The case for banning "loophole" from news stories.

Media criticism.
July 24 2007 5:41 PM

Shut Your Loophole

Add loophole to the list of words that should be banned from journalism.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Upon entering the English language in the late 16th century, the word loophole defined the narrow opening in a wall through which defenders jetted arrows, javelins, or stones at foes.

Over the centuries, this perfectly useful term has been corrupted by rhetorical con artists to mean terrible "gaps" in the law—or in the tax code—that demand "closing." Because the legal code allows all that it does not prohibit, loophole prospectors needn't look far to discover new ones. Just find a permitted behavior in the proximity of a banned one and scream, "Eureka!"

It's a loaded, partisan word, one that implies wrongdoing and scandal where none exists, and inserting it into a political argument gives the inserter the upper hand. When loophole creeps into news stories, they start to read like editorials.

For these obvious reasons, news reporters should keep their stories and headlines loophole-free. But they don't. In the past six months, the news pages of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, the Washington Times, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal have published at least 45 stories with the nasty word in the headline.

The Washington Post shouted loophole just yesterday in "Loophole Lets Candidates Skirt Donation Limit" (July 23). Using the word in both the headline and the story, the Post reports that presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and John Edwards are legally collecting donations for their presidential campaigns at the same time they're gathering money from other political entities connected to them. For example, presidential candidate Clinton has also declared herself a candidate for re-election to the Senate in 2012, thus allowing supporters to make double donations to her.

The Post headline makes the candidates sound extra naughty by stating that the loophole allows them to "skirt" donation limits. Like loophole, skirt is a slippery, vague, and slightly accusatory word. But why should we think of it that way? By definition, anybody who skirts a law is still in compliance with it. A more accurate headline for the Post piece would have been "Candidates Exercise Maximum Fund-Raising Rights." 

The New York Times gets in similar trouble by headlining aJune 21 piece "Mexico Moves to Cut Back Tax Loopholes for Businesses." Now, Mexican business may indeed benefit from what some would call "tax loopholes." But the story never names the loopholes or even gestures in their direction. The basic thrust of the story is that the Mexican government wants to collect more taxes, so it's rewriting the tax laws. As written, the piece would have been better served by a headline that avoided editorializing—something like "Mexican President Calls for More Taxes." 

Some headline writers regard any lawful behaviors as a voyage through a loophole. Consider theMay 23 headline to a Cox News Service story published in the Chicago Tribune: "House Blocks Stores' Bank Bid; Senate May See Closer Vote on Bill Closing Loophole."

What's the loophole? Under current law, the article explains, firms can own and operate "industrial loan companies," a limited type of bank. Such institutions are so common that 58 corporations, including General Motors, Target, and American Express, operate ILCs, the story reports.

So, in what sense can ILCs be regarded as the offspring of loopholes? The 482-word piece doesn't explore until its last 70 words that established bankers don't want additional competition for customers, hence their call for restrictive laws. Also, Wal-Mart wants its own ILC, but unions so hate Wal-Mart they'll do anything to stop Wal-Mart from becoming bigger, so they want ILCs curtailed. In this case, a loophole is free access for all to the right to create a limited bank. A superior headline for this piece would have been "Banks, Supported by Unions, Make Progress in Winning Protection From Competition."

I don't mean to suggest that ideology lurks behind every headline that includes the "L" word. (It's okay with me if editorialists and op-ed columnists use the word.) Headlines are usually written by the copy staff, and while some of these suffering bastards are closet Marxists who want the government to run everything, most of them merely pick up on the themes inside the article itself. If the reporter calls something a loophole, and the editor approves it, who are they to avoid it? Especially when they're on deadline.

Likewise, most reporters I know are less interested in pushing their political views on readers than they are in getting interesting information printed. They rely on loophole because it compresses interesting findings from the complex worlds of campaign finance, taxation, or regulation into a bite-size nugget their editor can swallow: "Oh, it's a loophole story! Why didn't you say so?"

But it shouldn't be so. Once reporters understand that one man's loophole is another man's freedom, they'll never use the word again. At least not outside quotation marks.

******

Open all the loopholes! Let the gutters run bright and bubbly with champagne! Draw me a bath of ambrosia! Send your loophole reflections to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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