It's hardly a scoop that the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's editorial page leans to the right.
What is surprising, perhaps, is how obsessive-compulsively it seems to pursue that agenda. The editorial page, for example, all but refuses to use the word "Democratic" in phrases like "Democratic Primary" or "Democratic candidate" -- even when it's uttered by arch-conservative columnists such as Pat Buchanan and George Will.
Of course, the Trib's commentary doesn't ignore Democrats entirely. (After all, who else could the Trib blame for the triumphant march of socialism into our daily lives?) It's just that when the party of Roosevelt is referred to in the Trib's op-ed section, its various uses are referred to with the noun Democrat, minus the "ic."
The practice apparently requires altering the text of articles by syndicated columnists. It also violates common journalistic style, and plays a word game that has irked liberals for years.
The phrase "Democrat Party" has long been popular amongst Republican operatives, and liberals see it as a subtle linguistic slur. In a 2006 New Yorker piece, Hendrik Hertzberg wrote, "there's no great mystery about the motives behind this deliberate misnaming. 'Democrat Party' is a slur, or intended to be -- a handy way to express contempt. ... It fairly screams 'rat.'"
"It's a little thing," agreed a Washington Post account in 2007, "a means of needling the opposition by purposefully mispronouncing its name, and of suggesting that the party on the left is not truly small-'d' democratic."
But the Trib's editorial page makes the change regularly. In his Jan. 13 Washington Post column about the Republican primary entitled "A GOP Numbers Crunch," for example, George Will uses the word "Democratic" in four instances: His piece refers to "Democratic candidates," "Democratic participation," Democratic members of Congress," and a "Democratic governor." But when the Trib reprinted the same column under the headline "Gimme Shelter" on the same day, the word was changed to "Democrat" each time.
CP has found similar alterations made to the work of other columnists last year, including Pat Buchanan, Robert Novak and Ann Coulter.
When told of the change, the wire services that syndicate the columnists were bemused. "Obviously we would prefer that the columns would run in the way that we provide them," says James Hill, the managing editor of the syndicate that reprints Will's column nationwide. Will, he adds, does not "make references to the 'Democrat Party,' and we would prefer his words not be altered."
Papers can edit columns to fit their style, Hill says, but it's hard to say that's the Trib's motivation here. The AP style guide, broadly used throughout the industry, insists that "Democratic Party" is the correct usage, as is "Democratic Primary," etc. And in fact, most Trib stories in the news section seem to use the "Democratic" form. Even the editorial page uses "Democratic Party" more often than not. Neither the Trib's editor, Frank Craig, nor editorial-page editor Colin McNickle returned calls or e-mails to explain the change.
That's unfortunate, says Duquesne journalism professor Maggie Patterson. "I think it's important to get their side of it," she says. "It's very hard for me to judge without knowing from them why it's important to them to make that change.
"I just don't understand what the point would be," she says. "If it's meant to be a slam, it's a pretty petty one, and would seem to be small-minded."
Robert Richards, a distinguished professor of journalism and law at Penn State University, says the change strikes him "as grammatically incorrect" more than anything else. "I would hope a newspaper wouldn't do this just to tweak Democrats," Richards says. "It's just a bizarre thing to do."
Then again, George W. Bush touched off a small controversy last January, when he congratulated the new "Democrat majority" during his State of the Union address. After the speech, Democrats groused to the Washington Post that it was a "calculated insult" that was "[l]ike nails on a chalkboard."
But at least the Trib could have run the speech in its op-ed section unedited.