Editorial

An ‘extraordinary’ abuse of journalistic style

Monday, July 3, 2017

I can’t stop myself from keeping a mental list of words and phrases that have been bastardized beyond repair by journalists. They range from the trite, such as “Breaking News,” to the abused, such as “anonymous sources.”

For TV journalists they include crutch phrases such as “at the end of the day.” The next time a cable pundit suggests “there’s no there there,” switch the channel - although, frankly, on cable “it is what it is.”

Print journalists, with time to at least briefly ponder their wording, usually avoid such lazy choices. Yet many can’t seem to stop themselves when it comes to hyperbole.

We live in an age when things are - at least in the minds of reporters - ground-breaking, unprecedented and, of course, historic.

Still, I was surprised to find the beacon of enlightened writing, The New York Times, caught up in its own extraordinary case of word abuse. And, as it happens, the word in question is “extraordinary.”

On a single day recently, The Times informed us that Canada was going to extraordinary lengths to deal with President Trump; we learned that doctors assisting in brutal CIA interrogations operated under extraordinary circumstances; an opinion writer noted that Democrats face an extraordinary challenge in unifying their party.

The same day on the sports page it was noted that visitors to next year’s World Cup soccer matches in Kazan, Russia, will discover an extraordinary mix of eastern and western cultures. The Times Magazine wrote about pianist Craig Taborn’s extraordinary musicianship.

Also on that day, we were assured that OPEC traders were not planning any extraordinary action on oil prices.

That was Thursday. Twenty-four hours earlier we read about extraordinary financial intervention in the Georgia runoff election; that Trump had made an extraordinary admission about failing to curb North Korea’s nuclear program; that British Prime Minister Theresa May’s fortunes declined with extraordinary speed, and that Amazon enjoys - wait for it - extraordinary power in online marketing.

A few days before that, a Times writer had observed that a five-day lull in the America’s Cup racing schedule would give the Americans an extraordinary chance to regroup.

I counted at least 85 uses of the word “extraordinary” by The Times in the first 22 days of June. They include hockey fan Jacob Waddell’s extraordinary effort to smuggle a flattened catfish into the Predators match with the Penguins.

These are, without question, extraordinary times. But unless journalists weigh their words carefully, everything can quickly become all too ordinary. It’s a classic case of the boy who cried extraordinary.

I should add that, until recently, if The Times slipped into patterns of unwelcome redundancy in its reporting, readers could count on the Public Editor to flag the problem for readers and staff. Alas, earlier this month the paper fired Liz Spayd and discontinued her Public Editor position.

It was, some readers of The Times believe, an extraordinary lapse of judgment.

© 2017 Peter Funt. Columns distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.