The Secret Society of Journalists Known as the Order of the Occult Hand

newspapersA running joke, a conspiracy, a challenge, a raspberry to authority and (at least formerly) an exclusive club, the members of the Order of the Occult Hand are those journalists who have successfully snuck the meaningless phrase “occult hand” past their editors and into published newspaper articles.

How did this all start? According to two of its founding fathers, Joseph Flanders and R.C. Smith, in the fall of 1965, a group of Charlotte News reporters, while purportedly enjoying a few alcoholic beverages, began to critique a recent piece written by their colleague, the aforementioned Joseph Flanders. Into a “complicated story of evil-doing,” Flanders had placed the phrase “It was as if an occult hand had reached down from above and moved the players like pawns upon some giant chessboard.”

One of the contingent supposedly teased, “Now that is what I call prose.”

From that point on “The Order of the Occult Hand” was formed and Flanders’ colleagues became committed to secreting the phrase into their work. According to founding father R.C. Smith, “virtually all succeeded.” And as they moved on to other papers, word spread, and the Order grew.

In 1967, Victor McElheny, a reporter with the rival, Charlotte Observer, who was apparently aware of the Order, if not a member, moved to Boston where the phrase became so popular that eventually it was banned from The Boston Herald.

One of the Order’s early evangelists was Jay Sharbutt, who had picked up the “occult hand” while in Boston and joined the Order in 1978 (when he put it in an article published by the Associated Press). Not long after, he moved to The Los Angeles Times, and in 1983 Sharbutt told several Times reporters about it.

These Los Angeles Times reporters were among the most successful with getting the phrase into their publication, putting it into stories in 1983, 1985, 1989 and 1994, as well as eight times between 1996 and 1998. In 1999, it was even placed into a story of President Clinton’s impeachment.

The “occult hand” has also appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe (9 times between 1987 and 2000) and The Washington Times (4 times between 1996 and 1998).

At least four of its manifestations in The Boston Globe came from M.R. “Monty” Montgomery. As a master of the Order, Monty seamlessly placed the phrase with sentences like “If a president of Harvard ever intervenes in something like a promotion or a course outline, it is well disguised, the work of an occult hand.”

So how do we know about this “secret” society today? Information about the Order had been published at various times over the years, including by former president of the American Journalism Review and dean of the University of Maryland’s journalism school, Reese Cleghorn (who had learned of the Order while working in Boston in the 1970s). Cleghorn wrote two columns about it, and as a result, he received letters from Joseph Flanders and R.C. Smith detailing the Order’s origins (as relayed above).

In more recent years, the Order has become less popular, although the “occult hand” continues to pop-up occasionally, including in weather coverage (Mark Lane of the Daytona Beach News-Journal 2006), entertainment editorials (Don Kaplan of the New York Daily News 2013), political stories (Chase Purdy in The Roanoke Times 2013), and even student sports reporting (Michael Cheiken for the University of Chicago’s Chicago Maroon 2014).

On the other hand, many former Order members have moved on to other challenges. Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Greenberg, Order member six times over, wrote in 2006 that because of the exposé on the topic and “the lazy types who threw the magic phrase into their copy so artlessly [that it] . . . gave the whole conspiracy away,” he was giving up on the “occult hand,” in lieu of a new phrase.

With the criteria that it had to be “bad enough to be spotted by the cognoscenti but likely to get past the casual copyreader,” Greenberg and other Order members considered (and presumably rejected) phrases such as “like a soft, warm weird breeze blowing aimlessly through the palms,” and “hanging over the scene like a shroud.”

They eventually settled on a phrase currently unknown to the public, and as of 2006, there were supposedly 11 “certified members” into the new secret Order.

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