ABOVE THE FOLD
No member of society has the right to teach any doctrine contrary to what society holds to be true.
-- Samuel Johnson
SCENE: The offices of a great metropolitan newspaper.
A MANAGING EDITOR, a CITY EDITOR, and a young REPORTER are discussing the top story of the day.
MANAGING EDITOR: Okay, whadda we got?
REPORTER: Some guy shot another guy near the Empire State Building, and then two cops shot the killer and some bystanders.
CITY EDITOR: How many bystanders?
MANAGING EDITOR: Whoa whoa whoa! The cops do not shot bystanders. Ever.
REPORTER: Well it’s pretty clear that they did.
MANAGING EDITOR: Well it’s pretty clear that we can’t say that.
REPORTER: But it’s a verifiable fact.
MANAGING EDITOR: You don’t understand. When I say, “We cannot say that,” I mean we cannot say that. When I say “The cops do not shoot bystanders,” I am not talking about a verifiable fact, I am talking about a sentence in the newspaper. Subject verb object. If “shoots” is the verb and “bystanders” is the object, then there is no way that the word “cops” can ever be the subject. It’s journalistically incorrect.
REPORTER: But it’s the truth!
MANAGING EDITOR: Isn’t that what I just said?
CITY EDITOR: Look--even if it is true--and that’s a big if--then we have to tell that truth in a way that not only reflects the facts, but grammatically reinforces the cultural values behind the facts.
REPORTER: You mean like, the police are here to protect us, and therefore they can do no wrong?
MANAGING EDITOR: Exactly.
CITY EDITOR: Except that we can’t say that out loud.
MANAGING EDITOR: We have to imply it.
CITY EDITOR: Unless--wait--can’t we fall back on the Reagan Rule?
MANAGING EDITOR: No--we don’t have a press release yet, so we can’t reprint it as if it’s an actual piece of reporting.
CITY EDITOR: Crap. So we have to use cop-speak.
MANAGING EDITOR: I’m afraid so.
CITY EDITOR: The passive tense. The cops don’t hurt people; people get hurt. The cops don’t shoot bystanders; bystanders are caught in the line of fire.
REPORTER: But that makes it the bystander’s fault.
MANAGING EDITOR: Exactly.
CITY EDITOR: Because it can’t be the cops’ fault.
MANAGING EDITOR: Ever.
CITY EDITOR: That kind of shit only happens in Russia.
MANAGING EDITOR: Or Mexico.
CITY EDITOR: Or China.
MANAGING EDITOR: Not here.
CITY EDITOR: Not ever.
MANAGING EDITOR: Cops never, ever shoot, or kill. They open fire. Unless they’re provoked, in which case they return fire, or they answer fire.
REPORTER: Making it the shooter’s fault.
CITY EDITOR: Correct. And even when they kill the shooter--what’s this guy’s name?
CITY EDITOR: Johnson--even when they kill Johnson, we either say “Johnson was killed” or “police shoot suspect.”
REPORTER: Why can’t we say “Police shoot Johnson?”
MANAGING EDITOR: Because that personalizes the act of shooting. We need to make it as nebulous as possible so that people don’t get a picture in their head of some overweight guy in blue sticking a gun in somebody’s face and pulling the trigger.
CITY EDITOR: So what we have to do here grammatically is, we have to make this shooting look like a one-time only event that was caused by the victims, so that future innocent bystanders are reassured that it can never happen again.
REPORTER: And meanwhile, what, the police who fired the bullets aren’t even part of the process?
CITY EDITOR: [a shrug] Welcome to New York.
REPORTER: More like “Welcome to Bloomberg’s police state.”
CITY EDITOR: Isn’t that what I just said?
MANAGING EDITOR: Work with us here, okay?
REPORTER: Okay. Okay. Okay; so . . . how about something like, uh, “Police shoot suspect, nine others wounded?”
MANAGING EDITOR: No no no--not wounded--hurt. Nine others hurt. “Wounded” implies that somebody did the wounding. “Hurt” implies that it was an accident--they could have fallen down, they could have twisted their ankle.
CITY EDITOR: Even better--how’s this?--even better, let’s spend the first paragraph painting a scene of chaos.
MANAGING EDITOR: I love it.
CITY EDITOR: Chaos means it’s nobody’s fault. Chaos means, for all we know, the bystanders who were wounded--
MANAGING EDITOR: Hurt.
CITY EDITOR: --hurt ran right into the path of bullets which were aimed at the suspect.
REPORTER: So “Police Shoot Suspect, Nine Others Hurt in Chaos.”
CITY EDITOR: Perfect. And then at some point in the first three paragraphs you can say that people were wounded, but make sure there’s some doubt about who they were wounded by.
MANAGING EDITOR: No--don’t mention people at all--mention the bullets. And then admit the possibility that some of those bullets were fired by the police.
CITY EDITOR: No--not fired by the police--don’t mention the police as people, mention them as adjectives. Mention the bystanders as people--so it’s like, ah, “they were wounded, possibly by police bullets,” something like that.
MANAGING EDITOR: And we have to say how fast it was happening too. Something like “the nanosecond speed at which a shootout plays out.”
MANAGING EDITOR: Is that not clear?
REPORTER: No human being can act in nanoseconds.
MANAGING EDITOR: Of course not, but the point is not to be realistic, the point is that it happens so fast you can’t do anything about it. That’s all we’re saying--that in cases like this, the police are confronted by a series of split-second choices.
REPORTER: [sarcastically] Split-nanosecond choices?
MANAGING EDITOR: Don’t be ridiculous.
CITY EDITOR: What else can’t we say?
MANAGING EDITOR: I’m a little concerned about the phrase “bystander shooting.” Can we even put the words “bystander” and “shooting” next to each other?
CITY EDITOR: We shouldn’t even use the word shooting at all.
MANAGING EDITOR: Exactly. Call it an incident. Call it an encounter, or an event--but do NOT call it a shooting.
REPORTER: [increasingly more frustrated] So, what, “bystanders were injured?”
CITY EDITOR: No, injured is too active, it implies that somebody injured them--
MANAGING EDITOR: Meaning the cops--
CITY EDITOR: --and we can’t even imply that, never mind actually say it in print.
REPORTER: “After bystanders were embroiled in a shooting incident?”
MANAGING EDITOR: Too complicated, even for us.
CITY EDITOR: And it still mentions shooting.
REPORTER: How about “bystanders hit by bullets?”
CITY EDITOR: Whose bullets?
REPORTER: The cops’ bullets.
CITY EDITOR: Then we can’t say it.
REPORTER: “Bystanders hit by bullets that magically appeared out of nowhere?”
MANAGING EDITOR: Can we take this seriously please?
REPORTER: I am taking this seriously.
CITY EDITOR: How about “Bystanders take fire?”
MANAGING EDITOR: No, that could mean they all pulled out guns and opened up at each other.
CITY EDITOR: How about “bystanders take bullets?”
MANAGING EDITOR: Yes! Perfect!
REPORTER: “Perfect?” How is it perfect?
MANAGING EDITOR: Because it makes it all their fault!
CITY EDITOR: It’s like they chose to get shot!
REPORTER: [blowing up] And that’s ridiculous! We’re giving our readers the impression that a bunch of innocent people deliberately jumped in front of a fusillade of bullets that nobody actually fired because we’re afraid to say three simple words, one right after the other: “police” “shoot” “bystanders.” Do you know what that is?
CITY EDITOR: It’s American journalism.
REPORTER: It’s self-censorship!
MANAGING EDITOR: Isn’t that what he just said?