News & Publishing

Headlines always fall short

The New York Times published a bad headline.

In the newspaper’s defense, headline writing is sometimes problematic. At the 12th hour, before the presses roll, when you’re tasked with finite space, painfully few characters and a need to quote a President’s national address, this stuff happens.

The headline was misleading as it read, but there was a lack of space to lay out the “backgrounder” context that puritanical media critics wanted. They wanted a headline that called the President a “racist.”

They wanted the headline to scream: He said this stuff, but of course he doesn’t really mean it. 

They wanted the headline to tell the full story. Headlines never do.

And, of course, this particular headline was never going to meet that expectation. It was never going to say, “Today, the President spoke insincerely about racism and gun culture.”

It was never going to say that a.) Because that’s a full sentence. b.) It’s editorializing in what is intended to be a straight news piece.

Critics, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t say, “The media is biased!” And then, at the same time, expect us to be biased, to make a qualification or judgment — and blatantly, on the front page, above the fold.

Certain members of the media (looking at you, Joan Walsh) piled on and stoked the embers of a digital subscription revolt against the Times. Never mind that 2,000 newspapers have shuttered in just a few years. Never mind that 95% of the time, The New York Times masthead somehow, incredibly, produces important deep-diving work that smaller papers cannot, because they lack the resources.

Never mind all the other good work by staff not tasked with political coverage. Never mind that many of them are trying to decide tonight whether they should pay their rent or buy groceries this month.

Never mind that every day is a mental, physical and spiritual succubus on journalists trying to cover this Administration.

This anger against The New York Times is misplaced. It’s bubbling up because of a President, who is never held to account for his words, his policies, his opacity and gaslighting, his indecency, and his criminal conduct. Of course, the President was insincere when he read his scripted statement. His uncomfortable body language. The sniffing. The stumbling over the words. The legacy of racist, violent rhetoric, archived and freely searchable on the Internet. The predictable 180-degree spin on Twitter the very next day.

Does The New York Times need to spell it all out for the American people in a pithy 15-character headline?

Are we that daft? ~ G.A. Peck

Here’s what The New York Times had to say about it: