Friday, November 21, 2008

Fake News, the Politics of Punctuation Dept.

Ignored by Arizona’s main daily paper, it’s still a Capital idea

With the election over and Barack Obama’s pending advent to the presidency of the United States, Phoenix residents have begun to wonder whether their hometown rag, the Arizona Republic, will re-evaluate its capitalization policy for the terms for America’s two most recognizable races in low-light conditions, the whites and the blacks.
As an example, passages appearing in a pre-election article in the Republic read: “There’s utter amazement at the prospect of Barack Obama becoming president, the son of an African father and a White mother from Kansas who seems divinely favored with temperament, talent and timing. ... There is also apprehension over reports that Blacks are being unjustly stricken from voter registration rolls nationwide—an unsavory reminder that outcomes can be manipulated. ...”
Given that the article in which these sentences appeared came off the wire and were written by a Washington Post columnist, and thus must have followed Normal Capitalization Style, the Republic clearly would have had to employ all the resources at its disposal to actively and concertedly capitalize the words “black” and “white,” in order to bring them into compliance with the local paper’s unique, if not singular, style practices.
The paper’s archivist, fact checker and humor columnist, Clay Thompson, offered some history of the Republic’s style preference in this area. “Going back to a much earlier era, the paper didn’t originally capitalize ‘Black,’ because it didn’t think black people were to be accorded the dignity and distinction of capitalization. And we didn’t often have opportunity to capitalize ‘white’ in the olden days, because we seldom reported on the doings of whites as whites. The black residents of the city, few as they were, also preferred to go about their business unnoticed, so it’s a little hard to find examples of the old cap-W, little-b usage.”
It was difficult, interviewing Thompson over the phone, to miss his trying to adhere to the Republic’s current capitalization style in his mere pronunciation of “white” and “black.”
The paper’s longtime publisher, Sue Clark-Johnson, defended the style policy in a written statement before her elevation to more rarefied executive levels within Republic parent Gannett in 2005: “Of course, the reason for the policy is accuracy, plain and simple,” she wrote. “‘Whites’ aren’t truly white—they’re kind of a pale pinkish. A Shader Pale of Pink, so to speak. And ‘Blacks’ certainly aren’t black, thank Goodness! I’m so happy that they are usually some shade—often a very nice hue, in my opinion—of brown. If they were black, in fact, that would tend to validate racism, as black is universally and incontrovertibly known to be a yucky and evil color, while white is pure and holy. So, we insist on upholding the Equality of the Races in this way.”
Johnson added she saw the style standard as a sign of respect for the races, “analogously to the few newspapers around the country that still accord people identified or quoted in their stories the titles ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.’ on subsequent reference—not just by their last names.”
The Wall Street Journal still dignifies its subjects and sources with such titles; however, the Republic appears to stand proudly alone, or almost alone, in its capitalization of racial designations.
Johnson and her successors have had the sad duty over the past few years of slashing the paper’s staff while also overseeing a controversial redesign and reformatting of the publication into “Information Centers,” rather than news departments. However, the overhaul did not include a revisiting the racial-reference style question. But reports in other local publications on the controversial and demoralizing moves revealed that in the staff reductions, undertaken at the behest of Gannett, some high-profile departures at the time were voluntary, and coincidental. Former Willo neighborhood resident and Republic business columnist Jon Talton, a perennial scold who constantly urged the Valley to diversify its economy away from purely real-estate-related activities, actually left in protest over the capitalization policy. He tried to evade and undermine it, to no avail, Talton—known affectionately in the newsroom as “Cassandra”—said. “You know the caps-lock feature on computers? I tried fooling around with it to see if I could use it to automatically uncapitalize ‘B’ and ‘W’ when, in between my cushy three-times-a-week schedule as a columnist, I had to fill in on the copy desk. But the computers were apparently set up to just keep those letters capitalized, based on a ‘fuzzy-logic’ context-dependent determination by HAL-9000 up in the publisher’s office. It made it really annoying to edit copy where the article was in fact referring just to colors, not different racial groups, ‘fuzzy logic’ and ‘context’ notwithstanding. Open the pod bay door, please ... there’s no intelligent life here.”
Precocious Republic Executive Editor Nicole Carroll, who in the Gannett-ordered downsizing also has had to put in regular stints on the copy desk, made no apologies for the paper’s practice. In fact, “You’ll have to pry my blue pencil from my cold, dead hand before I personally stop marking up sloppy copy that fails to conform to our clear, consistent standard,” she said.
Longtime civil rights activist the Rev. Jesse Jackson agreed the capitalization policy is obtuse and offensive, but said Obama’s ascension to the presidency offered no particular occasion or rationale for revisiting it. “He’s not Black enough for that,” Jackson said, the cap-B markedly more evident in his own enunciation than it was in Thompson’s. “He didn’t grow up the descendant of slaves like us authentic black Americans. He’s an African-American of a special, suspect kind—literally, since his daddy was Kenyan. I think William Ayres visited Kenya. Anyway, I say, if it’s a nation, it gets capitalization. No ifs ands or buts. And I still want to cut off his nuts.”
Jackson ran for the presidency in 1984 and ’88, but apparently the time was not—or his own nuts weren’t—ripe for a black man to become president.
The Associated Press, which publishes a stylebook used by most U.S. newspapers to achieve a consistent printed usage in matters large and small, has for years attempted to get the Republic to change its style in this area, to little avail. “It’s as if the Arizona Republic, even as the state’s main daily and the voice now of the fifth-largest city in the country, lives in a distant time and place of its own,” said AP spokeswoman Mary Ogilvy. “Maybe someday it will come into the 20th century. We’re considering fines.” It being pointed out that it’s already the 21st century, Ogilvy said, “Yeah, I know. One step at a time. One step for a Man, one giant leap for the Republic ...”

Political Shtick
As a side comment on the election: A caller to an NPR talk show following Obama’s victory said it now felt like an America where truly anyone could become president. Still, with the failed runs at the top spot by Barry Goldwater, Mo Udall, Bruce Babbitt and now Sen. John McCain, it’s only in Arizona that mothers still can’t tell their sons they could grow up to be president someday. On the other hand, who knows about daughters of the Grand Canyon State? Arizonan Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman to be seated on the U.S. Supreme Court. And, in Willo resident and state Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, who following her re-election Nov. 4 became assistant minority leader in the state House, we may have our very own answer to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Similarly bespectacled, with a not dissimilar mini-big-hairdo and a fair degree of comparable (if not superior) babe-itude, should we look for a Sinema leading a major party presidential ticket in, oh, say, 2020? She, at least, knows that Darfur is a region in the country of Sudan on the continent of Africa. She’s even been there.

-By David Tell

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