The journalism world, such as it is these days, is discussing Randy Michaels’ no-no list. The former radio wrecking ball, now the CEO — I get dizzy just thinking about it — of the Tribune Co. issued a list of 119 words and phrases that must never, ever be heard again on the company’s news-talk station, WGN.
This story is being spun as a monumental case of micromanagement. It is. However, it is nothing new. Every media outlet in the world has a boss who hands down these edicts; it’s one of the perks of the top job — creating a world unto yourself in which no one ever, ever uses the word butt. The only thing that makes this case different is the fact it’s the CEO doing it. In most companies, especially one like the Tribune Co., inevitably referred to as “troubled,” the CEO is — should be — the big-picture guy standing on the bridge looking at the seas ahead, scanning for icebergs, not going below to instruct the coal-shovelers on the proper angle to wear their sailor caps. Not in Chicago, evidently. Ah, well.
Here’s the other thing: Michaels kind of has the right idea, or seems to have backed into the right idea. A big chunk of the entries on the list are the sort of trite journalese that anyone with a sensitive ear hates — clash with police, say, or went terribly wrong, or one of my personal pet peeves, diva. (I prefer the simpler bitch.) Looking at the rest of the list, though, I’m going to assume the smart part of it is simply a case of a monkey banging out the first act of “Hamlet.” Remember, this is Lee Abrams’ other half.
I’m going to further assume that many of these words never made it onto WGN’s air to begin with. Fatal death for instance. An intern might write that, but presumably it wasn’t a routine usage. Ditto bare naked and medical hospital. I looked in vain for controversial, and didn’t find it. He got famed in there, but not all its variations; generally, I follow the rule that if something is famous, you don’t need to remind people.
The list also bans certain words journalists rely on to protect ourselves — alleged, for one. Laypeople hate that one. I think Eric Zorn tackled it after the Flight 253 near-disaster, when a reader complained that we shouldn’t be calling Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab the “alleged terrorist.” Zorn said yes we should, because that’s what we do — it’s not the news media’s job to decide when you’re guilty, but a court of law’s. If you don’t like it, you can always move to Afghanistan. Or tune your radio to WGN.
Zorn looked at the list, and the fallout, on his blog yesterday. In his defense, Michaels and his underling point out there’s nothing wrong with striving for clear writing, from the CEO all the way down. Agreed. But please explain, gents: What’s your problem with pedestrian? Is there a better word for a person walking across a street? Or officials? Don’t forget that news writing evolved the way it did because those sentences have to carry a lot of freight. It’s easier for listeners for a broadcaster to say “city officials said” rather than “street department, police and fire and parks and recreation supervisors said.”
With that, I go behind closed doors. I seem to have turned a corner, health-wise, but not work-wise. So you all enjoy Friday, and I’ll see you in the wake of the weekend.