Is Disappearing 

Policy made plain.
Nov. 1 2001 5:16 PM

Is Disappearing 

What TV news doing to our precious verbs. 

To be or not to be? That remaining the question, the answer increasingly clear. The verb "to be" dying out, and the culprit? None other than TV news channels. Taking the place of such cherished words as "is," "are," "am," even "were" and "was": a new verb form that you might call the one-size-fits-all past, present, and future participle. Or you might call it the one-size-fits-all past, present, and future gerund. One of these right and one of them wrong, but which which? Nobody really knowing the difference between a participle and a gerund. Anyone claiming to understand the distinction probably bluffing. So calling it what you wish: Either label doing.


What I talking about? Just listen to Lou Dobbs, the dean of news network anchorpersons, at the top of his show, CNN's Lou DobbsMoneyline, on Tuesday, Oct. 30. Lou saying, "Top government officials today adding their voices to the call for Americans to remain vigilant." (I not kidding: These his opening words on that evening's program.)

Lou continuing, after a couple of clips of politicians talking something close to normal English, "The president planning to do just that [just what not clear in context], scheduled to throw out the first pitch in game three of the World Series …" adding, "And new traces of anthrax, traces found in additional buildings in the nation's Capital today."

Lou Dobbs not alone. (When serving as the lead example in a journalistic trend story, you never alone.) Nor limiting this trend to anchors—who, as gods among us, making their own rules. Ordinary TV reporters doing it, too. First, though, they must paying obeisance to the anchor-god with the magic words, "That's right, Lou" (or whomever—I not meaning to pick on Lou Dobbs). The anchor having just said something like, "And now to Washington, where MSNBC's Amanda Stakeout reporting tonight that President Bush spending the afternoon consulting by telephone with other world leaders. Any hopes for an early agreement, Amanda?"

This known as the "toss." It remains a point of pride among anchors and those who write their scripts to summarize a reporter's story so succinctly in the toss that he or she having no choice but to begin by saying, "That's right, Lou." The reporter then repeating, murderously, "The president spending this afternoon consulting by telephone with other world leaders. Aides saying tonight hope for an early agreement. Back to you, you [unintelligible] … um … Lou."

Wonderful about this universal gerundiciple, or whatever we calling it? That it working equally well as a substitute for the traditional past, present, and future tenses. "Madonna entertaining American troops in Peshawar this evening" could refer to something that already happened, something happening now, or something about to happen. The total effect making one dizzy. Past, present, and future melting together as every newsworthy event taking place simultaneously in some dimension beyond the reach of time, where man forever biting dog and yet it remaining news.

What happening here? No easy answers but some uninformed speculation. Long part of vernacular English: referring to the future as the present. ("Honey, I'm meeting with Democratic leaders tonight in a spirit of bipartisan cooperation. Don't wait up.") Add the established convention of newspaper headlines—referring to the past as the present. ("House Passes Tax Cut.") When, as sometimes happens, there remains a need to refer to the present as the present, newspaper headlines leave out the "is" and its variants. ("White House Considering More Tax Cuts.")

So, TV news borrows the conventions of newspaper headlines. These conventions developing out of a need for compression, but after a couple of centuries imparting an automatic sense of drama and urgency. I suspecting the trend of TV news talking in headline-ese traceable to Rupert Murdoch, who buys the New York Post many years ago and founding Fox TV News more recently. The Post famous for its brilliant headlines. Fox News, though hypocritical about denying its brazen right-wing politics, the most creative of the TV news networks.

But where it all ending? God knowing tonight. Back to you, Lou.

Michael Kinsley is a columnist for the Washington Post and the founding editor of Slate.


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