Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Wisconsin State Journal Reluctant to Expose Wrongdoing?

Being one of the dwindling number of dinosaurs, I read the print edition of the Wisconsin State Journal essentially every morning. Monday morning, turning to the editorial page, I was disappointed to learn that the State Journal has apparently never embraced its role in exposing corruption in state government.

And there’s so much corruption to expose, these days.

The paper’s editorial yesterday morning was about the importance of whistle-blowers exposing fraud and corruption, and giving kudos to the guv for signing the “Whistleblower Protection Act”, which gives some protection to news sources who tip reporters to dirty dealing.

Like most papers, the State Journal provides “subheads” (newspaper folks probably have a name for these things, and I probably have it wrong) for people who just want a quick take on a story, to decide whether or not they want to read the entire story. The editorial was titled “Whistle-blowers welcome here”, and the sub-head said, in bold black print, “With the governor giving tipsters more protection, the State Journal is as anxious as ever to help citizens expose wrongdoing – wherever it may be found.”

Damn. And I thought the paper relished the role, particularly its victory in exposing all the political crooks in the so-called caucus scandal a few years back. (By the way…wanna bet on whether Scooter actually stands for retrial in Waukesha County?)

By now, some of you may have caught on to my ruse. Whoever wrote the sub-head for the editorial made one of the most common, entry-level writing mistakes, using the word “anxious” as though it meant the same thing as “eager.”

Even though “anxious” is incorrectly substituted for “eager” by casual speakers, Wisconsin’s second-largest daily newspaper shouldn’t make this common mistake. It’s another example of the mediocrity that’s become the hallmark of contemporary news media.

Every so often, when I hit a nerve in skewing the local media, somebody will go through my post and pick it apart, and expose errors I’ve made. Fair enough. I’m a one-man-band with a computer and an internet connection. I don’t have an editor, who theoretically would catch my mistakes.

Last week, one smiling local TV anchorette cheerily informed me, during a story about “LZ Lambeau”, that “LZ” stood for “landing zone, which is a safe place for soldiers to be.” Wanna ask any soldier who jumped out of a Huey at a landing zone during the Viet Nam War if it was a “safe place”?

Sunday night, a reporter for a TV network informed me that we were coming up on the “ten-year anniversary” of the 9-11 attacks. (Tenth anniversary, in English.)

Another told me oil was washing up on the shores of “four different states” in the south. (My friend GH is rolling his eyes at this one -“different” is superfluous here.)

I know I’m obsessive about this stuff, but common mistakes like these used to be far rarer in professional media.


  1. Yep, good call, rolled my eyes on both of 'em. I'm anxious to see what's next.

  2. Have we gotten to the stage in the devolution of English that it just doesn't matter anymore? I've gotten so used to poor usage that I hardly even flinch.

    Witness the popularity of text messaging abbreviations with their lack of punctuation and capitalization. It's the 21st Century version of Orwell's Newspeak.

    I know, Colonel! Steel yourself to write a RaD entry in text-speak! It would be good practice. Maybe there's one o' them thar GoreNet translation programs, like the ones that translate normal English into Pirate-speak. That's the ticket! Your 13-34 cumes oughta shoot through the roof!

    For inspiration watch this Onion video about a mom who stalks her son on Facebook and Twitter:


    The Town Crank

  3. Well, I should hope that someone would expose the errors you've made when you're skewing the local media. If they do it when you're skewering them, however, they're clearly just being defensive ;-)

  4. Thanks to George H. for alerting me to this concern about our editorial. The Webster's New World dictionary on my desk lists the third definition for "anxious" as "eagerly wishing [anxious to do well] -- SYN. EAGER." And I don't see anything in my 2009 copy of the Associated Press Stylebook scolding against this use. If a hard-copy dictionary is too old-school, the online Merriam Webster agrees: "3 : ardently or earnestly wishing synonyms see eager." Here is the link: http://www.merriam-webster.com/netdict/anxious
    I am certainly guilty of trying to write editorials in a conversational way, rather than adopting the traditional and more formal tone. We do make mistakes at the State Journal sometimes, and we strive to correct those mistakes quickly. I don't feel a correction is warranted in this situation, given Webster's blessing. Sincerely, Scott Milfred, editorial page editor, Wisconsin State Journal

  5. Thanks for proving the point made by the poster (Ordinary Jill) prior to your "defense", Scott.

    Note that I didn't ask for a correction.

    Pull out as many references as you want, Scott. Anxious and eager are synonyms only to those who defend poor usage.

  6. Maybe you should blog about how mediocre all of the dictionaries have become if you feel so strongly that they are misleading the public on the proper use of the word "anxious"?

  7. Seems to me there are worse crimes than using a word in its dictionary sense.

  8. Thanks for proving my point again, Kenneth.

  9. Dissembling to avoid admitting such a simple error as a misused word is unworthy of one for who words are stock in trade. It is not a little embarrassing to those of us who might regard the dissembler as a colleague, because it raises the possibility that other offenses might be similarly camouflaged.

    Mr. Milfred's economy with the facts serves him and his craft poorly. Worse, it threatens to taint whatever intellectual credentials he lays claim to. His chosen dictionary does indeed mention "anxious" as a lower-level alternative definition for the word "eager," but that is not exculpatory because the aforesaid dictionary goes on to note that "anxious ... emphasizes fear of frustration or failure or disappointment ..."

    Mr. Milfred will doubtless remain "steadfast" in his position, a term for which the first alternative is "immovable." He will likely take refuge in the virtue of consistency (that "hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines"), unmindful that if you drill down a couple of levels through the definitions, you find it means "tending to be arbitrarily close to the true value of the parameter."

    Perhaps he subscribes to the position taken by Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty:

    "When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, `it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.'"

    "The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things."

    "The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master -- that's all.”

    Like Mr. Milfred, Humpty Dumpty was being “resolute,” a word that quickly comes to mean "stubborn" if you read to the third definition.

    Mr. Dumpty's defensiveness stemmed from a discomfiting awareness of his precarious situation. As we all know, his unwillingness to compromise (which can be read as intransigence) brought him to a bad end.

    Before the gravity of his untenable position was realized, he was heard to remark "... we've had enough of that subject, and it would be just as well if you'd mention what you mean to do next, as I suppose you don't mean to stop here all the rest of your life."