I’d imagine there are few of us who have not picked up a newspaper excited by an outrageous headline - only to find the story that followed was not quite what we were promised.
Writing an attention-grabbing headline is a sort of art, I suppose. But it takes a different kind of skill entirely to do what the New York Post recently did in an article titled Bust Gore$ Bookie: write a headline that deceptively inflates a bit of non-news into a page-three exclusive.
Last week, after putting my two sons to bed, my husband came to me waving a newspaper, urging me to have a look at the piece, which was written by Lukas I. Alpert. There before me was a picture of former Vice President Al Gore and some other person I could not identify (I assumed this was the bookie). I thought to myself “so much for Gore’s late entry run for president in 2008.” I took the paper from my husband. I was excited about it because, hey, who doesn’t like a story where the hero gets knocked down a few pegs?
The first line of the Post story clued me that this was not, in fact, a story about a sleazy numbers guy being hauled off in chains for helping Gore support his gambling addiction. The piece, as it turned out, was about an Irish bookmaking company that gave odds on former vice president Al Gore being arrested. The ironic part is that the bookmakers did not specify which Al Gore they were talking about. So when Al Gore III, son of almost president Al Gore, was arrested last week for possession of marijuana and prescription drugs they decided the prudent thing to do was to pay out on the bets.
Despite my disappointment, I read on because the word "bust” still held the promise of a dramatic downfall: a nere-do-well bookie, perhaps, who goes bankrupt for failing to be specific about the Gore family tree. No such luck. I could hear the game show wanh wanh wahhhn as I once again picked the wrong curtain and was awarded the consolation prize of an ass pulling a wagon of onions.
According Webster’s dictionary a bust is defined as a financial ruin or in its slang usage, “an arrest or police raid”. The “bust” suffered by Paddy Power, however, was paltry, a payout of 10,000 euros, roughly equivalent to $13,000. Given that Paddy Power is Ireland’s largest bookmaker and a publicly traded company, I doubt they’ll be shutting down operations over this incident. (And if a $13,000 loss has cleaned out Ireland’s biggest bookie then, it seems, there’s a larger story being overlooked.)
One could make the argument that the headline is a play on words: “Bust Goes Bookie” clumsily modified to make “Bust Gore$ Bookie.” But this does not make it any less misleading. The story had zero substance and without the inaccurate headline it would have been relegated to a three line blurb on page 28 in the Weird but True section. (In my research I later found out that Lukas I. Alpert is well known for his syndicated Weird But True articles. Seems this one might have been better left there.)
Bait-and-switch is the oldest trick in the book store. But if any other type of company tried this on customers they would have the Consumer Protection Bureau after them. Imagine buying a TV that came in a giant box that read “Giant TV” and when you got it home and opened it inside you found a tiny television measuring 12 inches across.
There is truth in advertising, so why not in journalism?
I guess what I’m saying is I want my money back.