Saturday, October 22, 2011

Reporting the death of Whatshisname

As a (retired) journalist, I spent much of Thursday watching internet news with fascination as reports of the violent death of Moamar Gaddafi leaked out.  I watched the national news at six thirty and kept checking on line, and by the time I went to bed I still didn’t know exactly who killed him.  Still don't.

This kind of story is a nightmare for a working journalist who has to report from the middle of a violent, hysterical and dangerous crowd and has no way of checking the facts he is told.  Everyone has his own version of what happened.  And imagine how much more complicated things are today, when every terrorist, tourist, rebel, protester and cop has his or her own cell phone recording what’s happening.  (This is both a good thing and a bad thing for the general populace, because we get the news immediately as it’s happening, thanks to Steve Jobs and the internet, but we  may very well get a slanted or staged version of the event.)

Another difficult aspect of this story—for journalists and especially editors—is what to do about the gruesome images of Gaddafi both before and after he was dead.  All the TV reports warned viewers that they were about to view graphic images.

I was eager to see yesterday (Friday) how the story would be handled by the three papers I read every day:  the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, the New York Times and the New York Post.

Not surprisingly, the Worcester T&G headlined, in the biggest typeface they could find, “Libya’s new era”.  Under that in smaller type was “Joyous celebration, giddy disbelief over death of Gadhafi”.  The main photo was of euphoric fighters, all smiles.  There was no bloody corpse in sight.  And that made sense, because the T&G readers in Worcester, MA are quick to write angry letters every time the paper shows something like a fatal auto crash or any image that would be too hard to take over breakfast.        

The New York Times also handled the news with restraint, but a little grimmer tone:  “QADDAFI, SEIZED BY FOES, MEETS A VIOLENT END”—was the main headline stretched across the entire width of the front page. The subhead was: “Fighters Mob the Fallen Dictator After His Failed Effort to Flee”.  The main photo on the front page showed euphoric fighters waving their guns and shouting in victory. Much smaller and lower on the page was a blurry image with the caption “This still image from a video apparently shows a bloodied Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi after his capture by government fighters.

I knew the NYTimes would be restrained in coverage—she is after all the “Great Gray Lady”  with “all the news that’s fit to print.”  When I attended Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1963-64, to get my master’s degree, we eighty students, sitting behind our massive manual typewriters in the news room, were taught New York Times style.  There were many rules.  A man, for instance, was always referred to as “Mr.” until he was convicted of a crime.  Women were “Mrs.” or “Miss” (“Ms.” wasn’t yet born.)  The word “rape” never appeared—it was “sexually assaulted.”  Everything in the Times had to be restrained, calm, factual and backed up by at least two independent sources.

The New York Post, as I expected, on Friday ran full page the goriest bloody corpse photo it could find, along with an inset of a young man brandishing a gold pistol that he claimed belonged to the dead “mad dog of the Middle East” as Reagan called him.  The boy was wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap which inspired the New York Post ‘s headlines to trumpet in giant letters 1.5 inches high: “ KHADAFY KILLED BY YANKEE FAN”.

If there was a prize awarded for the best headline of the day, I’m sure the Post’s chauvinist take on the story would win hands down.  Oh, and the Post’s subhead read:  “Gunman had more hits than A-Rod.”  The Post’s story may not have been accurate, but you have to admit it made you smile, unlike all the other front-page reports.

After comparing the approach of my three regular papers, and then scanning other front pages from around the world (collected on Yahoo under the title  “Has the media gone too far?…” I suddenly realized  that EVERY PAPER WAS SPELLING THE MAN’S NAME A DIFFERENT WAY!  You’d think, since the New York Times owns the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, that those two papers would both spell it “Qaddafi”—Times’ style-- but no, the T&G calls him Gadhafi.  If you go to Google, as I did, you’ll find there are more than 100 ways to spell this colorful madman’s name and there are a lot of newspaper editors on line defending their own version of the spelling. 

The problem is--you’re starting with a name in a different alphabet (Arabic) and trying to spell it phonetically with our Latin alphabet.  There’s a similar problem with spelling our last name--Gage-- to a Greek in a language that has a different alphabet and no hard “G”.  (It’s “Gamma, kappa, alpha, iota, tau, zita.”  Which comes out GKAITZ.  This is why a Greek TV reporter interviewing daughter Eleni in Greek reported that she was the daughter of Bill Gates.)

Anyway, I’m glad I didn’t have to cover a slippery story like the death of the Colonel, especially in an era when every man in the crowd is reporting it too.  And I say "kudos!" to the young journalists who did it at the risk of their lives.  (Now if they’d just learn the correct usages of  “lie” and “lay” and  “its” & “it’s).

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