Fetch-Gate Parenting: Stop trying to name every phenomenon with some cute term

The saga of rich parents trying to bribe people to get their kids into great colleges has given birth to many stories, arguments and memes built from old “Full House” episodes, thanks to Lori “Aunt Becky” Loughlin’s involvement. One of the more annoying trends has been the media’s desperate need to name this phenomenon, something the NY Times chipped in on this morning:


The Times is a bit late on the name game in this situation, as others have already dubbed these folks “lawnmower parents” because they like to “mow down” any obstacle, discomfort or problem for their children. My favorite idiom was “curling parents,” named after the stone-and-broom sport, because the parents frantically try to sweep all the problems out of their children’s path.


Prior to this situation, we had “helicopter parents,” named for their ability to hover over every aspect of their children’s lives, who were quickly replaced by “drone parents,” who are like “helicopter parents on steroids.” A number of years back, we had “soccer moms,” stereotypical middle-America parents who used a calendar and a mini-van to help their kids engage in every possible extra-curricular activity that looked great on a college application.  In resistance to all of this hovering, sweeping, plowing and mowing, the concept of “free-range parenting” became popular in the media, with publications telling tales of parents who kind of just left their kids alone for 10 seconds or more each day.

This phenomenon of naming something that doesn’t really need a name isn’t new, as any journalist who started working after 1972 can tell you. In that year, several men connected to President Richard Nixon were caught while attempting to plant listening devices in the offices of the Democratic National Committee headquarters. This led to arrests, congressional hearings, impeachment hearings and Nixon’s resignation as president. The scandal became known as “Watergate,” named as such because that was the building that housed the DNC’s offices.

In the years that followed, every scandal has seemed to enjoy a -gate suffix moniker. We had “Bridgegate,” “Pizzagate,” “Deflategate,” “Clown-and-Cheesegate” “Sausagegate,” “Hookergate,” “Penisgate,” “Vaginagate,” “Dildogate,” “Potatogate” and at least two dozen more.

This is stupid for a couple reasons:

  • It’s not clever or unique: I remembered the first three. After that, I just started randomly typing foods or sex terms into Google with the word “gate” attached and got all of these. I never missed once, so you get the idea that this concept of “-gate” naming stuff isn’t new or innovative. It’s lazy writing and a stupid idea.
  • The scandals aren’t that scandalous: Watergate was a scandal that went to the highest office in the land and forced a sitting president who had won re-election in a walk to resign, something that had never happened before. Tom Brady “maybe” making footballs softer isn’t in the same neighborhood as this. Hell, it’s not even on the same planet. I’m sure that your university’s decision to keep taxing feminine hygiene products is a problem and should be covered, but don’t call it “tampongate.” (Besides, not one, but two, “scandals” have already used this one.)
  • The -gate thing isn’t real: The reason we called the Nixonian scandal “Watergate” was because that was the name of the building. It wasn’t like he used a “gate” to try to stop “water” or something. Thus, a scandal about a bridge or a clown or whatever, shouldn’t reference a suffix that isn’t part of its original title. I’m trying to imagine if someone stole stuff out of the Watergate now and how it might be a “Watergategate” or “Watergate 2.0,” another stupid way of building a term.

When it comes to covering a topic, you want to tell people what happened that matters to them. Your job isn’t to become a lexiconnoisseur or some sort of trendsetter. All it does is make you look like you can’t do your job without being cute. In addition, it will annoy your readers as you try to make your “-gate parenting” thing happen. As Regina George famously explained, you need to stop this right now:



GAME TIME! Spring Break AP Style Quiz

If you’re anything like my students, you are desperately awaiting the start of spring break. Or is it “Spring Break?” Or maybe Spring break…

See what you know about AP style with this quiz on our favorite time of the spring.

You don’t have to establish an account to play. It’s 10 questions and you will be judged on speed and accuracy.

Take a screen shot of your score and post it everywhere! Challenge a professor (who likely wants this break more than you do) and earn bragging rights for the year.

To start, click this link.

Brown M&M’s and The “Deliverance” House: Why details and first impressions matter

When my wife, Amy, and I went looking for our first house, we had 72 hours to find one and make a decision. We were living in Missouri and I had a job waiting at Ball State University in Indiana three months down the road. We didn’t want to move a bunch of times, so we decided to take one weekend, work with a realtor and get our first place.

The realtor did a great job of setting up dozens of appointments, which made the whole process dizzying for Amy and me. We ended up keeping track of the houses based on things that stuck out in our minds. One house had this immense great room that was filled with infant supplies and toddler toys, thus leading us to call it the “Baby House.” Another must have been owned by a heavy smoker who died months earlier (possibly in the home) and it became the “Smoking House.”

The last house we saw on the first day took the prize, however. The family inside was either renting or squatting and the place was a disaster. Every appliance had about a quarter-inch of grime on it and there was a Ball jar on the stove filled with grease that they used to butter bread.

Kids were everywhere as were piles of clothes and used food items. Doritos were ground into the carpeting on the steps and every bedroom just had a mattress on the floor. It was one of those homes where we kept telling ourselves, “Look past the mess.” However, when we went into the secondary basement, we decided to get the hell out of there.

There was a kid, about 7 or 8 years old, sitting in the dark, watching TV while rocking in a rocker. A big horse saddle was next to him on a wooden beam. The real estate agent tried to say something engaging to him. He just stared forward and kept rocking.

Thus, the “Deliverance House” was born.

I thought about that last night, when I was reading through some student journalism contest entries I needed to judge. The candidates for Reporter of the Year were impressive from this particular state and the broadcast reporters in particular were amazing. The first kid, however, had me in a bit of a pickle because I couldn’t get past my first impression.

I read her resume and something in her listing of TV work didn’t look right. I was a bit tired, so I reread this spot about four times before I realized that I wasn’t going crazy. She couldn’t spell:


I did a screen grab and cut off as much of the identifying content from her resume as I could so you could see what I saw. Over THREE positions, she spelled “February” THREE ways. Obviously, only one of them could be right, and I guess you could argue that the third time was the charm. Still, I found myself watching her packages thinking, “If she can’t get this right, what else isn’t right?”

That was the lesson I hope you took from the spot in the writing book where I talked about the Van Halen 1982 tour rider. The band denied this existed for years until The Smoking Gun ended up finding a copy. The rider, which detailed specific needs of the band that went beyond its contract, was 57 pages long and called for all sorts of crazy, tiny items. The famous one was the requirement that the dressing room be stocked with M&M candies, with the admonition, “Warning: absolutely no brown ones.”

The guys in the band later explained that they had a lot of stuff to worry about during a show, such as if instruments would be set up right and if the lighting systems would work properly. If they walked into the dressing room and found the M&M’s and there were no brown ones, the staff at the venue had paid attention to detail and the band could relax about everything else. If the guys found brown M&M’s or no M&M’s, they began to worry about what else might be wrong.

I’m not writing this post to pick on this student, who I have no doubt will have a heck of a good career ahead of her. Truth be told, I once sent in a cover letter where I misspelled the name of the hiring editor in my salutation. (He hired me anyway, but that’s not the point.) The point here is that I hope you can see how something so small, especially in a first impression, can make a difference in the minds of readers, viewers, contest judges and even hiring managers.

As much of a pain as it is to pick at every document and review every comma, know that your work isn’t wasted. Even if nobody notices how clean your work is, at least they won’t notice something negative and get the wrong first impression about you.

GAME TIME! AP-Style, Spring-based Quiz of Mirth and Hope

In Wisconsin, this time of year makes you really question your sanity and hate every Facebook friend from Florida who is posting beach photos. It was -18 windchill the other day and I don’t see it getting better any time soon. A friend of mine told me that the giant pile of snow at the airport in Milwaukee is expected to melt no sooner than July. And he was serious.

In hopes of bringing on a season in which “windchill” is not a word, here’s an AP quiz based on spring themes. Speed counts, but accuracy matters most.

You don’t have to create an account to play, but if you want to, it will rank you.

Post a screenshot of your score here and brag to your friends. Challenge a professor so you can have bragging rights all year.

Click here to begin the quiz.

Burying the lead (or “Man shoots self in scrotum, see sentence six.”)

In terms of press releases, this one clearly puts the thing you would probably most want to know near the end. This is one of the main reasons why you should learn to write in the inverted pyramid instead of simply recounting things chronologically.

To be fair, a “self-inflicted gunshot wound” does sound terrible, but it only gets worse:


Press releases like this make me miss working on the police beat.

(Instructors: A good exercise with this one would be to write a lead based on the release. The content has a pretty good number of the FOCII elements in there and a rewrite could create a better emphasis on them.)


Bryce Harper scores a 62-word, 9-preposition lead from the Washington Post (Oh, and $330 million from the Phillies…)


The question of, “How much money is one player worth?” came up once again when free agent Bryce Harper signed a contract Thursday the for the largest total salary in baseball history. His 13-year, $330 million deal eclipsed fellow free agent Manny Machado’s deal for 10 years and $300 million just a week prior.

It’s hard to value players in terms of dollars, but the Washington Post apparently decided that a mega-contract deserved a mega-lead:

Outfielder Bryce Harper agreed to a record-setting, 13-year $330-million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday, completing a protracted, four-month journey through free agency and officially ending his seven-year tenure with the Washington Nationals, the franchise that drafted and developed him, brought him to the majors as a teenager in 2012 and watched him blossom into one of the game’s biggest superstars.

As stat geeks were breaking down the various ways in which Harper’s performance and added wins would benefit or kill the Philadelphia franchise, those of us in journalism were doing some number-crunching of our own on this monstrosity. It contains the following:

  • 62 words
  • 3 conjunctions
  • 9 prepositions
  • 5 numbers (six, if you count teenager)
  • 5 hyphens

If you consider that leads are supposed to be 25-35 words, these numbers are even more ridiculous. (Maybe each of the two authors on this byline thought they each got to contribute 25-35 words to the lead…)

This thing could be good if it stopped at any of the following points:

The 28-word edition: (26 if you trim “protracted”  and “Outfielder”)

Outfielder Bryce Harper agreed to a record-setting, 13-year $330-million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday, completing a protracted, four-month journey through free agency.

The 34-word edition, if you want to weave in the local angle: (29 if you trim “Outfielder,” “protracted journey through,” and “officially”)

Outfielder Bryce Harper agreed to a record-setting, 13-year $330-million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies on Thursday, completing a protracted, four-month journey through free agency and officially ending his seven-year tenure with the Washington Nationals.

This could also easily be rewritten in a half dozen other ways to get the point across that this guy who played for your team is now playing elsewhere for a lot of money. (I would have loved the headline “13 years a Phillie” if I could have gotten away with it… Just a thought.) So consider the following things you can take away from this:

  • Pick a main point and make it: What, exactly, did this lead want to tell me? The answer is “Pretty much everything all at once.” How is the best way to make this point? The authors’ answer was apparently, “Like a meth-addled toddler, hopped up on sugar telling me about his entire month-long trip to Disney world in six seconds.” Instead of doing this, you need to find a main point and focus on it. If you think your audience needs to know about the mega-dollar deal, focus there. If it’s that you lost your hometown star, focus there. The idea is that when you make everything the main point, you lack a main point.
  • Write, then edit: There’s nothing wrong with WRITING a lead like this to get all the ideas you have out of your head. (You wouldn’t believe how insanely long some of the sentences I write can become during the first draft of some of the textbooks.) However, you need to go back and EDIT after you do this so that you can get a handle on what needs to be there and what is just taking up space. The goal is to have a well-crafted lead that tells people the things the need to know most, first. Some of this gets done in the writing, while a lot of it gets done in the editing.
  • It could always be worse: Here is the NY Times opening sentence:

    PHOENIX — Maybe the faucets were just a little rusty.

“This really brought me back to why I decided to be a journalist in the first place.” How the Northwest Missourian’s coverage of a fatal drunken driving trial served its readers well.

The Palms is a popular bar near Northwest Missouri State University that is usually jammed with students both inside and out. On weekends, the outdoor bar area has students packed shoulder to shoulder as they enjoy the atmosphere of college life.

On Jan. 7, The Palms became the site of a chaotic and deadly night when 22-year-old Alex Catterson slammed his pickup truck into the entrance of the building, killing sophomore Morgan McCoy.

“With the initial coverage of this story, we decided to cover the incident as breaking news and just tried to piece together a story that told what happened,” Darcie Dujakovich, the editor in chief for the Northwest Missourian, said. “Many college students were in the bar the night of the incident and left not knowing someone had died and that guided how we covered this story. We wanted to get the most important details out as quickly as possible: the death, her name, his name, location, how he crashed and any other injuries.

Shortly after, we did a feature piece on Morgan talking about her involvement on campus, hearing from friends and not necessarily focusing on her death but the impact her life had on the people around her, as we do with every student death we see at Northwest.”

What made this situation different was the importance of following the criminal aspects of the case, she said. Catterson had a blood-alcohol content of nearly three times the legal limit, officials said, and he would face felony charges associated with McCoy’s death.

“We had this trial on our radar for months and started planning for it pretty early out,” campus news editor Rachel Adamson said. “We knew we needed someone in the courtroom at all times to be able to accurately relay the information back to our readers. Darcie, our managing editor Joe Andrews and I all agreed we would need a story each day detailing what happened and Tweets throughout the day. ”

The newsroom often had multiple reporters at the courthouse during the day, capturing not just the major elements of the case, but also the details that brought clarity and intensity to their work.

“We knew we wanted to have coverage of this every day because it was something that shook our campus to the core, and people wanted to know what was happening,” Dujakovich said. “We felt as if we needed to provide them with that information.

The publication did daily work that provided some of the most painful details of the event, ranging from witness accounts of the crash to the recounting of Catterson’s often-tasteless interactions with police during his arrest.

“The hardest part of the trial to cover was the environment of the courtroom,” Adamson said. “There were heavy emotions coming from both sides of the gallery throughout the case. During the first couple days of the trial, graphic evidence and testimonies were shared and I remember thinking there was no way I was going to be able to sit through that for the rest of the week but I did.”

After a week-long trial, the jury found Catterson guilty of a Class B felony in causing McCoy’s death. Working on the trial still has an impact on the publication’s staff members, even after they finished their work, Dujakovich said.

“I found this coverage extremely hard to deal with and am still dealing with the effects it had on me,” she said. “Just emotionally, I have never covered something like this before. We were able to see body camera footage of CPR performed on Morgan’s lifeless body, we were able to hear the screams of her friends as they saw her being carried out on a stretcher assumed dead, we heard in gruesome detail about the puddle of blood she laid in and how her leg had been amputated. The details were and still are hard to swallow. However, being in the same room as Morgan’s family and watching those people relive her death six days in a row as I take notes about their tears for a story felt heartless – but it was not, people wanted these stories.”

The most difficult and yet rewarding decision in the coverage was to rely heavily on description and narrative, the editors both said. This provided the readers with a sense that they were watching the trial as well, and gave them a sense of how the hearing was unfolding from an emotional point of view.

“I never thought I was capable of illustrating a story and making readers feel like they were actually there,” Adamson said. “There had been countless times when I had read Time magazine and The New Yorker and thought, ‘Wow, if I could just write like that.’ But while covering this trial, I put aside trying to write like someone else and instead I just started writing and didn’t stop until all my thoughts were typed out. While writing, I kept circling back to ask myself, ‘How did it feel?’ That’s what kept me writing, that’s how we told the story – how did it feel?”

“I learned the importance of details in news writing,” Dujakovich added. “I feel like so often, especially as news reporters, we feel as if it is so cut and dry. Here are the facts, here are some words people said, and that is it. The details in these stories really made a difference. I never used detail in this way before and moving forward I do not think I will ever neglect to use detail as we did here, it made the story compelling and kept people coming back.”

Adamson said she also learned the value of telling the story as it happens so that the facts don’t get lost within the writing of the emotion.

“I walked into that courtroom day one of the trial with a lot of pre-conceived ideas of what I had thought happened,” she said. “I was quickly reminded through evidence that was presented that I needed to keep an open mind. That was the first lesson of many that covering this trial taught me.”

Dujakovich said although the coverage was difficult, she felt that she served her readers well and gave them a strong look at an important event.

“I made my decisions based on what I thought the readers would want to hear most,” Dujakovich said. “I tried to make sure they could picture the courtroom and the people in it. I wanted them to be able to see and hear what I saw and heard. I mean, the reader should always be top priority, but it is easy to write and forget about them. This really brought me back to why I decided to be a journalist in the first place.”

Inflatable rats and car horns aren’t free speech. Flipping the bird? Totally protected…

Courts often must parse what does and does not count as protected speech, and apparently, a giant inflatable rat doesn’t fit the bill, according to a court ruling last week:

A Wisconsin town’s sign ordinance did not violate a local union’s free speech rights, even though the ordinance prohibited the union from displaying its 12-foot inflatable rat, Scabby the Rat, to symbolize its protest against a local business.

The union erected Scabby the Rat to protest a local car dealership in the Town of Grand Chute, alleging the dealership was paying nonstandard, lower wages to masons on a construction project. The union placed Scabby the Rat in a right-of-way on a major thoroughfare near the dealership, drawing attention to protesting picketers nearby.

In other cases, courts have ruled in favor of some “different” forms of speech, such as holding protest signs, yelling slogans or even singing.

A Wisconsin appeals court ruled on Thursday morning that a state requirement for singers in the state Capitol to obtain a permit was unconstitutional.

The ruling by Judge JoAnne Kloppenburg of the 4th District Court of Appeals appears to be the last word on the matter, which became a hot-button issue during the summer of 2013 when Capitol Police arrested hundreds of protesters for singing in the Capitol rotunda without a permit.

However, my favorite parsing of what is and isn’t free speech involves a probation and parole official from Wisconsin who was disgruntled with then-Gov. Scott Walker.

Between 5:30 p.m. and 5:45 p.m. each day, someone in a black Honda would drive past Walker’s house in Wauwatosa, blow his horn like crazy, give the finger through his sunroof and shout, “Recall Walker.”

He was ticketed for using his horn, a charge he fought to no avail:

Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Mary Kuhnmuench found that there was no precedent for horn-honking being constitutionally protected political speech. Brodhead, who represented himself, was fined $166.20.

That said, he was still able to continue his protest without the use of a horn, and he did so.

During the workweek, he leaves his downtown office around 5 p.m., drives by the governor’s residence near the corner of N. 68th St. and W. Blue Mound Road, offers a one-finger salute and bellows his support of the Walker recall effort.

Only now he doesn’t blow his horn.

So, you can call someone a rat, but you can’t display a giant rat. Conversely, you can flip the bird at someone to honk them off, but don’t honk at them while you do it.

Who says the law isn’t fun?

Stuff I Said: Talking about “Covington Catholic MAGA Kid vs. Native-American Drummer” with The Clackamas Print

After the “Covington Catholic MAGA Kid vs. Native-American Drummer” post ran, a student journalist reached out from Clackamas Community College in Oregon to get a few of my thoughts on how speed and accuracy tend to bump into each other a lot in media these days.

(In case you missed it, the family of Nick Sandmann, the student in the video, is suing the Washington Post over its coverage of him. The suit, which asks for $250 million, argues that publication ran several “false and defamatory” articles and backed them up with similarly problematic tweets.)

The interview questions were good and in reading the responses I gave, I found myself saying, yet again, “Well, hell… I really need a filter. Or a translator from ‘Filak-ism’ to English.” Here’s one such moment:

TCP: What do you think the coverage of both the BuzzFeed story and the Covington Catholic Kids says about modern journalism?

A: I don’t know if this is necessarily a “modern journalism” thing, other than to say the reach of media is now able to do a lot more damage when a story goes south. It’s like if I were to be reckless with a firearm: If I’m reckless with a .22 pistol, I can hurt some people, but if I’m reckless with a rocket launcher, I can do a lot more damage. That’s the difference between things in the pre-digital era and now.

Yep. I definitely need a translator… In any case, you can read the whole exchange here.

“Count to Five:” Why Clarence Thomas’ interest in relitigating Times v. Sullivan isn’t going anywhere fast

The editor of the Democrat-Reporter in Linden, Alabama published an editorial in which he called on the Ku Klux Klan begin night rides against “Democrats in the Republican Party and Democrats (who) are plotting to raise taxes in Alabama.”  This became the biggest freakout moment of the day Tuesday for journalists, journalism professors and anyone with a vested interest in media, until Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas pulled a “Hold my beer” moment.

Thomas, writing for himself only in a concurring opinion, stated that Supreme Court should reexamine the 1964 decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, in which the court held that a public figure had to prove actual malice in order to win a libel suit:

He said the decision had no basis in the Constitution as it was understood by the people who drafted and ratified it.

“New York Times and the court’s decisions extending it were policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law,” Justice Thomas wrote.

Thomas’ writing involved the court’s decision to reject an appeal from Kathrine McKee, one of the women who accused Bill Cosby of sexual assault. She claimed she had been libeled because Cosby’s lawyer called her dishonest. As a public figure, the court held that Sullivan applied and thus she had to show actual malice had occurred.  (Sullivan is one of the most important free-press decisions ever issued by the court as it makes it much harder for public figures to use libel laws as a sword instead of a shield. For a good synopsis of the facts on Sullivan, you can go here. If you want to read the whole decision, you can go here.)

About six seconds after news of Thomas’ statements on Sullivan emerged, journalism folk in all of my social media feeds began mildly to seriously panicking over what this could mean. My first two thoughts were:

  1. Clarence Thomas? The last time I thought about him at all was when I got excited to see Wendell Pierce playing him in an HBO film about the Anita Hill controversy. (To be fair, Pierce probably played Thomas better than Thomas plays himself.)
  2. This guy is shit-talking the Warren Court on a 9-0 decision? That’s like me calling out LeBron James based on basketball talent. Also, although unanimous decisions are the norm on the Roberts Court, it’s hard to imagine it running the table on a decision as crucial as Sullivan.

To get something like this rolling, Thomas would need to find four other justices to see the law the way he does in this area, which is a tall order. Still, the idea that something this important could be undone by someone this unimportant bothered me, so I asked media-law expert Daxton “Chip” Stewart to give me a sense how worrisome this bit of news is.

“First thought, it’s nothing to freak out about because Thomas has always been like this,” Stewart said via email. “(Former Justice Antonin) Scalia famously hated Times v. Sullivan, but he knew he couldn’t get a majority to go along with him, so he gave up trying to kill it. Thomas isn’t so shy. Remember, he wrote a separate concurring opinion in the Bong Hits 4 Jesus case to say that Tinker was wrongly decided and students have no free speech rights. The guy is no friend to the First Amendment rights that the Court has recognized over the past century.”

Stewart said even though no one sided with Thomas in his decision, the question of what this means going forward will depend on how the rest of the judicial system reacts.

“The most important thing about this Thomas opinion is that nobody else joined it,” he said. “He’s out on a limb. The potential problem is that it opens up a window for other aggrieved anti-media judges to think that maybe overturning Sullivan is in the realm of possibility or at least legitimate legal discussion. They’re already doing the same thing in Roe v. Wade — appellate court judges boldly rejecting it as precedent, saying it was wrongly decided and it’s time for the Supreme Court to overturn it. That flies in the face of the entire notion of stare decisis.

Thomas is also floating a trial balloon to see if any of the new appointees think this is an idea worth pursuing. The Times pointed out in its coverage today that both justices Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch haven’t stridently opposed the Sullivan ruling, with Gorsuch saying during his confirmation hearing that he relied on Sullivan during one of his prior rulings.

Stewart said it is possible that both men could lean more toward President Donald Trump’s idea of “opening up the libel laws” and thus shift their stance on this issue. He also noted that Justice Samuel Alito is a “wild card,” but that Chief Justice John Roberts “cares too much about SCOTUS legitimacy and precedent to burn it on something as small (to him) as press freedom.”

“So the big risk would be if another Trump appointee were to come on in the seat of one of the liberal/moderate wing of the court (Ginsburg, Kagan, Breyer, Sotomayor) and join up an anti-media bloc of Thomas, Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and maybe Alito,” he said. “Then there’s five votes to undo Justice (William) Brennan’s historic opinion in Sullivan.

“And as Brennan famously said, the most important thing for a justice to be able to do is to count to five.”