A bastard of a headline – and why it failed

Was it okay to call Osama bin Laden a bastard in newspaper headlines? Probably not. But it’s a relatively interesting debate.

For starters, here’s the front of the May 2, 2011, local paper in Greenwood, S.C., the Index-Journal. You’ll notice the paper’s editors apparently thought it was okay.

I have to give them props on this. They had guts to do this, knowing full well the Bible belt buckle locals were going to swamp their website comment boards with dismay, folks were going to rattle off letter to the editor after letter to the editor and, more than likely, someone important (possibly the paper’s publisher) was going to tell them it was a dumb move.

For whatever reason, they did it anyway … and I’m sure much discussion went into it beforehand. Way to go with your gut, guys.

There are, however, a few blatant issues with the headline that come to light. Technically, bin Laden is not a bastard. Sure, you can scrape the bottom of the Internet barrel and come up with some obscure definition of “bastard” that justifies you labeling him as such, but come on. Everyone knows what you’re trying to pull. A “bastard” is someone born of unwed parents, according to real dictionaries … and bin Laden was the product of a legitimate, legal marriage. Just like that, the headline is a fallacy.

But let’s be honest: “bastard” wasn’t meant literally here. People call folks bastards all the time without knowing a thing about the circumstances of their conception. They just have to not like someone to call them a bastard, for the most part.

Enter the world of slang – a place no newspaper should ever go, unless quotation marks are there to save the day.

Why? Because my criteria for calling someone a “bastard” is likely different from others’. Therefore, when a newspaper – not quoting another person – labels someone a “bastard,” that paper is expressing its own criteria. “Opinion” would be a good label for this situation.

Which is fine – there are plenty of legitimate media that make their living teetering on the edge of fact and opinion. The New York Post and National Enquirer come to mind. Trouble is, no newspaper I’ve ever been associated with has wanted that reputation. Most strive to be something like the NY Times, which basically today quoted President Barack Obama saying bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces.

At my work, I noticed all copies of today’s paper were without the front page. People apparently lifted the fronts, probably to keep them for days to come. I have to wonder if they took them because of the news or because of the headline – and if the latter, were they shocked or impressed?

I know I purposely kept my daughter from seeing the front today when we walked in the drug store, where the paper is displayed rather prominently near the entrance. I simply wasn’t interested in teaching the inquisitive 5-year-old who’s just learning how to read what a “bastard” is. Based on my experience with the mainly conservative-minded folks around here, it’s likely I wasn’t the only parent to do this.

It’s my belief a paper ought to be mindful of its audience. For instance, in New York City, there’s a near plethora of daily newspapers for folks to show their children, meaning the New York Post – which also called bin Laden a bastard – doesn‘t have to steal the show. But in the less than 20,000-person Greenwood, there is one paper. When it goofs, there are no distractions.

The entire town suffers.

The good news: this newspaper made a bunch of money from bin Laden’s death and the headline it used to report it. Newspapers are a business; I’m probably the only guy pushing 30 who’s willing to do it as a service to humanity simply because he believes in the power of journalism and its moral obligation.

The bad news: the leaders of my local paper have lost sight of why 19-year-olds go to journalism school. Stories should move papers, not sensationalized descriptions that make you cover your child’s eyes. I won’t soon forget election night at the paper I worked in Kinston, N.C., when Obama knocked off McCain. He was our first black president; the next day’s paper was sure to be one everyone retained for years to come.

Did the copy desk come up with something that was going to shock the crap out of people? No. It merely stated – with a full-page shot of Obama – “change” had come, relaying a term our 44th president came up with.

The story was why people bought the paper … not something repulsive.

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One Response to A bastard of a headline – and why it failed

  1. The Moose says:

    You’re the best journalist of our generation.

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