Yes, Mr. Brinkley, We Have a New ‘Worst Lede’


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.

Your Turn:
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?

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.


  • That is absolutely unacceptable. I cannot believe a reporter wrote it, and I cannot believe that an editor let it run. It assumes guilt. It has potential to further harm a victim. It certainly does not pass the breakfast test. This lead is a great example of why journalists have such a bad reputation. It’s just poor journalism.

  • We have to stop acknowledging these types of things in such glorified fashion. I’ve heard some argue the same about perpetrators of mass killings. Giving insignificant people their 15 minutes of fame for undesired behavior only causes it to escalate the undesired behavior by those who come later and are looking for a way to outdo the last guy…

  • Patrick,
    It’s all about the shock value. Does it make it correct? Probably not but the author probably got the effect she intended…she wanted people to talk about the story (whether good, bad or indifferent). I know when I was a full-time social worker and writing for judges, “shock value” could be important. If we able to word something just right…the judge would ask us about (the intend we wanted). 
    Shock value is part of our culture (think towards Howard Stern). As far as I am concerned, you can word something and keep shock value and dignity together. I am not so sure that particular line does it, but it definitely has people talking!
    Aaron Brinker

  • I don’t really keep myself updated with world news but I guess people sometime do whatever its take to be in a spotlight or making tones of money and disregard the obvious mistake.
    p/s the comment posse project ;p

  • Hi Patrick
    We all make mistakes, but this is a doozie!
    How do things like that slip through though?
    The reason I ask is because it’s not only one person working on that article (well usually).

    • danielalex_book Theoretically, there should be at least one other person reading it. Unless, this is more of a blog by a columnist, but I’d think even then there’d still be an editor. Surely someone would have raised a red flag or three!

      • patricksplace danielalex_book I agree with you Patrick. In any ‘professional’ media organization, there is at least 1 person checking. Odd.

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