John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.
Monday, August 31, 2009
He not only participated in the revision of the Book of Common Prayer of 1979 but also wrote the learned and lucid Commentary on the American Prayer Book (the Big Hatchett) and A Manual of Ceremonial for the New Prayer Book (the Little Hatchett), both of which hold honored places on my shelves.
He understood — and said — that public worship in the Episcopal Church could maintain a continuity with its historical origins without becoming a museum liturgy, and he wrote with authority, grace, and humanity.
Whenever I endure some service of mechanical liturgy, mediocre music, and tedious homiletics, as is the fate of many churchgoers, I recall that Professor Hatchett showed us that it does not have to be that bad. He thought that we could achieve a higher standard, and now that he has gone to glory, we would do well to remember his example.
Item: The debate over health care reform is taking on a refreshing candor. Yesterday, David Sheets out in St. Louis put up a link on Facebook to FactCheck.org’s article “Twenty-six lies about H.R. 3200."* Among the Facebookers responding was one Dan Devine, who said, in part:
There are many good ideas to reform the current structure, which has worked well enough for me. I've worked hard to get the coverage I have and don’t want risk losing it. The current package seems to be a way to provide free health care for the baby boomers as they age; sorry, I’m not interested in helping them.
If you, dear reader, are like me, a person in your fifties, particularly if you are also someone whose presence is no longer required in the workplace, I plan to take Mr. Devine’s hint and see whether I can contract with the Oriental Trading Company or Archie McPhee or some similar company to manufacture buttons for us reading:
DO NOT RESUSCITATE
You know it’s the right thing to do.
Item: If you join me in the categories mentioned in the previous item, there’s a word for it, to which we are alerted by the ever-alert Fritinancy: mancession. A mancession is a recession in which unemployment hits men disproportionately more than women.
Item: I will be back in the classroom at Loyola tomorrow morning at 9:25, where seventeen vulnerable undergraduates are signed up to be introduced to the occult secrets of copy editing. Keep them in your thoughts.
*FactCheck.org, PolitiFact.com, and similar operations are not among those sites for people who already know what they think before they hear any specifics. They hark back to the outdated principles in print journalism — you remember newspapers — of attempting to publish verifiable, factual material.
Saturday, August 29, 2009
Everyone loves a repentant sinner, but it’s not clear that the conversion is complete. The review of flagged changes is to be limited to entries about living people, and the qualifications of volunteer editors and the quality of their editing remain to be seen.
Still, after being challenged repeatedly over posts about the limitations of Wikipedia*, I was interested to see Michael Snow, chairman of the Wikimedia board, quoted thus in The New York Times:
“We are no longer at the point that it is acceptable to throw things at the wall and see what sticks. There was a time probably when the community was more forgiving of things that were inaccurate or fudged in some fashion — whether simply misunderstood or an author had some ax to grind. There is less tolerance for that sort of problem now.”
A-men, Brother Snow.
Now, if it would be possible to spare one of those volunteer editors for a moment or two to look at the Jaipur entry on Wikipedia, something might be done about this sentence that a reader brought to my attention:
Mansarovar housing colony is the largest housing colony in the entire universe.
*No I am not going to provide links to all those posts. A search on Wikipedia at this site and at the previous site will turn up as much as you ever want to see.
Friday, August 28, 2009
BOSTON — In an extraordinary outpouring of public emotion, thousands of people in Massachusetts solemnly lined highways, overpasses and city streets Thursday to pay their last respects to Sen. Edward Kennedy, the last patriarch of America’s most storied political dynasty.
And with the loss of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and his storied ability to eke out bipartisan compromises, lawmakers are eyeing those consensus proposals. ...
The advice sometimes given to aspiring writers that they should avoid adjectives is like a fad diet — Atkins or South Beach — that rules out a whole class of foods. But it is true that some adjectives are empty calories, and storied is surely one of them. Like prestigious and legendary, two other adjectives that crop up in the work of unimaginative writers, it says merely, “I’m writing an important story about somebody you should have heard of.”
Of course, the first example is constructed almost completely from prefabricated material. Extraordinary outpouring of public emotion turns up whenever a crowd gathers, especially if they are outdoors to pay their last respects. And if this storied figure is also a patriarch, then he must be part of a dynasty.
It pretty much writes itself.
The other article — after revealing that Mr. Kennedy was a Democrat from Massachusetts — refers to his storied ability to eke out compromises. The phrasal verb to eke out, which originally meant to supplement by meager increments or to stretch out a small supply, has come to mean to accomplish with great difficulty, and no one has any business insisting on the older sense. But I thought that compromises were hammered out in the smithy of the Congress.
Sometimes the writer reaches for the wrong cliche. But eyeing, at least, is pure journalese.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
At Testy Copy Editors.org, a worthy colleague, Nessie3, posted this headline:
Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms
(If this seems a bit opaque, and it should, the story is about a young violinist whose career has prospered since the death of her father in a Japan Airlines crash in 1985.)
A quick response by subtle_body suggested that crash blossom would be an excellent name for headlines done in by some such ambiguity — a word understood in a meaning other than the intended one. The elliptical nature of headline writing makes such ambiguities an inevitable hazard.
And danbloom was quick to set up a blog to collect examples of “infelicitously worded headlines.”
Such collections already exist because the phenomenon was identified long before a name was attached to it. There are two notable collections, Squad Helps Dog Bite Victim and Red Tape Holds Up New Bridge, from the files of the Columbia Journalism Review.
Please add crash blossom to your professional lexicon forthwith.
*The Cupertino effect occurs when the spell-checking system in a software program substitutes an inappropriate word. The term comes from the substitution of Cupertino for a misspelling of cooperation. A notorious Cupertino occurred at The Baltimore Sun when the spell-checker, not having Kunte Kinte in its word list, substituted Chunter Knit. The Cupertino effect is one of the principal reasons that you should be skittish about using the auto-correct function.
**The eggcorn substitutes a word or phrase of similar sound for the correct one. At The Sun the copy desk once received a story containing a reference to a toe-headed boy.
***The snowclone is a stock phrase that can be repurposed with minor variations by lazy writers who imagine themselves to be clever: X is the new Y; have X, will travel; this is your brain on X.
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
In 1710, for example, Jonathan Swift complained in The Spectator about “the deplorable ignorance that for some years hath reigned among our English writers, the great depravity of our taste, and the continual corruption of our style.” Two years later he published “A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue,” in which he advocated formation of an English Academy of notables, based on the French model, to superintend the language. The proposal had no legs then, and it has none now.
The estimable Jan Freeman of The Boston Globe is bringing out an edition — soon to be examined here — of Ambrose Bierce’s style guide, Write It Right, annotating Bierce’s quirky advice, often based on minute distinctions that no modern eye can discern.
In 1962 — 1962, one of the last of the Good Years, in which the echoes of the Fifties sounded in all ears — Dwight Macdonald published Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture. My crumbling paperback copy includes “Updating the Bible,” a jeremiad about the Revised Standard Version of the English Bible of 1952; “The String Untuned,” an examination of the descriptivist wickedness of the third edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary (Unabridged); and “The Decline and Fall of English,” a fusillade at the wanton perversity of linguists and pedagogues.
Not on the shelves but in the garage with the other books from my former office at The Sun, is The State of the Language, an anthology edited thirty or so years ago by Christopher Ricks. You may recall some of the menaces of the Seventies — hopefully used as a sentence adverb, and the Episcopal Church’s carelessness in revising the Book of Common Prayer into texts comprehensible to worshipers.
All of these works grow increasingly quaint with the passage of time. More to the point, all illustrate components of the peevologist personality, a subject to which I plan to return in a future post. For now, as it occurs to you what exhibits you would like to see displayed in the musée, by all means suggest them.
*peevology (n.) An analysis of faults, often imaginary, in language usage, arbitrarily pronounced by self-anointed experts, the analysis typically revealing rank prejudice and cultural bias.
**When I see the plaint “I want my America back” at rallies against health care reform, I tend to think that it is the Fifties the loss of which is so keenly felt — that blessed age when blacks were at the back of the bus, gays in the closet, women in the kitchen, and white men in the White House. But I digress.
Monday, August 24, 2009
Step 1: You (corporation, private firm, educational institution, nonprofit organization) invite me in for a little chat about the ways that your operation would benefit from the presence of an able and experienced editor/writer/teacher/trainer (me).
Step 2: Persuaded, you engage my services.
Step 3: In return, you pay me wages.
Really, nothing could be simpler.
Item 2: A private message asks what advice I could give to someone interested in newspaper copy editing. My reply:
Newspapers have been laying off copy editors in large numbers, partly for overall staff reductions to cut costs but also out of a mistaken belief that accuracy and precision are not worth the expense. [See Item 1.] Consequently, there are very few copy-editing jobs available at newspapers, and there is a large population of out-of-work editors, along with a few students emerging from journalism programs, competing for them. I could not advise anyone that going into editing is a shrewd career move.
Item 3: Last week ground toward its end with a post about a freelancer who sent out a prefabricated story, complete with quotes, so that a source’s name could be typed in the blank. That was bad enough, but Pam Robinson reports on a public relations firm that has its interns posting bogus reviews praising a client’s products.
Item 4: If you doubted that an online publication could rival newspapers for interminable, rambling, self-indulgent articles, I invite you to examine jjmoney62’s structural analysis at Testy Copy Editors of a Deadspin.com story about a Little League player.
Item 5: I am already seriously behind on four editing projects.
Saturday, August 22, 2009
Jesse Sheidlower, the formidable Editor at Large of the Oxford English Dictionary, now favors us with a third, much expanded edition of The F Word (Oxford University Press, 270 pages, $16.95), a thoroughgoing exploration of the most celebrated verb/noun/adjective/adverb/interjection/infix* in English, with ample citations of its use over the past five and a half centuries.
Here we have a point of some delicacy. Anyone who has sat within earshot of me near deadline can stipulate that I am without reticence in employing this flexible word in various permutations. At the same time, while blogging at The Sun and here I have maintained a reasonably decorous tone. (I once published an article in The Sun on swearing — highly favorable toward the practice — without employing any term more unsavory than the damme of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pinafore.) I can’t quite bring myself to cut loose here. Bear with me.
I can at least correct a common error. The word is not of Anglo-Saxon origin; it has not been discovered anywhere in Old English or, for that matter, Middle English. It appears to have emerged in English sometime in the 15th century, adapted from Low German, Flemish, or Dutch. One reason for the murkiness is that etymologists until quite recently had to rely on written sources; but words often emerge in speech before they appear in writing, and, beyond that, there are taboos against writing down objectionable words such as our subject. So what the lexicographer calls attestations may be sparse.
But Mr. Sheidlower has ferreted out many sources, from a manuscript poem of 1450-1475 attacking the Carmelite Friars of Ely to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show in February of this year. A man of stamina, he has evidently, in the course of his researches, read an astonishing amount of Victorian pornography. This revised edition goes well beyond his previous findings in American and British (English, Scottish, Welsh) profanity to include sources from Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, and beyond. I challenge you to find an expression that he has omitted. (If you do, send it to him.)
Serious students of the language will find this book invaluable, particularly in the citations, which amount to a social history of the English-speaking peoples from a limited but intense perspective.
*An infix is a syllable (affix) or word (tmesis) inserted in the middle of another word or phrase, such as Homer Simpson’s saxamaphone. Often as an expletive, e.g., guaran-damn-tee.
Friday, August 21, 2009
Rebecca Maitland, a freelancer for an edition of the Houston Chronicle, has some quotes from volunteers about the problem of abandoned animals. She sends a form story to an official incorporating those quotes and invites the official to agree to being quoted thus. It’s a fill-in-the-blanks story.
Her editor, Karen Zurawski, has to be prodded to say that sending a story to a source with prefabricated quotations is maybe “not an acceptable practice.”
My Twitter colleague @dougfisher comments only, “Unreal.”
If this is a standard of practice that mainstream newspaper journalism can accept —doing coverage on the cheap, with untrained writers lacking adequate supervision by editors — then just turn out the lights and send everybody home.
What is the funniest four-word message you can devise? A classic example is Robert Benchley’s cable to The New Yorker from Venice: “Streets flooded. Please advise.” (You can have a little leeway to establish a context.)
This troubling tangle was on my mind as I read this week Paul McHugh’s Try to Remember: Psychiatry’s Clash Over Meaning, Memory, and Mind (Dana Press, 276 pages, $25). Dr. McHugh, the formidable former head of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, recounts the ugly “recovered memory” scandal of the 1980s and 1990s** and in the process explores some of the sources of authority in medicine, from which I would like draw some useful principles.
Doctors in particular are figures of authority, and we put our health and our lives in their hands.*** But some practitioners are less skillful, less well-trained, less competent. And there are quacks abroad. Dr. McHugh suggests that a prudent patient would be wise to ask appropriately skeptical questions in seeking a therapist:
What are the credentials? What training has the practitioner had?
Does the practitioner ask you questions and investigate your particular circumstances, or does he or she spring a ready-made theory on you?
What scientific research supports the practitioner’s approach?
What success has the practitioner had? (One of the most alarming elements of the “recovered memory” craze was that the longer patients were in treatment, the worse they got.)
It seems to me that these principles can be extrapolated beyond psychotherapy to larger realms of authority in politics and elsewhere. You should give no one unquestioning allegiance, but you should not disbelieve everything lest you fall into hysteria.**** So ask yourself when people make assertions about health care or other political issues:
What are the credentials? How is this person qualified to make these statements?
Do this person’s explanations fit the circumstances, or have the circumstances been made to fit a predetermined theory?
What evidence is there? What verifiable information is there to support this person’s assertions?
Has this person been right in the past on other issues? What credibility does he or she bring to the issue?
The grimmest and most pessimistic satire of the 18th century suggested that everyone is either a knave or a fool — either a con artist or someone ready to be gulled. If we are to avoid either trap, we have to learn how to sort out which sources of authority are more reliable than others. I apologize for imposing this rambling reflection on you as I try to think through these issues for myself. They are too important to ignore.
*There was once a sign at The Sun’s copy desk, adapted from a bumper sticker, that read, “Question authority. Ask us anything.”
**Some background here to keep from cluttering the main line of argument.
Memory is malleable. The brain is not a simple recording device; our memories are stories we tell ourselves, and the way we tell the stories shapes the memories. They become what we believe to be true. You probably know this from your own experience, say of a childhood memory that you have been harboring for years that turns out to be at variance with what other family members recall.
Some therapists in the 1980s and 1990s, following in the Freudian tradition that current mental difficulties rise from long-buried conflicts of early childhood, used hypnosis, sedation, and persuasion to probe for suppressed memories of trauma. In the course of treatment, they helped patients construct memories of childhood sexual abuse, sometimes including satanic rituals. The practice became a craze, not unlike the hysteria of the Salem witch trials; families were disrupted, and some people went to jail for crimes that were entirely imaginary.
Dr. McHugh was part of a campaign to debunk “recovered memory” therapy, and ultimately court testimony helped to bring it down — including demonstrations that a therapist could implant an entirely false memory in a susceptible patient, who would then be thoroughly convinced that the event had occurred.
His book is not only illuminating about the original scandal, but also refreshingly clear and forthright about the practice of psychiatry in particular and psychotherapy in general. Anyone whose life is troubled and who is seeking help would do well to consult this book.
***My daughter has a relatively mild form of cerebral palsy from a case of bacterial meningitis in the neonatal ward when she was two weeks old. She was two years old when we moved to Baltimore and my wife and I took her to see a specialist at Johns Hopkins. After a forty-five-minute examination, the specialist pronounced that she was intellectually disabled as well as physically disabled, and recommended treatment accordingly. Fortunately, her pediatrician subsequently cautioned us not to credit that diagnosis but to trust more in our own judgment.
Alice graduated from Swarthmore in 2006 with an honors degree in Latin and Greek.
****Hysteria in medical terms, Dr. McHugh explains, is “a mimicry of disability resting on self-deception and responsive to persuasion.” That is, patients with hysteria display symptoms for which there is no physical cause and believe fixedly that their maladies are real. They are persuaded, sometimes by association with people who are genuinely ill, that they are diseased. There is also a social form of hysteria, exemplified by the Salem witch hunts, in which the public was persuaded by the assent of authority — the clergy — that the spiritual and physical threats from harmless old women were real. It is not difficult these days to find figures of some authority who will give their assent to paranoid suspicion.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
Removing the filter for periodic vacuuming of dust and cat hair is not difficult, but returning it means getting down on the knees, groping in the dark recess past a bundle of hanging electrical cords that probably shouldn't be pulled loose, trying to keep the wobbly aluminum frame of the filter from bending over itself instead of blocking the opening, trying to fit the little latch over the filter, repeating the process because the filter frame has come loose again, and — inevitably, every time — scraping the skin off the knuckles against some protruding edge of metal.
Such a struggle takes it out of a man.
And therefore, since I am at liberty today, if anyone else craves the benefit of a sustaining pint or two, I would find a little company to be salubrious. Fiveish or so? (Unless you’re pretending to work and won’t be sprung till later.) Hamilton Tavern, or some comparable Baltimore saloon? (Even if you’re paying, I’m not inclined to leave town. But send me your name, and I’ll drink to your health.) No reasonable offer refused.
Wednesday, August 19, 2009
above the fold (adj. or adv.) A broadsheet paper, like The Baltimore Sun, as distinguished from the tabloid New York Daily News, is folded in half for display. The top half of the page, above the fold, is held to be the most important real estate in the paper. A reporter’s ambition is to get an article on the front page; a reporter’s supreme ambition is to get that article above the fold.
bang out (v.) A composing room (cf.) ritual in which an employee leaving the premises for the last time is commemorating by the pounding of pica poles (cf.) against metal surfaces in a commemorative clamor.
breaking news (n.) Unanticipated events developing during the publication cycle, requiring updates and occasionally wholesale revision of pages. Breaking news is conventionally greeted by profane expressions on the news desk, city desk, or copy desk.
budget (n.) also BJT The daily budget, or list of pending articles, either completed or imagined, typically discussed at an afternoon news meeting at which preliminary decisions about what is to go on the front page are made.
bulldog (n.) An early edition. The Baltimore Sun continues to produce a bulldog edition of the Sunday paper that appears Saturday morning. In a 60 Minutes episode in the early 1980s, Andy Rooney, then merely a spry sexagenarian, displayed a copy of the Sunday Cincinnati Enquirer and proceeded to discard all the advertising inserts and classified sections (“I already have job”), leaving a thin set of news sections. But the buy of The Sun’s bulldog edition performs the Rooney Shuck in reverse, discarding the thin news sections to retrieve the advertising inserts, the comics, the TV book, etc.
buried lede (n.) The central element of an article mistakenly appearing deep in the text. It must be disinterred.
burn off (v.) to dispose of articles that have previously been rejected for the front page or section front by running them on a day of low circulation. Look at your Monday paper.
byline (n.) The reporter’s name at the tip of an article; the most important component of an article.
chaser (n.) A page or set of pages typeset after the formal edition close to attempt to get breaking news (cf.) into the paper.
cold type (n.) Headlines and text produced on photographic paper and pasted up (cf.) in a composing room. Increasingly supplanted by electronic transmission of pages directly to a printing plant, where the pages emerge as metal plates to go on the printing press.
composing room (n.) The place in which printers, now vanished, once assembled pages in hot type or cold type.
copy editor (n.) An anonymous drudge who attempts, against great odds, to correct the many faults of writers before publication. Extinction imminent. (Cf. slot editor.)
CQ (abbrev.) An indication that the name or term so noted has been checked and verified. Copy editors, whose suspicions are well founded, often suspect that reporters use CQ to indicate “better check this.”
1st-lede writethru (n.) The first update of a developing wire service (cf.) article. Subsequent updates will be labeled 2nd-lede, 3rd-lede, etc.
goat-choker (n.) An article of inordinate and suffocating length, produced to gratify the vanity of the author and the aspirations of the publication. (Cf. Pulitzer-Prize-winner.)
graf (n.) Paragraph.
grip-and-grin (n.) A photograph of no inherent interest in which a notable and an obscure person shake hands at an occasion of supposed significance.
hed (n.) A headline, giving rise to the abbreviation HTK, for head to come, an article transmitted in a take or takes before it is in final form.
hot type (n.) Metal type generated on a Linotype machine. Archaic. (Cf. cold type.)
house ad (n.) An unpaid advertisement put on a page to fill a gap left by an lack of paid advertising. Often a promotional ad for the publication.
jumpline (n.) A line indicating a continuation, or jump, of an article on a subsequent page. Though readership surveys for generations have indicated that readers despise jumps and generally do not follow them, it does not suit newspapers to do otherwise.
lede (n.) The phonetic spelling of lead, the beginning, usually the first paragraph, of an article, so spelled as to indicate the specialized meaning rather than the common meaning to a Linotype operator.
Linotype (n.) A machine for the mechanical setting of type, the brainchild of Ottmar Merganthaler of Baltimore, to whom all praise be given. The Linotype operator used hot metal, melted lead, to create slugs (cf.) of type by manipulating a keyboard.
lobster shift (n.) Also lobster trick. The third shift on a daily newspaper, between midnight and 8 a.m.
nut graf (n.) The paragraph — if it exists — that explains the central point of an article, typically following a labored and self-indulgent introductory sequence of paragraphs.
pica pole (n.) A metal ruler used by printers in the composing room to measure type by picas (12 points to the pica, six picas to the inch). The pica pole is pounded against a metal surface in the ritual of banging out (cf.) an employee leaving the premises for the last time.
Pulitzer Prize (n.) The annual prizes in journalism, established by Joseph Pulitzer and administrated by Columbia University, to celebrate excellence in journalism and other categories; the Valhalla of the newspaper reporter.
off the floor (adj.) When a page has been completed and removed from the composing room (cf.), it is said to be off the floor. When an entire edition is off the floor, it is said to have been put to bed.
pasteup (n.) The assemblage of pages by pasting type onto page mockups, which are then photographed to be made into metal plates for the printing press.
Pulitzer-Prize-winner (n.) An article of surpassing artistry or investigative virtuosity, usually of considerable length (Cf. goat-choker), written for Pulitzer jurors rather than the readership of the publication, despite the unlikelihood that the former group will have read it in its entirety before bestowing the laurels.
reader (n.) An article devoid of immediate news interest that will supposedly be of interest to the readership.
refer (not reefer) (n.) A short summary attached to an article indicated a related story elsewhere in the publication.
rim editor (n.) A copy editor, a nonentity.
slot editor (n.) On a copy desk, the copy editor who checks and corrects the copy of other copy editors before approving it for publication. The term arises from the obsolete furniture of the newsroom, where once a horseshoe-shaped desk enabled the slot editor to hand out paper copy to the copy editors on the rim, the outside of the horseshoe. To slot (v.) is to check an article that has been copy edited before approving it for typesetting.
slug (n.) A line of type set in metal on a Linotype machine (cf.). Also the one-word working title of an article as it moves through production. SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) is a familiar slug for an article about a Supreme Court decision.
spadia (n.) An annoying flap of advertising copy that wraps around a portion of the front page of a section, preventing the reader from seeing the full page.
spike (n.) The spindle on which paper copy that was not to run was impaled, giving rise to the verb to spike, to kill a story.
stet (v., from the Latin) Let it stand; let the original copy go as written. The hardest word for a copy editor to use.
take (n.) A section of an article. An article that is transmitted to the copy desk or the composing room as it is being written is sent in takes.
telegraph section (n.) At The Baltimore Sun, the A section, in which national and foreign news was acquired by telegraph in the remote past. The copy was edited on the telegraph desk, a component of the copy desk.
thirty (-30-) A numeral indicating the conclusion of a take (cf.) of copy. Extended metaphorically to the verb form to write 30, i.e., to conclude a career.
tombstoning In page layout, to put articles side by side so that the headlines are adjacent. The phenomenon is also referred to as bumping heads.
tick-tock (n.) A step-by-step account of how a particular event or phenomenon developed.
wire service (also the wire) (n.) The Associated Press or other news service whose dispatches are transmitted electronically to the publication.
Earlier today this tweet went out from APStylebook on Twitter:
RT @emilynichols: there is little more beautiful than a freshly minted AP Stylebook. 2009! Is it wrong that I want to curl up and read it?
My re-tweet, one of a number of similar responses, simply began: God how sad.
Jason Wilson followed up to inquire:
Is this another sign that it's time to start organizing AP Stylebook interventions? This could be a new career for you.
Indeed it could. The doctor is IN.
The first thing to establish — you civilians can listen in to the session — is that The Associated Press Stylebook is not part of the Pentateuch. It is a handbook on certain conventions of writing, such as capitalization and abbreviation, along with advice on English usage and names of agencies and companies, and other miscellaneous information useful to journalists. It is not of divine origin or inspiration.
As such, it is one handbook among many: The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage; which chooses the opposite of AP usage in nearly every instance; the far more comprehensive Chicago Manual of Style, widely used in book publishing; the manual of the Government Printing Office for the manual productions of the federal government; and specialized handbooks for scientific and medical publications — none of which appear to induce ecstatic states when they publish new editions.
The point of such a stylebook is to establish consistency in practice to spare the reader distraction. So when there are two or more ways to write something — capitalized or lowercased, abbreviated or spelled out, a number written as a numeral or a word — a stylebook arbitrarily chooses one form. The AP Stylebook does not say that other choices are wrong, and some of the things it does say are not even right.
Now that APStylebook is on Twitter, it gleefully spreads such bursts of gush as the one above, to my mystification. The World Almanac is also on Twitter, but its readers don’t tweet that they stayed up all night reading this year’s edition. Perhaps it’s a copy editor phenomenon. Who else, after all, look into the AP Stylebook? (There’s precious little evidence that Associated Press reporters do.) Perhaps only a copy editor could quiver in delight at the prospect of discovering that rip off is preferred as a verb, rip-off as a noun; that heroes is the plural of hero (This is new?); that Pledge of Allegiance is capitalized — all part of the feast spread before the reader of the 2009 edition.
A further part of the excitement on the copy desk is the scope a new edition will give exegetes to convert guidelines into Rules. One example: When I was first at The Sun, my work was checked by a copy editor who was adamant that half a mile had to be changed in all instances to a half-mile, because AP said so. It was years later that Bill Walsh confirmed my suspicion of this dictum by writing in Lapsing into a Comma that no, both expressions are correct, and AP merely means that you have to use a hyphen if you pick the latter.
Now you have the pathology. Here is the treatment. You do not have to surrender your beloved AP Stylebook, which, for good or ill, is embedded as the house style of numerous publications. But the road to health lies in growing beyond it. Buy Brother Walsh’s book. There’s a new edition out of Garner on Usage, which you should find particularly well-informed and helpful. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage will fill many gaps in your education, particularly if your degree is in journalism.
Take a deep, cleansing breath. Get up from the computer and walk to the nearest window. Look out. There is a wider world there than is circumscribed by the AP Stylebook. Try to keep a little perspective.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
my hands poised above the text,
its vitals exposed
Regard the comma,
apt with the compound sentence,
not with compound verbs
An expanse of white,
regular ranks of black type,
and slashes of red
The patient labor
of the lexicographer
embiggens our tongue
So sweeping the claims,
so erratic the result —
The writer who knows
how to use “comprise” rightly
will rise to heaven
Give up explaining
insert as needed
A reporter’s hand
reaches for a thesaurus;
screams die in my throat
Too many “touches”
in processing the copy —
layoffs now impend
This writer’s in luck:
I have been turned down to serve
on a death panel
Too many hours
on a chair in the basement
perusing the Web
emphasize the feebleness
of the work today
Anyhow, here are my nominations, along with a couple of categories in which I have views but no choices:
Best Neighborhood: Hamilton (of course)
Best Local Landmark: Fort McHenry
Best Park: Druid Hill
Best Place to Take Out of Town Visitors: Visionary Arts Museum
Best Oriole, Best Raven, Best Local Sportscaster: Oh please
Best Local Journalist: No entry here — not clear whether the category can include unemployed as well as employed, and I have just about as many colleagues in the former category as the latter
Best Local Publication: The Baltimore Sun, even in eclipse
Best Local Blog: Dining@Large. Elizabeth Large not only offers sound advice on food and restaurants, but she has fostered a genuine Web community among her readers. Come for the food; stay for the topic drift.
Best Independent Bookstore: Ivy Bookshop
Best Auto Repair Shop: Apple Auto on Harford Road (Hamilton again)
Best Liquor Store: Wells
Best Local Beer: Resurrection
Best Neighborhood Bar: Hamilton Tavern
Best Movie Theater: Senator (with hopes for its survival)
Best Reason We Should Invite You to the Best of Baltimore Party: 1. Last year I was working at The Sun and couldn’t attend; this year it appears that I’ll be free. 2. I didn’t nominate my own blog. 3. Sit next to me, and I’ll tell you stories.
Want to dispute choices? Want to add categories? You know what the comments function is for.
*Copy editors don’t get out much. Besides the City Paper categories don’t offer much for a person of my advancing years. Now if there had been a Best Bar Where You Can Have a Conversation Without Having to Shout Over the Music category ...
Monday, August 17, 2009
The chief of the copy desk or some other minor satrap delivered a few gracious remarks, small gifts were presented, the honoree made a short speech of reminiscence and thanks, and cake was cut and served. Occasionally, outliers from other news departments would wander over, especially after cake was announced.
At some copy desks, of which The Baltimore Sun’s was one, the farewell gifts included jocular items. As you might expect, such jocular gifts often carried with them a back story or personal association.
At one point in my tenure at The Sun, there was a copy editor on the desk whom a fellow editor referred to privately, because of his physical appearance and a disposition that it would be generous to describe as grumpy, as “the Garden Gnome.” The gnome departed, and so, in the fullness of time, did the other editor. When the latter editor retired, one of the farewell gifts was a plaster garden gnome.
The former editor was held in such low esteem and the latter in such affection that it became a tradition on the desk to present a garden gnome, the uglier the better, to each departing copy editor. It generally fell to the managers to acquire the damn things, either plaster or — even uglier — plastic.*
I suppose that many close-knit groups develop such rituals — append yours in a comment if you like.
But the tale of the gnome has a little moral: If you are disagreeable enough to your colleagues, you can expect to achieve a rude immortality.
*On the day I was dismissed, I harbored five garden gnomes in an office cabinet. The pending purge had been well telegraphed, but I had underestimated its scope. And I myself left cakeless and gnomeless.
There is the patently false report, propagated by Betsey McCaughey and subsequently spreading faster than the swine flu virus, that a health care bill before Congress requires that senior citizens be given counseling on euthanasia every five years.
There is the Internet petition to President Obama protesting a Senate decision to grant illegal immigrants Social Security benefits. (The petition to President Obama is a repurposed version of a comparable petition to President George W. Bush from 2006.)
There is the image showing deplorably low grades and SAT scores on Sarah Palin’s high school report card — a fraud that demonstrates how easily images can be manipulated and falsified.
This proliferation of — let’s be frank about it — lies tells us something about ourselves:
People believe what they want to believe, crediting information that reinforces those beliefs and rejecting information that challenges those beliefs. Many of these beliefs are inextricably intertwined with people’s fears about the world and their place in it. Today’s intense anxieties about economic well-being leave people easily moved to share their fears, with demagogues standing by to exploit them.
If you fear that oppressive government regulations are going to endanger your freedoms and personal security, or that illegal immigrants are a threat to the nation, or that Sarah Palin is dangerously uninformed, you are liable to seize on any report that confirms your suspicions, however ludicrous and unsupported. (Before I go on, am I being clear to you that this is universal, and that the left, the right, and the center are equally credulous?)
And not just in politics. The range of rumors and legends that people are willing to entertain and spread abroad, and which the Mikkelsons explode, is astonishingly wide. Some examples:
Mussolini did not make the trains run on time in Italy.
Mariah Carey did not say, “When I watch TV and see those poor starving kids all over the world, I can’t help but cry. I mean, I’d love to be skinny like that, but not with all those flies and death and stuff.”
It is not true — I may have readers who will find comfort in this — that a woman older than forty is likelier to be killed by a terrorist than to get married.
It was once thought that the job of journalism was to sort out the true from the false and enable the public to make informed decisions. Rumor and fabrication were left to the supermarket tabloids, so that credulous could be entertained and the informed amused by reports such as “Stroke victim falls in garden & is eaten by her Venus flytraps.”* But in a world in which, for example, Wikipediasts can insist that it doesn’t really matter than some of the information in the “free-content encyclopedia” is not accurate, and journalists can uncritically publish bogus information taken from it, it is not clear how much journalism takes its old responsibility seriously.
If I were designing a journalism curriculum, I would experiment with a course, Skepticism 101, in which the students would have to analyze press releases boasting unsupported claims, polls with unreliable samples, scientific studies with questionable methodology, statistics that don’t add up, rumors, and the other free-floating nonsense that is as much a part of the atmosphere as the polluted air we breathe.
* An actual Weekly World News headline.
Saturday, August 15, 2009
No doubt such articles appeal to a “Hey, I remember that” nostalgia among readers, especially my fellows in the boomer generation, our waistlines expanding as our hairlines recede, as we struggle to see through our trifocals to the golden haze of youth.
But the real reason for the proliferation of anniversary stories is that they are easy.
Very little real reporting is involved; much of the information can be retrieved readily from the archive — rather like the partially masticated rodent tissue that owls deposit in the beaks of their young. Beyond that it is only necessary to round up a few people with a peripheral connection to the event and record their incisive comments: “Like, it was heavy, man.” And because our visual age demands images with stories, the photo archive is just sitting there to be exploited. Nothing could be easier.
I was at The Cincinnati Enquirer for the fifth-anniversary commemoration of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire.* The most notable contribution to the literature of anniversaries that year came from one of the suburban papers, which published a first-person account by a reporter who had been in the club when the fire broke out. This “I was there” article recounted how he got out of the building, was told by a police officer to clear out, and got in his car and drove away, listening to the sirens of the approaching fire trucks as he left.
Yes, a newspaper reporter — a newspaper reporter — left the scene of the biggest story of the decade. Then he wrote about leaving the scene with witness-to-history pride. And his newspaper put this account on the front page. Thus does American journalism honor its own.
So when you round up a couple of people whose feebly firing synapses produce some half-coherent account of what went on in the mud at Max Yasgur’s farm in 1969, make the most of it. But I wasn’t there then; I’m not much interested now.
*The fire on May 28, 1977, in Southgate, Kentucky, just across the river from Cincinnati, killed 165 people. (You can read The Enquirer’s twenty-year commemoration here.) It was a touchy subject at The Enquirer, because the Courier-Journal of Louisville won a Pulitzer Prize for covering this story in The Enquirer’s back yard. The Enquirer attempted to compensate by producing an interminable series on aluminum wiring, which was determined to be the cause of the fire. This series was undoubtedly submitted to the Pulitzer judges, who promptly rolled over and went back to sleep, but it did produce a bon mot from a copy desk colleague: “This is the only paper I’ve ever worked for that had a wire editor and an aluminum wire editor.”
Friday, August 14, 2009
These standards for evaluation are based on materials I used as head of the copy desk at The Baltimore Sun. The most effective evaluations are thoughtful and detailed commentary on the copy editor’s work, laced with examples of solid work and work that could stand improvement, written in English. (I was once supplied with a little book of catch phrases to use in performance reviews; it goes against the grain for me to have a book pulped, but exceptions must sometimes be made.) You are welcome to assign percentage values to each category, or a 1-5-weak-to-strong ranking, if you prefer for your performance reviews to display a spurious mathematical exactitude.
If the copy editor takes a self-review seriously, instead of shying away from it as a document of self-incrimination, it can afford useful reflection. It does not have to be complex; consideration of four basic questions is adequate.
1. What strengths can I point to in my work?
2. In what areas do I need to make improvement?
3. What obstacles hamper me from doing better work?
4. What training would help me achieve better work?
(In Question 3, the copy editor might well consider personal matters as well as workplace circumstances.)
THE PERFORMANCE REVIEW: COPY EDITOR
1. Knowledge of work
Identification and correction of errors of fact.
Identification and correction of errors in spelling, punctuation, grammar, and English usage.
Appropriate application of house style to texts.
Success in writing headlines that are accurate, which appropriately convey the tone and nature of articles, and which engage readers’ interest.
Mastery of the editing software.
2. Work judgments
Successful pacing — the ability to size up quickly the editing issues in a text and to deal with them appropriately while meeting deadlines.
Productivity — completion of an appropriate volume of work during the shift.
Successful revision of texts to achieve greater clarity, without introducing errors.
Ability to explain and justify editing changes.
Identification of flaws in focus, structure, organization, and tone in texts, with suitable recommendations for their correction.
Identification of potential ethical or legal issues, including libel, falsification, and plagiarism.
Overall quality of the copy editor’s work.
Ability to deal collegially and tactfully with authors, identifying and resolving issues in good time without acrimony.
Ability to maintain good relationships with assigning editors while dealing with editing issues in their writers’ work.
Ability to deal collegially with fellow copy editors, coordinating activities with a minimum of friction.
Ability to concentrate and disregard distractions.
Effectiveness under stress.
Willingness to accept change in routines and duties.
Display of initiative — taking necessary action instead of waiting to be instructed.
Receptivity to advice and instruction.
Willingness to take responsibility for the quality of work.
THE PERFORMANCE REVIEW: SUPERVISOR
Effectiveness in planning and organizing the work of the desk to ensure productivity and appropriate quality of work.
Efficiency in scheduling to ensure that the level of staffing and the volume of work match, day to day.
Skill in testing, interviewing, and evaluating applicants.
Success in training new employees and providing any necessary additional training for experienced editors.
Willingness to help subordinates prepare themselves for promotion, placing them in situations where their abilities can be noticed.
Management of budget to contain expenses and provide adequate resources.
Insight and fairness in evaluating employees.
Readiness to undertake appropriate disciplinary action.
Sound judgment and good decisions.
Openness to innovation.
Readiness to accept responsibility.
Willingness to share the burden of the work alongside subordinates.
Tuesday, August 11, 2009
They are always in a hurry, because theirs is the important business of asking everyone they meet where they are going and from where they have come.
This literary device putting a foreign observer in one’s own culture and recording his naive perspective is a well-used device in satire. In another 18th-century instance, Voltaire’s “The Huron,” a Native American is brought to France, converts to Christianity, and proceeds to take the New Testament seriously. Hilarity ensues.
Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop takes a humble nature writer from the country an turns him into a foreign correspondent for The Daily Beast, opening up the lunacies of Fleet Street in what is still the funniest newspaper novel.
Now I am about to go off for two days to visit a retired colleague and his wife in the country. (Just in time, too, because if I have to read any more crack-brained theories or outright lies about health care legislation, I might apply to be euthanized myself.) During this interval, why don’t you put fingers to keyboard and bring an innocent outsider onto the domestic scene and record what he or she discovers? Particularly about journalism. On my return, I’ll publish here anything that’s not libelous or obscene. Write a paragraph; write a page. Don’t worry that you can’t outdo Waugh; only reality can accomplish that.
Managers are often at fault and, goodness knows, you've described the lawyers' dilemma and unfortunate response accurately. I fear you may have left one culprit off the list. (Intentionallly?) Local unions (or Guilds, if you believe that confers a more precise image) play a significant role in protecting under-performers as well.
Having worked as both a dues-paying member of the Newspaper Guild and as management scum, I know the perspective on each side of the aisle.
Unions do protect under-performers. They have to. They exist to represent the interests of their members, and their members are interested in not getting fired. To protect all their members, they are obligated to defend each. And I don’t object to that. Having a union establishes an orderly, open means of dealing with personnel issues.*
I also think that blaming the union for problems with unsatisfactory employees is too easy for managers who have abdicated their responsibilities. Contracts include probationary periods, and a manager who is paying attention can usually tell within those first six months whether an employee is up to the job. Even after that, there are procedures for evaluating. The real difficulty comes with an employee who has been sub-par for years and who has merely been shifted from one desk to another (often with the ultimate threat of transfer to the copy desk) — there’s always the temptation to deal with a problem by moving it elsewhere.
By contrast, when something that management really cares about happens — an employee is discovered to have been stealing money, to have sexually harassed other employees, to have plagiarized or fabricated, to have downloaded pornography into the company computer — action is swift and certain, and that employee finds himself out at the curb.
It’s just that competence in doing the work doesn’t engage the same sense of urgency.
*I concede that it’s not always easy for managers, as on the occasion when a lawyer for the Newspaper Guild contrived to persuade an uncommonly dim hearing officer that I was not qualified to testify about the duties of a copy editor.
Sunday, August 9, 2009
Johnson compels the modern reader more for his personality than his work: His monumental accomplishment, the first comprehensive dictionary of English, has been supplanted by the OED, which absorbed it; his edition of Shakespeare, which established a critical foundation and resisted Bardolatry, has also been superseded; his Lives of the Poets, apart from sharp work on the Big Boys, Milton, Dryden, and Pope, consists of rather carelessly assembled accounts of now-obscure writers; and his essays in the Rambler are written in a compact Latinate style that some thought stilted and artificial in the 18th century and which are not congenial to the modern taste. (This does not speak well of the modern taste.)
No, we are instead fascinated by the heroic figure described by James Boswell in the first great biography in English: left half-blind and half-deaf by a difficult birth, then infected with scrofula by his wet nurse; adrift after leaving Oxford after a single year and suffering a breakdown; troubled by grotesque convulsive twitches, leading some biographers to surmise that he suffered from Tourette’s syndrome; beset throughout his life by spells of profound depression; struggling in grinding poverty as a hack writer, then producing his great dictionary as a solo effort with the assistance of a handful of amanuenses; forming deep friendships with some of the foremost writers and thinkers of the age; celebrated and revered, and finally laid to rest in Westminster Abbey.
All subsequent biographers labor in the shadow of Boswell. Fortunately, recent scholarship has made available information from Boswell’s journals and notes for the biography that Boswell suppressed or distorted, as well as other 18th-century documents, and it is on this material that Mr. Meyers has focused.
First, Samuel Johnson: The Struggle is a highly readable book. If Johnson’s life is well-turned soil by now, Mr. Meyers nevertheless describes the territory clearly and fluently. I would have liked more extensive commentary on Johnson’s literary work, but there are books like Henry Hitchings’s excellent Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 293 pages, $24) to consult. Reading Mr. Meyers’s biography was like making a welcome reacquaintance with its subject.
But I regret to say that I put it down disappointed, with the sense that Mr. Meyers’s approach is ultimately reductionist, defining Johnson by his depression and his anguish. It’s true that Johnson was ugly — his bulk, his scarred face, and his convulsive gestures and movements frightened people — and that you would not have wanted to sit next to him at table. It’s true that he suffered throughout his life from bouts of severe depression and from sexual frustration, and it’s also true that his religious belief may have brought him more anxiety than comfort. We know this from Boswell, too. But Mr. Meyers appears to see Johnson’s exuberance and generosity and genius for friendship only in the context of anguish. Of episodes such as the older Johnson’s rolling down a hill for fun, Mr. Meyers says, “Johnson’s spontaneous athletic feats, outbursts of violence and displays of courage were all crucial outlets for his sexual feelings.”
I wish that Mr. Meyers was not so cocksure about Johnson’s sexual practices. His interpretation of the discovery of a padlock entrusted by Johnson to Hester Thrale — a subject of commentary since publication of an essay by Katherine Balderson in 1949 — is that “Johnson’s practice ... combined voluntary humiliation, masochism (rather than sadism), displaced sexuality and religious penance.” Well, maybe. Walter Jackson Bate, ladling a thick layer of Freudianism over this material thirty years ago, suggested that the information from Mrs. Thrale and Johnson’s diary points to “dread of mental paralysis and loss of liberty rather than erotic craving or desire” — a nuanced reading that I find more compelling.
Where others arrive at conjecture, Mr. Meyers reaches certainty; where others see the possibility of metaphoric understanding, he declares literal fact; whether others step carefully around the difficulty of knowing what was in people’s minds or what occurred in their most private acts, he barges in.
Mr. Meyers would argue, no doubt, that he gives full value to Johnson’s positive and even endearing qualities. That material is indeed in his book, but such is his emphasis on Johnson’s misery that the positive material looks more like cross-hatching to enhance the main outline.
As we approach the tercentenary in September, I mean to reread Boswell, and I suggest that you could do worse. Failing that, try Beryl Bainbridge’s exquisite novel about Johnson with the Thrale family, According to Queeney.
It is becoming a ritual to lament that publishers appear to have abandoned copy editing or applied such constraints as to make a thorough job impossible. A copy editor going over the manuscript of Samuel Johnson: The Struggle might have noticed that Benjamin Jowett’s little rhyme about his name is misquoted, or that the wrong dates are given for the American War of Independence (1775-1783, not 1778-1783), or that the fireworks display in 1749 to celebrate the Peace of Aix-la-Chapelle (the one for which Handel wrote his “Music for the Royal Fireworks”) marked the conclusion of the War of the Austrian Succession, not the end of the Seven Years’ War (1763).
First off: Episcopal (adj.); Episcopalian (n.). It’s an Episcopal church, an Episcopal priest, and an Episcopal brouhaha, not an Episcopalian church, priest, or brouhaha.
A priest or deacon is written about with the title the Rev.: the Rev. Martha Macgill. Not just Rev., because Reverend is traditionally understood as an adjective, not a noun. That is why you will never write about a member of the clergy as a reverend. **
But wait; there’s more.
A canon, a member of the clergy assigned to diocesan administrative responsibilities is the Rev. Canon: the Rev. Canon Mary D. Glasspool.
An archdeacon is the Venerable: the Venerable Kerry Smith.
The dean of a cathedral is the Very Rev.: the Very Rev. Hal T. Ley Hayek.
A bishop — look at me while I’m talking to you — is the Right Rev. or the Rt. Rev.: the Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton. (Episcopal bishops are much given to tripartite names.) Bishop is an acceptable substitute for the Rt. Rev.
The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, its primate, is the Most Rev.: the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori.
Collectively, Episcopal congregations are members of a diocese, of which the bishop is the chief pastor and administrative officer. The adjectival form is diocesan.
The central church in a diocese is a cathedral, from the Latin cathedra, or chair, the place which holds the bishop’s chair of authority.
An Episcopal congregation, unless it is part of a cathedral, is called a parish.
In a parish that is self-supporting, its pastor is called a rector. In a parish that is supported by its diocese, the pastor is called a vicar.
The lay leadership of an Episcopal parish is its elected vestry, of whom the chief lay administrators are the wardens, senior and junior. (A cathedral has a chapter rather than a vestry.)
The Episcopal Church of the United States (ECUSA, if you go in for abbreviations) is a member of the Anglican Communion, a loose confederation of national churches whose titular head the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. and Rt. Hon. Rowan Williams. (The Archbishop of Canterbury holds both ecclesiastical and noble titles.)
The Anglican Church dates from a dispute between King Henry VIII of Britain and the See (diocese) of Rome in the 16th century. Though there is a history of antagonism between Anglicans and Roman Catholics, most modern Anglicans are not hostile to the pope and his followers for their having broken away from the Church of England.
*We’re talking about the Episcopal Church of the United States, the dominant denomination, not the schismatic denominations that have split off every time the national church has revised the Prayer Book or the congregations and dioceses that have recently affiliated with Anglicans outside the United States. There’s a limit to how much of this that non-Anglicans, or, for that matter, Anglicans, can take.
The titles and terms in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches are similar, but with significant variations which you must learn separately.
**Regrettably, this distinction has blurred seriously even among the churchy.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
TWITTER OUT. FACEBOOK ERRATIC. GOOGLE SLOW. CAN’T HOLD OUT MUCH LONGER.
No word on what is happening — Internet Explorer “cannot display the Web page” about Twitter’s “denial of service.” Sky has strange milky color. CNN is writing about John Edwards’s former mistress. What?
Has one of Obama’s climate experiments gone bad?
Did Bill Clinton carry back some sinister online virus from North Korea or a simulacrum?
Was that actually Bill Clinton who came back from North Korea?
Are we in the End Times?
Are we to be reduced to speaking to actual people — in person — and reading text on paper? It’s medieval.
You already know, or should, what they are saying. Proponents of whatever version of President Obama’s proposal turns out to be will offer assurances that everyone will be covered; that, no, you won’t have to pay more; and that, no, never, absolutely not will taxes have to increase. Opponents will continue to scream Socialism! — as they did about Medicare, and Social Security, the forty-hour work week ... **
One would imagine that people can see the realities:
You don’t want your medical care to be determined by some faceless government bureaucrat? For reasons I don’t quite comprehend, you have warm, affectionate feelings for Aetna? For CIGNA? For United Healthcare? You think your insurance company is going to come to your hospital room with a nice little potted plant and sit at your bedside and hold your hand and say, “There, there”? As if it makes a difference whether the cubicle where the faceless bureaucrat sits is in a government building or at an insurance company?
You don’t want rationed care? You’ve already got rationed care. Perhaps you can’t afford medical insurance. Or perhaps you can but have been shut out because you have a pre-existing condition that the insurance company doesn’t like the look of. Either way, you’ll wind up in the emergency room, driving up the costs for everyone.
You understand — right? — that powerful forces are arrayed here. The physicians, the hospitals, the drug companies, and the insurance companies all have an interest in getting hold of the enormous sums we pay for medical care, and they are all jockeying for influence as legislation creeps through Congress. They are understandably looking out for their interests, but not necessarily for yours. (Yeah, they say they have your interests at heart. They say things.) Those interests will be taken into account in the legislation, because politics is all about balancing interests.
But I’d like to think that somewhere in the House or Senate there are a few members thinking about people like the middle-aged man sitting in his basement in Baltimore who has enjoyed reasonably good health for fifty-eight years but who is apprehensive about what will happen to him and how he will be able to afford treatment.
The advertising campaigns are likelier to stir you up than to inform you. So instead of heeding them, perhaps you could go to some calmer, more reputable sources in print or online and lay hold of some dispassionately related facts. And maybe you could also look up your representative’s and your senators’ mailing addresses or e-mail addresses and remind them pointedly that your interests are also supposed to be taken into account.
*It just feels good every time I split an infinitive, a smack in the face of a usage superstition.
**Speaking of screaming, I don’t know whether the people who are shouting down their elected representatives at town hall meetings are members of some secretive scheme or merely hysterical citizens, and I don’t care. Denying people an opportunity to speak is profoundly un-American. It is equally un-American when university students and faculty shut out or shout down a speaker whose views conflict with prevailing campus orthodoxy. If you despise a speaker’s views, you protest — that is assuredly American — but you do not silence him.
The reader should understand that most of these types are male. And white. Despite more than three decades of affirmative action, most newspapers are still run by white guys. I regret that I cannot recall the name of the writer who, being told some years ago of a proposed support group for white males, said that there is already a support group for white men: it’s called the United States of America.
The French understand the nature of the inevitable gray civil servant who will endure until the universe winds down in entropy. Stars burst into novas and burn out, corporate owners come and go, and management fads succeed fads, but The Fonctionnaire endures. Cunningly, The Functionnaire, unobserved, occupies some obscure office with a nebulous title and obscure duties, biding his time until the more talented colleagues flame out, and then occupies the chair of authority because no one else is left. To sit in a meeting with him is to perceive the processes of a wasting disease.
Great Is Caesar
Great Is is an empire builder. He knows exactly the splendid things he wants to accomplish, and he is ruthless in their pursuit, though not openly so. Superficially magnanimous and agreeable to those who can be useful to accomplish his aims, he sets his face against those who obstruct him — and they wither and perish. He does, in fact, accomplish great things, and his empire expands. But, like Julius and Augustus, he leaves no worthy successor. He will be followed in time by The Fonctionnaire.
Pharaoh, like Great Is Caesar, has grand designs. Unlike Great Is, he is clueless about how to accomplish them. So instead he is dictatorial. He hardens his heart. His voice is the only voice that booms out in meetings, and lesser folk are misguided if they imagine that his invitations to discussion are open invitations; they are opportunities to agree with him. When the plagues rain down, he will not know what to do about them, except to bluster.
The Regular Guy
He’d like to drink a beer with you (domestic, light). He might bestow a nickname on you. He wants to be your pal. He won’t ask that much of you. He has, like Richard Nixon, read the manual on how to be a Regular Fellow, and he follows its specifications to the letter. Anything you do is fine with him, just fine. Keep in mind that when your interests get in the way of his, you will find yourself out at the curb.
I Know Better
I Know exists to demonstrate his superiority over his subordinates. (He therefore prefers and promotes subordinates over whom superiority can easily be demonstrated.) When any story or proposal is put before him, he instantly identifies its defects, and he orders it to be worked over again. I Know’s criticisms are typically delivered before an audience, the better for the common people to experience a proper awe of his acuity. I Know’s advantage over Pharaoh is that he actually has some judgment, not that that will endear him to his frazzled subordinates.
Out Of His Depth
Out Of got promoted because there is no possibility in the known universe that he would ever be a threat to anyone above him. Understanding at some dim, reptilian level that the job is beyond his limited abilities, he is fiercely loyal to his protector, his only hope. Out Of would inspire pathos if it were not for his unaccountable vanity about his position; his feeble pronouncements, like Pharaoh’s and I Know’s, are not to be challenged.*
Eager, out to prove himself to the High Command, will put in fourteen-hour days. Sixteen-hour days. Eager will take on any assignment, absorb any feckless twit into the staff, meet any deadline, bear any burden. Eager will produce the story dictated to him at ten o’clock in the morning, learn three o’clock that it is not what was wanted, reassign it as the shadows of evening gather, and edit and rewrite it himself to meet the most recent diktat. He will show up early the next morning to repeat the process.
Tee Time doesn’t really have any interest in the operation. He would rather be on the golf course, or playing darts in a saloon, or intriguing for a position higher up in the corporation than overseeing the paper. So he leaves Out Of His Depth in charge. When he has collected enough coupons, he will move on to a higher sphere of endeavor.
OCD cannot let go of anything. The story needs to have corrections and updates and refinements and tweeks — oh, and the photographs don’t match the story, and the graphics have to be redone. Maybe this should have been seen to a couple of weeks ago, but there was all this stuff in the story that had to be recast and reorganized and — no, it has to be taken back from the copy desk now because the writer wants to make some changes; you’ll have it back in five minutes. Maybe ten. And are those the headlines you put on it? They’re all wrong; here are some suggestions. How soon do you have to have it for tomorrow? There are fixes and changes in it that you have to make? Can I have it back for just a minute?
Ever so smarter than you, he has read more books than you, uses bigger words than you, and loses no opportunity to parade his learning before you. You will be expected to nod in silent assent as he unfolds his endless anecdotes and observations, all of which you have heard at least twice, as you beg for merciful death to overtake you. But once you have acceded to his superior learning and sophistication, and endured his endless anecdotes, he is generally content to leave you alone. Because learning is not held in any particular regard in journalism, his prospects for advancement are extremely limited.**
*Out Of is one of the many managing editors under whom I have served. At one prolonged hearing on legal issues, I observed Out Of to with at a table with a little folder containing a miniature legal pad. For the entire afternoon he wrote nothing in it. Then, as the hearing officer brought the proceedings to a close, I watched with intent interest as he opened the portfolio and tore off a sheet of paper.
He spat out a wad of chewing gum into the paper and crumpled it up, then left the hearing room.
**The copy desk is the logical repository for this one.
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
Stars enjoys a status that lesser writers aspire to: freedom to pursue individual projects rather than carry out assignments, indulgence to prolong those projects indefinitely and to write at a length that some describe as “goat-chokers,” and — this above all — immunity from editing and the annoying questions and meddling that come with it.
Stars exist because they have patrons. Sometimes the patron is as exalted as the editor or managing editor, but often a patron is one of the lesser potentates on the assigning desks.* The patron is easy to spot, not only in close consultation with the writer on stories, but also in the casual exchanges of the day. Other employees are quick to spot which employees are invited to engage in banal chitchat with the bosses and which employees are generally ignored.
The advantage of patronage is that talent, if it is to flower, must be recognized, fostered, encouraged. When it is, everyone benefits. But love is blind, and when a patron who has fallen in love with a protege’s work is oblivious to the protege’s faults, the ugly consequences become evident: self-indulgent writing, arrogant resistance to editing, sloppiness, and, in extreme cases, disgrace for the publication.
Incompetent employees, the other protected class, lack patrons but benefit from the laziness and cowardice of managers.** Evaluating people properly requires close attention, and many managers lack the time or inclination for the task, apart from the laughably formulaic and inadequate annual performance reviews that some shops conduct.
The result, when a manager finally nerves himself or herself to proceed against a deficient employee, the legal department discovers a thin file, either with no performance reviews at all over a span of years, or performance reviews that are blandly positive and utterly innocuous. Finding no documentation of defective performance, the legal department cautions that the manager must take months to accumulate paper on the employee’s failings and must grant the employee ample opportunity to correct defects; even then, any attempt to sack the employee will be expected to lead to litigation, with hours and hours of depositions and other proceedings, until finally an agreement is hammered out that the employee will go away if presented with a large sum of cash.
No wonder managers lack the stomach for this.
But there is a larger psychological/social dynamic that also allows incompetence to persist. The most incompetent employees become mascots. Their colleagues, talking in bars at the end of the workday, trade stories of mulish passive-aggressive behavior, sleeping at work, interminable personal telephone calls on company time, refusal to perform the simplest tasks or the need to redo all the work after it has been botched, and questionable hygiene. (I know an editor who on more than one occasion was required to instruct an employee to bathe more regularly.)
The employee in the middle, neither star nor incompetent, derives a psychological security from this environment: “I could be a star, too, but I’m too proud to suck up to the bosses. And I’m a lot better than that doofus, so I must be safe.”
Of course, in today’s circumstances, anyone who imagines himself or herself to be safely employed at a newspaper is probably delusional, but in the good times now past, all was for the best in the best of all possible newsrooms: The stars got to fatten their clips with overlong, self-indulgent articles that no one outside the paper read (and precious few on the inside), the patrons enjoyed the flattery of their proteges and basked vicariously in their imagined accomplishments, the incompetents enjoyed what amounted to retirement in place at full pay, and everyone in the middle got to sneer at the parties at both extremes.
God, how I miss it.
My experience has been with daily metropolitan newspapers, but perhaps you have observed analogous phenomena in your workplaces. Feel free to describe them in the comments, taking care to prudently disguise your identity and your employer’s.
*Copy desk chiefs at most publications are, rather, impotentates, but candor commands that I admit to having hired copy editors and then positioned them so that their abilities and accomplishments might be noticed and put them in consideration for promotion.
**I permit myself a short, sardonic snort whenever I hear someone canting about how much more efficient private industry is than government.
Tuesday, August 4, 2009
Will edit specimens of your newspaper, magazine, newsletter, Web site, or blog, correcting errors of fact, spelling, punctuation, grammar, and English usage; will also identify infelicities of expression and flaws in structure.
Will proofread your thesis, article, or presentation and suggest corrections and improvements.
Will draft for you news releases, handbills, and similar public announcements.
Will draft for you letters of complaint to persons, companies, or agencies that have done you an injury.* (Not responsible for results.)
Will deliver lectures or conduct workshops on writing and editing. (List of workshops available on request.)
Will speak to your class, club, or other group on writing, editing, and journalism.
Will coach you in the delivery of a speech or paper, the telling of a joke, and acceptable pronunciation.
Will correct the scansion of your song lyrics or other verses.
Will offer personal instruction in tying the bow tie or making the martini.
Fees are negotiable. References on request.
John E. McIntyre
5516 Plymouth Road
Baltimore, MD 21214
*Please, no matters regarding inheritances, uncollected winnings from foreign lotteries, or romantic entanglements.
Rummaging about in it, I was able to point my son, J.P., the cook, to the entry on cupboard love: “Pretended love to the cook, or any other person, for the sake of a meal.” Now he is alerted to the hazard.
I also came across fice: “A small windy escape backwards [a playful euphemism for fart], more obvious to the nose than ears; frequently by old ladies charged on their lap-dogs.” Blaming the dog thus has a venerable pedigree.
Fice is also a slang word I recall from my childhood in Kentucky, for a small, inconsequential or irritating mongrel dog. The Oxford English Dictionary says that the word derives from fist (pronounced with a long i), for breaking wind. (Cf. feisty.)
The book also describes a useful technique for derailing bores, kittle pitchering: “A jocular method of hobbling or bothering a troublesome teller of long stories; this is done by contradicting some very immaterial circumstance at the beginning of the narration, the objections to which being settled, others are immediately started to some new particular of like consequence; thus impeding, or rather not suffering him to enter into, the main story. Kittle pitchering is often practised in confederacy, one relieving the other, by which the design is rendered less obvious.”
I will now be alert to this strategy.
And to this one: scraping. “A mode of expressing dislike to a person, or sermon, practised at Oxford by the students, in scraping their feet against the ground during the preachment. ...”
And to that one.
Monday, August 3, 2009
All the conventions of conspiracy nuttiness are on display in those comments: refusal to acknowledge facts — statements by public officials and investigation by impartial organizations such as Politifact.com; insistence on unsubstantiated facts, such as the recently produced “Kenyan birth certificate”**; tortured readings of the Constitution; accusations of complicity in the conspiracy by anyone who disputes its contentions, combined with ad hominem attacks; and syntax more tangled than the Gordian knot. Add to it the veiled, or not-so-veiled, racism, and you have classic American hysteria.
We’ve been there before. John Adams, the public was assured, was a closet monarchist out to betray the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson was a Jacobin who would have property owners slaughtered in their beds, Andrew Jackson was a would-be Bonapartist dictator; Abraham Lincoln was an ignoramus (“the original gorilla,” General McClellan called him), Franklin Roosevelt was an insane syphilitic who connived at the attack on Pearl Harbor (two separate rumors), Dwight Eisenhower was a Communist (according to the John Birch Society), and George W. Bush staged the attacks of September 11 to contrive a pretext for going to war. In this historical context, the Obama birth hysteria is trivial.
People in turbulent times who feel threatened by circumstances and fearful, particularly if they are uneducated or unsophisticated, are prone to be credulous about conspiracy theories. And there are always public figures who are quick to channel that emotional energy into their own political purposes. The Know Nothing party’s effort to transmute nativist distress over German and Irish immigration into electoral power in the mid-19th century is a classic example. If your ancestors were German or Irish (or anything other than English/Scottish/Welsh), remember that people like you were once held to be threats to the Republic, and strenuous efforts were made to keep them out.
The House is on vacation, and the Senate is about to adjourn as well, so it’s foreseeable that for the next few weeks the news media, lacking nonsense produced by elected officials, will have to resort to unofficial sources. The birthers will be there.
The birther hysteria is just the just the kind of phenomenon that H.L. Mencken used to say “makes the United States a buffoon among the great nations.”
*I said very much the same thing over the weekend, but fortunately, no one cares what copy editors think about anything, so I have not been favored with the attention of cranks.
**If the birthers insist that the birth record produced by the State of Hawaii is a forgery, how can they be sure that the purported Kenyan document produced by Orly Taitz is genuine? My prediction: The Taitz document will be exposed as a forgery, and it will make no difference.