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 email@example.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/.
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.