by Tom Avila
Tom Avila is a contributing writer to Metro Weekly news magazine and a staffer for the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA).
So, apparently, September was National Sketch Writing Month. As in sketch comedy.
Or, it was according to the blogger in charge of So I Like Superman. I had no idea if this is a real designation and haven’t even taken the time to check it out with the good folks at Google. All I cared about is that at least one in the long list of blogs that I check out on a regular basis was being updated. Daily. It’s a procrastinating writer’s dream. “I’ll start my column just as soon as I’ve read today’s sketch … and my horoscope. And Berg With Fries. And…”
You get the idea.
The sketch posted on Sept. 11 was my favorite, even though it hit so close to home. Spin Country – and this is really one of those cases where you have to read the actual piece and not depend on my ham-handed explanation because it will truly suffer in translation – is a series of vignettes where Barack Obama and John McCain are alternately addressing a group of reporters at various campaign stops. (Warning: While not falling into the nsfw category, there is language on the site to which some might object.)
The sketch begins with Obama delivering the now infamous “lipstick on a pig” line. The assembled members of the press snap to attention, run off stage and, in the fashion of all our favorite press-related black and white films, a headline spins into view. The Washington Times: OBAMA SEXIST! Barack Blasts McCain’s Veep!
This is followed by McCain delivering a statement about how disappointed he is in the thoughtless statements Sen. Obama has made. He concludes his remarks by saying, “Obama’s camp is full of vultures who dig up dirt and sling mud. And I pity those poor people. There’s nothing I can do for them.”
The press corps rushes off stage, and a new headline spirals into view. The New York Times: MCCAIN PITIES POOR PEOPLE. “There’s nothing I can do for them.”
The back and forth continues, and the headlines degenerate. One of my favorite moments involves John McCain referring to Obama as a “nincompoop” during a speech.
MCCAIN CALLS OBAMA THE N-WORD.
While certainly not as extreme as those used in the sketch, it reminded me of a headline that appeared in the Washington Post’s Sept. 8, 2008, edition: Palin Billed State for Nights Spent at Home. Taxpayers Also Funded Family’s Travel.
Which is a true statement.
But in the fifth paragraph of the story, gubernatorial spokeswoman Sharon Leighow states that Palin’s expenses are not unusual and that family travel is eligible for reimbursement.
In paragraph nine, Leighow notes: “As a matter of protocol, the governor and the first family are expected to attend community events across the state.” This would clarify why family travel was paid for.
And then, in paragraph 24, we are given some perspective and learn that Palin “has spent far less on her personal travel than her predecessor …”
There is all kinds of reasoning that can be employed to explain why there is nothing wrong with the headline as it appeared. After all, it was true.
But sometimes being true just isn’t enough.
That was the case back in January when Reuters reported on a new study about the drug-resistant staph infection MRSA. Reuters' headline – Drug-resistant staph passed in gay sex - US study – was true. The infection could be passed in this fashion, and the medical study did find a higher incidence of passing of the infection in men who have sex with men (which does not necessarily mean that an individual is gay or identifies as such) in the limited geographic areas researchers observed. The headline was true, but it did not tell the whole story.
And this is a problem in our drive-by media culture. I’m not alone in having a procrastination blog roll or a set of sites I drop in on first thing in the morning to get a fast jolt of news. But the difference is that I have the pleasure of checking in and listening and reading news all day long. If a headline or post catches my eye, I can follow it down the rabbit hole to see where it ends up, something not everyone can or wants to do.
It’s funny, really, how a new form of delivery has the ability to give us a touch of amnesia. If that wasn’t the case, we’d probably all realize that Twitter – the limited-character, text-based micro-blogger – is old-school headline writing gone mobile. Except, instead of being lead-ins, “Tweets” try to tell a complete story in under 140 characters.
It might be useful to start remembering that for some, headlines and broadcast teasers (“Barack Obama makes a little girl cry…”) aren’t lead-ins anymore but “tweets” that are all that will get read or remembered. We can no longer count on the idea that someone is going to get to paragraph 24 or tune back in at 11 p.m.
It raises the bar and makes it all the more critical that we don’t simply bemoan a media literacy that’s being informed by the increasingly condensed and hyper-kinetic online world, but learn how to adopt and adapt the language even to the so-called legacy mediums. Otherwise, our audiences might not even be getting half the story.
And that is sad. But true.
Tom Avila is a staffer with the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association. The opinions expressed are his own and not those of his employer. (121 characters) But you can use more characters if send you send an e-mail to Tom.