Talk to the hand

A long-running journalism inside joke gets new (after?)life

Eight years ago, the Chicago Tribune put the halogen searchlight of public attention on an age-old international media conspiracy—an inside joke among journos to try to sneak a certain seemingly descriptive but actually meaningless phrase past their editors.

“It was as if an occult hand”—or some derivation of it—has appeared in publications from the Los Angeles Times to The Bangkok Post since its first use in a 1965 article in the (now-defunct) Charlotte News. As the Tribune’s James Janega described it, Joseph Flanders wrote, “It was as if an occult hand had reached down from above and moved the players like pawns upon some giant chessboard.” Flanders’s colleagues loved the phrase so much, they resolved to sneak it into their own copy. Over the years, those reporters moved on to other papers, and word of the Order of the Occult Hand spread. (Janega’s article has a nice list of places where the occult hand has popped up; a Wikipedia entry has one, too. Definitely worth a look.)

When The New York Times’s Dan Barry told the story of the occult hand in a nostalgic piece last summer, I called Janega to discuss the hand. He said he first heard about it in 1999 from another journalist. In 2004, he decided that it was time to give the game away after finding a few too many articles with less-than-subtle mentions of the occult hand, each sticking out like a sore occult thumb.

One of the people Janega interviewed for his article was Paul Greenberg, the editorial-page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and a frequent occult hander. In 2006, Greenberg wrote a column about how he and a few colleagues, loath to let the Order die, came up with a new phrase. At the time, Greenberg wrote, the new Order—of which he is the self-appointed “Supreme Poobah, Benevolent Dictator, or Exalted Whatever”—had 11 confirmed members.

Janega was pleased to hear that his article hadn’t destroyed the Order, and that a “new phoenix” had risen from the occult hand’s ashes to “fly through the Internet.” So long as it isn’t easily Googleable, he thinks, the secret should remain wrapped in mystery for another four decades. What is it? I’ll never tell.

In the meantime, the occult hand appears to be alive (or undead?) and well. It has waved at Chicago Tribune readers at least once since Janega’s 2004 report. An April 2011 dispatch about an odd photo of President and Mrs. Obama on the steps of Air Force One, noted: “It was as if an Occult Hand had appeared between the first couple.” The article was written by. . . James Janega.

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Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison.