JUNE 2, 1986
Readers of TNR have responded generously to our request for examples of boring headlines. The entire staff is comatose with appreciation. In the late 1920s the British writer Claud Cockburn won a contest among editors at the Times of London to see who could get the most boring headline into the paper. Cockburn's entry, which has become a legend in British journalism, was; "Small Earthquake in Chile/Not Many Dead." This is pathetic, another example of Britain's long decline as a civilization In just the past month or so, without even trying, our American headline writers have produced any number of headlines far more boring than this ostensible classic.
The occasion for TNR's survey was an April 10 headline over Flora Lewis's column on the New York Times Op-Ed page; "Worthwhile Canadian Initiative." We posed the question whether this might actually be "the most boring headline ever written." Le tout Canada soon erupted in outrage at the suggestion that there is something intrinsically boring about matters Canadian. The Toronto Star treated the libel as front-page news, which some might say proves the point. Dear Canada: there are worse national images to have than that of being thought boring. Look at Libya. For that matter, now that your government's controversial payments to Michael Deaver are front-page news in America every day, you may look back on the boredom era with nostalgia. (Although, with—dare I say it?—characteristic Canadian earnestness, a CBC reporter called me up recently to ask how I thought "the boredom factor" had affected the Deaver scandal.)
But references to Canada are not essential to a boring headline. Merely helpful. Almost as boring as "Worthwhile Canadian Initiative" was the headline on » column by Times economic correspondent Leonard Silk: "U.S. Leadership Needed." (There, now, Canada. Feel better?) The editors at the Times Op-Ed page, in fact, are geniuses at coming up with headlines that refer to virtually nothing. I was impressed by "Trade, A Two-Way Street" (April 26, over an essay by Governor Richard Celeste of Ohio), and positively bowled over by "Beyond the News, Larger Issues" (subhead on a James Reston column. May 4). "Thoughts at Graduation Time" (subhead for some Robert Coles ruminations. May 11) wasn't bad, either.
When Times headline writers do get excited, they start issuing orders. "End Textile Quotas," they might command, or (May 10) "Continue Manned Flight in Space." Who, me? Well, O.K., I'll get right to it. But what on earth were we readers supposed to do April 21, when the headline over a Times editorial demanded that we "Make Foreign Flights More Familiar"? I read the editorial, and I still don't know.
My favorite genre of boring headline is the one gravely informing you that a development you weren't aware of and don't care about has reversed itself, ideally in some distant part of the globe. "Nepal Premier Won't Resign" is a golden oldie example, but there was a masterpiece in the Times as recently as April 26: "Chill Falls on Warming Relations Between Australia and Indonesia." Closer to home but almost as choice was "University of Rochester Decides to Keep Name" (Times, April 18). A close cousin of the reversed-insignificant development headline is the nothing happened- at-all headline. An outstanding recent example in that category was "Dramatic Changes Fail to Materialize on Hill" (Washington Post, April 23). Then there's the nothing-is-going-to-happen headline. The judges found "Surprises Unlikely in Indiana" (Chicago Tribune, April 29) almost poignant.
Of course the largest category of boring headline falls under the general rubric of dog-bites-man. In the subcategory of stating-the-obvious, it would be difficult to top "CIA Analysis Sees Soviet Economy in Need of Changes" (San Diego Union, May 31, 1983). But "Prevent Burglary by Locking House, Detectives Urge" (Boston Globe, April 21) is pretty good, and I like the wacky specificity or "Methodists Oppose Use of Nuclear Arms" (Times, April 30). And maybe an honorable mention in this category should go to "Sorry, the Deficit Is a Big Problem" (over a recent column by— whoops—me).
April and May brought a magnificent spring flowering of hardy perennials. These are headlines that reappear regularly. Generally it is the news itself, rather than the headliner's art, that deserves the credit here. The events these headlines chronicle can be subdivided wearily into things that always happen ("B-1B Bomber Cost Expected to Rise," Times, May 4) and things that never happen ("Newark Hopes for Rebound," Times [front page!]. May 5). Other recent hardy-perennial blossoms: "Teamster Chief May Face Renewed Federal Charges" (Post, April 24); "Bush Seeks New Hampshire Support" (Times, April 18); and "E. Germans Open Party Congress" (Post, April 18). The Democratic Party is a fertile source of hardy perennials. I liked "Democrats Plot Course/Party Told to End Its 'Vietnam Syndrome'" (Post, May 4), though a friend was generous enough to share with me a vintage example from his personal cellar: "Democrats Propose Shift in Rules for Presidential Nomination" (Times, October 19, 1985; see also 1981, 1977, 1973, 1969 . . .).
A reader in Milwaukee rather viciously sent in "Economist Dies," from the Wisconsin State Journal, April 20. Every day, it seems, the economics profession develops new evidence to support Lord Keynes's famous proposition that "in the long run, we are all dead."
For its brilliant counterpoint of overexcited adjective with mundane and obscure subject matter, I was tempted to award first prize in this competition (one copy of A Time to Heal by Gerald Ford) to the lead headline on the "Washington Talk" page of the Times, May 13: "Turbulent Days for Donald D. Engen." That middle initial is an especially bravura touch, I think. It fills the reader with an urgent desire not to know who Donald Engen is and with disbelief that his days could be all that turbulent. But in the end, the judges chose a months-old subhead from the Times science section: "Debate Goes on Over the Nature of Reality." Further examples are welcome, but somehow, I don't think that one will ever be topped.