Press Box

Attention Deficit Disorder?

Stop me if you’ve read that headline before.

Every mountain has been climbed, every continent explored, and by my reckoning all the good headlines were harvested decades ago. Still, that does not prevent editors from reading a piece, tapping their brow, shouting “Eureka!” and scribbling down the first clever thing that comes to mind … without checking Nexis, Factiva, or Google to see how shopworn that clichéd hed is.

This being budget season, hacks everywhere are about to recycle the lamest headline about the budget and deficit ever imagined. You can hear the brain meat sizzle as the editor or writer thinks, We’ve got this deficit problem, right? And we’re not paying proper attention to it, right? I’ve got it! I’ve got it! We’ll call the piece, “Attention Deficit Disorder!”

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The earliest “Attention Deficit Disorder” headline—or variant thereof—that Nexis and Factiva exhumed for me came from the Palm Beach Post, whichin 1996 personalized the concept with the headline: “Bob Dole Has a Bad Case of ‘Deficit Attention Disorder.’ ” In 1997, Reason followed up with the plainer “Deficit Attention Disorder.”

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In 1998, while the idea was still green, the Las Vegas Review-Journal tried “An Attention to Deficit Disorder.” The New York Times labeled a 2000 Paul Krugman column “Deficit Attention Disorder.” That was followed by a 2001 column, “America’s Attention-Deficit Disorder … ,” in the Washington Post by Fred Hiatt. The ellipsis gives it a writerly touch, don’t you think?

The Bergen County Record op-ed page offered “Paying Attention to Deficit Disorder” in 2002. The year 2003 brought “A Case of Attention Budget Deficit Disorder in U.S.” in the Los Angeles Times, “Bad Case of Attention to the Deficit Disorder” in the Chicago Sun-Times, “Deficit Attention Disorder”in Crain’s New York Business, and “Deficit-Attention Disorder” in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

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In 2004, the slow minds in the Department of Redundancy Department at the Oregonian came up with “The Deficit and Our Attention Deficit Disorder.” The minimalists at Newsday went with “Attention: Deficit Disorder,” while the New York Sun rearranged it as “Deficit Attention Disorder.” The maximalists at the Dallas Morning News picked “Deficit attention disorder: Some Say Bush, Kerry Ignore Budget Crunch, Baby Boomer Costs.”

Remind me to poll Nexis next week for “Some Say” headlines and we’ll have a laugh together.

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In 2005, the New York Times op-ed page published “Attention: Deficit Disorder” by former Secretary of Treasury Robert E. Rubin, the Boston Globe and Investors Chronicle ran “Attention Deficit Disorder,” and the Wall Street Journal and Futures magazine contributed “Deficit Attention Disorder.” The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette bored hundreds—perhaps dozens—with the unspeakably long “Attention: Deficit Disorder; Everybody’s a Conspirator In the Burgeoning Deficit. A Guide to Why You Should Be Perplexed.”

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The best of show in 2005 appeared in Publishers Weekly, which attached the headline “Attention. Deficit. Disorder” to a review of a novel titled Attention. Deficit. Disorder.

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The most aggressive peddler of this cliché happens to be Slate. I proved my skill at turning a cliché back in 2003, when I slapped “Attention! Deficit Disorder” on my “Press Box” column. Nothing like an exclamation point in a headline to drive hits to the site, is there? In 2002, a hyphen carried the freight in column by our “Fray” editor (“Deficit-Attention Disorder“) and a colon did the work in a 2003 “Moneybox” piece (“Attention: Deficit Disorder“).

Yesterday, Slate Editor Jacob Weisberg headlined his column “Attention! Deficit Disorder.” Jake pleads innocent to the charge of deliberately trafficking in clichés—saying overuse of the phrase was news to him. He also throws himself on the mercy of the court, noting that it’s likely he was the first to use the headline, having attached it to his Jan. 2, 1995 New Yorkmagazine column. My searches didn’t uncover it because the databases didn’t catalog the magazine in those years.

So, this court acquits Weisberg and excuses him of the lesser charge of self-plagiarism because if journalists weren’t allowed to recycle headlines every 10 years they’d run out of them.

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What’s more humbling than to think you’re minting gold only to learn that you’re recycling somebody else’s garbage? Send your nominations via e-mail to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise.)

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