It first appeared on TV newscasts, where the imbecilic gospel of “new, now, next” is king.
Now, public radio leaps into the fray — scripting reports in the present tense even when reporting things that happened in the past.
From a recent Thursday edition of “The Daily,” a radio news program produced by the New York Times that Minnesota Public Radio carries at 6:30 p.m. weekdays:
Host Michael Barbaro: “So what happens on Wednesday morning?” (It’s now Thursday, remember.)
Reporter Mike Schmidt: “Around 9:30, the special counsel’s office sends out an e-mail saying that Robert Mueller will be holding a press conference in an hour-and-a-half …”
Why not “happened”? What’s wrong with “sent”?
Barbaro’s query is confounding, misleading. It lacks the clarity that guides good news writing. A listener could be excused for thinking Barbaro means, “So what happens next Wednesday?” A meaning that would be expressed even more clearly by using, I don’t know, the future tense.
(While we’re on it, what brought us to a point where nearly every speaker on public radio starts his or her utterance with the entirely superfluous word “so”?)
Reporter Schmidt’s reply, combining present and future tenses for events that had already happened, takes an already awkward exchange to a ludicrous level.
As Barbaro and Schmidt continued talking about Robert Mueller’s say-nothing news conference, they switched between the natural sounding past tense and the stilted, awkward, patronizing and incorrect use of present. One hears “does” not “did”; “is” not “was”; “says” not “said”; “tweets” (or “tweeting”) not “tweeted.”
The desire seems to be to convince a viewer or listener that news of the recent past is somehow “breaking” in real time, happening almost simultaneously with the newscast.
Which isn’t true, so it must be fake, right?
The regrettable “present-tensing” of news crept up on us a few years ago. I imagine a broadcast journalism consultant, charged with jacking up sagging ratings at Station A, urging that scriptwriters ditch the dishwater-dull simple past in favor of, at the very least, a gerund. “Police arresting two suspects Tuesday in a string of bank robberies happening over the past 10 months. Here’s how it will affect your checking account ...”
Or, when in doubt, just drop the verb altogether, thus avoiding the agonizing grammatical cartwheels of using the present tense to report stuff that happened earlier. “Suspects in custody this hour in a string of bank robberies. Details after this word from Abflexa.”
Soon enough, everything on Stations B and C is sucked into the “new, now, next” vortex. If everything is breaking, nothing is ever broke. So it doesn’t need fixing.
For a long time, I preferred CBS Evening News to ABC and NBC newscasts, as the latter networks were brazen “present-tensers.” At a certain point, about a year ago, CBS caves.
Now comes the New York Times, on its NPR news program. Can historians be far behind? “Founders meet in Philadelphia in 1787, drafting a new constitution. What does it mean for us?”
Claude Peck is a former Star Tribune editor.