Thursday, December 31, 2009

"Burying the Lead" May Bury Us

(Disclaimer: To be completely clear on this point, to avoid any confusion, and the entirely understandable accusation of not practicing what he preaches, The Flying Curmudgeon will now clearly state the lead of this post, from the very beginning of said post:

"Burying the lead" in a news story - especially for the sake of political correctness, in a news story dealing with the War on Terror/Radical Islam - may have potentially disastrous consequences for our nation - and for its people.

Now...onto the post.)

Imagine it's December 8th, 1941.

You are downtown in any major metropolitan city in the United States - New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, etc. It doesn't matter. You pass a newsstand and pick up the local paper. Above the fold, in bold, black letters, you read the following:

Nationwide Welders Strike Called - Dust-Up in the Pacific

As you delve into the riveting details of the impending job action, (dateline: Morgantown, West Virginia), half-way through the article, (which, after turning to page 5, you dutifully continued to read), you see the following sentence: "Yesterday's cowardly attack on our fleet at the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, means even more demands will now be placed on these over-worked, under-paid, and under-appreciated men," a union spokesman was quoted as saying.

Or it's the 23rd of November, 1963, and you're walking past a newsstand in Times-Square. You spot a stack of that morning's edition of "The Gray Lady" and see this:

Many Floats to Appear in Parade, Despite Yesterday's Tragedy

Purchasing your own copy, you step away from the newsstand and continue reading.

Completely engrossed in the story, upon turning to page 8 you learn that after speaking with newly sworn President Lyndon B. Johnson, the head of Macys has bravely decided NOT to cancel this year's annual Thansgiving Day gala, on account of the tragic assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas the day before.

Relieved, you continue walking towards Times Square, glance up and sure enough, the News Ticker confirms the good news: "...The Parade Must Go On, Macys Head Says..."

"Phew, that was close. For a minute, there, I was afraid I'd have to tell the kids there'd be no parade this year."

Both of these admittedly absurd examples are illustrations of what is known in the news business as "burying the lead."

The "lead" of a news story is the "Who," "What," "When," "Where," "How," and "Why" of a story. It is, by definition, the main thrust or point of a news story. As such, it is crucial to get to the lead of a story as soon as possible, preferably within the first few sentences.

Therefore, to "bury" the lead of a news story is to relegate the most important part of that story to a less than prominent place within said story.

And as any first-year journalism student can tell you - well, okay, back when The Flying Curmudgeon was a first year journalism student, anyway - "burying the lead" is something "professional" journalists are taught NOT to do.

When the average person picks up a newspaper, he or she will typically skim the headlines, and maybe the first few sentences or paragraphs of a given news story, to see if it's worth the time and energy to continue reading.

If the article's writer uses crisp, engaging prose, provides the pertinent facts early on in the story, (the "lead"), and captures the reader's imagination from the beginning, then the reader is more likely to commit his or her precious time and energy to reading the entire story.

As the reader continues, he or she is then more likely to read the entire newspaper, and in the process, come across the all-important advertising contained within.

If not, then the reader quickly becomes bored and will likely discard the paper - without coming across the ads.

And whether one is talking about the 19th Century's New York Tribune, or today's New York Times, the bottom line in the newspaper business is advertising.

Without advertising, there are no newspapers.

As we begin the second decade of the 21st Century, with the Internet providing an ever-increasing number of cyber-news options - and traditional newspapers failing at an alarming rate, or at the very least, forced to make massive cutbacks - it is even more crucial for those papers that are left to hold onto their remaining readers.

With that in mind, consider the following scenario:

This morning, as is his custom following an overnight hotel stay, The Flying Curmudgeon went down to the lobby to pick up a paper, and then to partake of some nourishment.

Picking up the December 31, 2009 edition of The Wall Street Journal, he then went into the restaurant for some breakfast. Having made his selection from the menu, with coffee cup in hand, he began to peruse the paper.

On the front page, above the fold, below and to the right of the main headline, which read 2009: Banner Year for Stocks, he saw a secondary headline which read U.S. Probes Cleric's Tie to Jetliner Bomb Plot.

"Hmmmh." Intrigued, The Flying Curmudgeon began to read.

In the first sentence, he learned that a certain, American-born, radical Muslim cleric of Yemeni-extraction by the name of Anwar al-Awlaki, had "...surfaced in multiple terror probes..." and was "...emerging as a central part of the Christmas Day airline bomber investigation..."

"So far so good," TFC thought to himself. "But, al-Awlaki, al-Awlaki, where have I heard that name before?"

He continued reading and learned that U.S. investigators had "...uncovered intelligence 'chatter' indicating contacts between "Mr." al-Awlaki...and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a wealthy Nigerian who is accused of trying to down Northwest Airlines Flight 253 with explosives hidden in his underwear."

In what remained of the article on the front page, the authors wrote of the U.S. intelligence community's prior failure to connect "Mr." al-Awlaki, a known associate of Al Qaeda's Yemeni branch, and the aforementioned Nigerian bomber. As the article reached the end of the column, the reader - in this case, your humble correspondent, The Flying Curmudgeon - was instructed to "Please turn to page A5."

As he turned to page A5, TFC was struck with the thought: "I know I've seen or heard the name Anwar al-Awlaki before. But where?"

Continuiing on page A5, lo and behold, there was a picture of "Mr." al-Awlaki, in traditional Muslim dress. He immediately recognized the man in the picture

"He certainly looks familiar, " thought TFC.

Continuiing to read, in the third paragraph on page A5 finally, there it was - the proof he had sought.

Halfway into the article, it's three authors - Evan Perez, Margaret Coker, and Siobhan Gorman - had written, " 'Mr.' Awlaki was in contact with an Army psychiatrist charged in a shooting spree last month at Fort Hood Army base in Texas. "

"That's where I'd heard the name before."

" 'Mr.' Awlaki was in contact with an Army psychiatrist charged...?" The Flying Curmudgeon repeated to himself. "How could this be?" The authors had buried the lead - in a BIG way.

He felt at once vindicated, and at the same time, a bit sickened, as the impact of what he had just read struck TFC like the breakfast omelet he'd just eaten, hitting his stomach.

As hard as it was to believe, the authors had waited until page A5 to reveal the most important part of the story, the fact that "Mr." al-Awlaki, the former imam and spiritual advisor to the (ahem) "alleged" Fort Hood shooter, U.S. Army Major Nidal Malik Hasan, was also linked to the erstwhile 2009 Christmas Day Bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

Incredulous, The Flying Curmudgeon immediately turned back to the front page, and took another look at the masthead.

Nope, it clearly read The Wall Street Journal, and NOT The New York Times.


Burying the lead for politically correct purposes was de rigeur for the editors of The Gray Lady.

They'd engaged in such shameless, harmful conduct for years.

This sort of thing was NOT what The Flying Curmudgeon had come to expect from the folks at The Wall Street Journal.

A bit saddened, he pressed on anyway.

Turning back to page A5, seven paragraphs later he then read "With his strong English skills, 'Mr.' Awlaki built a substantial following in the U.K. with video and audio recordings of his sermons."

"Strong English skills?" The Flying Curmudgeon thought to himself. "The man was born in the United States, for crying out loud. He's a native speaker of English. Of COURSE he has 'strong English skills.' "

Just when he'd about given in to his dejection, TFC saw it. There was STILL hope in Mudville!

After dancing around the subject for half the story, the authors must have suddenly realized their journalistic faux pas. (Perhaps their editor was out for the holidays?)

In a small box in the middle of the text, they wrote:

"Mr." Awlaki was in contact with an Army psychiatrist charged in the shooting at Fort Hood.

Oh well, better late than never. :(

Happy New Year!

The Flying Curmudgeon

"I deplore...the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed and the malignity, the vulgarity and mendacious spirit of those who write for them...As vehicles of information and a curb on our functionaries, they have rendered themselves useless by forfeiting all title to belief...This has, in a great degree, been produced by the violence and malignity of party spirit." - Thomas Jefferson to Walter Jones, 1814

(Note: Both of the "headlines" used in the opening were actual sub-heads taken from side-bar stories, from actual U.S. newpapers on the aforementioned dates: The Kinsgport (Tennessee) Times, and The Parkersburg (West Virginia) Sentinel, respectively.)

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