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The Long View

Update to New York Times Stylebook

by Rob Long


TO: Editorial Staff
FROM: Editorial Policy Committee
RE: Election pieces, approved language

Oct. 26, 2010

As you all know, Election Day is one week from now, and we know you’re all busy preparing and shaping the coverage that the New York Times is justly famous for.

Please be aware that the Editorial Policy Committee has made some changes and additions to the approved NYT stylebook, and we’d like you to take a moment to review them before you begin filing pieces about what’s shaping up to be a controversial midterm election.

That’s a great place to start, actually: Controversial has long been preferred usage for any campaign in which there’s an upset of an entrenched Democrat. For instance, if Harry Reid happens to lose his campaign for reelection in Nevada, an approved-style lede might be: “Harry Reid, an effective and well-respected senator, has lost his reelection bid to a controversial opponent.”

Please note that other approved-style words and terms include divisive, fractious, Tea Party–backed, and laughingstock.

In characterizing the campaigns themselves, please try to activate your language with the following list of adjectives: bitter, expensive, ugly, smear-filled, racially tinged, angry, and Tea Party–backed.

Please use good judgment here. When in doubt, see your editor. In general, we’re trying to reserve those words for races in which Democrats lost seats. In races where Democrats gained seats, or where an incumbent retained his or her office, please apply the following approved-style words: measured, thoughtful, healing, centrist, Susan Collins of Maine–ish, American, and patriot.

In shaping the narrative for the clash of the parties, it’s best that we all sing from the same hymnal. Our readers expect — and deserve — a consistent “New York Times” vision of the political landscape, and so we really do need to ask that you all try to keep within the basic guidelines. The Democrats either will regroup, will reinvigorate, or have already “won by losing.” The predominantly white Republicans face deep divisions within their own unruly ranks, and have mortgaged themselves to the Tea Party radicals.

Some sample ledes:

“In a bitter and divisive campaign, tinged by racism and homophobia, longtime congressman Barney Frank was defeated by Tea Party–backed Sean Bielat . . .”

“The measured, thoughtful voters of California have decided to return to the Senate Barbara Boxer, after a fractious and expensive campaign sought to portray the centrist senator as out of the mainstream . . .”

“Laughingstock Christine O’Donnell has astonished everyone with her angry and Tea Party–backed victory . . .”

“Can incoming presumed Speaker of the House John Boehner take the reins of an unruly and divided party without adding to the simmering civil war within its ranks? A party that has mortgaged itself to the Tea Party needs to find a way to connect with the vast center . . .”

“In an evenly divided Senate, suddenly the man of the hour is thoughtful, centrist Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who has reached out to his original party, the Democrats, in a gesture of healing and reconciliation . . .”

“California will get even more relaxed, as a Tea Party–backed initiative to legalize the sale and use of marijuana passed overwhelmingly . . .”

Obviously, these are just examples of possible ways to go. We’re anticipating a fairly sizable Republican victory, and so we do feel it’s important to ask all of you to do some old- fashioned shoe-leather reporting on the Republican party and its members. This may mean a fair amount of travel and/or auto mileage, so please speak to your editor for pre-approved travel expenses. In general, the following places are pre-approved for travel and fact-gathering: Ruby Tuesday restaurants nationwide; Indiana, a large state; any public golf course; the fast-food chain Chick-Fil-A; anyone inside the United Airlines Red Carpet Club; large mega-style churches — or any houses of worship, for that matter; any family-owned small business, such as a UPS Store or a dry-cleaning establishment; Costco locations; and the State of Mississippi, which is directly southeast of Indiana. Please note: Staten Island DOES NOT count as an officially expense-approved “Republican destination.”

It’s important that we all do what it takes — traveling to odd places, eating unhealthy meals — to properly cover this interesting and controversial voting bloc.

Last, please try not to mention Pres. Barack Obama in your coverage of the midterms. As you all know, the president is not on the ballot, and the results of the night are in no way relevant to his political future.

Thanks for your attention to this matter. With everyone’s help, we’ll make sure that the coverage of the midterm elections is exactly what people expect from the New York Times.

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