Tuesday, March 23, 2010

TV Report Blurs Facts, Language; Nation Weeps

   A New Jersey town recently outlawed dog barking twenty-four hours a day, according to a story reported by WCBS2, a television station there, but we are simply not concerned with that law for the purposes of this post. 
   What concerns us is the ban-related news story posted yesterday on the WCBS2 Web site. It is a glorious if dispiriting mess apparently written by someone for whom English is - no offense - a second, third, fourth or never-studied language.
    See for yourself. (The story excerpts are in italics.)

   Muzzle it.
   Let us forgive WCBS this unforgivable lede. Beginning in the nineteen-seventies, American news outlets came to believe that a cute lede draws readers. It does not. It repels them - at least the remaining twelve or thirteen who value good writing, and who welcome news outlets to communicate as though to adults. 

   That's the word in one local town as officials try to put dog owners on a financial leash if they can't keep their pets quiet - no matter what time of day or night.
   So far, so good, the "leash" reference notwithstanding. 

   Now, CBS 2 HD encountered one dog on Monday that was quite obviously barking because we - strangers after all who've had the nerve to come into what is really her house in Piscataway, N.J. - got her excited. 
   Gracious. Where to start. 
   The dog was "quite obviously barking.... because we got her excited." Who are "we?" In broad terms, this is, of course, an existential question. More practically, however, this phrase is so - no offense - terribly constructed that we readers have no idea who "we" is (are?). 
   Well, wait; yes we do. "We" are "strangers after all who've had the nerve...." The commas missing between strangers/after and all/who've suggest that these strangers are chasing after everything. 
   Had the nerve to what? "Come into what really is her house.... " This makes no sense unless one considers that it is possible, if not likely, that this print story is merely a transcript of the audio portion of a televised news report. Perhaps the camera operator strolled up to the doghouse and rolled film; hence the "her house" reference. 
   Still. Would it be impossible to rewrite a transcribed TV report so that it read well in print? 

   But now in Piscataway an ordinance about incessant barking between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m. has been expanded to include barking around the clock. And yes, you could be fined.
   An ordinance "about" barking? Or "prohibiting" it? Outlawing? Banning? Barring? Disallowing? Proscribing? Forbidding?
   And: "... you could be fined." Who is "you?" The viewer/reader with a dog? What about we who are without canine? Can we be fined too? (First of All has a cat who is, it must be said, the single best animal on earth, bar none, and not least because he doesn't bark at all, much less all night long.) 

   "That's not fair at all. Dogs shouldn't be scrutinized for what? They're talking! Talking is their barking!" resident Anthony Brullo said. 
   "Dogs shouldn't be scrutinized for what?" This sounds like a Zen koan. Perhaps it is. Indeed, First of All has just emerged from a ten-hour meditation on the phrase during which we became enlightened: the sentence makes - no offense - no fucking sense. (To be fair, it's probably a typu typo: a period after "scrutinized" would make sense.)
   As to talking being "their barking," the excitable Mr. Brullo - who, thanks to the WCBS writer, speaks in, Lord save us, exclamation points! - obviously mixed up his words. It's likely he meant to suggest that barking, for dogs, is the same as talking is for us humans. But it is not. Barking is to dogs is as shouting is to humans, and shouting humans are - no offense - heinous. 

   Anne Gordon is Piscataways' public information officer.
   This is a good, strong declarative sentence that is, nonetheless, entirely tangential to anything that came before it. 

   "The first thing that our animal control officer does when he gets a complaint, he sends a letter to the person who's complaining and they try to get it resolved," Gordon said.
    The colloquial language is charming and appropriate. However, one wonders if Ms. Gordon really meant that the letter goes to the complainant. If so, then one scratches one's beard, or would if he had one, and questions why the letter wouldn't go to the offending dog owner. 
   Alas, we shall never know, because WCBS, home of television "news" "reporting," does not tell us. The station just bravely soldiers on. Here we skip an irrelevant paragraph or two - well, not irrelevant; just terribly written, no offense - to arrive at this: 

   CBS 2 HD heard the barking of Jake Johnson's wife's dog. Jake has been next-door neighbors with Ulrick Charles here for nearly 30 years. Charles does not have a dog, but said he has no problems with the neighbors on either side who do. Johnson, who has a dog, surprisingly said he likes the rule against constant barking. 
   "Some of them bark pretty much all day long," Johnson said. "Yes, well I try to keep our dog quiet." 
   First off, we're led to understand that the Johnson dog belongs to Mrs., not Mr., Johnson. Yet three sentences later, we read that "Johnson... has a dog." Hm. Does this mean Mr. Johnson has a dog in addition to his wife's? Or that in the span of three sentence he simply appropriated his wife's dog, making it his own? If the latter, one can't help but question the strength of the Johnson marriage. 
   In the second sentence Mr. Johnson is referred to, amiably, as "Jake." Two sentences later, Mr. Charles is identified with the more formal (and chillier) "Charles." Later, Mr. Johnson apparently has fallen from the good graces of WCBS: he, too, is identified, chillingly, as "Johnson." Alas, no longer "Jake." WCBS giveth, WCBS taketh away. 
   Finally, why is it surprising that a dog owner appreciates the no-barking ordinance? 
   An additional note: one very much appreciates Mr. Johnson's odd declaration: "Yes, well, I try to keep our dog quiet." It is possible that the reporter asked a question which has been elided from the print version of the story. But maybe not. Maybe Mr. Johnson simply hears queries floating through his brain and tries to answer them the best he can. It's really all you can ask of a man, don't you agree? 

   One house were [sic] visited in particular had no problems because the family greeted us with open arms - more or less - and barking dogs. 
   We hear you. 
   To be fair, that "were" should be "we." It is merely a typo, and those are completely understandable. First of All maks typis all tha tyme. 
   Nevertheless, the beginning of that first sentence makes it sound as though, in the case of this house, what was "particular" is that WCBS visited it. This suggests that at other houses WCBS did other things: set the porch on fire; tended to the garden; washed the windows. Perhaps the writer meant: "One house in particular that we visited had no problems...." 
   Which brings us to: "One house... had no problems...." Houses don't have problems (save clogged drains and toilets and so forth); people do. So it might have been better as: "One family that we visited had no problems...." (Indeed, it should be problem, singular, not problems, plural.) 
   Ah, but problem(s) with what? We don't know. We may confidently assume the writer is referring to the barking ban. But it's difficult to tell from the rest of the sentence. 
   "One house... had no problems because the family greeted us...." This construction suggests that the house is, in the main, a very jealous creature, but in this case felt secure enough to allow the family to welcome visitors. The family may want to attend to the house's feelings. If they don't, it may, in a fit of jealous rage, collapse upon them one night as they sleep the sleep of the blameless. 
   Now then. The family "greeted us with open arms - more or less...." What does this mean? Uncertain how to greet a television reporter, did family members cautiously open their arms, say, halfway? A quarter of the way? Three-quarters of the way, showing a near-total trust? Alas, we shall never know - unless, perhaps, we see the video, which apparently we cannot; it is not to be found on the Web site, at least not anywhere that one can easily locate it. This may mean nothing; one is, to be truthful, rather an idiot when it comes to technology. 
   "[B]arking dogs. We hear you." Let's just assume, for the sake of kindness, that the reporter, cutely, uttered the last phrase as the camera zoomed in on the "barking dogs." Let's assume it for the sake of kindness, and also because, at this point, one is simply exhausted from the attempt to dissect the nearly "undissectable," a word that doesn't exist and that therefore is perfect for a future WCBS-2 HD report. 

   One is aware that in certain circles, to write well is considered merely an eccentricity of the so-called elites. It is snobbish and unkind, this thinking goes, to have unreasonable expectations of those who, perhaps lacking in educational opportunities, or having been poorly guided in schools, or being possessed of one or the other type of learning disability, may not write with clarity, vigor and correct punctuation.
   Fair point. But is it unreasonable to expect that employees of news organizations who are paid to report news clearly should be able to string together coherent sentences?
   There was a time, long ago and far away - perhaps one that exists only in the fevered, melancholic and paralyzingly nostalgic First of All imagination - when Americans of all sorts strove to better themselves not just materially but intellectually, a desire reflected in mature news reporting and the sales of encyclopedias and other print learning tools. 
   Alas, that time, which probably never existed, is long gone. And so we are left with, for example, the garbled WCBS "report." 
   We will now leave this report behind in favor of traveling to the Alps for a rest cure. As they say, it is better to let sleeping (and illegally barking) dogs lie, or lay. 

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