Senate leader Phil Berger defends altering news headlines on Facebook. Gerry Broome AP
Senate leader Phil Berger defends altering news headlines on Facebook. Gerry Broome AP

Taylor Batten

Don’t let Berger have all the fun with fake headlines on Facebook

By Taylor Batten

Editorial Page Editor

March 12, 2017 02:44 PM

UPDATED March 13, 2017 07:24 AM

When Republican Senate leader Phil Berger was caught violating Facebook policy by altering news headlines on his Facebook page, his chief of staff made a “modest proposal”: That Berger’s staff collaborate with journalists in writing headlines on news stories.

If that’s a good idea, surely Berger’s staff would agree that collaboration goes both ways – and that journalists should work with Berger on writing legislation.

No? OK. But Berger or his staff wrote fake headlines on at least five stories from the Charlotte Observer, the (Raleigh) News & Observer and WBTV, misleading readers, then defended the practice. If Berger is now going to be writing his own headlines on news stories, why should he have all the fun? Let’s have the same policy for everyone. If we adopt this policy, all subjects of Charlotte Observer stories will be able to write their own headlines going forward.

Imagine the possibilities. We expect this would be a popular move with lots of folks, starting with Mecklenburg County Health Director Marcus Plescia.

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Plescia’s department failed to notify some 200 women about abnormal Pap smear test results. When the Observer discovered that tests for at least 20 women revealed high-grade abnormalities that suggest possible cervical cancer, the print headline read, “Follow-ups to mishandled tests show pre-cancer abnormalities.”

So alarmist. So negative. Under the new policy, Plescia could write the headline. Perhaps something more positive, like: “Mecklenburg County protects women from receiving bad news.”

U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger might have the headline-writing touch. When he told the BBC last fall that people protesting the Keith Lamont Scott shooting “hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not,” the Observer’s headline could have been “Pittenger: I want to help people be all they can be.”

Wells Fargo PR specialists could set up a desk at the Observer. Then, instead of headlines about “widespread illegal practices,” news stories would say “Wells employees give customers wide array of options.”

Why mar Charlotte’s reputation with headlines about the mayor being convicted for taking briefcases stuffed with $20,000 cash when they could just say, “Mayor Cannon to pursue new out-of-state opportunity for 44 months”?

Why focus on the NBA, NCAA and ACC pulling events out of Charlotte and North Carolina when the headline could say, “No perverts in uptown arena bathrooms this weekend”?

Instead of headlines reporting that N.C. lottery winners are somehow defying astronomical odds over and over, Lottery director Alice Garland could write the headline, “North Carolina home to some very lucky people.”

Hmmm. Maybe this isn’t such a good idea after all. Maybe Phil Berger should stick to his day job. Maybe he should trust North Carolina voters enough to make up their own minds instead of trying to spin them with fake headlines and swapped-out photos. Maybe, most of all, he should stop doing so many things that prompt headlines he finds embarrassing.