Some words to the wise.


“And don’t get him started on how people in the U.S. misuse the term American,” Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez wrote this week about Monday’s immigration rallies, doing his usual shoe-leather schtick by listening to customers at East L.A. eateries. Lopez didn’t question these men-on-the-street who insisted that American refers to everyone from Alaska to Patagonia. Don’t get me started on that, because of course what these people really want (and Lopez apparently supports) is their misuse of the term American.

So if I was already American when my family moved here from Canada in the ’60s, how come I needed a green card?

Language misuse is one of my own pet peeves, and I’ve noticed that people get really angry when I refuse to misuse it the way they’d like. Last weekend I was on a Times Festival of Books media panel and made the audience gasp in shock when I called the Christian Science Monitor’s 28-year-old correspondent Jill Carroll–who was kidnapped and later released in Iraq–a “girl.”

Some people thought this was comparable to calling her a slut or a chick, which is just nuts. Most people, when referring to young women, naturally call them girls. I’ve noticed that exceptions are children and young men, who I suppose get it beaten out of them by grim feminists and the p.c. police by the time they’re out of college.

I used to call myself a girl until, not being Maureen Dowd, it began to feel ridiculous once I got to a certain age. But the word girl is especially appropriate in Jill Carroll’s case, since there was something so Nancy Drew-ish about her entire misadventure–based as it was on the adolescent notion that how strongly you feel about something has any connection with your ability to do it.

The panel was moderated by my friend Karen Grigsby Bates of NPR’s Day to Day, and the other panelists were Arianna Huffington, former Baltimore Sun columnist Jules Witcover and the American Prospect’s Chris Mooney. I didn’t mind that the Left to Right ratio was four-to-one, but I did get a bit impatient when Arianna and Witcover began rattling on pro forma about the corrupt administration and its “rush to war,” because the panel was supposed to about media, not politics.

So, as long as we were talking about Iraq, I suggested that an interesting media question I’d never seen raised is that perhaps the Christian Science Monitor shouldn’t have lent its storied (but increasingly inconsequential) imprimatur to an inexperienced freelancer whose kidnapping got her translator killed and distracted American military personnel from their core mission. All for a newspaper that few people outside Christian Science reading rooms ever even see.

The Monitor’s respected old name and fabled international reporting is pretty much irrelevant now that we have free and easy access to almost every major paper in the world, not to mention 24-hour cable news channels. The paper’s circulation is tiny–something like 70,000 readers, most of them geriatric. Much has been made of its free website, which gets about 1.7 million unique visitors per month. But that’s just 56,000 visitors per day, less than the blog Little Green Footballs, which has far more enlightening Mideast information.

So was it really ethical for lives to be endangered and lost because some girl is “passionate” (as Carroll’s defenders say she was) about Iraq? Especially when the Monitor doesn’t have the money that big news organizations have to make sure she had the proper bodyguards?

Actually, I suppose, they do have the money; they just don’t chose to spend it. The left-leaning Monitor will never go out of business because it’s not a business but a missionary activity of the not-exactly-starving Christian Science Church, whose founder Mary Baker Eddy thought the paper’s mandate should be to “injure no man, but to bless all mankind.”

So much for afflicting the comfortable–but still, good for them. Maybe in 2006, though, the Monitor should consider relying on major paper reprints and other wire-service material for dangerous stories. Carroll’s translator was, after all, murdered, so it seems to me that her adventure injured at least one man.

There was some discontent about my point of view. Karen protested that Carroll had focused on the civilian suffering in Iraq–but I regularly read stories about that angle in major papers and magazines. Could anyone describe any story–or even an item–that Carroll had reported from Iraq? No they could not. So why was her presence there so important?

She became the story in the worst way–not because she was an especially gifted writer, like Ernie Pyle, but simply because her unfortunate situation made her an international incident. There are many arguments these days about whether or not news is free, news is relevant, news is biased, and so on. But I’d hope we can all agree that at the very least, news should be news.

But speaking of the wrong words in the wrong place, I almost didn’t finish reading that Steve Lopez column about the May Day rallies because in its opening graph he wrote that he “motored about” L.A. to hear what people were saying. Motored about? What is he now–Jeeves? That struck a distinctly off note for a faux man-of-the-people guy (er, man?) like Lopez. He should have lowered his pinky and stuck to “drove around.”

I’m not usually so unsympathetic to other journalists. I thought that the Times handled its Michael Hiltzik problem admirably, for instance, not only yanking the left-leaning business columnist’s blog but also his column last Friday. This came just over a week after L.A. blogger and assistant district attorney Patterico proved that Hiltzik had regularly created Internet aliases to blast his critics and support himself.

Anyone even vaguely aware of how journalists are supposed to behave should understand and applaud the paper’s decision. This has nothing to do with mainstream media’s misunderstanding the freewheeling blogosphere (as some Internet commenters have suggested) or suppressed speech, and I’m sorry that not everyone on the Right agrees with me. The issue is Hiltzik’s dishonesty, bad judgment, and petty anger at anyone who disagreed with him, all of which undermined his credibility as a columnist.

The Times hasn’t always hit the right notes with blogging, and editor-in-chief Dean Baquet seems to know that. “Sometimes we feel like middle-aged people trying to sing hip-hop,” he told L.A. Observed’s Kevin Roderick in a Festival of Books discussion. But Baquet’s Hiltzik decision was exactly correct.

“I was not swayed by the argument that in this world people do it all the time,” Baquet added. “This was a grave sin. The moment for me when I knew he had to go was when I was reading in the paper about Ken Lay’s behavior at the Enron trial. I thought a business columnist could have a lot of fun with this. And then it hit me that Mike couldn’t write that column. He lost his ability to beat up on business executives.”

No matter what you think of the mainstream media, journalists generally try to be honest and Hiltzik’s fundamental dishonesty meant he was lucky he wasn’t fired. Not as punishment, but simply because his behavior indicates he may be basically untrustworthy. All any journalist really has is his judgment and integrity. If those are compromised, then any publication he works for is compromised too.

One of Patterico’s regular commenters pointed out that on submarines this is called “demonstrated unreliability” and added: “We’ve all seen folks de-nuked over blindingly stupid liberty incidents.” That struck me as a useful analogy, and not just because the commenter made a point of agreeing with me. To expand the military metaphor, Hiltzik was guilty of conduct unbecoming a journalist.

Anyway, speaking of semantics, Baquet repeatedly called the Hiltzik affair a “tragedy” and I think he used that word in its classically correct sense. Had Hiltzik actually been as stupid as he and his Internet alter-egos regularly accused Patterico, Hugh Hewitt, and me of being, the incident would have been merely distasteful. What made it tragic, as well as compellingly dramatic, is that the Pulitzer Prize-winning Hiltzik is a man of intelligence and talent, brought low by his own hubris.

— Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.