Who Was Taking a Snooze on the Evening News?

Let’s play editor. We get a chance to do that because some editors are missing in inaction. So let’s look at several scripts from network evening newscasts:

“More evidence that executives put greed ahead of the company’s welfare, and this time there could be criminal repercussions.” Holy Houston! Did I hear right–the repercussions could be criminal? Does that mean the prosecutor might be a crook? Or gangsters might go gunning for the execs? What the writer probably meant was that the execs may face criminal charges.

“If you’re an honest citizen and mailed in your taxes last month, you won’t like this story because it now turns out that more than a million of your friends and neighbors who didn’t pay theirs have essentially been given a free ride.” Does that mean, if I’m dishonest, I’d like the story? Honest citizens might appreciate the story because it exposes a problem that needs attention.

And with so many facts about the story presented in that morning’s New York Times, why should the TV correspondent start a strong story with the weakest word in the dictionary, if? Hint: he shouldn’t. And writers shouldn’t tell people how to act or react.

“When there’s a catastrophe at sea, the U-S Coast Guard takes center stage, sending ships and helicopters to save victims.” Catastrophe?

How often is there a catastrophe at sea–besides Kevin Costner’s “Waterworld”? Or was that only a disaster? The writer of the script might have thought accident was too mild, so he kicked it up a few notches. Takes center stage is a cliché. Also: if a ship is in distress, and people are rescued, they’re not victims.

“At the lot in Portland, Maine, where they dump the plows, the snow was 10 acres across and 40 feet high this time last year.” Dump the plows? Plows dump snow, but who on earth—or heaven–dumps plows? Also: an acre is not a linear measurement, so you can’t say something is an acre across. An acre is 43,560 square feet; an acre of land could be 100 feet wide and 435.6 feet long. Or 10 feet wide and 4,356 feet long.

“A setback was reported today in the search for an effective vaccine against Alzheimer’s disease.”
Delete effective; what other kind of vaccine would scientists search for? So what is the key word in that script? Search? Vaccine? Disease? No, setback. A rule in Elements of Style: “Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.” Strunk and White go on to say: “The word or group of words entitled to this position of prominence is usually…the new element in the sentence…. The principle that the proper place for what is to be made most prominent is the end applies equally to the words of a sentence, to the sentences of a paragraph, and to the paragraphs of a composition.”

When we keep that advice in mind, we can rewrite the original sentence: “The search for a vaccine against Alzheimer’s has suffered a setback.” As the last word in the listener’s mind, setback has indeed the last word.

“Investigators now know at least six of the September 11th terrorists used illegally obtained identification to carry out their hijack plans.” Twenty-one words. The key word, illegally, is buried in the middle of the sentence, so that word loses its punch. Let’s put it where it belongs: “Investigators now know at least six of the September 11th hijackers used identification obtained illegally.” Fifteen words; shorter, sharper, stronger.

But after this column was published in Communicator, the sports producer William Weinbaum told me I erred in not pointing out the lack of attribution in that script. After all, he said, we don’t know what’s in anyone else’s mind, so how could the script report what investigators know? Good point. I’m well aware that we don’t know what’s on anyone else’s mind. I didn’t challenge investigators know because I didn’t know the source of the information in the script or the chronology of the unfolding investigation. By the time that script was written, those terrorists’ use of illegal ID might have been clearly established and widely reported. So maybe when the writer of that script said investigators know, he could have also said “everyone knows.” Who knows?

“In fact, U-S officials were pressing Pakistan to arrest the self-confessed organizer of the kidnap… months before Pearl was abducted.” Kidnap is a verb; the word needed there is the noun kidnapping. Only the person who confesses can make a confession. So self-confessed is redundant. (That should have been self-evident.)

“…the F-B-I believes it has narrowed the world of suspects down to a dozen or more, but getting beyond that has proven [correct: proved] torturous.” Torture is not allowed. The path was tortuous—or twisting.

Again, the sharp-eyed—and sharp-eared—Weinbaum raised questions about about my comments. He reminded me that a writer doesn’t know what the FBI or anyone else believes. All we ever know for certain is what someone says. Yes, I know that. But again, I didn’t fault the script for that, probably because I figured that whatever the FBI “believed” might have already been widely known. I concede, though, that I sailed past two constructions in the script that Willie says, correctly, I should have objected to: world of suspects should have been a list or pool of suspects or something else less global than the original. Also: dozen or more should have been reduced to “about a dozen” or a “dozen or so.” (Willie caught me dozin’.)

“It was the worst possible combination here outside Philadelphia last night, rising floodwaters and then the unthinkable: a natural gas explosion so severe it ripped the apartment building in two. And the rising floodwaters essentially left firefighters helpless to fight it.” Worst possible combination? Bad, but not the worst. And that type of explosion is not unthinkable. It happens. If something is unthinkable, how can anyone think of it? And is essentially essential? Probably not. In which case its removal is essential.

Another sharp-eyed reader, Ike Pigott of Birmingham, Alabama, raises more questions about the second sentence of that script: “And the rising floodwaters essentially left firefighters helpless to fight it.” Ike asks, “Helpless to fight what? The fire? The floodwaters? The combination? The pronoun [it] has too many antecedents to be clear.” Right he is. Yes, I should have caught that, but I guess I was dozing on the job. I don’t remember for sure, but maybe I was just testing my readers.

“Allison is a storm that keeps on going and will go into the history book as the most costly tropical storm ever. The powerful rainmaker is leaving billions in damages on its cross-country path of death and destruction.” Only one history book? Which history book even deals with storms? And would include a storm because it’s the costliest? What about a storm a week later that’s costlier? In any case, anchors don’t decide what goes into history books; historians do–eventually. Not nightly and not while an event is still under way.

The use of damages is wrong. Damages are the money a judge or jury awards someone harmed by another person. The word needed in that script is damage. And let’s look at cross-country. When we talk about a cross-country flight, we mean one going from one coast to the other. But would you ever call a flight—or a storm—that traveled from Texas to New England cross-country? If so, go to the foot of the class.

“The Department of Transportation insists security flaws were addressed….” Leave the verb address to bureaucrats. Flaws should be corrected.

“In rules to be issued next week, airlines will be ordered to do more extensive fuel tank inspections.” Here’s a case of a strong verb, inspect, buried in a noun. Better: “In rules to be issued next week, airlines will be ordered to inspect fuel tanks more thoroughly.”

How about networks’ imposing a new rule requiring editors to inspect scripts thoroughly—and competently.

The RTNDA Communicator published this column in May 2002.