Archive for the ‘Language in the news’ Category

Two political cartoons

January 18, 2011

The New York Times doesn’t do editorial cartoons, but on Sundays, it reproduces a collection of them from other papers. Two from this Sunday (January 16): one, by Patrick Chappatte in the International Herald Tribune, alluding (alarmingly) to the Tucson shootings; and the other, by John Cole in the Scranton Times Tribune, with playful taboo avoidance, alluding to provocative political rhetoric.


Editor vs. writer

January 12, 2011

In the January 2011 New Yorker, a “Wayward Press” piece by Peter Maass — “The Toppling: How the media inflated a minor moment in a long war”, about the press accounts of the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square in the early days of the war in Iraq — with this arresting passage:

Robert Collier, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter, filed a dispatch that noted a small number of Iraqis at Firdos, many of whom were not enthusiastic. When he woke up the next day, he found that his editors had recast the story. The published version said that “a jubilant crowd roared its approval” as onlookers shouted, “We are free! Thank you, President Bush!” According to Collier, the original version was considerably more tempered. “That was the one case in my time in Iraq when I can clearly say there was editorial interference in my work,” he said recently. “They threw in a lot of triumphalism. I was told by my editor that I had screwed up and had not seen the importance of the historical event. They took out quite a few of my qualifiers.”


Short shot #25: setting a record

December 8, 2009

Reporters often feel that it’s not enough to just report a story, that they need to set the story in some perspective. So instead of writing that it was very cold locally on December 1, and reporting the temperatures for the day, they’ll add that this was the coldest December 1 since 1997.

That’s a made-up story, but here’s a real one, about a school stampede in China’s Hunan province in which 8 were killed and 26 injured. This sad event was described on this morning’s Morning Edition on NPR as “the deadliest school stampede in China since 2002”.

According to Yahoo! News,

Despite harsh punishments aimed at forcing improvements, deadly stampedes continue to occur repeatedly in China’s schools, usually as students are rushing to exams or charging out of class down tight corridors and narrow stairwells.

This story cautiously described the Monday stampede as “among the deadliest since the crushing deaths of 21 children in a northern China middle school in 2002”.

(Early hits on {“school stampede”} include stories on a September stampede in Delhi, India, and a March 2002 stampede in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Until this morning I hadn’t thought of school stampede as a category of events.)

Perverse consequences

September 16, 2009

Ashlee Vance, “For Speech-Impaired, Insurance Fights Remedy”, front page of the NYT, September 15:

SAN FRANCISCO — Kara Lynn has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or A.L.S., which has attacked the muscles around her mouth and throat, removing her ability to speak. A couple of years ago, she spent more than $8,000 to buy a computer, approved by Medicare, that turns typed words into speech that her family, friends and doctors can hear.

Under government insurance requirements, the maker of the PC, which ran ordinary Microsoft Windows software, had to block any nonspeech functions, like sending e-mail or browsing the Web.

Dismayed by the PC’s limitations and clunky design, Ms. Lynn turned to a $300 iPhone 3G from Apple running $150 text-to-speech software. Ms. Lynn, who is 48 and lives in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., said it worked better and let her “wear her voice” around her neck while snuggling with her 5-year-old son, Aiden, who has Down syndrome.

Instead, public and private insurers insist that, if Ms. Lynn and others like her want insurance to pay, they must spend 10 to 20 times as much for dedicated, proprietary devices that can do far less.

The logic: Insurance is supposed to cover medical devices, and smartphones or PCs can be used for nonmedical purposes, like playing video games or Web browsing.

“We would not cover the iPhones and netbooks with speech-generating software capabilities because they are useful in the absence of an illness or injury,” said Peter Ashkenaz, a spokesman for the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Private insurers tend to follow the government’s lead in matters of coverage. Two years ago, iPhones and netbooks barely existed, so it may not be surprising that the industry has yet to consider their role as medical devices.

The ways of health insurance in the U.S. are often confounding. Some companies do not cover the expense of a wig following chemotherapy, on the grounds that a wig is merely “cosmetic”, but some do (at least in part), given a doctor’s prescription for an “extra-cranial prosthesis”. (Since 1998, federal law obliges insurance companies to cover prostheses or breast reconstruction following a mastectomy, but before that some companies did not cover such devices or procedures, again on the grounds that they were not medical treatments, but merely cosmetic.)

Some years ago, when my partner’s pituitary gland basically shut down and all the hormones controlled by the pituitary had to be replaced, I ended up spending lots of time over a year or so in fighting with his insurance company over the testosterone injections prescribed for him; every claim for the shots was initially denied, on the basis that some people got prescriptions for testosterone to increase muscle mass and strength, sexual performance, and energy, which are not medical uses. The company systematically disregarded the diagnosis of hypopituitarism in his records, and every month I had to wear them down.


March 28, 2009

A very small (and not at all original) footnote to the recent flap over AIG’s awarding hefty bonuses to many of its executives (after the U.S. government had taken over a substantial part of the company’s indebtednes). There’s been a lot of rage about this, including a lot of rage about the company’s defense that the bonuses were contractual obligations. This is, in a way, a language issue.