Headline snooze

At least Chile has earthquakes.

I’d still have to go with “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.”

Worthwhile Kinsley Initiative

Washington Post, May 14, 1986

On the opposite page today Michael Kinsley reports on the results of a competition among readers of his magazine to come up with the most boring newspaper headline. The contest was inspired by an op-ed headline that read “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.” Readers were asked to take it from there, and they had no trouble doing so, as is amply illustrated in Mr. Kinsley’s column.

Although he does not produce many shining examples from the pages of this newspaper, that may be simply because there was so much competition. Our own random review of some of the headlines on these two pages in recent months convinces us that we have mastered at least some of the rudiments of producing headlines of maximum deterrent effect.

There is, for instance, the nattering little headline that says “-ing”; in fact, it is the favorite of editorial pages everywhere. Here are just a few days’ worth of ours: “Eroding Gaullism,” “Cutting Federal Retirement Costs,” “Reorganizing the Pentagon,” “Toying With the Budget Process,” “Calming Crime Fears.” We’re also rather fond of the statesmanlike colon (“D.C. Welfare Raises: A Caution”), of the perennially reusable (“Acting Against Terrorism”) and occasionally of perenially reusable with colon: “D.C. Prisons: A Dangerous Mess.” Someday maybe we’ll consider all this further in an article under the headline: “Using the Gerund: An Overview.”

Mr. Kinsley fails to note that the headlines he solicits may do more than deter readers. We are convinced, for example, that the intensely soporific genre of headline that begins “Toward a . . .” (you know the sort of thing: “Toward a Fairer Incomes Policy,” “Toward a Newer Understanding of Third World Aspirations”) could easily be used to pass along top-secret information, so widely unread is the text beneath it.

In the same vein, we harbor a fantasy of someone’s building an entire career on an article concealed behind some hedgerow of a headline, perhaps such a classic as this one: “The Future of the Atlantic Alliance.” He would be widely praised for the article by specialists in the field, invited to lecture at the War College, flown by the Pentagon to peer through binoculars across the Berlin Wall and would finally establish himself as a successful consultant offering vague advice on foreign policy. Only after he was comfortably retired would someone — perhaps a PhD. candidate working on a thesis — actually read his article and discover that it consisted of a recipe for chocolate cheesecake, an Ann Landers column and the box score of a game played in 1972 between the New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox.