Shop Notes

How do you spell winner?

Posted: Sept. 19, 2013 | Tags: National Press Club


Photo by Kristen Davis, Investigative Reporting Workshop

Ashley Southall of The New York Times walks up to the lectern for her turn in the

bee after Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), third from left, misspells "shenanigans."

A politician again captured the title of Best Speller in the United States when Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia correctly spelled “nonpareil,"  defeating Politico’s Rebecca Sinderbrand in the final round of the Centennial Spelling Bee. The event pitted the press against the pols at the National Press Club in Washington.

The nine journalists on the media team were quick to point out, however, that they scored more points as a team than the nine spellers from Congress. The lighthearted competition, filled with laughter and friendly trash talk, lasted for almost two hours and raised money for the press club’s nonprofit institute, which provides journalism training and education. 

Time Magazine reporter Katy Steinmetz came up with the idea of a rematch 100 years after the original event — held then at the Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue — while researching the history of spelling bees for a story. “What better excuse are we ever going to have to put a bunch of journalists and lawmakers on stage in a spelling bee than a centennial?” she asked.

In the 1913 spelling bee, a congressman from Ohio took the title as President Woodrow Wilson watched from the audience. 

And although President Barack Obama did not attend Wednesday’s bee, nearly 400 people filled the ballroom. Political comedian Mark Russell opened the competition with a song and a stand-up routine. 

“We have journalists working without the safety net of spell check,” he said. “We have Congress here. Who knew they had so much time on their hands?”

Competitors could spell one word wrong, but two words meant elimination. 

Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) was the first contestant, and his word was “potato.” Former Vice President Dan Quayle famously spelled the word incorrectly at a children’s spelling bee in 1992. Cartwright didn't make that mistake.

Giving Congress the lead, Major Garrett from CBS News was the first competitor to spell two words incorrectly — which led to his elimination. His fellow journalists pointed him away from the stage, shaming him into the audience. 

<“Could CBS turn off the cameras?” he said. 

Garrett later tweeted about his performance using the hashtag “#PredictedEpicFail.”

Complaints about the congressional competitors came from Howard Fineman, executive editor of the Huffington Post. “Politicians who sign up to do this kind of thing really know how to spell,” he said. “That’s a lineup of ringers over there.”

Fineman then spelled "rhinoceros" wrong. 

Some spellers looked for definitions in creative and sometimes sarcastic ways. 

“Iconoclast, as in Ted Cruz?” asked Virginia Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly. 

In round three, Republican Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona used religion to explain his misspelling of “shenanigans.” 

“On that last one, for the record, I’m Mormon,” he said. “I’m not supposed to know anything about shenanigans.”

After a comeback by the journalists, the competition came down to two spellers on the media side, Ashley Southall of The New York Times and Politico’s Sinderbrand, against Kaine. 

Kaine stretched out on multiple chairs and whispered to Sinderbrand, while Southall attempted to spell the word “mnemonics.”

“Hey, no trash talking behind my back,” said Southall. 

She spelled it incorrectly and took her seat in the audience, leaving Kaine and Sinderbrand on the stage. 

The judges explained the more complex rules of the final round, and Kaine took off his suit jacket. “Still no hitting right? I mean…” he said. 

Then, just a few minutes later, Kaine spelled “nonpareil” — which means uncomparable, unrivaled — correctly for the win. 


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