Nitpicking the News: The Impeachment Leads of the Washington Post and New York Times Autopsied

By Mike Feinsilber

One would think that writing a lead on the impeachment of a president would be easy: the news is momentous and the lead needs only to tell one big fact.

One would be wrong. It’s a tough lead to write. Here’s why:

—Every reader who cares an iota already knows the news. A lead that merely confirms what everyone knows raises no interest, and gives the reader scant reason to move on to graf two. Making the reader read deeper is one of the functions of a lead.

—This is a lead that’s going into scrapbooks, could even be read by the grandkids or quoted in the writer’s obituary. It ought to be good.

—Lots of times when a 737 crashes, the Nats win the World Series, or a party’s convention nominates the guy who had it in the bag weeks ago, news writers have to deal with news that is already familiar. The writer’s goal is to find an element readers did not know when they picked up the paper. One can’t just write the fact. This is history you’re writing, buddy, make it historic.

—So if the news is already familiar, you want to find a phrase—one conveying a sense of the occasion, its overwhelming importance, an intimation of what lies ahead.

—The big black headline atop your lead is going to tell the news anyway. The Washington Post headline screamed: “Trump impeached.” The New York Times put it this way: “Trump Impeached.” You going to write a lead that merely says, “Trump was impeached”?

— Some news junkie is going to sit around days later and compare your lead with those of the competition. You want yours to stand out.

— So does your boss.

And you’ve got room for 30, maybe 40 words. “Make it sing,” says the editor; “and keep it tight.”

All that considered, let’s see how the Post and the Times did on the front pages of Thursday, December 19, 2019.

The Post:
The House of Representatives voted late Wednesday to impeach President Trump on charges that he abused his office and obstructed Congress with Democrats declaring him a threat to the nation and branding an indelible mark on the most turbulent presidency of modern times. (43 words, no commas)

The Times:
WASHINGTON—The House of Representatives on Wednesday impeached President Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress, making him the third president in history to be charged with committing high crimes and misdemeanors and face removal by the Senate. (39 words, one comma)

My nitpicks. Both pretty good, but:

—The construction of the Post lead forced the writer to use the awkward phrase “voted late Wednesday to impeach…” The Times got around the problem by making “impeach” its load-bearing verb. And that strengthened the lead. The House votes all the time, but impeaches not so often.

(The placement of the day of the week befuddles news writers all the time. Often there’s just no good place for it. Some papers now bravely get around this eternal problem by ignoring the five W’s rule and putting the “when” in the second graf. Smart.)

—The Times’ decision to go with “impeached” as its operative verb allowed it to write: “impeached President Trump for abuse of power…etc.” The Post’s decision to go with “voted” forced it to use “to impeach on charges…etc.” “On charges” has the ring of a routine police event.

— The Post lead made it clear that although this was an act by the House it was really an act of the Democratic majority. The Times’ lead lost that element.

—Both leads, having disposed of the news right away, had room for some fancy writing. I liked the Post’s muscular “declaring him a threat to the nation” and “most turbulent presidency of modern times.” I liked the Times’ ability to ring in those ever-powerful constitutional words “high crimes and misdemeanors.”

—On the other hand, I didn’t think it necessary for the Times to tell readers what they’d read and heard again and again recently—that conviction would make Trump the third president in history to be impeached. We all knew that.

That said, these were two strong leads. The writers can look forward to history quoting them. And congratulations to the writers for not repeating the most tired of adjectives. They didn’t call it “historic.”

Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach. He was a deskman, reporter, and editor, and he covered Congress and 18 political conventions.


  1. NIXON RESIGNS was the huge WaPo headline. We had evening news back then. Would the Internet saturation coverage on August 8, 1974, suggest another headline for August 9?

  2. The lead from the Associated Press, probably seen by many more people than the Post or Times leads:

    President Donald Trump was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday night, becoming only the third American chief executive to be formally charged under the Constitution’s ultimate remedy for high crimes and misdemeanors.

    The Wall Street Journal lead:

    The House impeached President Trump in a momentous set of votes, making him the third president since America’s founding to face a Senate trial and laying bare the deep partisan divisions on Capitol Hill and across the country.

  3. Jeez.

    Has there been marketing research that run-on sentences make the reader keep reading, after the reader arrives at the article from a short headline and subheading?

    These run-ons annoy me. Read Carroll Kilpatrick in my post above — two short sentences begin his article.

    I have never understood the theory that it is better to load one long sentence with a bunch of stuff than three short ones. It’s not “fake news.”. But it might be an insular journalistic affectation.

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