Newseum shows that in journalism, puns reign supreme

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, April 20, 2008 Hibbing Daily Tribune. I archive columns at my writing site.

Newseum shows that in journalism, puns reign supreme
By Aaron J. Brown

I love puns. If I were a football player, I’d be a pun-ter. I wake up each day to see the pun rise. If I were an English Quaker born in 1644 who settled a wild continent to create a government that laid groundwork for democracy, I would be William Pun and that land would be called Punsylvania. And in next week’s Punsylvania Democratic primary Barack Opuma would narrowly defeat Hillary Clinpun.

Had enough?

Journalism is a very important, very serious industry. The news is often called the first draft of history and performs an important role in the conduct of public affairs. (And the private affairs of public officials as the case may be). But as serious as the craft of journalism may be you can’t help but notice all the headline puns and wordplay dancing through the content.

You know what I’m talking about. “Snowman enjoys frosty day.” “Judges name local cook’s omelet ‘eggceptional.’ “Bear mauls city councilor.” Wait, that last one wasn’t a pun. In fact, it is deeply tragic. But surrounded by puns the terrible bear story seems much lighter. Even jolly. That’s what puns can do. I wonder if that city councilor voted to tax honey! Ha Ha! (Seriously, in a case like that the bear would surely be euthanized. It is a very sad story. When you get down to it, very grizzly indeed).

In researching journalistic puns, I found that the editorial board of a San Antonio newspaper reprimanded the paper’s own copy editors for producing nine headline puns in one edition, including this one: “Mumps Outbreak Swells.” And TV news is even worse. In TV news, moving images reinforce puns. Instead of developing a gem like “City squirrels nuts for power transformer,” all TV has to do is show video of a squirrel running into the transformer and bursting into flames, knocking out power to thousands. “That’s nuts!” an anchor might say, before transitioning to weather: “Let’s see what kind of forecast meteorologist Rusty Robbins has tucked away in his

You don’t realize how important puns are to the life functions of television news until you see someone on TV try to use a metaphor. Where puns can be executed in one or two words, metaphors require both substantial setup and abstract thought on the part of both speaker and audience. Once, during MSNBC’s coverage of a primary election, I witnessed Chris Mathews attempt to use the Arab siege of Aqaba depicted in the movie “Lawrence of Arabia” as a metaphor for a candidate’s campaign. Like the movie, the metaphor seemed to need an intermission. Indeed, the short, snappy puns that require only cursory knowledge of language allow TV news outlets to pleasantly transmit tiny amounts of information to large amounts of people.

Well, the puns finally get their own. Last week, something called the Newseum opened in Washington, D.C. Get it! Newseum! A museum about the news industry! Its very name suggests that journalism insiders were involved in the $450 million Newseum’s development. Across the country, readers and viewers saw stories about the Newseum’s opening, partly because of the news value but mostly because the headline pun came prepackaged. If the Freedom Forum (the organization that created this journalism shrine) had called the thing the “News Museum,” the corporations that own all the country’s newspapers would have had to pay thousands of copy editors to simultaneously think of the “newseum” pun on the company dime. That’s very inefficient and dismally out of touch with AP style to boot.

It may be safe to say that most folks enjoy a good pun. But overuse can build tolerance much like a steady diet of beer can expand your alcohol tolerance (What a waist!) Maybe that’s why writers drink so much. Which came first? The puns or the disproportionate rate of alcoholic journalists? We may never know. I just know that if you can spring for the $20 ticket to the Newseum next time you’re in D.C., you’ll have a lot of pun.

Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune. Contact him or read more at

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