John Leo
One of my favorite headlines made the newspapers yet again the other day: "Mankind Older Than Previously Believed." This is a revered headline, often wheeled out in summer, when things are slow. One media outlet deviated boldly from the conventional script ("Skull Fossil From Chad Forces Rethinking of Human Origins.") Nice try, but veteran readers know MOTPB when they see it, no matter how much novelty-besotted editors try to gussy things up.

Readers of science sections also keep seeing a similar headline: "Universe Older Than Previously Believed." You may have thought the universe was, say, 20 godzillion epochs old, but science sections tirelessly point out your utter ignorance by showing that things are much older. "New Theory of Dinosaur Extinction" is another traditional headline. Now matter how you think the tiresome giant reptiles died off, it always turns out that they probably perished some other way.

Many observers insist that science sections are reluctant to use any headline that is less than 40 years old, but that is surely an exaggeration. ("Science Headlines Younger Than Previously Believed.") One source of originality is the regular flow of studies showing that fatty things may be good for you after all. Coming soon to a science section near you: "Butter -- Our New Health Food?" But it's surely true that science editors are fond of the familiar. Why else do we keep reading "Feelings -- Keys to a Balanced Life," "Our Cheatin' Hearts -- Why People Lie," and "Rich People Get Better Medical Care Than Poor, Study Shows"?

Many headlines have the life expectancy of atomic waste, showing up year after year. Every October we get "U.N. Opens Amid Uncertainty." Not once in 56 years has the U.N. opened amid certainty. Other dependable favorites include "Pope Warns Against Modern World," "McCain May Leave GOP," and two companion headlines: "Strawberry Fails Drug Test," and "Actor Downey Arrested Again."

Some familiar heads are irritating. When Rupert Murdoch turned part of his media empire over to his son, one editor wrote "The Son Also Rises," unaware that head has been used 674 times.

Most famous and original heads appear in tabloids. The New York Daily News probably swung the 1976 presidential election to Jimmy Carter with its screaming head "Ford to City: Drop Dead" (no White House help as New York City faced bankruptcy). When a couple with two children had triplets, the News ran a classic head: "Three of a Kind Plus Pair Make Full House."

Other old-time News heads include these: "Sic Transit Gloria Monday" (the custody hearing on little rich girl Gloria Vanderbilt will be held on Monday), "Says Wife Made Time With a Newsweek Man," and "Rooney, a Pint, Takes a Fifth" (Mickey Rooney's fifth wedding).

The New York Post has contributed many memorable headlines, including "Headless Body in Topless Bar," "Mama Osama Prays for Her Little Monster" (interview with bin Laden's mother), "Kato the Lyin' King" (story on Kato Kaelin), and "Wacko Jacko Backo" (Michael Jackson attempting a comeback).

Calvin Trillin, a very funny writer, authored the best unused headline for a parody issue of the New York Post, back in the 1960s when the paper was liberal. Trillin's head said, "Cold Snap Hits Our Town; Jews, Negroes Suffer Most." Something roughly similar actually appeared in the Los Angeles Catholic newspaper after the 1965 riots in Watts. The headline said something like this: "Watts Erupts in Rioting: No Priests or Nuns Hurt."

A Catholic paper in Oklahoma ran an equivalent head, pointing out that a devastating tornado had spared all known priests and nuns. This meant that Catholics in Oklahoma, picking up the paper with trembling hand to check the denominational impact of the twister, could breathe a sigh of relief. Hundreds may be dead and a Protestant minister or two may have bought the farm, but the essential news was thumbs up: Priests and nuns were safe.

Boring headlines draw lots of comment, too. Recently I saw a head in The Economist: "Special Report: Zambian Copper." This was entirely too special for me, so I skipped it, along with an earlier reader-proof head, "Ghana Reshuffles Cabinet." In the 1920s, the British writer Claud Cockburn won a contest among editors to place the most boring head in The Times of London. His winner was, "Small Earthquake in Chile; Not Many Dead."

In 1986, columnist Michael Kinsley ran his own contest. He found a great crop of contenders, including "Worthwhile Canadian Initiative," "Prevent Burglary by Locking House, Detectives Urge," and "Chill Falls on Warming Relations between Australia and Indonesia." In the end he gave the prize to a subhead from a science section (of course) in The New York Times: "Debate Goes on Over Nature of Reality." Not bad, but it should have been: "Reality Debate More Extensive Than Previously Believed."


John Leo

John Leo is editor of MindingTheCampus.com and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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