Sunday, July 25, 2004

It Was As If an Occult Hand Had...

An irresistable article in the Chicago Tribune today:


Selected excerpts:

"It's as if an occult hand had reached into newspaper offices across the country and assembled a whole menagerie . . . "

--Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Sept. 28, 1994

This is a story about the vast media conspiracy that paranoid people always feared.

For more than two generations in newsrooms around the world, a meaningless, funny and telltale turn of phrase has spread like a cough in a classroom.

It is as intangible as smoke. It involves eight words that defy definition--"It was as if an occult hand had . . . "

Although they sound like they might mean something, they don't. The phrase has been slyly and widely put to use for most of the past 40 years, intentionally, all over the world.


"It's a phrase that has that sense of journalese about it, sort of a campy phrase," said the unashamed Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a Pulitzer winner and at least a six-time "occult hand" user.

A Tribune pursuit has traced the phrase to at least 1965, an era in American journalism when getting a story right and first were only two-thirds of an equation that also included getting it with style--or at least with wit.

Sneaking the "occult hand" into a story not only identified a writer as stylish but also served as admission into its emerging secret association, the Order of the Occult Hand.


According to Rex Bowman, who put it in a political story at The Washington Times and who now works for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, it spread like this in the beginning: "It was a bunch of reporters who got drunk and vowed to get something past their copy editors."

After that, he said, "it just spread by word of mouth," including at his newspaper.


Other Times reporters used the phrase again and again. Weeks after Caulfield used it once in 1985, Sharbutt put it in a story on dropping viewership for the Oscars: " . . . one might say it was as if an occult hand had hurled a raspberry at Hollywood."

Other Los Angeles reporters used the phrase in 1985, 1989, 1994 and 1998.

The next year, a group of L.A. Times reporters put it in a story about the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

An e-mail from the Tribune seeking information about the Order went out to all six L.A. Times reporters on the impeachment story. One, Stephen Braun, e-mailed a hasty and unelaborated response:

"Sshhhhh ...."


The Order hit its low point in the fall of 2000. In the hands of an anonymous author at The (Syracuse) Post-Standard, an ongoing saga about a group of emus released in upstate New York was updated.

"As if moved by an occult hand, phantom emus keep popping up in Oswego County," the story began. "Another was spotted about 10 a.m. Wednesday, along Route 28 . . . "

"It's a lesson in the decline and fall of practically everything," Montgomery said with a sigh.


In the fall of 1965, several Charlotte News reporters had been drinking and marveling at a story written by Flanders, Smith wrote in his letter.

Written on stationery from the North Carolina Manpower Development Corp. and dated January 1976, Smith's letter alleges that he was in the room as the "occult hand" was born in a story Flanders had written.

"Those present read with rising wonderment this sentence, tucked away in a complicated story of evil-doing:

"`It was as if an occult hand had reached down from above and moved the players like pawns upon some giant chessboard.'

"`Now that,' said one of the imbibers, `is what I call prose.'

"The others nodded in silent, awed agreement."


Story here but you have to register.


Andy Nelson said...

Oh yes, I would put this on the list of overused all-purpose tropes. The best are from sportswriting, tho. I'm sure the word "nucleus" has appeared in sports sections far more often than in science sections.

Another thing we all rely on is the quote-kicker... that cute, one-sentence funny quote that goes at the end of the story. We're all trained to find these and cultivate them in interviews. Scott wrote an essay about it, which I'm sure will find its way on to the Web eventually.


Mary said...

But the great part is that it was a deliberate cliche, an inside joke that you might find yourself using without knowing it was a joke at all. (Like the time Heath and I decided we should smuggled "boppin'" into the language, in high school.)

As for sports writers -- did you know Carlos Zambrano is "an emotional guy"?

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Anonymous said...

Joe Flanders in 1965 was my hero
at the Charlotte News. At 35 he was
a police reporter-city hall reporter for the Charlotte News,
a guy who knew his way around the
pool rooms and coffee shops. He was
a cop's friend to a point and never
beyond. He was the real thing and
probably one of the last of his
kind in Charlotte. I was the copy
boy in the news room and he treated
me as if I was important and I will
never forget him. It was as if an
occult hand......Ted Hooks, Alabama