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In era of division, we can make too much of a headline.

It is hard for me to read some of the reaction to a derided New York Times headline without a smirk, a sigh and a forlorn shake of the head.

The controversy begins with the paper's original headline Tuesday over a Page 1 story describing President Donald Trump's statement on the weekend mass murders in Dayton and El Paso. "TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM," the headline declares. It was changed for later editions to "ASSAILING HATE BUT NOT GUNS."

Critics on the left, led by New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez retweeting a veiled criticism from statistics guru Nate Silver, declared the original headline as evidence of the Times' -- and by extension, all mainstream media's -- caving to the right. Critics on the right, led by the usual crowd on Fox News and the president himself, declared the change to be evidence of the Times' -- and by extension, all mainstream media's -- caving to the left.

Advocates of both sides declared it evidence that the newspaper could not be trusted. A Twitter campaign was mounted, presumably uniting the opposing forces against a common enemy, to encourage people to cancel their subscriptions to the Times. This all struck me as ridiculous and shortsighted.

Neither side made reference to the story the headline described, which, it is probably relevant to note, had way more than 280 characters and which, while no objective reader could find it particularly balanced, conveyed a thorough description of the issues it addressed with substantial and substantive commentary from many points of view.

Why, I wonder, are we so eager, so quick, so hungry to bend any opportunity into a sweeping political generality?

It's not that headlines aren't important or that editors don't approach them with care. They are and we do. Even before the Daily Herald's designers had begun framing out Tuesday's front page, editor John Lampinen emphasized that we must take care not to ignore the president's emphatic and clear condemnation of racism in whatever headline we came up with. (Ours, by the way, was "Trump condemns racism, focuses on mental illness.")

But headlines are just one component in the telling of a story. They are a summary, produced -- as a Times deputy managing editor wrote in describing the evolution of the headline in question -- under the twin pressures of time and space, and they are not especially conducive to expressing nuance.

The truth is that both New York Times headlines are correct. It's equally true that the second more completely describes the story. It's also true that neither summarizes the whole story. What's troubling is that both were so easily transformed into irrelevant talking points for the right and left.

And what's most true -- what's really behind my smirk and my sighs -- is that it is such utter nonsense to decry The New York Times as untrustworthy because of a headline. Those who want to define the paper as liberal can find plenty of evidence. Those who want to claim that the Times cost Hillary Clinton the election by focusing on her emails will not be deterred by disputation. But it is utterly ludicrous to suggest that you will not be well-informed and thoroughly engaged if you actually read The New York Times. Or The Washington Post, for that matter, or The Wall Street Journal or many other newspapers, large, medium and small, that qualify as whatever mainstream means.

Will you come across phrases, descriptions, opinions, news judgments and, yes, headlines that bother you? Yes, you will. Unless you rely on a single news source that shares your views and your thinking entirely, you will sometimes be angered and disappointed by things you see or read. But, you will not be better informed by abandoning some reliable news source. To the contrary, if you want to be better informed, you will add to your sphere of information.

So smirk sometimes. Roll your eyes occasionally. But be bigger than the rare annoyances and shortcomings you encounter. You'll be better for it and more knowledgeable regarding the events and issues you care about.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is deputy managing editor for opinion at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.
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Publication:Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Date:Aug 8, 2019
Words:703
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