Trinidad and Tobago


Headline muse

November 07, 2001

NOT unlike The Rising Sun, a political propaganda publication that redefined the word "periodical", the date of the next issue of Trini Tattler is probably known only to The Psychic Friends Network.

But if you're yet to read the patently fictitious Tattler, count that among your lucky breaks. It is nothing but a preposterous compilation of the most implausible stories ever, many of them dangling from equally outrageous headlines.

And if it were true, as some say, that these stories are routinely concocted by newsroom pranksters, it certainly would not be the first time trusted reporters duped a newspaper.

The prestigious Washington Post published "Jimmy's World", a 1980 series by Janet Cooke about an eight-year-old heroin addict; a complete and utter fabrication that won its author the coveted Pulitzer prize.

The brazen lie discovered and The Post appropriately disgraced, Cooke was forced to return the prize and leave the field of journalism altogether, drifting awhile before gravitating toward a career in selling insurance for which, it turned out, she was eminently more suitable.

Lies, half-truths and innuendo are easily within the reach of political imagination, although some among them have accused local media of positioning perfidious pieces to satisfy conspiratorial agendas.

In the Tattler example, it could merely be that the editor's sense of humour is far beyond us. Newspapers have been known to run classic headline bloopers like: "Drunk gets nine months in violin case", or "Kids make nutritious snacks" and the local chart-topper "Water for all by 2000," but the Tattler outstrips even those.

Honest mistakes we can understand. The Wall Street Journal's famous 1991 faux-pas: "Rest of the year may not follow January" sought to predict economic trends, but left a few dimwits thinking February and succeeding months had been at least downsized, or quietly purged from calendars everywhere.

Fact is, a story appearing below an incredulous headline invariably decreases its chance of being fully read. To wake up tomorrow and see "Probe clears InnCogen deal", for instance, devalues whatever might follow and even before you plough further down the page, all indications are the story would be no more believable than "Sudama, fiancee to wed at PM's residence."

Of course, there are headlines we'd really love to see. However unlikely the occurrence of such an event, "Panday seriously answers question—media stunned" would snare a huge readership.

Some captions bring even greater gladness, albeit sold with generous servings of salt. "Elvis sighting in Ortoire/Mayaro as nomination day approaches" or "Adesh Nanan defects to NJAC" are as contrary to expectation as "Pat Bishop wins chutney-dancing contest"; although such headlines would undoubtedly tickle us all.

But the Tattler banners clearly have little respect for reality.

"Anthrax scare at Point Lisas" surely shouldn't fool anyone who has been following the news. To think "anthrax" at the first sign of white powder at any of this country's waterfront facilities would be to pretend local supplies of cocaine are exclusively dropped from the sky.

But "all things are possible" keeps winning the trophy for cliché of the year, so "Hulsie, Oma throw joint tea party" and "Arnim Smith gets lead role in new ballet" shouldn't be ruled out before at least a cursory glance at the first paragraph of ensuing stories.

Then there are those which remain slimly possible: "Duprey buys all political parties—muzzles mauvais langue" or "Dhanraj freed, named UNC leader" aren't items to laugh away without further investigation.

Others bring swift closure to gaping situations. "Wade Mark stops grinning for entire weekend" qualifies for such description, as would "US$50,000 traced to soft-drinks bill at kids Xmas party" or "Ramesh drops anti-corruption crusade, takes up knitting".

Timing is important. "Library to be named after Naipaul" is an excellent example of how construction delays can be made to fit evolving situations. Had the library been completed on time or VS Naipaul overlooked for the Nobel Prize for Literature, the imposing structure may well have carried someone else's name, invoking creative muse.

In that way, stories grow from headlines, instead of the other way around. Indeed, if the identities of tenants at the now famous house in Kensington were discovered in early August rather than late September, students staying there could easily claim they were merely avoiding the noise of steelbands practising for Notting Hill Carnival.

But if it really exists, the reckless Tattler is a discredit to journalism at large, proceeding undaunted by professional requirements of truth, timeliness or substance. "Manning concedes to Rowley", "Yetming gets new wardrobe for second term", "Roy Boyke for president" and "Boy Scouts to help old ladies across Humphrey's arch" really amount to shoving the envelope.

But "Atwell exhumed"?

Even at The Tattler there must be a limit.

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