Partly cloudy, chance of error

After reading about “lake-efect” snow on yesterday’s Chicago Tribune weather page, it seemed like a good idea to check that page today.

One of today’s headlines reads, “Water vapor in clouds hold onto and re-radiates heat.” This error are especially puzzling, since the correct usage appear not only in the same headline, but in the one just above it: “Layer of clouds prevents heat from escaping.”

Maybe the headline writer hadn’t meant to drop the required “s” from “hold,” but a copy editor should have caught and corrected that before publication.

Time was when every newspaper reporter, copy editor and editor had a well-worn edition of Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style” on their desks. Those who do can look under “Subject-Verb Agreement” for advice on when to use singular or plural forms of verbs.

Why, you might wonder, would anyone but a nitpicky English teacher care about this?  Because, as the author of “1984” and “Animal Farm” wrote, “If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them.”

This doesn’t mean you have to write as well as George Orwell to have a coherent thought. But competent use of basic grammar in one’s native language doesn’t seem too much to ask of anyone with at least an eighth-grade education, much less of professional wordsmiths.

Newspapers used to be regarded as bastions of proper English, one of the few places a person could reliably expect to see it used correctly. After all, their avowed goal was to provide an essential element of successful democracy – a well-informed public of people able to think for themselves.

Looks like those days is over.

And by the way, what is one to think about “Percent of possible sunshine in recent days,” which then informs us that there was zero sunshine on the three previous days? Wouldn’t the word “possible” be better used to predict the percent of sunshine in coming days, where the element of uncertainty justifies use of the word? Is it possible that there’s some uncertainty here about an easily measured and verifiable quality of weather during the three previous days?

Better add a dictionary to the desk, also.





Chicago Tribune death watch

“Lake-efect snow potential late Sunday”

Photo by

Photo by

“Pattern shift suggest temperature downturn late next week”

Both of these come from the paper’s weather-page graphic by WGN-TV, a Chicago Tribune property. Both appear to have been composed by someone for whom English is a second language and then published without the benefit of copy editing.

As every die-hard delivery customer knows, the Chicago Tribune has shriveled in size and deteriorated in quality. Publishers blame shrinking revenues caused by the Internet luring away advertisers. But that explanation doesn’t go deep enough.

Readers and advertisers abandoned newspapers because, like dinosaurs, newspaper publishers couldn’t adapt to a new environment. They clung to an old business model that included spending as little as possible on the newsroom. This worked well enough when times were good. Now that times are bad, they’ve doubled-down on it, starving the newsroom much like conservative Republicans aim to shrivel government by refusing to fund it adequately.

Newspaper publishers (not all of them, but in general) tend to loathe newsrooms, regarding them as nothing but overhead full of employees with bad attitudes who bring in no money but produce plenty of complaints from government officials and chamber-of-commerce types. When revenues began to tank 10 years ago, their first instinct was to cut newsroom budgets, lay off reporters, copy editors and photographers, outsource or centralize editorial functions, hope to get by with lower-paid, less experienced staffers and demand more work from them.

In the last gasps of its death throes, the Chicago Tribune still has produced some outstanding exposes, such as its stories about the ineffectiveness and dangers of a red-light camera program shot through with corruption. Imagine what it could do if it reinvested in its core function of delivering news, redefined its mission as in-depth explanation and analysis and gave up publishing a print edition of “daily” news already outdated by digital sources the day it’s printed.

It even enjoys the advantages of a huge market free from any competing papers and a large pool of unemployed, experienced ex-newsroom staffers.

All it needs is a publisher with imagination and guts.

Introducing Forked Tongue: Don’t say what you mean

With admiration for the annual Doublespeak Award given by the National Council of Teachers of English, I offer a modest effort called Forked Tongue. It will be a category of posts about words people use to obfuscate what they really mean.

The inaugural entry is inspired by a sentence in the front-page Chicago Tribune article about John Fox, newly hired coach of the bad-news Chicago Bears: “Fox’s resume is a glass of water for a team that has been wandering in the dessert.”

chicago bears cake

Photo from

This kind of silly, obvious error, in which a word meaning “a typically sweet course which concludes an evening meal” is accidentally used instead of one meaning “a barren area of land where little precipitation occurs,” is the result of newspapers firing thousands of copy editors, whose jobs were to prevent this kind of embarrassing lapse in standards.

Newspapers exile (excuse me, they outsource) copy editing to companies that offer editorial services cheaply. This is called “reallocating resources,” which here means spending less money on employees, and “trimming waste,” a euphemism for dumping the experienced but costly human resources who held full-time jobs paying liveable wages, plus paid vacations, sick leave and health insurance in favor of using part-time, low-wage hourly workers with no benefits.

In fact, the Chicago Tribune created its own in-house editing gulag in 2009, which produced ready-made pages already written up for seven other papers in the company’s chain, allowing those papers to dump some of the employees who wrote articles, or designed pages or checked articles for accuracy while eliminating typos, grammatical mistakes and errors of fact.

Such centralization is supposed to be more “efficient,” which means using fewer and lower-paid people to do a job that’s just good enough. This degradation of quality is helping speed newspapers to their demise, while their publishers pound nails labeled “reallocation” and “trimming” into the coffin lids.

Did Jew really say that?

merchant of venice

“Shylock, e.g.”

That’s the clue to 32 Down (three letters) in a crossword puzzle published yesterday and composed by Victor Barocas, a professor in the biomedical engineering department at the University of Minnesota. The answer is “Jew.” Shylock was a money lender in the Shakespeare play “Merchant of Venice,” who demands a pound of flesh from the guarantor of a loan who can’t pay.

Today, the Chicago Tribune’s customary publication of the answers to the previous day’s puzzle included an intriguing three-letter gap of blank spaces and this explanation: “…the answer to 32 Down has been blocked because it would make the combination of clue and solution an offensive stereotype.”

I, for one, was clueless about Shylock, having never read “Merchant of Venice.” Thus, I entirely missed not only the answer, but the offensive-stereotype link until the Trib’s note mentioned it. I had to Google “Shylock” to find out why the three blanked-out letters J-E-W (whose absences made the answers Sajak, oneG and byweight look like grins missing teeth) might offend anyone.

So the Trib’s note provided an educational opportunity about stereotypes and prejudice, but I wonder if blanking out the word “Jew” undermined it. By refusing to openly identify words used offensively, don’t we send a mixed message, signaling hesitation about confronting the mistaken beliefs which give those slurs power?

That hesitation can be taken as ambivalence, which signals we’re not sure of our ground.

If Paula Deen had said “N-word” instead of “nigger,” would she have sounded less prejudiced?

Chicago Trib censors Trudeau – again

The Chicago Tribune has covered yet another act of censorship in a cloak of journalistic purity worn threadbare by its own double standards.

It refused to run today’s “Doonesbury” comic strip, which includes a pitch for the nonprofit Donors Choose, a charity that connects potential donors with cash-strapped public-school classrooms. In a note to readers on page 2, it explained that today’s strip included “a direct fundraising appeal for a specific charity that the author favors.  The Tribune’s editorial policies do not allow individuals to promote their self-interests.”

They do, however, allow Tribune editors to exercise hypocrisy.

There is no more evident self-interest in the “Doonesbury” pitch for this charity than there was in the numerous mentions of the same charity in articles, photos, editorials and letters to the editor published in the last several years by the Tribune and its sister publication, the Los Angeles Times. The Trib’s editors also saw no problem in letting one of its staffers launch and publicize a “Book on Every Bed” campaign to benefit the Family Reading Partnership, or in allowing another staffer to devote one of his columns to pitching his book.

So if the self-interest explanation isn’t the real one, what’s going on?

This isn’t the first time the Trib has censored the work of  Garry Trudeau. “Doonesbury” habitually (but not exclusively) skewers right-wing politicians and pundits. The Trib, always staunchly conservative,  has taken a very hard turn to the right lately, pounding away at union bosses enjoying unearned pensions and decrying illegal immigrants who flee home to avoid facing criminal charges here. This kind of selective demonizing would have warmed the heart of its long-ago publisher, Robert McCormick, who was known for his extreme right-wing views.

The Trib’s false claim of virtue and its petty insult to Trudeau, which sideswiped a worthy cause, will do nothing to enhance its reputation.


Advice to the jobless: Keep smiling

Rex Huppke of the Chicago Tribune writes a column called “I Just Work Here. ” His latest on how to survive a layoff  (August 22, 2011) offers the advice of two supposed experts on employment and interviews with a couple of people who got lucky following their advice. It prompted me to write to Rex with a comment on their advice and a request that he do a little more reporting. That letter and a link to his column follow:

Dear Rex:

Please allow me to offer a different perspective than the one in your column, “After layoff, stick with job search, stay positive.”

I understand your goal was to present helpful advice, and the standard format is to interview people who should know the broader issues and a few who got lucky.

Their advice is the conventional wisdom. It has changed not an iota in decades, despite the enormous differences between unemployment now and at any other time in our history except the Great Depression. It’s no more useful now than it would have been then, when it would have been obtuse and insensitive to tell people lined up for free soup that to get a job they just have to stay positive and not give up. In reality, it took federal programs, government regulations and a war to resurrect the job market.

The theme of stick-to-it-and-keep-smiling advice, although not true, is clear: “Your employability is in your hands,” “…you’re responsible for your employability.”

The message? If you can’t get a job, it’s because you as an individual didn’t successfully overcome the massive systemic hurdles of outsourcing, consolidation, mechanization by technology, corporate dominance of politics and global economic malaise. You, as an individual, failed to hang on to your tiny piece of a rapidly shrinking pie as business giants gobbled it up and hoarded their huge shares for multimillion-dollar executive salaries.

“Individual situations differ.”  This discourages people from looking at the big picture and realizing they may not be to blame.

“Stay positive.” This is almost impossible emotionally and an unreasonable demand to make of people who’ve been ejected from the job market despite their experience and skills, even after accepting subsistence wages, long hours and few if any benefits.

I understand you are obliged to present the views of sources deemed to be experts. But aren’t you also obliged to examine their statements critically, to see whether their comments fit with reality? Imagine, for example, telling any of the former journalists you know that they must simply “steel themselves” after countless rejections. How will it help for them to keep believing in and chasing after the one-in-a-million chance of landing a job that offers pay commensurate with their skills?

When people use that stay positive, keep-trying approach at the casino, where the odds aren’t much different than on the job market, they’re considered to be impaired.

Tweaks such as a focused cover letter, informational interviews and networking will work for a few people in a few situations. Change that results in good jobs for millions of people requires organized action ranging from voting blocs to disruptive protest.

You hold a privileged position as someone with a platform that can influence many people. I ask that you consider reporting on a different approach to joblessness, one that depends on people getting angry, getting together and acting against the causes of joblessness.

This might require expanding your database of sources. You can find plenty of them at the website

Although I disagree with the views presented in this particular column, I enjoy “I Just Work Here” and wish you much continued success with it.,0,3012354.column