Saturday, November 09, 2013

The Other Left

Quick quiz: I'll name a cable news outlet, you say "left" or "right." I say Fox News: you say right. I say MSNBC: you say left. Let's move on to web sites. Huffington Post? Without a doubt, left. Drudge Report? Most would say right. Now, newspapers. Wall Street Journal? Right, for sure. Washington Post? Lefty, no doubt. And for the bonus round: CNN? Sorry, there is no category "trying hard to be in the middle and just wind up looking silly."  

Now, subscribing to one side or the other is no sin in and of itself. People have a point of view, and they are welcome to espouse that. Just don't try and pretend otherwise. Is there anyone who really believes Fox News is "Fair and Balanced?" After all, it's a high bar: if you have as your slogan "The Ring of Truth" (Joliet Herald-News ) you hold yourself to an impossible standard. That's because in today's world, virtually any "truth" can be challenged by a competing point of view available within three clicks on Google. Perhaps it would be better for news organizations to stick to more generic slogans. I mean, it's hard to argue with the Telegram and Gazette in Worchester, MA when they say "We've Got News For You!" And who can quibble with the Mason Valley News in Yerington, NV with their proclamation, "The Only Newspaper in the World That Gives a Damn About Yerington."

But what if you're a so-called "paper of record?" The New York Times deems itself so, famously saying since 1896 that it carries "All the News That's Fit To Print." While that may be the case, there are few who would argue that the paper leans left. As such, to many conservatives, it is just another house organ of the liberal elite, or as Sarah Palin calls it, the "lamestream media."

With one exception, that is: style and grammar. Since 1999, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage has been the unseen arbiter of how the paper writes. If for no other reasons than the paper’s history and circulation, that has made it one of the de facto standards of everyday grammatical usage, regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum. The guide recently received an update, reflecting the changing times. As described in the "After Deadline" column, "We're deleting some outdated entries: we don't expect a rash of college girls or authoresses in our pages. Dated, offensive or insensitive terms like mongoloid or admitted homosexual don't seem to require guidance any longer. And yes, we all know that bikini, for the bathing suit, is lowercase; no reminder necessary."

So it caught my eye when I saw an article in the NYT on a political contest in Alabama, accompanied by pictures from the scene. A modified triptych, it had one large shot of a candidates forum, under which were two snaps of the gentlemen facing off against one another. The captions for all three were contained in a single paragraph, set below and to one side. The first line of text was devoted to a description of the scene on top, while the next line went as follows: "At far left, Bradley Byrne; at nearest left, Dean Young."

Now, there was a construction I don't think I've ever seen: "nearest left." In a row of people, perhaps you might start at the "far left" and work your way across. But in a simple set of two? I would have gone binary: "on the left is Bradley, on the right is Dean." Could it be that the word came down that we wish to discredit one side so much that we will henceforth use left as often as possible, and not even acknowledge the other side of the coin? Or in a nod to the classic sitcom "Newhart " and the brothers Larry, Darryl and Darryl, are we now talking about left and my other left?  

Perhaps I'm reading too much into it. But these days we find ulterior motives in everything. Apple's new operating system is remaking the world of design, and Obamacare is a threat to our very freedom. In this case, however, it may be just what it seems: a bored writer's attempt to have some fun and slip something past his editor. After all, as Freud is supposed to have said, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes language. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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