WGN’s ‘119 banned words’

Chicago is buzzing over a memo that Tribune CEO Randy Michaels put out listing words he didn’t want to hear on WGN-AM (720), the news/talk radio station owned by the World’s Greatest Newspaper (which is what WGN stands for).

Blogger Robert Feder has given him grief about it. Noting that it’s all well and good to coach staffers about avoiding jargon and cliche, Mr. Feder said that Mr. Michaels went beyond that reasonable goal:

Meyerson takes it a step further, directing his staff to keep tabs on each other’s compliance: They’re to report any on-air infractions by their co-workers, making sure to note the precise time and date on “bingo cards” he provided that contain a random assortment of Michaels’ forbidden words. If you ask me, that’s just plain creepy.What’s even more disturbing is that the CEO of a major institution would engage in such petty and insulting micromanaging of subordinates….

Most unwisely, Mr. Michaels then contributed to the image of him as an out-of-control martinet by holding a meeting with the station’s staff to chew them out over his memo having been leaked.

Somewhat more helpfully, Mr. Michaels then put out this explanation:

“ ‘The List’ was part of a collection of notes distributed by me to the attendees of the recent Broadcast News Directors meetings. There is neither corporate ‘banned’ list nor are there ‘forbidden’ words. The list was a collection of ‘News English’ words and phrases we’d be better off without. I was simply reminding News Directors that jargon, clichés, and misused words are not found in good writing. I was hoping that News Directors would add to the list of crutches. Thanks to all of the publicity, many great contributions have been received, but from outside the company.
 The ‘kerfuffle’ is a bit bewildering. Most news organizations have a style book, and the suggestions on that list are pretty basic. 
It is surprising that some believe that the CEO of a content company should not be concerned about content.
 As for where the list came from, it clearly came from WGN radio since it had Charlie [Meyerson]’s perhaps unfortunate introduction. It was compiled by a few people after the News Directors meeting. The same list went to all of the TV news directors without public reaction. Someone who works at WGN must think sending internal memos to an out of work blogger who doesn’t like us is OK. That part is the most disappointing.”

At the risk of sounding like a guy who hasn’t gotten over being management, even after being laid off, I want to take this opportunity to stick up for Mr. Michaels, just a bit: He actually was onto something in trying to weed out “at risk,” “two to one margin,” “Eye Rack” and a few others from news copy:

  1. “Flee” meaning “run away”
  2. “Good” or “bad” news
  3. “Laud” meaning “praise”
  4. “Seek” meaning “look for”
  5. “Some” meaning “about”
  6. “Two to one margin” . . . “Two to one” is a ratio, not a margin. A margin is measured in points. It’s not a ratio.
  7. “Yesterday” in a lead sentence
  8. “Youth” meaning “child”
  9. 5 a.m. in the morning
  10. After the break
  11. After these commercial messages
  12. Aftermath
  13. All of you
  14. Allegations
  15. Alleged
  16. Area residents
  17. As expected
  18. At risk
  19. At this point in time
  20. Authorities
  21. Auto accident
  22. Bare naked
  23. Behind bars
  24. Behind closed doors
  25. Behind the podium (you mean lecturn) [sic]
  26. Best kept secret
  27. Campaign trail
  28. Clash with police
  29. Close proximity
  30. Complete surprise
  31. Completely destroyed, completely abolished, completely finished or any other completely redundant use
  32. Death toll
  33. Definitely possible
  34. Diva
  35. Down in (location)
  36. Down there
  37. Dubbaya when you mean double you
  38. Everybody (when referring to the audience)
  39. Eye Rack or Eye Ran
  40. False pretenses
  41. Famed
  42. Fatal death
  43. Fled on foot
  44. Folks
  45. Giving 110%
  46. Going forward
  47. Gunman, especially lone gunman
  48. Guys
  49. Hunnert when you mean hundred
  50. Icon
  51. In a surprise move
  52. In harm’s way
  53. In other news
  54. In the wake of (unless it’s a boating story)
  55. Incarcerated
  56. Informed sources say . . .
  57. Killing spree
  58. Legendary
  59. Lend a helping hand
  60. Literally
  61. Lucky to be alive
  62. Manhunt
  63. Marred
  64. Medical hospital
  65. Mother of all (anything)
  66. Motorist
  67. Mute point. (It’s moot point, but don’t say that either)
  68. Near miss
  69. No brainer
  70. Officials
  71. Our top story tonight
  72. Out in (location)
  73. Out there
  74. Over in
  75. Pedestrian
  76. Perfect storm
  77. Perished
  78. Perpetrator
  79. Plagued
  80. Really
  81. Reeling
  82. Reportedly
  83. Seek
  84. Senseless murder
  85. Shots rang out
  86. Shower activity
  87. Sketchy details
  88. Some (meaning about)
  89. Some of you
  90. Sources say . . .
  91. Speaking out
  92. Stay tuned
  93. The fact of the matter
  94. Those of you
  95. Thus
  96. Time for a break
  97. To be fair
  98. Torrential rain
  99. Touch base
  100. Under fire
  101. Under siege
  102. Underwent surgery
  103. Undisclosed
  104. Undocumented alien
  105. Unrest
  106. Untimely death
  107. Up in (location)
  108. Up there
  109. Utilize (you mean use)
  110. Vehicle
  111. We’ll be right back
  112. Welcome back
  113. Welcome back everybody
  114. We’ll be back
  115. Went terribly wrong
  116. We’re back
  117. White stuff
  118. World class
  119. You folks

He managed to hit on some of the less forgivable words in the hack writer’s arsenal. So I give him props for that.

But when you read the whole thing, it gets more than a little weird. If he’d cut it down to maybe a dozen words, it would have seemed a bit less anal and dictatorial. Along about word 80, I start thinking of the power-mad new presidente in “Bananas”:

From this day on, the official language of San Marcos will be Swedish. Silence! In addition to that, all citizens will be required to change their underwear every half-hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check. Furthermore, all children under 16 years old are now… 16 years old!

And his overreaction to the leakage is even stranger. I’m glad I don’t work for this guy.

But I do enjoy a good debate over words. And ultimately, being out of the trade, I find it both reassuring and amusing that somewhere, these kinds of “kerfuffles” are still going on…

8 thoughts on “WGN’s ‘119 banned words’

  1. Karen McLeod

    Many are badly overused, but some are appropriate in certain situations and didn’t he mean “‘dubbaya’ when you mean ‘W'”?

  2. Kathryn Fenner

    “lectern” not “lecturn”

    My brother taught me that one is sentenced to die, not sentenced to death–bored to death is fine; and that saying someone is famous means you are either wrong or being redundant–use “noted.”

    My dad hates “hot temperatures” and “cold temperatures”–temperatures are numbers. High temperatures indicate hot air. Also, “green in color”–as opposed to “green in shape”? –synesthesia aside, of course.

    But some of the others need some context before I understand what’s wrong with them….

  3. Kathryn Fenner

    Cliches I hate: “’tis the season…”–the laziest way to write a Christmas feature article…

    “packing a whopping x calories” and its evil sibling “packing on pounds”, which must then be “shed”–indeed, the entire language of diet and weight could use freshening.

  4. Steve Gordy

    Oh, come on! The news biz faces enough challenges, and you’ve got to compound ’em by issuing a list of vocabulary proscriptions? Next you’ll be trying to mandate some principle like, “Clarity of language must reflect clarity of thought.”

  5. Kathryn Fenner

    @ Burl–I thought the same thing! Then I googled it–what did squares like me do before Google?



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