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/.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A sweet moment

On Friday evening, I was driving my son home for the weekend from his cooking job. As we listened to the radio, a sports commentary came on the air. After a minute or two of this palaver, J.P. muttered:

“I hate sports.”

A warm glow suffusing my body, I realized that my duty as a parent had been discharged.

More ready, fire, aim

Paul Carr posts at TechCrunch about the hazards of rushing to publication with unverified information. A key passage:

I offered some lessons that professional blogs might want to carry over from old media. Stop allowing bloggers to post their own stories without passing them first through an editor. Don’t publish a story accusing a company of malpractice without first giving them a chance to deny it. That kind of thing.

The entire post, “WITN?: Yahoo didn’t sentence 200,000 Iranians to death, and other misadventures in online journalism,” is worth your time and attention.

Thank you, @GregMitch and @yelvington, for the alerting tweet.

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.