In 1999, the Archive of American Television interviewed the late David Brinkley, a longtime journalist who started with NBC News and retired at ABC News after a career that spanned more than six decades.
He remembered what he still considered, all those years later, to be the worst lede to a story of all time, the lede being journalism-speak referring to the introductory part of a story.
His choice came from the United Press, which he worked for before moving into television, and focused on a story written during World War II about the Office of Price Administration, an agency that informed the public of rations that would be necessary. Almost every day, Brinkley said, the OPA’s chief, Leon Henderson, had some sort of announcement of “something that was going to be inconvenient to the American people.”
On this particular day, the OPA announced a rationing of sugar, which was a big deal at the time because every household used sugar. (Most still do, but there are more alternatives these days.)
Brinkley said the lede to that story read as follows:
“Price Administrator Leon Henderson announced today he was going to yank the nation’s sweet tooth for the duration.”
“Can you imagine a worse lede than that?” Brinkley asked. “I can’t.”
Well, David, we now have one legions worse than that. It comes from the Toronto Star, in a story last week about an anesthesiologist on trial for sexually assaulting as many as 20 female patients while they were under sedation for one procedure or another. The story’s opening sentence reads as follows:
“She lost a womb but gained a penis.
The former was being removed surgically — full hysterectomy — while the latter was forcibly shoved into her slack mouth.”
The byline is that of a female. Even so, it was an indelicate, utterly inappropriate way to describe a crime.
Based on what is presented there about the situation, the trial is still underway, although it’s easy to lose sight of that in the way the reporter tells the story. It shouldn’t be easy: we are all innocent until proven guilty; if there is no conviction, yet, then the anesthesiologist remains accused of doing something wrong, not proven to have actually done so.
The story also does not allow comments. One can only wonder what commenters might have to say about that lede, as well as the rest of the story given its graphic nature.
But as for the lede itself, journalists shouldn’t try to be cute or go for a laugh with some clever play on words when the subject matter is this dark. Someone who is already victimized shouldn’t be further victimized by bad, insensitive, racy copy.
How do you feel about it? If you or a family member were the victim of this alleged sexual assault and you saw this story, how would you feel about it?