Tuesday, April 14, 2009
A few years ago a journalist, professor and contemporary of mine told me, "I knew I was getting old when I compared somebody to Hermann Goering and my students all responded, "Who?"
That was understandable, although depressing -- World War II was their grandfathers' war and Vietnam was their fathers.' Their own would be Iraq I and II.
Depressing not because the students were ignorant (they weren't, really, just young) but because many references with which journalists salt their work are bound to become obscure as time goes on.
Not all college students, let alone high schoolers, have taken a survey course in modern European history; Hitler they might know, but not necessarily his henchmen.
Bigfoot reporters and commentators tend to be in their fifties and even sixties, and they often seem to be writing for their own generations. Is it any wonder readers under 40 don't know who Illya Kuryakin was? Barney Fife? Or the phrase "drop a dime"?
"Journalists who lace their copy with such retro terms or names risk alienating those who are too young to get the allusions," writes Ralph Keyes in Editor & Publisher.
He calls it "retrotalk" and suggests that those who unconsciously use a lot of it in their writing are helping chase away younger readers.
I'll go along with this, but with a caveat: Much of what may seem outdated to some observers is actually an important part of our zeitgeist, or cultural heritage, and young people ought not to be insulted by easy assumptions that they don't know what we're talking about.
Keyes cites as retrotalk Frank Rich's comment in the New York Times "that George W. Bush had 'a slight, almost Chauncey Gardiner quality,' referring to Peter Sellers' simple-minded character in the 1979 movie 'Being There.'" I'd argue that interest in classic films cuts across all age lines, and that just about every sentient being over 18 has either rented the movie or seen it on late-night TV.
Yes, let's be careful about our pop-culture references, but let's also not throw the baby out with the bath water.
That's not a retrophrase, just a comfortable cliche that has, er, stood the test of time.
LATER TUESDAY: Steve Johnson, pop culture critic of the Chicago Tribune, weighs in with his opinion.