The World’s Greatest Headline Writer

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Let us pause a moment to acknowledge the death of America’s most famous headline writer — an admittedly obscure title to the average reader, but a person revered by us ink-stained wretches. Vincent Musetto died Tuesday from cancer at 74 at his home in the Bronx. He was retired from the New York Post, famed for its screaming and often outlandish headlines.

Musetto entered into the land of giants of tabloid journalism on April 15, 1983, according to the New York Times story about his death. A lurid crime scene had been discovered at a Queens tavern. A patron got into an argument with the owner, shot him to death, and then forced one of the women he subsequently held hostage to cut the bar owner’s head off. The killer was caught the next day and died in prison.

The headline instantly became famous:


The Post, which I occasionally read online because it never fails to entertain and is an actual newspaper, unlike those found at the grocery store checkout aisle, has produced some of the most memorable headlines in recent history. When the Gerald Ford administration declined, wisely, to bail out New York City from its financial morass, the Post headline was:



There is an art to writing headlines. I am competent but not nearly as creative as Musetto and his colleagues. Musetto’s personal favorite concerned the 1984 execution of Margie Velma Barfield in 1984, who confessed to killing six people but was convicted of a single murder. She chose a bag of Cheez Doodles and a can of Coke as her last meal, and received a lethal injection wearing sleepwear. Musetto’s headline:



Another of my favorites, though I have not been able to confirm its actual existence, is said to have come from one of the San Antonio papers. It concerned a shootout in a Mexican restaurant that left a half-dozen dead. The purported headline:


If that headline was not printed, it should have been.

Editors live in fear of screwing up a headline, and after 40-plus years in this business I have made my share of cringe-inducing mistakes. I once left the “s” out of “horse” in a headline about an upcoming show. Attendance was said to be quite heavy that weekend. More than once, instead of “plaque,” the gremlins placed “plague” in its place. So “Joe Smith received a plague for his service” got into the paper.

Sometimes we just flat get it wrong. The website toptenz.net lists the 10 most-erroneous headlines of all time. For example, the Christian Science Monitor in 1912 had “PASSENGERS SAFELY MOVED AND TITANIC TAKEN IN TOW” on its front page. The most-famous mistaken headline was DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN in the Chicago Daily Tribune in 1948.

On Election Night 2000, as we kept pushing back our deadline in hopes of telling readers who won the presidential election, the time came to finally make a call. After television networks called the Florida results in favor of George W. Bush, giving him the presidency, I made the decision to go with the story and wrote the headline myself for the Nacogdoches paper:


I went home as the presses rolled in Lufkin, flipped on the television and began watching the Florida results completely fall apart. By 3 a.m. I was convinced I had written my own version of “Dewey Defeats Truman,” and that Al Gore was going to take Florida and thus the election. I felt sick.

A month or so later, with hanging chads now part of the popular lexicon, and a narrow and controversial Supreme Court decision rejecting Gore’s challenge, it turned out my headline was accurate — if a bit premature.

Thus, I have empathy for the managing editor of the East Oregonian newspaper. Last week, at my beloved Fenway Park, Oakland Athletics pitcher Pat Venditte made history by delivering pitches with both his left and right hand to separate Red Sox batters during the seventh inning. This was a great feat of ambidextrousness. He pitched 2 1/3 scoreless innings and allowed only one hit. But the Red Sox still won.

The headline in the East Oregonian, which will live on for many years, read:



Ouch. I feel your pain, buddy.


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