2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
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Unfortunate Headline: Obama's Rout Rejiggers the Race


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January 27, 2008

Time Editors Rejigger Obama Headline

INSTAPUNDIT TRIES -- because he is a kind man -- to label the editorial gaffe below "AN UNFORTUNATE TURN OF PHRASE AT TIME MAGAZINE."

Screen Capture of Yahoo Page as of 11:02 AM PST. Still visible at 1:05 PM with the url "http://news.yahoo.com/s/time/obamasroutrejiggerstherace".

He is too kind by half. It's not "unfortunate," but an outgrowth of the "wordsmithing" culture that pervades the editorial departments of professional magazines and newspapers. This is especially true in large organizations like TIME where an astute associate editor can earn promotion by becoming noted as "good with heads" -- or clever with inserting puns or cultural references into the headline or subhead of a story.

Quite often, in large media organizations, the head and the subhead are all that a would-be editor does to the copy on its way to publication. I've seen this operate for over 30 years in the New York magazine and newspaper culture. I grew to dread the advent of a new catch-phrase, because it meant months of headline torture from every clever and aspiring word-jockey in the business. ( Think "Close Encounters of the ________ Kind," or "Sex, Lies, and __________.")

Yes, word play wins in the magazine biz. As a result, places like Time foster a competitive atmosphere between editors on the lower levels looking to climb a rung or two up. In the past, little word games like that displayed above would raise a snicker or two and then be killed by wiser and older editors higher up on the food chain.

A kindly senior editor, in days of yore, might have said, "Son, I appreciate an inside joke as much as the next man, but I think you're going to have to rejigger that headline, if you know what I mean." A more serious senior editor would simply kill the headline, and then seek to humiliate the junior editor at the next editorial meeting as "a person who is in the crazy place now, and who might want to send his resume off to the David Duke Monthly, where his career prospects would be brighter."

But that was then, when newsmagazines published once a week, and actually had a "news" function to fulfill. Today, news rolls 24/7/365. And if a big story breaks late Saturday evening on the East coast, you can bet that the more senior, and supposedly wiser, editorial staff is either off-duty and out for the evening. Hence, the level of oversight on junior staff who traditionally pull weekend and evening duty is lighter than it might be.

I think that might well be what happened here. Some junior editor got an admirable play on words into his head and just popped it on the copy. As the copy flowed towards the web, there was an absence of senior filtering, and -- like Topsy -- it just growed until somebody just clicked the publish button and, whup -- there it is. And there it stayed until somebody more senior saw it, killed it, and then picked their phone and politely requested that whoever wrote that head have his head delivered to him in a box by Sunday evening.

Live by the quip. Die by the quip.

And that's the way it is.


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