When Bad Scripts Happen to Good Newscasts

A new reality show is about to start: real news scripts by real people about real events. All these scripts ran on network evening newscasts. Really.

Caution: Some excerpts may disturb writers and editors familiar with English.

These are the bottom 20:

20. “How many new war memorials is too many?” Many is? On a network?

19. “America’s been bit by the Blaster worm.” Correct: “America has been bitten ….” But do worms bite?

18. “With more than 100-thousand U-S forces still at work in Iraq and thousands more in Afghanistan….” A force is a large number of troops, not one person. So 100-thousand forces is way off base.

17. “Although he swore under oath that each of the suspects had sold him cocaine, he had little proof….” Swore under oath? Redundant. When you take an oath, you swear to the truth of a statement.

16. “Wicked weather continues to make news.” Continues tells listeners only that whatever has been going on is still going on. For the first sentence of a story, continues is a dirty word. It’s non-newsy. Find a previously unreported fact and try something like this: “Violent storms swept through….” Better yet (if true): “Violent storms are sweeping through….”

The weather is “making news”? Everything mentioned in a newscast is making news. So labeling a story as news is like painting c-o-w on a c-o-w.

15. “With the thought in mind that many Democrats are convinced they can’t beat President Bush in next year’s presidential race without a Southerner on the ticket, there were two major developments in the presidential campaign today.” In whose mind was that thought? The listener’s? The anchor’s? The dangling modifier at the start of that story is a grammatical non-starter.

14. “But Liberia is a country where promises are made to be broken.” Unlike the other 192 countries, right?

13. “And this isn’t the only controversial topic Episcopalians will be tackling here. Also, still ahead, how should priests sanction same-sex unions?” Sanction has two contradictory meanings: allow and disallow. To avoid confusion, avoid sanction .

12. “As feared, two soldiers who went missing last week were found dead today [Saturday] north of Baghdad….The U-S military had been combing the desert since the soldiers and their Humvee disappeared from guard duty on Wednesday.” The first day of the week is Sunday, so three days before Saturday is not last week.

11. “But you know, the surprising thing, most people taking it [the August power failure] in stride…Very different scene than [from] 9/11. Not the panic, not the fear, lots of confusion, but clearly most people just annoyed more than anything else.” Merely annoyed? Taking it in stride, whatever that cliché means, is annoying. And the reporter’s incomplete sentences are also annoying.

How could a reporter in midtown Manhattan determine that most people there were taking it in stride? Subways were stopped, buses jammed, surface transportation snarled, stores and restaurants closed. I’d rather hear about the people not taking it in stride: people compelled to walk miles in the heat, people who climbed 40 flights or more to reach their apartments, people who couldn’t even get home and were going to have to sleep in lobbies or on sidewalks.

10. “…and at four-point-five billion dollars, it was the third-costliest hurricane in U-S history.” Point is not conversational. Better: “four and a half billion dollars.”

9. “There are few luxuries in Iraq, just a laundry list of duties: find Saddam; find his fighters who are now killing an American soldier every three days.” Laundry list—a cliché for a long, varied list—should be on a hit list. Finding Saddam is for a list of tasks, not trifles.

8. “Senator John Edwards went home to North Carolina to officially, formally launch his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.” Why both officially and formally? An effort to pump up a story? And how do you launch a bid?

7. “And if the danger from guerrilla attacks wasn’t enough, there’s been an outbreak of pneumonia amongst U-S troops.” Amongst? Don’t get Shakespearean. Gives me angst.

6. “Still, the defense team’s aggressive tactics are sending a clear message to Bryant’s accuser: They’ll sacrifice her to save him. It’s the best defense money can buy.” The defense can go after the accuser, but it can’t sacrifice her. You can sacrifice only what’s yours. The best defense money can buy? Does the reporter mean the best defense team money can buy? Or the best tactic money can buy? In either case, the reporter’s assertion is unwarranted.

5. “There may yet be more fighting to be done in Iraq, but the fall of Tikrit must surely be a major milestone….” Delete to be done. Major milestone is redundant. There are no minor milestones.

4. “And while academy officials were aware of scores of reports, less than two dozen were looked into.” That sentence needs looking into. Less should be fewer; fewer is used with units that can be counted. That’s what editors are for, isn’t it? (Or wasn’t it?)

3. “Out in California, different insurance company, same story.” Out in California—on a network newscast? Listeners in California and neighboring states don’t regard themselves as out. It’s the folks out East who think they’re in.

2. “Most turn out to be false alarms, but some are real, with the potential to rob a company’s data or slow down national computer traffic.” Rob means to take property from someone by using or threatening force or violence. The word needed there is steal. (Had the editor stolen away?)

1. “The Iraqi National Museum opened today, but only to invited guests… [Invited guests is redundant. If you’re not invited, you’re not a guest.] On display, one of the museum’s most valuable collections, the Treasures of Nimrud, which was an ancient city dating to 900 B-C.” Should be from 900 B-C. And delete which was.

How did those scripts make it past the networks’ editors (of all ranks)? Beats me. Yes, the scripts are all real, all right, but the process by which they got on the air leaves me with one comment: Unreal!

The RTNDA Communicator published this column in December 2003.