Hed: (n) Newsroom Jargon for Headlines
Headlines are tricky. They have to grab flighty readers’ attention, tell a story, and hopefully even squeeze in a witticism. The smallest choices affect readers’ first impressions and, sometimes, their only take on the story. Once a week, we analyze the different ways news outlets present the same story.
Last Friday around midnight, Cuban state television announced the the death of 90-year-old president Fidel Castro. Castro held power for five decades after completing the overthrow of former Cuban leader Fulgencio Batista on Jan. 8, 1959. He passed the reins of leadership onto his younger brother, Raúl, after falling ill in 2006. Castro’s long tenure as president made him one of the world’s longest-ruling leaders—second only to Queen Elizabeth II.
“A Revolutionary Who Defied the U.S. And Held Cuba in His Thrall” (The New York Times)
“Revolutionary remade Cuba” (The Washington Post)
“Tyrant. Revolutionary. The life and legacy of FIDEL CASTRO RUZ 1926-2016” (The Toronto Star)
Like the optical illusion that can appear as either a young lady or an old hag depending on one’s perspective, the death of Fidel Castro is a litmus test when it comes to political opinions. Even the Times and the Star, which focused on the leader’s revolutionary defiance in the front page headline, acknowledged the intense contrast of opinions that orbit the former Cuban president. Anthony DePalma pointed out in his Times article that some saw Castro as a “ruthless despot who trampled rights and freedoms” while others “hailed him as revolutionary hero for the ages.”
Nobody disagrees that Castro changed Cuba, but whether that change was good or bad seems to be up for debate. The Post said Castro “remade” Cuba without implying whether the new country was better or worse off than before. For the U.S. pundits, Castro’s death has been a test of tribal politics, with one group bootstrapping the failure of state socialism to the failures of the regime, and the other trying to justify the persecution of dissidents and artists as a mistake. Arguments about the former dictator’s maximally evil or maximally virtuous nature not only risk dismissing the Castro who may have existed between these extremes, but also forego any introspection about the dictators with whom the United States has continually formed financial relationships with over the years.
In Canada, introspection may have swung too far in the opposite direction. The Twitter hashtag #Trudeaulogies started trending following a statement released by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau praising both Fidel Castro and Raúl. One user mocked Trudeau’s statement by thanking the bubonic plague for opening up employment opportunities for survivors. In a recent article for CBC Aaron Wherry called Trudeau’s language “obtuse,” and argued that the prime minister may have missed an “opportunity to present a more complex account of Castro’s legacy.”
Fixated on Trudeau’s remarks, Canadian news websites have inadvertently created an ad hoc selfie-stick for the prime minister. An online search for articles in Canadian media about the death of Castro is more likely to return results about the political posturing of Trudeau’s statement and its fallout, than about the actual significance, if any, that Castro’s death might have on Canada.