Mavericks and lions

Reducing ideology to shorthand is tricky business. Such labels rarely capture the complexity (or nuance, if you prefer) of the views of a person or group. Here are two examples.


The liberal watchdogs* at Media Matters have been taking note of references to presidential candidate John McCain as a “maverick.” The organization says The New York Times and USA Today are among the newspapers labeling McCain this way, with the Times going as far as calling him a “maverick flyboy” at the top of this story.

Media Matters complains that “maverick” is not an accurate description of McCain. The definition of maverick does seem to fit the senator, however. “A person who refuses to conform to a particular party or group” is loose enough to fit McCain’s positions on the Bush tax cuts and immigration. And it’s apparent that many Republicans, including Tom DeLay and Rush Limbaugh, do not like McCain “maverickism.”

Instead of focusing on accuracy, Media Matters would have a more compelling case against this usage by stressing how “maverick” has become a McCain cliche. The word, as noun or adjective, has diminished in effectiveness through overuse. Most readers are probably skipping past it at this point. And yet this USA Today story uses it repeatedly.


Barack Obama won a big endorsement this week from Sen. Edward Kennedy — or the “liberal lion,” as he’s often called in news stories and commentaries. It’s a label used by friends and foes alike.

To be sure, Kennedy is a liberal. He’s even been identified as the most liberal member of the Senate. But why is he a lion? Is it his mighty mane of gray?

Besides the obvious definition, “lion” can also a “celebrated or influential person.” Kennedy may be at that level in the Senate thanks to his long service there, but how meaningful is the “liberal lion” label to readers? A few may be amused by the alliteration, but many are probably treating this like “maverick” and ignoring the reference.


Beware of any labels, especially those used frequently. When possible, give examples of the viewpoints of the individual or organization. Such details are better than vague descriptions.

* Yes, I am aware that this is a shorthand description of this organization.

Turning to Wikipedia

This story in American Journalism Review returns us to the issue of Wikipedia and its utility in journalism. Copy editors at The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times are among the sources quoted.

It turns out that Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales suggests what I have told students in my editing classes: Wikipedia is OK as a starting point for research, but it shouldn’t be your last stop. As mentioned here, there’s enough junk on Wikipedia to use it with caution.

The wrong train

Call it irony or curious coincidence. Just a couple of days after The News & Observer announced it would outsource some advertising jobs to India and the Philippines, this ad appears in the paper.

Look closely at the title of the first movie in the left column. The correct name of the latest piece of cinematic whimsy from director Wes Anderson is “The Darjeeling Limited.” The setting of the movie? India. Perhaps the new crew taking over ad duties at the N&O will catch that sort of thing.

The N&O news side got it right — in the capsule reviews on the same page as this ad, the movie is listed as “The Darjeeling Limited.” Perhaps Anderson could take this error as a hint and call the inevitable extended DVD version “The Darjeeling Unlimited.”

UPDATE: A reader reacts to the N&O’s decision. (It’s the third letter on the page.)

Editing with Fidel

An Associated Press story about Fidel Castro has an editing angle.

The Cuban leader says that when his health declined in 2006, his thoughts turned to his legacy, and he made last-minute changes to his memoirs. In an essay published this week in Cuban newspapers, Castro described the scene this way:

While the doctors fought for my life, the head aide of the Council of State read at my urging the text, and I dictated the necessary changes.

Talk about editing on deadline!

The desk on HBO

Perhaps you have heard about the new season of “The Wire” on HBO. Apparently the show’s executive producer, former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, isn’t offering a flattering portrayal of the newsroom, including the copy desk. Here’s what one friend reports about the most recent episode:

Don’t know if you watch “The Wire,” but I just groaned at this scene in Sunday’s episode. The Sun is downsizing. They offer an old-timer a choice: buyout or the copy desk. He takes the buyout. Sigh….

My former colleague Pam Nelson mentioned another “Wire” reference to the desk in this post at her blog, Triangle Grammar Guide.