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 jemcintyre@gmail.com, 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, July 6, 2009

Might be imagined by some people to be true

Peter Bronson, a writer at one of my former employers, The Cincinnati Enquirer, has published on his blog, Bronson Is Always Right, a photo of Al Franken, the new junior senator from Minnesota, in diapers, hugging a teddy bear. This illustrates, Mr. Bronson suggests, what the nation can expect from Mr. Franken on health care.

One problem: The photograph is a fake, clumsily doctored. Another problem: That the photograph is a fake has been documented in Mr. Bronson’s own newspaper. (Thanks to The Cincinnati Beacon and Romenesko for the information.)

Mr. Bronson has responded on his blog:

Yes, the photo of Franken in a diaper was apparently altered. But it’s not exacly a big reach to believe it could have come from one of his SNL skits. It resonates because people find it easy to see Franken that way.

When I was a brown-haired lad first learning the copy editor’s craft at The Enquirer, the paper did have some peculiarities — it once gave its editorial endorsement to a communicable disease — but those of us in its employ were expected to publish things that were, so far as we could determine, true.

Publishing something demonstrably false with the feeble explanation that it’s the sort of thing that some people might well imagine to be true lacks — what do you want to call it? — journalistic integrity.

The bogus photo is still featured on the blog.

Surely it can't be that difficult to discover genuine photos of Mr. Franken looking ridiculous.

We told you so

Andrew Alexander, ombudsman at The Washington Post, conceded ruefully in a column over the weekend that reduction of the number of copy editors has materially increased the number of errors in The Post, some of them really embarrassing. “A story on Arlington County's plans for the old Newseum building misspelled Rosslyn as ‘Rossyln’ four times. ... Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter was described as a ‘ferocious’ (instead of voracious) reader.”

You may recall some of the claptrap leading up to this New Media Age — that employing copy editors for multiple checks of stories was an outmoded industrial process, that without copy editors reporters would become more accurate because they would be more responsible. Now you are beginning to perceive one of the realties of the New Media Age — a proliferation of errors in text, some of them minor, some of them egregious, all of them irritating to readers. (Mr. Alexander takes their calls.)

What may be a less readily apparent is a deeper degradation of quality. With the reduction of the number of “touches” by originating editors and copy editors, articles are not getting the attention they need. Stories that lack clear focus or betray slipshod structure are getting through to the reader because they are not being adequately challenged by editors.

It would not be surprising to register increases throughout the business in plagiarism and fabrication as well, because some of that used to be caught by editors whose functions went beyond mere spell-checking and formatting.

Mr. Alexander’s explanation is commendably candid: The Post, like virtually every other metropolitan daily newspaper in the United States, is suffering financially and has reduced costs by cutting employees. He doesn’t pretend, in the cant spooned out by apologists, that eliminating those “touches” in editing will somehow improve the quality of the product.

He quotes Chris Wienandt, president of the American Copy Editors Society: “If readers can't rely on our accuracy, why should they even pick up the paper?” That is the problem that haunts the industry, which is asking its customers to buy a product with reduced scope and reduced reliability. I have no better idea than the people who still have offices how journalism will proceed, but I don’t think that what comes next will be worth much if it continues to devalue editing.

They're so ignorant they bore me to death

One of my correspondents is irked by the word ignorant as it is used in Baltimore:

People in Baltimore, and perhaps elsewhere, have a habit of using “ignorant” when they mean “mean” or “rude”. I don't know if you have ever addressed this. It drives me crazy.

Example: Monica slapped her in the face. That was just ignorant.

I content that Monica knew what she was doing and ignorance was not a factor.


I can’t speak to the Baltimore version, but I can describe a parallel regional usage.

We expect our pejoratives to carry a good deal of freight on board. They have to work for a living. In Kentucky, when my grandmother, Clara Rhodes Early, remarked in one of her characteristic expressions that someone was “just as ignorant as a hog” — what, you thought I got to be captious apart from family influences? — she did not mean that the person was uneducated or stupid. Or rather, not merely uneducated or stupid. “Ignorant as a hog” came with class connotations as well. It suggested a lack of initiative or responsibility. It suggested lack of respectability. It suggested “not our sort.” It suggested, without quite specifying, “poor white trash.”

Another of my grandmother’s regional expressions in which a pejorative shifted its root meaning was “bored to death.” But “bored me to death” had nothing to do with tedium. It meant public embarrassment: “When Danny Ray let out that belch in the middle of the pastoral prayer, it just bored me to death.”

To round things out, the use of just in such cases as an intensifier of emotion, meaning “certainly,” is also common in the Commonwealth.