"Chances of Recession Start to Dim." That heading teased a recent front-page New York Times story. Was this headline on an economics story a Freudian slip — and perhaps also a Friedmanian slip?
Having long ago been a journalism student who had to write headlines, I know there's an art to it. Given space constraints, it's tempting to use short words, like "dim."
Still, allow me to mimic quintessential New Yorker John McEnroe: You cannot be serious!
One writes that something positive (like hope) begins to dim, not something negative — such as the chances of a recession that will hurt us all. The Times might as well have phrased it this way: "GOP hopes of recession start to dim." That would arguably have been more coherent, and would have made perfect sense to the many of us who think corporate media is greatly underplaying Joe Biden's accomplishments while placating those right-wing Putin fans — T-shirts that say "I'd Rather Be Russian than a Democrat" are still for sale — who constantly work the refs, constantly complaining that the media is "liberal" while consistently voting against the interests of the vast majority of Americans.
That headline kept working in my mind, but when I went back to check again, the Times had revised it: "What Recession? Some Economists See Chances of a Growth Rebound." A different and more neutral take, at least.
Had I imagined the first version? I had not. Buried in the 600-some comments on the Times website, Raphael from Tampa repeated the original headline (which only appeared online) while asking: "Why devise such a convoluted, negative headline to say something positive"?
Well, precisely. One wonders what other similarly twisted "heds" we might see from editors at the Times? "Chances of More Gun Violence Grow Slim"? "Prospects Wane for Further Right-Wing Insurrections"?
I don't claim to know much about economics. I took the notoriously difficult Econ 51 course at the University of Missouri with the inimitable and feared Dr. Walter Johnson. I worked hard and did pretty well, but my lab TA knew my brother and may have cut me some slack. In any case, the sober-minded experts at the Federal Reserve supposedly know what they are doing in managing inflation, and these days the general economic news seems almost cheery — strong job growth, low unemployment, higher wages, large investments being made in infrastructure and job creation, more workers voting for collective bargaining.
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As a short-lived hed scribbler half a lifetime ago, learning to fit words into the meager picas in a one- or two-column piece in the pages of the Columbia Missourian, I know it can be challenging. Reading that nearly inscrutable piece on the economy — with one economist saying this, another saying that, and everyone hedging their bets — I can easily see why the first editor wrote a confused, dizzying headline. I can also see why the second version was a complete transformation.
A lot of people complain about headlines not fitting the story. Come to think of it, that might make for a challenging new game the Times could roll out for readers. Call it "Get to the Hed," "Bet Your Hed" or "The Hed-less Scribe." Challenge readers to write a better headline for a key article within the precise parameters of characters allowed by the column width. (Which also apply on the internet, by the way: My Salon editor informs me that article headlines must be 100 characters or less, with "coverlines" — the ones you see on the home page — limited to just 40.)
The footnote on the article says that the original print version in the New York edition was headlined "Recession Worry Eases as Growth Shows Resilience." Well, damn! That's quite a different spin, to put it mildly — one seen only by the small and declining proportion of Times readers who live in New York and get the physical paper delivered.
Let me try one: "Chances of The Times Giving Biden Credit Start to Dim."
It would be helpful for the Times, and other major publications to provide information whenever a headline is changed, perhaps with a more transparent correction notice. Here's my suggestion: "This article first appeared in the national online edition on Feb. 10 (where, yes, it was shared by everyone and their brother), with the wrongheaded and telling headline, 'Recession Chances Start to Dim.' We regret our constant, shameless, cowardly pandering to the right. We'll try to do better, but don't hold your breath."