He Got Blame

Bleeped words and dropped balls mark the media frenzy around the suspension of Dan Issel.

Clearly, Issel isn't the only bobblehead in these parts.

Is that your final answer? Since September 11, the name Osama bin Laden has appeared in American newspapers, magazines and broadcasts untold thousands of times, as has the handle of the terrorist organization he fronts. But the group's moniker has been spelled in a dizzying number of ways. A data search of articles printed on December 11, three months to the day after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, came up with "al-Qaeda," "al Qaeda," "Al Qaeda," "al-Qaida," "Al Qaida" and "al-Qa'ida."

Why the irregularity? According to Joe Hudson, copy-desk chief at the Denver Post, "Arabic words, names and phrases tend to throw us for a loop. Khadafy or Gadhafi?" Or Qadhafi and al-Qadhafi, for that matter? Not to mention that the Libyan leader's first name appears variously as Muammar and Mu'ammar. Hudson adds, "And it's not just Arabic. Any language that requires transliteration into English leaves us guessing a little bit."

The lack of consensus on bin Laden's troupe extends to the Denver dailies. The Rocky Mountain News uses "al-Qaida" because, says news editor John Boogert, the paper likes to stick with "AP style," and that's how the Associated Press spells it. The Post generally follows AP style, too, but in this case, Hudson says, the rush of data complicated matters. "The word was everywhere, spelled three or four different ways," he remembers. "As I recall, sometime in the first day or two after the attacks, I took a look at what the various wire services were using; 'al-Qaeda' seemed to be used more often than not, so that's what we went with." Eventually, AP, whose spelling "was not consistent in those frantic first few days," Hudson says, settled on "al-Qaida," but the Post "decided to stick with what we had been using."

That's easier said than done. The Post and the News have relied on a great deal of wire copy about bin Laden since September, and many of the services don't use either "al-Qaida" or "al-Qaeda." Take the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, which prefer "Al Qaeda." As such, copy editors at the papers have to go into every article from other sources and try to change disparate spellings to the preferred version. They don't catch everything -- each paper has published a few articles with spellings other than their first choice -- but they've been pretty steady since early October.

Still, none of that really addresses what's right -- so to get a better grasp on the debate, I consulted Liyakat Takim, an assistant professor in the religious-studies department at the University of Denver. Takim teaches a number of courses looking at Islam, including one about Islamic mysticism, speaks and reads Arabic, and is as close to an expert on the language as anyone at DU. In his view, the best, most accurate spelling would be one with a bar over the first "a" in "Qaida" to emphasize the correct pronunciation (his first name has one, too). The term is actually four syllables long, not three; it should be pronounced "al-kay-id-a" instead of "al-kite-a," as everyone from network anchors to President George W. Bush insists on uttering it.

Not that Takim's spelling is likely to be widely embraced. The equipment used at most daily newspapers would have trouble putting a bar over the letter. The News's Boogert thinks that for each one in his paper, "an actual printer would have to put a piece of border tape over it" -- and those of us at Westword discovered that we were in the same leaky boat. Presumably, using the "al-Qa'ida" spelling, the simplest alternative, would be less difficult, but apparently no one in America has done so; the three publications that made this choice on December 11 hail from Australia, Canada and England.

At the same time, none of the publications in the December 11 search spelled bin Laden's first name "Usama"; the only major U.S. news outlet doing so is Fox News. But Takim says "Usama" is more correct than "Osama," and his opinion received backing last week from the United States government. Its transcription of a videotape showing the al-Qa'ida frontman laughing about WTC casualties spelled his first name "Usama" throughout. The AP isn't budging, though; in its published transcription, every "UBL" has been replaced with an "OBL."

This war on terrorism is complicated, isn't it?

Street sense: Mayor Wellington Webb announced last week that he would ask the Denver City Council to rename a section of Elati Street that borders the headquarters of the News "Gene Amole Way," after dying columnist Gene Amole ("The Subject of a Lifetime," November 15). This worthy tribute is scheduled to be formalized at a December 20 ceremony at the News that Amole plans to attend. But whereas the News's future address will be 100 Gene Amole Way, the same can't be said of the Denver Newspaper Agency, which was created by the joint operating agreement between the News and the Post. Even though the DNA shares the News's building, spokesman Jim Nolan confirms that its address will remain 400 West Colfax.

Amole, no fan of the JOA, probably prefers it that way.

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