ConspiracyLives, But Not As Of Yore  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   September 1991

ConspiracyLives, But Not As Of Yore   

"I knew I was standing in the presence of the cliché gods."

By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     


The conspiracy of mischievous newspaper writers against sleepy editors, and sometimes against common decency, continues abated. It lives, but it has slacked off in recent years under the yoke of More Responsible Journalism and corporate solemnity in the newsrooms.

Still, from time to time you will see an outcropping worthy of the old days: a phrase concocted with deliciously malicious intent by a writer who has taken advantage of editors who are out to lunch.

I will describe one conspiracy without unmasking it, since some otherwise-comatose editor out there might take note and crack down. It originated in Charlotte, North Carolina, in the 1960s, when a writer slid something akin to this into a routine story: "It was as though the gnarled hand of time had..."

Reading the paper that day, several other reporters hunched over their Royals to discuss this birth of a new cliché. They rejoiced and committed themselves to the Order of the Gnarled Hand of Time, with full membership depending upon their success in slipping all of the original words, in order, into their stories. Soon the paper (the late Charlotte News ) was almost daily in the grasp of gnarled hands, from the sports section to fashion.

As reporters went on to other papers, sightings were made as far away as Australia. Then the cult seemed to die.

I had about forgotten all this until a decade or so ago. Then on an AP teletype at the Detroit Free Press , I spotted the requisite words in a TV review by Jay Sharbutt from Los Angeles. I called to express my admiration.

Sharbutt had taken his inspiration from a friend, who told him that the Boston Globe had been hit several times by the Order of the Gnarled Hand. The editors there, shaken from some sort of stupor, finally had issued a staff memo banning the phrase.

But don't look for gnarled hands. The real cult uses another set of words, which I must not divulge.

Another cult was described to me by Rick Spratling, AP bureau chief in San Francisco. He traces it to a reporter who (he claims) wrote about an Oregon State running back named Bill "Earthquake" Enyart. "Earthquake," it was reported, once "tore a touchdown trail" to victory.

Spratling and a colleague, Larry Kurtz, yearned for a chance to be artistic hacks by using these words. "Over the years," he says, "I noticed that, every so often, a story would emerge in which yet another player 'tore a touchdown trail.'"

Not every game offers writers an easy opportunity to join the Touchdown Trail Club. Spratling believes the club's Special Order of Merit should be given to Kurtz for this description of a Big Ten player's agony in losing: "He threw up his hands in frustration at his inability to tear a touchdown trail..."

When he read that, Spratling says, "I knew I was standing in the presence of the cliché gods."

He also recalls a radio announcer who reported touchdowns by saying that someone "thundered onto the payoff turf." But that may not be an acceptable entry to true devotees of these conspiracies, since the announcer probably was serious. Like the ones who refer to a "spirited cage tilt," between "thinclads," resulting in a "Cinderella story."

Art is not dead, though, despite higher standards. It is as though the gnarled hand of time... l

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