A capricious editor-in-chief I once worked for, who fancied himself an English usage expert along the lines of Eric Partridge, once banished the word "but" from all news leads at his global wire service.
Reading the word gave him "whiplash," he complained, and so decreed the word gone from all wire copy. It was pathetic and funny, like declaring oneself utterly finished with the letter "q." Yet the editor was right on two points. First, the word "but" is used ubiquitously in news leads. And second, it does induce whiplash.
What he missed was, the whiplash is just the point. Readers like a little whiplash in their leads. It wakes them up, like a splash of cold water. It's a cheap thrill, a physical jolt that's felt as one belief is replaced by another.
More to the point, the "but" construction is the most common story set-up in journalism, so it can't be replaced without changing journalism itself.
Once you tune your ear to the "but" conceit, you see it everywhere in newspaper leads, magazine leads, and in TV news leads ad infinitum:
"For years it snowed in the winter in Minnesota, BUT this year ..."
"You thought your retirement savings were safe, BUT a new report shows ..."
"Tim Pawlenty has always been known as a squeaky clean politician, BUT new revelations this evening ..."
Looking deeper, the ubiquitous "but" reveals a whole worldview and set of assumptions that journalists make about themselves and their readers.
The "but" lead opens a story by telling the reader: "You sorry ignoramus! You always thought you were hip to the scene, that you knew the score. BUT you were wrong and I -- the all-knowing and beneficent journalist -- am here to set the record straight by telling you how things really are in this world."
What does the ubiquity of the "but" construction say about the worldview of journalists and journalism?
First, it says that journalists believe they are all-knowing. Readers and viewers are ignorant, while they alone are knowledgeable. They are informed and up-to-date, while readers and viewers are out-of-touch and behind-the times.
Second, it says that journalists believe they live in a differnt world from readers. Journalists, who are so presumptuous as to offer "news" of the world (or even the whole world as in "we bring you the world") to readers, obviously think they are seeing the real world. Readers meanwhile are mired in some kind of delusion or fantasy and thus need constant updating and correction.
The few words the preceed the "but" are the most telling ones of all.
What comes before the "but?" The subject that journalists are most expert in -- mainstream knowledge. The status quo. That knowledge which previously constituted conventional wisdom, and needs now to be replaced with new conventional wisdom, which the journalist then writes a story to explain to you.
By setting themselves up as experts constantly telling readers how conventional wisdom is wrong and what new conventional wisdom is correct, journalists present themselves -- see themselves -- as guardians of the status quo.
Mainstream journalism is obsessed with the status quo, which is its subject and object, its first and last touchstone for what is "true."
The status quo might almost be called "the truth," in journalistic terms. That is, if something is out there in society and is accepted be everyone as true, that's the newspaper truth and the TV truth.
Yet if that's the case, how is society ever going to get anything new from journalism?
In fact, how will it get the news?