoe was fond of it. But it became a thoroughgoing and insulting cliché thanks to people such as Hearst. It has been given free rein in recent years, even as the proportion of white space has grown.

Coming along with that trend has been a slow movement toward horizontalism in design, so that a really big news story or a feature can sprawl, leisurely or dramatically, across a page. The result can more closely resemble a magazine spread than an old-fashioned newspaper page with column after column of type lined up like soldiers, shoulder to shoulder, set in what we used to call “eight-point Gideon.” These days, newspaper pages are designed to look like printed television screens, or web pages—a fact that returns me to the story of Canada’s most vicious and drawn-out newspaper war.

Newspapers have long been a difficult environment for contextualizing adverbs. Were there an underground market for adverbs in the U.S., one could make a fortune smuggling them across the border, past the welcoming signs that say: “Please drive safe.” As for adjectives, it is because of the advertising business, which sprang up to serve newspapers and has served every new medium since then, that people believe that terrific, great, fabulous and wonderful all mean the same thing, though the intended meaning is nothing more than “extraordinary.” Conversely it is newswriting that has most affected verbs, so that readers willingly accept “Slated to kick off fact-find mission” as a legitimate sentence.

Headlines can often symbolize this process of rot and wide acceptance. During their long wrestling match, both the Star and the Telegram tried to be first even with details of the most penny-ante robberies and assaults, the sort that ended up in what until 1969 was called magistrate’s court (now known as Ontario provincial court). Even when bunched together to make a piquant roundup, these stories were often only one column in width—too narrow to accommodate the word magistrate. So the papers tacitly agreed to use cadi instead. Cadi was said to be an old Arabic word for magistrate. As indeed it was, and is—a certain type of Muslim judge being a qadi or kadi. At first, citizens must have been puzzled when coming upon a headline such as “Yegg sentenced / in cadi court / to five years.” In a short time, however, these readers, who already knew that a yegg was a burglar, understood what the other word meant as well. Indeed, they had come to expect to see it. Thus one instance of how newspapers affected people’s perceptions, usually for the worse.

Stories about national politics are usually bigger than crime stories, but even so, they too are often one column wide. In such cases, Canadians rely on the utilitarian PM in headlines: yet another advantage of parliamentary democracy. This avoids the American practice of using leaders’ initials, such as FDR, JFK and LBJ. The only exception I recall was a failed campaign in the 1970s by the Toronto Sun, a Conservative paper, to generate acceptance for PET. Perhaps the Sun was motivated more by ideology than by journalistic need, for pet is a mild obscenity in French.

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George Fetherling

George Fetherling is the author of The Sylvia Hotel Poems, Walt Whitman’s Secret and many other works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. He lives in Vancouver.

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