When ‘Now’ is Not Now on ABC’s ‘World News’

What happens when a newscast doesn’t have a copy editor? Yes, it saves money. But does it save copy? Let’s look at some scripts from ABC’s World News and see for ourselves.

Scripts there are not reviewed by a copy editor but by what a staff member told me were “a variety of people.” Recently, the anchor–and managing editor–Charles Gibson said on his 6:30 p.m. network newscast:

“Good evening. There was a tragic incident in Iraq today that is a stark reminder that while the demands on U-S forces in Iraq may be diminishing, the mental stress on service members remains high. A soldier this afternoon opened fire in a clinic in Baghdad that was treating military personnel for stress and suicide prevention. Five American soldiers were killed….” (May 11, 2009.)

The script’s first sentence is toothless—no bite. It has four linking verbs, which express no action.

There was, the opener, is a dead phrase. The script’s next verb is is. Any form of to be (is, are, was, were) is a linking verb. The script’s was and is are followed by another linking verb, may be, and still another linking verb, remains.

A linking verb connects a subject with a word or expression that identifies the subject or describes it. Although there was is dead, there are exceptions. Brian A. Garner says in his Modern American Usage that there is is acceptable if a writer’s only recourse is to use the verb exist.

In Baghdad, a dramatic scene had unfolded with the shootings. But not in that script. Another reason the script’s first sentence is flat is the lack of an action verb like hit, shoot or kill.

Better: “A U-S soldier in Baghdad shot five U-S soldiers dead.” Dead is a good word to end a sentence. It’s one syllable. Its last letter is a hard consonant. Dead packs the impact of a strong punch in the head. And Strunk and White’s Elements of Style says, “The proper place in the sentence for the word or group of words that the writer desires to make most prominent is usually the end.”

Tragic and tragedy are two of the most overworked (and rarely justified) words in broadcast news. Tragedy is defined in Webster’s New World College Dictionary: “A serious play or drama typically dealing with the problems of a central character, leading to an unhappy or disastrous ending brought on, as in ancient drama, by fate and a tragic flaw in this character, or, in modern drama, usually by moral weakness, psychological maladjustment or social pressures.”

The dictionary’s fifth–and last–definition of tragedy: “a very sad or tragic event or sequence of events; disaster.”

The last sentence of the script says the Baghdad clinic was treating military personnel for stress and suicide prevention. Someone can be treated for suicidal impulses. But no one can be treated for suicide prevention. The verb treat applies to only one noun, stress, but not to prevention. A competent copy editor would have scrutinized the script and prevented that error.

After a correspondent elaborated on the five Baghdad homicides, Gibson wrapped up the story with three words: “A tragic accident.” Accident? Sounds as though Gibson hadn’t been listening, not even to himself. If accident was ad-libbed and a slip of the tongue, it points up the peril of not having his every word on the teleprompter.

When Walter Cronkite anchored the CBS Evening News, a writer would type daily: “And that’s the way it is [with the date]. This is Walter Cronkite, CBS News. Good night.” Cronkite certainly knew his name and his nightly sign-off, but nothing was left to chance. An anchor can always have an inexplicable mental lapse, so ad-libs are risky.

Was it necessary for Gibson to call the deaths tragic again? You can call the death of every soldier in war tragic. Many local newscasts seem to report every day at least one tragic fire or tragic fight or tragic death. But the late singer Beverly Sills said, “Let’s keep tragedy in the opera, where it belongs.” In the opera or in the theater.

Gibson also said:

“Of all the images to emerge from the unrest in Iran, none has gotten more attention than a video showing the death of a young girl seconds after she was shot at a protest. Her name is Neda….” (June 22, 2009.) Her name was Neda. If she had survived, we could say her name is Neda. Also, the 26-year-old victim was a young woman, not a young girl.

“The country’s guardian council, made up of senior officials who are supposed to certify the election, conceded there were discrepancies in the voting in 50 different cities.” (June 22, 2009) Delete different. All cities differ from one another.

“There is late-breaking news from Washington, where at least two people have been killed in a Metro train collision near the Washington, D-C – Maryland border.” (June 22, 2009.) A train that was standing was hit by a train that was moving, so the crash was not a collision. A collision requires two objects that are both moving. The next night, Gibson again called the crash a collision.

“Much of the criticism centers around their using expensive corporate jets.” (June 11, 2009.) Should be centers on.

“As expected, the World Health Organization [WHO] has raised the alert level for the H-!-N-1 or swine flu to level six, so it’s now a full-scale pandemic.” (June 11, 2009.) As expected? By whom? By WHO? I myself had no inkling WHO was about to act.

“In a decision that could reverberate in school districts across the country, the Supreme Court issued a ruling on special education students today. [Not newsy. Issued a ruling = ruled. Rather than speculate on what could result, it’s preferable to start with what did occur.] It was a six-to-three decision, and the court made it easier for parents of special-needs kids to get the public to pay for their children’s private school.” (June 22, 2009.) Whether the vote was 6-3, 8-1 or 9-0, the decision has the force of law, so it’s best for a writer to defer the vote, certainly not report it before telling what the decision was.

The best pattern for the first sentence (at least) in a script is SVO—subject, verb, object. Start with the subject, then go to the verb (the closer to the subject, the better) and then the object. Moreover, the script needs a makeover: “The U-S Supreme Court made it easier today for special-needs students to go to private schools with their tuition paid by the public.”

Ideally, a correspondent in the field would send his proposed script to the executive producer, who would sign off on it and turn it over to the copy editor for examination. But that didn’t happen when a correspondent in ABC’s New York bureau said on World News,

“Whomever gets custody would be entitled to a large share of the Jackson estate.” (June 26, 2009.) Whomever? Whoever approved that script should go to the back of the class, and take everyone else who played a part in its being broadcast: the correspondent, the executive producer and the managing editor. Who and whoever are for subjects in a sentence; whom and whomever are for objects.

Another correspondent said on World News, “In southwest Michigan, a trio of tornadoes toppled trees….” (June 21, 2009.) Tornadoes don’t travel in trios. Trio is best used to refer to three tenors (or sopranos, or a blend) or three instrumentalists—perhaps three wind players.

The anchor of the Saturday World News. David Muir, is skilled in making a not-so-fresh story sound new: he often turns it into a tonight story. On May 9, he said, “In Boston tonight, a trolley operator says he crashed because he was text messaging.” In fact, that morning’s Boston Globe reported that the operator had admitted text messaging almost 24 hours before Muir’s newscast. In some cases, Muir’s technique bends the truth—or blots it out.

When Muir sat in for Charles Gibson on Friday, July 3, Muir again used the device for a story about Michael Jackson:

“And tonight we’re learning just how deadly and dangerous some of those drugs are.” Tonight we’re learning? Sounds like a late-breaking exclusive. Muir then introduced a correspondent who said ABC News had learned that among the drugs seized by police in Michael Jackson’s rental home was Diprivan. But more than five hours earlier, CNN said The Associated Press was reporting that Diprivan had been found in the home; and in CNN’s next hour, its chief medical correspondent spoke at length about the drug.

After the ABC correspondent finished his report from Los Angeles, Muir said, “And we’re learning more tonight about the memorial service that will be held in that arena….” Learning more tonight? Muir went on to say the memorial service would be held in the Staples Center at 10 a.m., PDT, Tuesday. ABC’s Web site reported that information the previous day.

Muir said 17,500 seats would be given to the public. CNN reported that about five hours earlier. Muir also said the police had said they would need 2,500 officers “to control the estimated 750,000 people who will try to get in anyway.” ABC News’s Web site had reported those last two numbers the previous day, July 2. It turned out, though, that during the memorial service, the city stationed 3,200 police officers outside the Staples Center. And only about 1,000 fans and curiosity seekers showed up outside— not 750,000.

Also, Muir said the registration Web site had crashed because of 500 million Internet hits. At 5:48 p.m., EDT, July 3, the Web site of the Los Angeles Times reported that number. And CNN, on its 6 p.m., EDT, newscast, carried the number and attributed it—120,000 hits a second–to an unidentified P.R. agency. Might a P.R. agency err? Or exaggerate? Your guess is as good as mine—or theirs. Muir should have attributed that huge number to the P.R. agency or whoever was ABC’s source. As the wit Steven Wright has said, “42.7 percent of all statistics are made up on the spot.”

At the outset of that segment, Muir said we’re learning more tonight about the memorial service. Learning implies that what was absorbed was true. You can’t properly say, “I learned today that 2 plus 2 equals 5.” What Muir said about the date, time and place of the Jackson service was accurate, but his other info was wrong or questionable. And with the possible exception of the “500 million hits,” ABC didn’t dig out that info tonight. And certainly couldn’t have learned what wasn’t so.

On the Saturday World News, July 11, Muir again twisted the time, big time. At the end of a story about a surgical technician accused of misusing dirty syringes, Muir said, “And tonight, in that newest case, authorities in the Denver area now say up to six-thousand people may [should be past tense, might] have been exposed to hepatitis C by that one addicted technician.” Now say? The release of that number, 6,000, was neither now nor new. Nine days earlier, on July 2, The Associated Press moved a story from Denver that said, “About 6,000 patients are being advised they may have been exposed….”

How would a professional copy editor deal with all those scripts and that kind of writing? No pro would ever sit still for it. Or stand for it.

© Mervin Block 2009