May 18, 2004

How to Cram an Editorial into a Headline

THE NEW YORK TIMES today yields a classic in the field of "How to Slant a Headline:"

Army Discovers Old Iraqi Shell Holding Sarin, Illicit Weapon

As old news hands know, reporters file the stories, but editors write the headline. I wonder how much heavy lifting went into this one to get the story slanted in the Times direction?

Journalism 101 teaches you to write headlines that get across the news of the story in as few words as possible.

The news in the headline is:Army Discovers Iraqi Shell Holding Sarin. The curious additions here are "old" (Hell, son, that's just an old, old shell. Probably decrepit. Nothing to worrry above. Trust me. You defuse it, I'll wait for you about 20 miles upwind."), and "Illicit" ("I see you boys are dropping those illicit items all around the roadside in Baghdad these days. You been dropping those reefers, those copies of Jugs, those video tapes of Gina Davis with her top off, and those cannisters of the lethal nerve gas Sarin wired to explode. When are you going to learn to pick up after yourselves?") You've got to admire the mind that would parse nerve gas as something merely illicit.

In the lead of this story we learn that the shell had been transformed into a "homemade bomb" for use against American troops. In the next graph we learn that the shell had been manufactured in 1991 -- which is the basis for "old" in the headline. Typically, shells for the delivery of nerve agents are manufactured before the agents are added. The are what is called binary in that the torque of the shell upon being fired causes a barrier to break between two chemicals and the chemicals to mix. This is the way in which chemicals become chemical weapons.

As a result, you would want to manufacture and test the shell before you cooked up your chemicals and loaded them (very carefully) into the shell. It is not, therefore, a question of when the shell was made, but when the sarin was put into the shell. Old doesn't enter into it. If you have a stick of dynamite made in 1991, do you stop treating it with respect now that it is over 21? As the story tells you, the sarin wasn't so old that it was not dangerous.

"Illicit:" Sarin is a nerve gas. Alert readers will recall a Japanese cult's successful attack on the Tokyo subway system in the 1990s as an example of it being used against human beings. I suppose you could call it an "illicit" weapon even if the word "lethal" is more accurate.

I wonder when the Times' much-touted ombudsman is going to get around to the haiku editorializing implicit in headlines like this. Probably right after a breakthrough in ovine aviation.

Posted by Vanderleun at May 18, 2004 9:40 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Hmmm, "Army shoots down old bovine during Ilicit flight attempt." ... think that will 'fly'?

Posted by: mdmhvonpa at May 18, 2004 12:09 PM

No, no, they were going for completeness on this one, I just know it!

Posted by: Jeremiah at May 18, 2004 12:46 PM

I've yet to read the fact that these shells are SPECIFICALLY manufactured to carry biological or chemical payloads. You do not modify an existing artillery shell, you manufacture it for the specified purpose. If the shell was manufactured in 1991, then there was still an active biological/chemical weapons program at that time.

Posted by: Jim G. at May 19, 2004 6:08 AM

If the NYT says the shell was manufactured in 1991, then they are making it up - just like the LAT. There was zero indication of the date of manufacture from the press conference.

Posted by: blaster at May 19, 2004 2:21 PM