Steering the Bum Steers
Senior editor Anne Dingus, who along with Paul Burka, organizes and supervises the annual Bum Steer Awards, gives insight on the history of the long-standing tradition.
texasmonthly.com: How did Bum Steers get started? Who started it?
Anne Dingus: Bum Steers has been around since 1974. Texas Monthly was still a baby then, and published its twelfth issue in January of that year. The staff decided to do a humorous roundup of events that had taken place in Texas the previous year, 1973. The idea was a group effort, but early on Paul Burka, our regular politics writer who truly is a great wit, became the chief steerer. He’s still the person whose approval we seek on everything—him and Evan Smith, our editor.
texasmonthly.com: How long have you been in charge of Bum Steers?
AD: I’ve worked on Bum Steers for seven or eight years now. I’m not sure I’d say I’m in charge of it, as Paul is still the grand high pooh-bah of Bum Steerdom. But I wrangle most of it through headline writing and work with the copy editors and the fact checkers to polish it and make sure it’s as accurate as possible. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle—all these little pieces of copy and art to fit together. Somehow, it always manages to turn out just fine.
texasmonthly.com: How has it changed since its initial inception?
AD: The feature is much bigger now. It covers twelve pages and includes a hundred items or more. Once the editorial staff got in the habit of watching out for Bum Steer candidates through the years and then saving clippings or press releases or other sources, there was always ample raw material at the end of every year. We probably start out with five hundred items, and through process of elimination reduce it to the very funniest or most outrageous items. Bum Steers has always been a bit risqué or raunchy, and it’s even more so now. It’s the one time a year when we can really let loose in terms of humor and taste.
texasmonthly.com: Do you look for similar criteria as you did from when you first began?
AD: Yes. Human nature doesn’t change, and thus some types of Bum Steers are hardy perennials. The Stupid Crook is a classic—every year there are scores of those to choose from. A specific example is the burglar who, in the midst of ransacking a house, finds a supply of liquor and gets blitzed. There’s at least one such example every year. And we don’t even use those anymore—there are too many other criminal-related Bum Steers that are even better, like the one this year about the man who dressed as a priest in an attempt to fool the Border Patrol into believing he wasn’t smuggling drugs. He didn’t have a prayer.
texasmonthly.com: You and Paul make a point of not choosing death-related Bum Steers. What are your reasons for that?
AD: Generally, death isn’t funny. Every year we use perhaps one single Bum Steer that involves a shooting or other fatality. By and large we—and, we assume, our readers—aren’t amused by death. It’s generally too off-putting. Similarly, we had a few dumb-criminal items this year that we cut because the men in question were child molesters. Child molesting isn’t funny either—just reading the phrase seems to render the rest of the text humorless, whatever that text might be.
texasmonthly.com: How did a news story become eligible to become a Bum Steer?
AD: Any news story that reveals human foibles or bureaucratic absurdities qualifies. Everyone and anyone, from a teenager to the CEO of a major company, can be a Bum Steer. This year, we have an item about students at a Port Arthur high school starting to fight during a stop-the-violence presentation, and we also had an item about the wife of Ken Lay, former chairman of Enron, starting up a resale shop. George W. Bush is a regular in the pages of the Bum Steer Awards, and although we occasionally have indignant readers write in and complain about our lack of patriotism in daring to poke fun at the president, Bush himself enjoys the Bum Steer Awards, and has told our publisher so. As long as there’s the requisite amount of absurdity, any event can qualify as a Bum Steer. But it has to occur in Texas, happen to a Texan, or relate to Texas’ image nationwide. Do something silly, pointless, or self-defeating, and you can contend for inclusion in Bum Steers too.
texasmonthly.com: Do you come across them on your own or do you mostly rely on what readers send in?
AD: We amass most of them on our own—”our” being the staff of Texas Monthly, and not just the editorial staff, but our colleagues in art, advertising, marketing, production, and everyone else too. We have a huge box labeled “Bum Steers” in a nook in editorial, and by the end of the year it’s almost overflowing. But we have some absolutely wonderful readers who faithfully forward to us the Bum Steers they read in their local papers. I probably get at least a hundred suggestions per year from readers who love the feature and call it their favorite article. I love Aggies—most of them have a great sense of humor, and every time there’s an Aggie candidate for a Bum Steer award, I can be sure I’ll hear from someone in College Station or Bryan. Clearly they have, in common with President Bush, an ability to laugh at themselves and their image. Too few of us do. We want to laugh at others, not ourselves, but the ability to see the humor in your own behavior is all too rare an ability.
texasmonthly.com: With Bum Steers, the headlines are such an integral part of the joke. How do those come about?
AD: Again, the headline-writing is another massive, staff-wide exercise. We get tons of suggestions, from our editorial interns, most of whom are college students, to our editor himself. The trick to writing Bum Steers is to put the funniest part of the incident at the very end, and the trick to writing a headline is to make the punning or the attitude in the head play off that last line. Writing heads is by far the most fun of compiling Bum Steers. We’ll have sessions with half a dozen staffers and compare notes, and just howl at our own wit (some of it unprintable, but we have to get it out of our system). Sometimes a head will crack me up, and leave Paul totally unmoved. But by and large they all work. Every year, after the issue is sent to press, I pick up the newly printed magazine a couple of weeks later and re-read the Bum Steers. And sometimes I laugh out loud at a head I’ve read a dozen times. Or even a head I wrote!
texasmonthly.com: What’s one you wish never made it to print?
AD: I can’t think of one Bum Steer in particular, but I can think of a type of Bum Steer that is bound to cause trouble, and that is when we skewer a small town or its city council or one of its municipal officials for doing something silly—say, proposing an ordinance that declares a sunflower a weed, or discussing a donation of more than $2 million to help build a set of giant longhorns that would span the interstate. Both of these events really happened in small towns in Texas, and we Bum Steered both events. But, because both the ordinance and the longhorns donation subsequently fell through, these two small towns were greatly offended by their Bum Steer awards, as if—because the ideas were eventually dropped or overruled—the events never happened at all. Well, I agree that it would be nice, in retrospect, to edit behavior. I’m willing to bet that we’ve all made some bloopers in our lives we’d just as soon erase—my ex-husband springs to mind. But you can’t make something un-happen. Every year some indignant town or one of its boosters writes in and protests a Bum Steer, saying, in essence, “But later we changed our mind!” Yes, we acknowledge that, but the events did happen, nonetheless. And I’d like to add that we verify all our Bum Steers carefully. We have a fact-checking staff of three that pores over every word of every item and double-checks the accuracy of everything. If something isn’t true, it doesn’t appear in the Bum Steer Awards.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think Texas and Texans in general make better fodder for Bum Steers than does the rest of the nation?
AD: No, I’m sure you can find great Bum Steers all over the nation. Sometimes I’ll be idly listening to the radio while driving and suddenly I snap to attention, because the deejay is relating a silly event that sounds like perfect Bum Steer fodder. For example, I was tickled to hear that the Hooters restaurant chain was being sued by a former waitress, because she won a drawing for what she thought was a Toyota—but it turned out to be a Toy Yoda. Oh, what a lovely Bum Steer that would have been! But it happened in Florida, alas. What Texas does have on the rest of the nation is size and population. A state this big, with this many people, is bound to produce hundreds of Bum Steers.
texasmonthly.com: Is going through them initially usually a monumental task? What process do you use?
AD: Oh, going through all those clippings for the first time is definitely a pain. It takes days. Since most items are from the newspaper or are printed off of a Web site, there’s a lot of reading involved. First off, I make three big piles, marked Yes, No, and Maybe. Then I re-read all the Yeses and Maybes, and start trying to get the big picture—how many political items there are, how many school items. Sometimes you realize that two Bum Steers can be paired together—the content of one will inspire the headline of another—so you have to go back and dig out the first one and match them up. I usually end up sitting on the floor , making piles labeled “Crooks,” “Celebs,” “Enron,” “Dubya,” and such. The really hard part is writing the Bum Steers. Each item has to be as short as possible, yet clearly and accurately convey the information in, say thirty or forty words, and each must end with the funniest part of the incident or event.
texasmonthly.com: What direction do you see Bum Steers going in for the future?
AD: We have a great new redesign this year for Bum Steers—regular readers will notice how different it looks. Our art director, Scott Dadich, will probably custom-design the feature from now on, depending on who the Bum Steer of the Year is. Since this year it’s Anna Nicole Smith, we used a lot of shades of pink in the design.
texasmonthly.com: Do you think Bum Steers has become a defining feature of Texas Monthly?
AD: Yes, Bum Steers is probably our single, best-known, most-looked-forward-to article of the year. It’s always the feature touted on the cover, so we rack up nice newsstand sales the month it’s out. The only runner-up would be our Ten Best and Ten Worst Legislators article, which appears every other year after the Legislature ends its session.
texasmonthly.com: What celebrity is poised to take over Anna Nicole’s spot in terms of the sheer amount of Bum Steers?
AD: I can’t imagine who might eclipse Anna Nicole. We may have to retire her after this year, because she is, shall we say, overexposed. Maybe she’ll become the first-ever member of the Bum Steer of the Year Hall of Fame. This year, from the day the first episode of her series aired, she was way out in front.
texasmonthly.com: Finally, if you could sum up Bum Steers, what would you say?
AD: Every single year, it is the funniest single article written in Texas. That’s because it’s the product of twelve months of goofs and gaffes involving hundreds of people, the combined cleverness—some might say twistedness—of several dozen Texas Monthly staffers, and innumerable readers who pitch in to make sure we know about potential Bum Steers in their towns. It’s impossible to read Bum Steers and not laugh out loud at least once. If you can read it and stay straight-faced—well, you deserve a Bum Steer.