Any sentient Santa Barbara resident standing within five feet of a newspaper in the last few months knows that the internal happenings at the Santa Barbara News-Press have been spilling out of its newsroom and into the public eye, often in a dramatic fashion, with yelling, name-calling, blistering editorials, and protests with bike horns. Those of us faced with the task of relating that information, however, have a challenging choice to make: What do we call it?
Does “labor dispute” adequately convey the contempt between the fired News-Press journos and the editorial staff who let them go? Based on what I’ve heard both on and off the record, I say no. Besides, the events that initially occurred in the paper’s office have been drawing nationwide attention and creating city-wide stress for too long to still consider the matter strictly one of workplace ethics. Can we call it a “scandal”? I’m not so sure, though certainly some weighing in on the side of the former NP reporters would have no qualms about using that word.
But journalists attempting some level of objectivity in the matter should rightly restrain themselves from making such a judgment. It’s an awkward situation to be in-and even more so for one working at a Santa Barbara news agency. Call it a “journalistic war of words the likes of which the county has never before seen and the implications of which could have far-reaching consequences for the newspaper industry at large” and a reporter could be accused either of sensationalizing the story in order to further impugn the credibility of the News-Press or revealing his sympathies for fellow newsies in a truly undesirable situation. Also, it’s verbose as all hell. Refer to it merely as “a disagreement between the people who used to work at the paper and some other people who still do” and the same reporter could be chided for downplaying the matter and draining all the life out of a juicy story.
Personally, I’m inclined to use that wonderful word “brouhaha”, but I’d decline to do so in an objective news story. To me, the word carries an implicit judgment that instantly turns the fact you’re trying to communicate into an opinion. That, plus the fact that hearing the word makes me think of a fat man holding a beer and letting loose with a hearty belly laugh. But that’s just me.
So what then? What synonym works best?
It’s a dilemma of English speakers everywhere. We have a plethora of words expressing the same essential idea with so many subtle shades of meaning that the act of picking the right one can sometimes be downright flummoxing. (And “flummox”? That’s another wonderful word we don’t use enough.) And when English doesn’t yet have the right word, it steals it from another language. (So often, that language is German, hence the appearance of gems like “zeitgeist” and “weltschmerz” in Webster.) It’s the difference between “the barking dog in the fog” and “the baying hound in the mist.” And it’s a problem that can hit journalists especially hard.
I think it was a March 26 posting by David Pritchett on Edhat that referred to the events that turned the News-Press into news as the “situation,” inside quotation marks. Initially, I felt it was euphemistic in the sense that a finger quoted use of the word “situation” can mean anything from pants-wetting to a kitchen grease fire. It was that thinking that eventually led me to like it enough to use it in an entry on the Indy SB Media Blog. I like it better than the inherently opinionated “mess at the News-Press,” but I’m still not sure that’s the best term. I’m okay with “controversy”-as in “Santa Barbara News-Press controversy,” as the Wikipedia page on the matter titles it-but wonder if that somehow falls short of describing the matter’s gravity.
In the end, I feel like English doesn’t yet have the exact word I feel would be necessary to objectively convey the largeness of the issue without simultaneously seeming overblown, one-sided or unduly silly. Those reporting on the recent embarrassment at the LA Times neatly skipped around the issue of picking the exact word by dubbing the whole deal “Grazergate.” To me, that handy-dandy handle brings up a whole other question: Why haven’t we stuck the Nixon era-spawned suffix “gate” on the end of the some word applying to the News-Press and call it that? A little hackneyed, for sure, but altogether effective for filling the verbal void left by our language’s failures.
It might save some reporter somewhere the trouble of underselling the news with “dispute” or blowing it into ridiculous levels with “the Santa Barbara newsroom kablooey.”
And back when I called this the “dilemma of English speakers everywhere,” did I actually mean “quandary”?
Drew Mackie also makes words regularly as an Independent reporter and on his pop culture blog, Back of the Cereal Box.