Writing a newspaper column is something of a slog. Often it involves literally hours of sitting at your computer, skimming the information compiled by people with “hustle”—which is a euphemism for “laughably low salaries”—who actually make their living by leaving their offices and scribbling down the things that other people say and do, then breezily stringing this information together under the auspice of a “thesis” that you pretend to believe in because you’re already 500 words in and it’s too late to turn back now. But this is actually the easy part. The hard part is giving it what those of us the industry call a “hook,” a flashy call-out to current events and trends that gives it that extra pop—the journalistic “jazz hands,” if you will—and engages readers who might otherwise find themselves confused about why you’re wasting their time talking about something that is not “with it,” and who will then click over to Entertainment Weekly to see what exclusive production stills have been released from New Moon today.
See how that works? Through a simple call-out to something that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with what we’re talking about but is nevertheless current, we've just snared the unwitting 18-25 demographic and forced them to pay attention to what we're saying. Yes, we’ve trapped them as easily as Jack The Wolfboy snares Belle in his, uh, wolf trap, in that scene before ArkPatz and Styles get back from the van detailing shop and… Well, sometimes it’s better to read up on these things ahead of time, but you get the idea. You know who else gets it? OC Register columnist Mark Whicker, who dropped his own Timbaland-sized hook in his Tuesday column, collecting an odds-and-ends assortment of sports trivia from the last 20 years and stringing it together as a tongue-in-cheek “primer” for Jaycee Dugard—you know, the girl who spent the last 18 years imprisoned in a shed getting repeatedly raped and twice-impregnated by Phillip Garrido. And if you think that’s bad, Whicker elucidates, she also missed out on Tiger Woods!
It doesn't sound as if Jaycee Dugard got to see a sports page.
Box scores were not available to her from June 10, 1991 until Aug. 31 of this year.
She never saw a highlight. Never got to the ballpark for Beach Towel Night. Probably hasn't high-fived in a while.
She was not allowed to spike a volleyball. Or pitch a softball. Or smack a forehand down the line. Or run in a 5-footer for double bogey.
Now, that's deprivation.
Totally. Also, you know, she was entirely cut off from the outside world for nearly 20 years, hidden under “tarps and sheds,” and deprived from the sort of life where she was not repeatedly raped and impregnated—but yeah, what about Beach Towel night? And really, no box scores? Just imagine what that must have done to her fantasy baseball league—you know, the one she fantasized about to distract her while she was being repeatedly raped and impregnated? But hey, lest you presume Whicker is one of those myopic sorts who can only view things through the prism of his own self-serving interests, he has plenty of empathy for her situation beyond lamenting the fact that she missed a few hundred helluva ballgames:
How long before she fully digests the world she re-enters? How difficult to adjust to such cataclysmic change?
More than that, who's going to explain the fact that there's a President Obama?
Will she think she’s awoken in some bizarre Twilight Zone otherworld, where ingrained racism no longer holds our society together? Will she see the moon at night and wonder if it’s killed and eaten the sun? Who will explain what a “Jon and Kate” is? Who will help her set up her Twitter account? How many condescending columnists will it take to explain that time continued moving forward while she was being held captive—and what does this have to do with sports again? Oh yeah: She missed a lot of stuff while she was in there. Her mom, her dad, her childhood, her innocence, blah blah blah, but also some random bits of sports trivia that will help Mark Whicker reach his word count for the day:
So, Jaycee, whenever you're ready, here's what you've missed:
•Domed stadiums, like the ones in Houston and Minneapolis, are considered obsolete, or at least unfit for baseball.
•You missed absolutely no Servite victories over Mater Dei in football.
•The Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup in '07. Yeah, a hockey team came to Anaheim. Yeah, they built an arena in Anaheim.
•I know you've had trouble digesting all this so far, but they also built a basketball arena at USC. Honest to God.
•Jackie Autry isn't in charge of the Angels anymore, as you might have surmised by looking at the standings.
Also, you may have surmised that your family and friends long ago presumed you to be dead, picked up the shattered pieces, and moved on with their lives. And maybe you’ve already gleaned that your entire life to this point has been a combination of institutionalized fear and extreme Stockholm syndrome that you will most likely spend the rest of your life coming to terms with in a painfully drawn out fashion. You’ve probably also guessed that your ordeal—while “over” in the sense that you’re no longer imprisoned—will continue to haunt you and your children and your children’s children for generations, to say nothing of the “sympathetic” media who will force you to relive what happened to you daily, in graphic detail, until the next tragedy comes along and they get bored with you. Maybe you’ve already figured all of that out. But yeah, can you believe that stuff about the Anaheim Ducks? Talk about your world being turned upside down!
Like any good writer, Whicker knows it’s not enough to merely cobble together a bunch of bullet points and slap it up with an attention-getting bookend about a child rape victim. That sort of half-assed hackery may have flown at your high-school newspaper, Jimmy Olsen, but this here is the Orange County Register: If you want to write for a publication with the third largest paid daily circulation in California, you’ll need a pithy closer to bring it all back home.
And ballplayers, who always invent the slang no matter what ESPN would have you believe, came up with an expression for a home run that you might appreciate.
Congratulations, Jaycee. You left the yard.
Whee! Sports metaphors! Are they ever inappropriate? Unfortunately, not everyone was suitably impressed with Whicker’s effort to find the lighter side of abduction—even though lord knows, we could probably all use a laugh after a straight week of taking this stuff so seriously. But nevertheless, killjoys like The Huffington Post went so far as to call it the “odds-on favorite to be the worst newspaper column of 2009” (but probably only because Bill Kristol retired this year), and many more wrote directly to the OC Register demanding an apology. Which Whicker did yesterday, displaying the precise sort of compassion that got him into this mess in the first place:
For Tuesday's Register, I wrote a column that clearly offended and outraged large portions of our readership.
It was not my intention to do so. But it's obvious that I miscalculated the effect the column on Jaycee Dugard, and the events that she might have missed during her captivity, had on those who read, buy and advertise in our newspaper.
For 22 1/2 years at The Register, I feel like I've had a good and direct relationship with our audience and I think most of the regular readers know how I go about reporting and commenting on sports.
This column appears to have disconnected that bond with at least part of our readers. For that I apologize.
Yes, he forgot to carry the two, and also factor in the variable part of his audience who doesn’t know a clever “kidnapping victim” premise when it sees one. And for those ultra-PC, fly-by-night readers who happened upon the column, took offense, and got him in trouble with his editor (who apparently exists only in theory), well, he’s sorry about losing his “bond” with you. But he’ll be damned if he’ll sit and listen to peanut galleries like the commenters over at baseball blog The Hardball Times, one of whom had the nerve to email Whicker directly to ask if he planned to employ a similar hook with 9/11, then accused him of trivializing Dugard’s ordeal by lamely putting it in the context of sports. Whicker’s incensed response:
Trivializing? Most people can’t comprehend how long 18 years of imprisonment is. I was illustrating it through sports, by showing how much things had changed. If you just say “18 years,” that’s abstract. If you say that it happened before Michael Jordan won his first NBA championship, then it’s relevant.
It’s like, you can say that in the last 30 years, more than 32 million people have died of AIDS, but that’s abstract. And boring. Why are you so boring? But if you say that 32 million people have died of AIDS since the Pittsburgh Pirates were a serious World Series contender, suddenly it’s relevant. See how this works? It’s called a “hook,” ladies and gents, and it’s the key to vibrant writing.