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, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Any grownups out there?

One of the cannier readers of the post “Papers, please” noticed that I took no position on measures to deal with illegal immigration. That is because — this is not a political blog, remember? — my point was that the complexity of the issue deserves serious journalistic attention. Now that illegal immigrants, like the “guest workers” who do the dirty jobs for Western Europe, are established in the economy, disentangling them will be neither simple nor easy.

Similarly, the post quoting the Socialist Party platform of 1912 was not a proposal to turn America socialist, but rather a reminder that (a) the United States has been operating as a mixed economy for more than seventy years* and (b) brandishing labels is not discourse. Shouting “Socialist!” (like the shouts of “Fascist!” by my fellow undergraduates forty years ago) is the adult version of playground name-calling.

Naturally, I have been labeled a sappy liberal by readers who weren’t paying attention.

As it happens, I am a Democrat — it’s a matter of public record. But Alexander Ackley, who was in my expository writing class at Syracuse and who is now an editor of The Reactionary, has kept in touch for thirty years, even though we deplore each other’s politics. When I worked for Lowell and Jean Denton at The Flemingsburg Gazette, Jean was a fervent — some would have said rabid — supporter of Richard Nixon, and I wore an “Impeach with honor” button. We not only respected each other; we held each other in affection.

It should be a mark of a civil society that people can disagree without demeaning one another. We should be able to disagree with argument, with humor, with passion, and we should be able to do so without insult. We should be able to give complex and difficult issues the serious attention they deserve.

I started this blog to write about language in a particular way: to explore how a reasonable and informed prescriptivism could show people how to write clearly, precisely, and even elegantly for publication without resorting to peeves and prejudices. As it expanded, I included subjects to which I thought my fellow journalists could bring a similar clarity and precision.

It has been disturbing this year to see so many of my fellow editors drummed out of the business, to the detriment of the factual accuracy and clarity of the publications that sacked us. It has been discouraging to witness the resort to empty sloganeering and name-calling on both the right and the left. It has been dispiriting to see journalistic coverage of serious issues zero in unerringly on the trivial, and to see so little evidence of public willingness to give close attention to any issue more serious than the breakup of the Jon and Kate Gosselin marriage.

But we soldier on. And you, dear readers, civil, sophisticated, and discerning audience that you are, make good company. Keep in touch.

*I wonder if it occurred to Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, when he said earlier this year that Franklin Roosevelt’s policies were a failure, that running against the New Deal has never been sound strategy for Republicans.


  1. You might be interested to read an essay entitled "The Lost Art of Argument" by Christopher Lasch in his last book, "The Revolt of the Elites and The Betrayal of Democracy (1995)." ISBN: 0-393-31371-9

    I had the good fortune to study with Dr Lasch at the University of Rochester in the Spring of 1977.

    Your blog was recommended to me by a former employee of yours who is now in the field of Library and Information Science...

  2. It's also distressing to see the many comments posted on stories about media layoffs in which people gloat about the layoffs. They follow the formula "you media liberals deserve to lose your jobs, all you print are lies, that's why you're going out of business." Let's hope they feel better informed and served in a world in which everyone who is "reporting" the "news" is on the payroll of political parties and special interest groups.

  3. Patricia the TerseOctober 14, 2009 at 1:49 AM

    I do think that as "The New York Times" has become more irresponsible, and less "straight" (to use Abe Rosenthal's word), they have lost more and more subscribers. In addition to foolish business decisions, this must have contributed to their financial distress and the loss of Times staff. It does matter how topics are covered.

  4. Patricia the TerseOctober 14, 2009 at 1:51 AM

    Add: Who are Jon and Kate?