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I'll go along with this, but with a caveat: Much of what may seem outdated to some observers is actually an important part of our zeitgeist, or cultural heritage, and young people ought not to be insulted by easy assumptions that they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.


  1. Don't old cultural references (Barney Fife, for one) tend to have long, long second and even third lives late at night on cable television?

  2. I know who Barney Fife and Hitler are! The rest of those people I would have to google or as Jeremy, he tends to know alot more about history than I do.

  3. The mistake Keyes makes is assuming that everyone under 40 is part of the same audience. One can separate this broad audience into college grads, HS grads, pop culture nuts, old movie fans, sports fans, rock fans and so on. Different audiences will know different things.

  4. Just another admonition to "dumb down" what we write, because "they" don't know the references.

    Let's face it, "they" are just ignorant twits, who don't know anything. How hard do you think Jay Leno (he's a comedian with a show on NBC, which is one of the television networks) has to work to find Jaywalking All-Stars (one of his frequent bits, in which he asks simple questions of passers-by, who are too simple to know ANYTHING!

  5. Hoo boy, Pete, are you suffering from an attack of old fartitude tonight?

    I remember being told as a J-student by a renowned newsman-instructor that I and the rest of my class didn't know shit. Of course we didn't, but over the years we came to know a lot of shit, didn't we?

  6. I don't think it's old-fartitude, but attitude is a part of it.

    When I read something with a reference I don't recognize, I jump to Google and actually LEARN something. Jiminy, the Goog makes it so easy, looking stuff up should be illegal, or taxed.

    Now you've got someone telling us to be careful to only refer to current stuff ... um, like, you know, the Obamas new dog, or no, that won't work 'cuz who pays attention to politics stuff, um, maybe what'shername's new boyfriend, or drug of choice.

    I ain't buyin' it. Neither the suggestion, nor books that abide by it.

    (Comment word certification of the day: "zatioes" -- sometimes I even look them up, just in case...)

  7. All right, what are "zatioes"? Goog was no help.