A Plague Of Misleading Headlines

Fake headline

The mad quest for clicks appears to be leading websites that should know better to sink to misleading or outright dishonest headlines on the web. For someone like me, who has to scan these looking for possible ethics issues, it is an increasingly annoying phenomenon. Readers need to speak up. The practice is unethical, and moreover, suggests that the source itself isn’t trustworthy.

Here are three current examples;

1. The Daily Beast: “Idiocracy’ Director Mike Judge: Fox Killed Our Anti-Trump Camacho Ads”

Boy, isn’t it just like that conservative, Trump-promoting Faux News to help The Donald by using its power, influence, lawyers, something to stop the makers of “Idiocracy,” that comic classic, from being used to save the country from American Hitler?

That’s sure how the Daily Beast wanted its largely Democratic readership to react to its headline over the story about a fizzled effort to use the the film’s character  of ex-porn star future U.S. President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Drew Herbert Camacho, played by Terry Crews, in a series of comic spots ridiculing Trump’s candidacy. The story, however, never quotes Judge as saying Fox—that would be the movie side of Twentieth Century Fox, not Fox News, which had no say in the matter: the company produced the film and owns the right to it and all of its characters—killed the project.  All Judge says is that the idea of doing a series of such ads didn’t come to fruition, for a whole list of reasons which might have included Fox’s distaste for the project.. Of  Fox, he says this..

“I think also Fox… yeah, they… even though they’ve probably forgotten they still own it…”

The writer then suggests that company owner Rupert Murdoch might not like the idea, and thus prompted, Judge replies,

“Yeah. That’s the other thing. I think there was a roadblock there, too…I just heard that [the proposed ads] were put on the shelf, so it looks like they’re not going to happen.”

Based on this, the author, typical Daily Beast hack Marlow Stern, writes, “It looks like Fox refused—and the ads are now dead.” Stern never says that Fox refused; it is the “reporter” who says it. Meanwhile, when the Daily Beast writes about “Fox,” it is referring to Fox News 99.9% of the time, and knows that’s what its readers will think when they read “Fox.”

The headline is intentionally misleading, and a lie.

(Incidentally, the movie is a great concept that under-delivers on its premise and potential, and should be a lot funnier than it is)

2. PJ Media: “Father Accused of Raping Daughter Acquitted After ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Defense”

“Oh, no! Another scumbag goes free because a slime-ball defense lawyer comes up with some excuse like “too many Twinkies” or “Affluenza” and gets a judge or jury to buy it? Let’s “Kill all the lawyers!”

When something is called the “X defense,” “X” is a novel theory, like the so called “Twinkie defense “used by Dan White’s lawyer in the Harvey Milk murder trial, that a defense lawyer tries in an often desperate effort to defend a guilty client. There was no “Fifty Shades of Grey Defense” in the British trial of a man accused by his daughter of repeatedly raping her, just the old-fashioned “the alleged rape victim is lying and I can prove it” defense….the same defense Hillary Clinton used when she was defending a rapist.

In the British trial, the father’s alert solicitor noticed something familiar in the daughter’s testimony to the police, and checked the popular novel to see if he was correct that the detailed accounts of her supposed rapes were really close adaptations of scenes from the book. They were. He passed the research on to the defense barrister , who began using some of the 17 examples where the daughter had used the novel’s scenes to attack the daughter’s credibility during cross examination. After only seven minutes, the “victim”  broke down and confessed in open court that she had falsely accused her father to punish him for being “too strict.”  He was was granted an immediate acquittal.

The PJ Media post’s headline just piled up click bait images—father, rape, daughter, popular sex novel—to suggest that one more crazy defense by a soulless lawyer had let a monster go free.

3. Breitbart, Townhall,Gateway Pundit, The College Fix and many, many more: “Princeton HR department: Don’t use word ‘man’ ” ; “Insanity: The Word ‘Man’ Is Banned At Princeton University,” and various variations.

“Oh, no! More Orwellian thought and speech control on college campuses! First they’ll ban the word “man,” and next they’ll ban men! And this is Princeton! The feminazi’s have taken over!”

Ugh. Nobody at Princeton told anyone never to use the word “man.” Nobody banned the word “man.” “Man” is still “approved” at Princeton when it means “man.” Princeton is telling its employees to avoid using “man” in words where it also refers or could refer to women, or men who identify as women, or women who identify as appliances, or whatever, like “chairman,” “common man,” “man-hours, “reasonable man,” etc.” This memo was circulated in the 1970s! It is old, old news.

Now, please understand that criticism of the memo is justified, since it is excessive and pretty stupid. Dictating an official style that avoids generic uses of “man” is reasonable, I suppose, in an attempt to eliminate subliminal subordination of women in the language. Calling for the elimination of all gendered pronouns (though it’s just a “tip”) is insane, and Princeton deserves all the mockery it gets for employing people who issue crap like this.

The table of occupation names that Princeton wants gender-neutralized is especially derision-worthy. The idea of language is to be descriptive, and the more descriptive, the better. There is nothing the matter with the term “actress” to describe a woman who acts, and nothing is gained by calling one an actor, except confusion. In one of my late, lamented theater company’s productions, a male played Lady Macbeth. Saying “an actor” played Lady MacBeth in non-PrincetonSpeak would describe the non-traditional casting, and prompt the next question, “Really? How did that work out?”

Moreover, this “tip” contradicts the objective of the rest of the memo. Most of it urges speakers to avoid using masculine words—you know, like “actor”—as a generic to describe something women do as well. Here, employees are told to use them. Why not call all actors “actresses,” then?

As usually happens with radical ideological attempts to restrict n language, the effort drowns in its own obsession. The memo says to call a cleaning lady an “office cleaner.”  What if she’s cleaning a house? Oh, then it’s a house cleaner! Is it a man or a woman? Then..all right, all right, it’s a %#&@! cleaning lady! Shut up! Sexist!

I’m fascinated how someone reaches adulthood able to solemnly write such silliness without wanting to hurl themselves under a steam-roller. Still, Princeton has not banned  the word “man,” and all of those headlines saying it has are false.

The “insanity” part is correct, though.

Headline writing is tricky, especially on the web. I have to do it every day. You want to make the article sound interesting, give some information about what the piece is about, and do it concisely and accurately as possible. I’ve had a couple of headlines that upon later reflection could be criticized for not being accurate, but never one that was intentionally states to make a reader thing something was true that wasn’t.

Doing that is dishonest, unfair to readers, and worst of all, spreads misinformation throughout society, as people read false headlines, believe them, and tell others without reading the articles. In the comments to the three articles linked above, a few readers flagged the deceptions in the headlines and complained. Unless a lot more readers object, this unethical practice will become more common.

11 thoughts on “A Plague Of Misleading Headlines

  1. I quite agree with you on this, and it’s a very good chuckle too. Though I wonder if you weren’t too harsh on #2, the ’50 Shades of Grey’ defense?

    The term as you list it is in quotes (and it is in quotes in the original as well). That distinguishes it from the other two, where it is baldly asserted that Fox killed an ad, and that a specific word was banned.

    You yourself quite properly include the word ‘defense’ in your citation of ‘the Twinkie defense,’ whereas ‘Shades of grey’ is used just as an adjectival phrase, not as part of a full-noun variation of a defense (i.e. “Shades of grey defense.”)

    Maybe that’s just quibbling, but that examnple didn’t strike me as being as far ‘out there’ as the other two.

    • You are quite right, it’s the most defensible of the three. But I personally felt misled, because that italics quote was exactly how I read the headline. Maybe I’f been thinking about rape defense too much thanks to the Snopes-Hillary post going viral, but consider the source too: that site is a big defense lawyer basher. I could be wrong, but I think the innuendo was intentional, and intentionally misleading.

  2. Jack,
    The article starts out about misleading and biased headlines, but then you spend the last third ranting about PC language culture.

    You present the first two liberal bias headlines and simply state them as modleading, but almost seem (as in, appear to, not to actually do in fact) to defend it nonetheless by saying it’s nonetheless stupid.

    Apparently the news wasn’t old enough …

    • It’s not a rant, and the next time you smear me with that characterization, you won’t be happy.

      I can’t explain why the headlines were false without explaining what the real document said, and I can’t fairly quote what the real document said without pointing out that I’m not defending the document or the policy, just noting that the characterization of the stupid memo was misleading. It’s still a stupid memo. Go back to bed.

      • Jack,
        “Smear you”? “Rant,” in modern cadence, can be used to describe any lengthy or in-depth complaint against something.

        “Go back to bed.”? Me or you? It was 11:30 AM when I wrote that; I’d been up for hours.


  3. Good article! I was specifically looking for something like what you wrote because I have also noticed and increase of this phenomena in many different online forums. Something about the practice simply struck me as unethical, but could not quite place my finger on it. Thank you for helping to frame and clarify the moral aspect of a misleading headline and why more people should be encouraged to speak out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.