Should writers feel sheepish for describing former Secret Service director Julia Pierson as sheepish in the wake of security lapses that could have been disastrous?
  • J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photos
  • Should writers feel sheepish for describing former Secret Service director Julia Pierson as sheepish in the wake of security lapses that could have been disastrous?

If I take the time to find a pen and circle things in the morning paper, I can take a few minutes more and explain why I bothered.

“Sheepishly, Ahmed said he knew little about Khan’s politics,” said the Thursday Tribune, which I read over a long breakfast in a pancake house. Ahmed is a laborer hired for a few dollars a day to demonstrate against the Pakistani government in Islamabad. Imran Khan is a cricket star turned politician who’s behind the demonstration.

Sheepishly is what? It’s an adverb, and also—I believe—a tic.

People admit things for lots of reasons and in various states of mind. Journalism likes to reduce them to one: sheepishness. It’s a flattering word. It flatters Ahmed, because it makes him sound like a regular guy just trying to get by, and it flatters the reporter for asking the sharp question that found Ahmed out.

Maybe Ahmed is a cynical mercenary. Maybe what he actually feels is shame. Whatever. Sheepishly will do.

A country music website reported that Carrie Underwood “revealed sheepishly” that she’d never changed a diaper.

A downstate Illinois paper reported that the head of the Secret Service “was appropriately sheepish and apologetic Tuesday when she discussed a recent security breach at the White House.” The next day she resigned. Maybe sheepish didn’t quite get to the nub of her emotions.

But it’s a kind word. A safe word if you’re the type of writer who likes to gild a narrative with gratuitous adjectives and adverbs. No one’s going to hold a press conference and deny feeling sheepish.

But what about disastrous? It’s not nearly as generous.

A column by Bloomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein on Ted Cruz’s presidential prospects ran on the Trib op-ed pages. Recalling the 2013 government shutdown, which Cruz had plenty to do with, Bernstein said it “had the side effect of distracting the press from the disastrous first weeks of the Affordable Care Act exchange rollout.”

I circled disastrous. The rollout did not go well at all; it might be compared to the rollout of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, which entered commercial service in 2011, three and a half years behind schedule, and was grounded by the FAA in 2013 because its lithium-ion batteries were catching fire. But no Dreamliner crashed, which is what is generally considered a disaster in the airline industry, and it is slowly taking its place in the world’s air fleet.

I’ll give you a bungled rollout. But the Obamacare disaster was what exactly?

And on the sports pages Brad Richards, a new member of the Chicago Blackhawks, said he hopes reporters in Chicago will be fairer to him than reporters in New York, where he used to play. ‘”Please don’t try to be like them,” Richards said jokingly.’

Online, the story says, “Richards jokingly told reporters.”

I broke my pen out for the third time. Is there a difference between said jokingly (or jokingly told) and joked? Is the difference that joked would have made what Richards said sound flippant, while said jokingly gets the idea across that he was kidding on the square? After all, Richards went on talking about New York, and he sounded bruised, not amused.

As is usually the case, I think the best choice here would have been to skip the adverb altogether. “Please don’t try to be like them,” Richards said.

Sports reporters are notorious for asking questions that begin, How do you feel. . . ? Don’t get in the way by helping out an athlete who’s trying to tell us.