Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Changing Times

A memo from a former colleague of mine at the Washington Times (where I worked from 1989 to 1997), my successor's successor as copy chief, is making the rounds in the blogosphere:

From: Patrick Tuohy
Date: February 25, 2008 4:43:13 PM EST
Subject: Style changes


Here are some recent updates to TWT style.

1) Clinton will be the headline word for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

2) Gay is approved for copy and preferred over homosexual, except in clinical references or references to sexual activity.

3) The quotation marks will come off gay marriage (preferred over homosexual marriage).

4) Moderate is approved, but centrist is still allowed.

5) We will use illegal immigrants, not illegal aliens.


As earth-shattering as these changes are to those of us who lived under the previous rules, they shouldn't come as a big surprise, given that the Times has been using the retirement of Wesley Pruden as a springboard for a leap toward the mainstream. First it launched a large-scale search for Pruden's successor, bypassing the obvious stay-the-course choice of Fran Coombs, and then it surprised a lot of people by wooing John Solomon from his relatively new job at the Washington Post. There were some I-told-you-sos from the left-wing blogs, which had been wary of Solomon's politics all along, but then Solomon filled Coombs's managing-editor job with David Jones, a journalist's journalist among the Times veterans. (Yes, there always have been such people, and Patrick Tuohy is another one. When I'm asked about my time at the Times, I say it's a weird place -- but not as weird as you might think.)

Routinely referring to a first lady by her first name in headlines was borderline (it's not hard to imagine "Jackie" or "Lady Bird," but that was a very different time), but of course you couldn't very well call her "Clinton" when that was the president's name. Those news outlets that chose not to demean or infantilize her opted for "first lady" or "Mrs. Clinton." The ambiguity continued to exist when he was a private citizen and she was a senatorial candidate and then a senator and then a presidential candidate, but those news outlets that chose not to demean or infantilize her opted for "Sen. Clinton" until she became the primary Clinton in the news. It's a bit ironic, of course, that Clinton herself has chosen "Hillary" as her campaign-poster identity.

The opposition to "gay" in this day and age was similarly ideological and insulting, but the editors could always hide behind horn-rimmed glasses and insist that it was more like insisting that kids are strictly baby goats. (We're not prejudiced, we're just clinging to 1952!) And, in all fairness, I should point out that "gay" was permitted in headlines too tight for "homosexual."

I've written before about the senselessness of putting quotation marks around "marriage" when it's of the same-sex variety. The fact that it's actual marriage is precisely the issue that right-wingers are getting worked up about. If the marriage isn't real, if it has quote marks around it, it's none of the courts' or the legislatures' business.

The objection to "moderate," near as I could ever tell, was a two-parter. The idea that anyone could be such a namby-pamby spoilsport as to stand outside the kabuki-theater fray of modern politics was offensive to the top editors. If such people don't exist, or are not to be acknowledged in the pages of the Washington Times, you may wonder what business "centrists" would have there, but I think the other objection was the idea that "moderate" has the connotation of "reasonable," and at least "centrist" avoided that horror.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Would Washington Times write same-sex "marriage" when (hypothetically) reporting about Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Spain or South Africa where same-sex _marriage_ may be performed nationwide (not simply a civil union)?

If it would, then it's clearly biased (shame!). If it wouldn't, there's hope.