Many immortal newspaper reporters, from war correspondent Homer Bigart to police beat specialist Edna Buchanan had the same advice.
“Never trust an editor,” they said.
They weren’t kidding. I can only imagine what the great ones said about the owners who hired the editors.
Bigart and the rest, for all their laser insights, didn’t always get it right.
Top management has its moments. This is one of them — the story of an attempt to encourage fresh voices and save the language from murderous repetition. Here’s the backdrop:
I wrote a column last year about “unprecedented” being the most overworked word in America.
Reporters seemed to use unprecedented for any old distancing program to stop the spread of COVID-19. Every relief package approved by Congress or a state legislature received the same tired treatment.
The times were terrible. Still, calling them unprecedented defied history. The 1918 influenza pandemic killed at least 50 million people worldwide and about 675,000 in the United States.
Robin Martin, owner of The New Mexican, sent me a note about the column and the decline in language. It had nothing to do with unprecedented declarations.
“The words that drive me crazy are ‘tout’ and ‘reeling,’ ” Martin wrote. “I know they are easy headline words, but they are wearing out.”
She was on to something about the destruction of our mother tongue. Neither I nor a thousand editors across the land had noticed what Martin did. Namely, boosters and victims on rubbery legs are everywhere.
Quad-City Times: “The White Sox were touted as World Series contenders, but are still trying to get above the .500 mark.”
Tampa Bay Times: “A World Health Organization panel has officially advised against the use of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-inflammatory drug previously touted by the Trump administration, for patients infected with COVID-19.”
Associated Press: “Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker, who like all Republicans voted against the bill, touted its $29 billion for the ailing restaurant industry.”
Bloomberg News: “The Anglo-Gulf Trade Bank was touted as the world’s first digital trade bank.”
Santa Fe New Mexican: “Reps. Moe Maestas and Javier Martínez, Democrats from Albuquerque, once again touted the measure’s potential for changing the future for our state’s children.”
Los Angeles Times: “President Biden highlighted the doubling of his initial goal of administering 100 million vaccine shots in his first 100 days, and he touted the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan he enacted in March.”
Asbury Park Press: “Biden might want to give an ear to the voices of Main Street in Paterson, a 9-square-mile patch of modern urban hardship once touted by Alexander Hamilton as an industrial dreamscape.”
Hamilton, who died after a pistol duel in 1804, shilled for dreamscapes? Who knew?
If immodest politicians weren’t filling the news hole, stumblers were.
Barron’s: “As Bitcoin crashes, Coinbase and other cryptocurrency exchanges are reeling.”
WSVN, virtual channel 7, Miami: “People are reeling over a video of a man tossing a shark into the air off a fishing pier, only it didn’t land in the water.”
Los Angeles Times: “With the global economy reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, turning away from coal and other fossil fuels could become more difficult.”
Associated Press: “A Lutheran church in New York City already reeling from the COVID-19 deaths of more than 60 members of the congregation has suffered a new trauma.”
Tallahassee Democrat: “Wife’s affairs leave family reeling.”
All of these examples are from the last five months. Thousands more were attainable through a computer service that provides subscribers with hundreds of newspapers.
The list of other worn-out words and phrases could fill books, and it does.
Onetime White House counsel John Dean gave us “at that point in time” in 1973. The phrase is still torturing the language.
“Thrown under the bus” appears in news stories almost every day.
“In the wake of” wastes words. It seems to have supplanted the concise “after.”
“You know” infects interviews from baseball clubhouses to the Capitol steps.
All are unnecessary, which is why they should be top of mind.
And now, like the boss, I’m reeling with every terrible tout.