Jewish World Review August 9, 2004 / 22 Menachem-Av 5764

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

A full confession | Dear Snoopy Reporter,

When I opened your e-mail and discovered that you were planning a story for the Chicago Tribune about the Order of the Occult Hand, I knew the game was up. So I might as well make a full confession:

It was at a long-ago convention of editorial writers (yes, even as anarchic a bunch as editorial writers have a national convention) that I noticed some knowing smiles when one of the group started a sentence with "It was as if an occult hand.." So I started asking around.

Except for the smiles, the phrase might have gone unnoticed. Which, I discovered, is the object of the game. It seems that years ago some young reporters decided to see how many times they could slip that pulp-fiction phrase past the copy desk and into the paper. It was a challenge, and it became something of a rite of initiation. An inside joke, though more inside then joke.

As for who started it all, I'll never tell. Mainly because I don't know for sure. The name Reese Cleghorn will never cross my lips. But Reese's name does come to mind in connection with the origins of the Order. He was then a feisty young editorial writer for the Charlotte Observer. He's since become a certified Grand Old Man of American journalism, having headed the American Journalism Review at the University of Maryland, where he was dean of the school of journalism. But the twinkle hasn't left his eye.

Founding an order of the occult hand would have been just like Reese. Consider him Usual Suspect No. 1 when you start rounding them up. If he wasn't the ringleader, he should have been.

Maybe you had to be a young reporter required to write countless routine, fill-in-the-blank stories to appreciate this game, and start looking for the telltale phrase in others' work. It's a harmless enough diversion. And less serious an infraction than trying to slip In Cognito into the box scores. The secret couldn't be kept forever. Too many people were in on it. And it was a lot easier to keep the Order of the Occult Hand under wraps before Google. Now all an ace reporter like yourself has to do is type in the incriminating phrase and-Bingo!-you've got a list of all of us who've slipped the Occult Hand into our oh-so-serious pieces over the years. Think of them as my co-conspirators.

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It's been my own cherished ambition for some time now to use the suspect phrase in one of those timeless editorials titled "Whither NATO?" or "The Growth of Unfunded Federal Mandates." The occult hand might provide the only bright spot in one of those thumbsuckers.

I'll admit that some applicants for the Order really should have been turned down; they're a disgrace to the fraternity. Like those who use the phrase so artlessly that it stands out and gives the game away. ("It was as if an occult hand had peppered federal programs with unfunded mandates..")

The object isn't just to use the phrase but to use it so it doesn't stand out. The clumsy types are just asking to be caught and expose us all-like American spies in World War II movies who don't use their cutlery in the European fashion.

Of course I knew we'd be caught some day. It was inevitable that an investigative journalist like yourself would get around to investigating journalism.

When your e-mail arrived, as if delivered by an occult hand, I toyed with the idea of saying it was only a coincidence, that the phrase had just popped up in my prose, like a thousand monkeys eventually typing out the first scene of Macbeth.

For a moment, I considered telling you it was really just an extended typographical error. Or even claiming, like Manuel in "Fawlty Towers," that I know naw-thing ... but resistance was useless. There's no fighting a free, not to say annoying, press.

Our annual editorial writers' convention is scheduled for Chicago this fall, so you might get out of the office some night and pop over for an oh-so-secret, after-hours meeting of the Order. Now that we've been discovered, we really need to adopt another cliché to slip into our copy. Old detective novels are full of them. I may nominate Resistance Was Useless. Getting that one into a column would be a real challenge.

Guilty as charged,
Inky Wretch

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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