I suppose that in 45 years of newspapering it was bound to happen. And so there it was, on page A1 one last week, one of the worst headline typos any newspaper could live in terror of somehow allowing into print.
When it was brought to my attention (by way of email, as I was out of the valley), I cringed. I felt sick. I used bad words. Really bad, loudly. Fortunately there were no children in the room. I flushed with embarrassment, although there was no one around to witness my humiliation. I put my head in my hands and groaned, and wished for a seam in the time/space continuum that would allow me to go back and undo it.
Because I was the one who (mis)wrote it. And I overlooked the mistake when I proofread the page. All of us at the newspaper did. But if you’re wondering (perhaps a little smugly) which idiot was responsible, you’re reading him.
How could that happen? I wish I could tell you. And yet we know it does, because it has happened regularly to other publications for decades. In the “old days,” typesetters would sometimes make deliberate mistakes to avenge some slight by their bosses. These days, the evil demons of proofreading hell get away with one every so often. In nearly every case, I imagine, the offending headline looked OK. That is a documented phenomenon, the subject of research in fact: We “see” what we are absolutely sure we wrote, or printed, or intended, or expect — even if it’s wrong. Spellcheck probably won’t help.
Now, to our eternal embarrassment, the Methow Valley News will likely show up in those ubiquitous online collections of uproarious newspaper headlines. You know, the ones that are absurd, nonsensical, suggestive or inadvertently (we must hope) obscene. Some are caused by bad punctuation, others by unfortunate juxtapositions of headlinese (which is its own language). Some are deliberately clever in ways that walk right up to, or toe-step over, the boundaries of good taste. Most make us laugh.
It’s not the kind of notoriety we hope for in this business. How could we not have noticed, you may ask, when several people at least looked over the page before it started rolling off the press?
It’s a fair question, but if you’re going to ask it, be prepared to admit and explain your own professional mistakes publicly, and have people read about them in the newspaper. We’ve all made them, and if we’re lucky they don’t cause much damage. Stuff happens. You can either shrink away in shame — or just fess up, sigh heavily, move on and hope to learn something. Worse things happen all the time. Nobody died, and a few people got a chuckle at our expense. You’re welcome.
You can find dozens of examples of odd headlines out there, collected over many years. Here are a few:
“Republicans turned off by size of Obama’s package”
“Midget sues grocery, cites belittling remarks”
“Safety meeting ends in accident”
“Cop makes arrest in bathroom after smelling crack”
“Students cook and serve grandparents”
“One-armed man applauds the kindness of strangers”
“Police begin campaign to run down jaywalkers”
“Teacher strikes idle kids”
“Want to spell like a champ? Read Wenster’s Dictionary”
“Amphibious pitcher makes debut”
“Missippi’s literacy program shows improvement”
“Diana was alive hours before she died”
“Homicide victims rarely talk to police”
I deliberately did not include the best (or worst, if you will) of the double entendre category. Use your imagination, you won’t be far off.
Meanwhile, I’ve given myself an assignment akin to writing a word over and over on the classroom blackboard: I’m going to type the world “public” at least 100 times, fast. See if you can do it without making any mistakes.
Once again this year, a sophomore class at Liberty Bell High School has been given the assignment of writing letters to the editor, with the objective of having them published in the News. The kids choose and research their own topics, and adhere to our 350-word limit. We’ll publish as many as we have room for, in the order that we receive them, over the next few weeks. I hope you’ll give them a look. I think we should all be interested in what’s of interest to our students. They’re in the early stages of establishing their life agendas.