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The Order of the Occult Hand is a whimsical secret society of American journalists who have been able to slip the meaningless and telltale phrase "It was as if an occult hand had…" in print as a sort of a game and inside joke.
The phrase was introduced by Joseph Flanders, then a police reporter of The Charlotte News, in the fall of 1965, when he reported on a millworker who was shot by his own family when he came back home late at night. He wrote:
— Joseph Flanders, The Charlotte News
Amused by this purple passage, in a local bar, his colleagues decided to commemorate Flanders' achievement by forming the Order of the Occult Hand. They even showed Flanders a banner made of a bed sheet depicting a bloody hand reaching out of a purple cloud. Among the original members were: R.C. Smith, an associate editor; Stewart Spencer, then an editorial writer; John Gin, the city editor; and several others, who vowed to get the words into print as soon as possible. The editors were not happy about this mischief at all and ordered copy editors to be extremely vigilant, yet the phrase kept slipping into the paper and even into Down Beat, a jazz magazine, by Smith. The News revealed this tradition of high spirits, how it started, in 1985, when it went out of circulation.
Alternatively, Paul Greenberg, the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, claimed that Reese Cleghorn, then an editorial writer of The Charlotte Observer, was the one who originated the Order. Cleghorn denied this claim. The Boston Globe once reported that the Occult Hand Club was a replacement for the Defective Busbar Club, which was open to any journalist who used the word, such as in "the cause of the fire was attributed to a defective busbar, officials said."
The occult-hand phrase did not stop in the Charlotte News and Observer, but has crept onto other media. The use of the phrase has spread to newspaper media around the world like "a cough in a classroom" and "a pox". The Order was occasionally endangered by reckless and artless users of the phrase, but it retained overall secrecy until 2004, when James Janega of the Chicago Tribune published a thorough investigation about the Order. Upon exposure to the public, Greenberg made a full confession.
In 2006, Greenberg announced that the Order had chosen a new secret phrase at an annual editorial writers' convention and resumed a stealth operation.
In 2020, the Fourth Estate announced an "Order of the Occult Hand" journalism challenge. The goal of the contest is to “encourage and recognize" the best use of a meaningless telltale phrase in a published news article within a specified time frame. The phrase and parameters vary from challenge to challenge.
- John Vaughan (1 November 1985), "Occult hand 'grabbed staffers' imaginations", Charlotte Observer, p. 9A
- Maddry, Larry (2005). "Secret Society". Hampton Roads Magazine. Archived from the original on 2007-10-31. Retrieved 2008-02-20.
- Paul Greenberg (16 June 2004). "COLUMNISTS A full confession". The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
- Paul Greenberg (8 April 2009). "COLUMNISTS True confessions". The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
- "Ask The Globe", The Boston Globe, p. B8, 8 November 1999, Factiva bstngb0020010825dvb8013h3
- Janega, James (25 July 2004), "A True Journalistic Conspiracy:When a secret society held writers in thrall", Chicago Tribune, retrieved 25 October 2011
- Greenberg, Paul (2006), "Occult hand strikes back", Jewish World Review, retrieved 2008-02-20
- Brinson, Linda (30 October 2005), "A Haunting Phrase: Getting eerie eight words into the text, past the eye", Winston-Salem Journal, p. 21, Factiva XWSJ000020051031e1au0000o
- Ethridge, Mark (2006), Grievances, NewSouth Books, p. 54, ISBN 1-58838-192-7
- Garfield, Bob; Greenberg, Paul (2004), "Heavy-Handed Cult of Journalism", On the Media, NPR, archived from the original on 2008-07-14, retrieved 2008-02-20
- Oatis, Jonathan (9 July 1999), "NetDestinations - Journalists' Hangout on the Net", Reuters News, Factiva lba0000020010907dv7904ojz
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