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/.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Not news

Though no foe of innocent amusement — speculate as you will about the private life of Tiger Woods — it wearies me to see how much text in print and online is taken up with subjects that are not news and cannot convincingly be made to look like news. Some examples, to which you may feel at liberty to add your own:

Item: Phillip Blanchard, testiest of the Testy Copy Editors, advises us, as he does (futilely) every year, to pay no attention to the “Person of the Year” hoo-hah from Time: “Please remember that ‘Person of the Year’ is a magazine promotion, and as such is not news.”

Item: Time is also running an article calling the current decade the “decade from hell.” No doubt the 1960s, with the assassinations and riots; or the 1940s, with the Second World War, or the 1930s, with a worldwide depression and the rise of facism, pale in comparison with, say, “the record number of corporate bankruptcies, many of them household names: Kmart, United Airlines, Circuit City, Lehman Brothers, GM and Chrysler.” Sometimes a writer should just breathe into a paper bag until he calms down.

Item: Though Nicole Stockdale of the Dallas Morning News pointed out several years ago that “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving, is not the biggest shopping day of the season, journalists continue to copy and paste that phrase.

That journalists should be writing about Black Friday at all is suspect. Yes, some people make it a ritual to rise well before dawn to stand in line in parking lots to get the first shot at brummagem merchandise.* And yes, newspapers are solicitous of their advertisers, who are cowering in fear that this season’s shopping will be so feeble that they will go under. But really, when a mob tramples someone to death to get at the mark-downs, that is news; that people shop a lot in November and December is not.

Item: When a couple of gate-crashers elbow their way to the side of the president of the United States, that is a security item, and news. Going into the details that they aspire to participate in yet another tacky reality show winds up giving tacky reality shows free advertising that they do not appear to need.

Item: Did the journalism outlet(s) you follow run something about the president’s “pardoning” the Thanksgiving turkey? Do you wonder if something important was omitted to make room for that?

Item: On the first, fifth, tenth, or twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of a child, soldier, or other young adult by accident, disease, or homicide, it is not news that the family continues to mourn the loss. In fact, nearly any article about the anniversary of an event will be little more than a copy-and-paste job from the files, running because it was an easy way to fill up space.

Item: Any story about the weather that mainly informs you that it gets hot in the summertime and cold in the winter. If you can find out the same information by opening the front door, you don’t need a journalist to tell you about it.

Point to ponder: I invite you, as you consider these articles and others like them, to pose a question once memorably uttered by Ursula Liu, a former Sun colleague: “Do I have a tattoo on my forehead that says, ‘Waste my time’?”



*You don’t know brummagem? The adjective means cheap, showy, and possibly counterfeit. The word is a dialect version of Birmingham, the English city once known for the counterfeit coins and plated goods manufactured there. (Thank you, New Oxford American Dictionary.)

These are the rules

In Good as Gold, Joseph Heller summarizes the basic rules of behavior:

Don’t make personal remarks, never tell a hostess you enjoyed yourself, don’t force anything mechanical, never kick an inanimate object, and don’t fart around with the inevitable.

Heller’s rules of behavior owe something to a set of principles articulated by Nelson Algren:

Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never play cards with a man named Doc. And never go to bed with a woman whose troubles are greater than your own.

You may have seen the rules of civility that the young George Washington painstakingly copied out — and observed through a life of tremendous dignity. Among them:

When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usualy Discovered.

Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice ticks &c in the Sight of Others, if you See any filth or thick Spittle put your foot Dexteriously upon it if it be upon the Cloths of your Companions, Put it off privately, and if it be upon your own Cloths return Thanks to him who puts it off.

Mock not nor Jest at any thing of Importance break no Jest that are Sharp Biting and if you Deliver any thing witty and Pleasent abstain from Laughing there at yourself.

Be not Tedious in Discourse or in reading unless you find the Company pleased therewith.
[Oops.]

And, though I have quoted this passage before, Leander Wapshot’s posthumous advice to his sons in John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle always repays attention:

Never put whisky in hot water bottle crossing borders of dry states or countries. Rubber will spoil taste. Never make love with pants on. Beer on whisky, very risky. Whisky on beer, never fear. Never eat apples, peaches, pears, etc. while drinking whisky except long French-style dinners, terminating with fruit. Other viands have mollifying effect. Never sleep in moonlight. Known by scientists to induce madness. Should bed stand beside window on clear night draw shades before retiring. Never hold cigar at right-angles to fingers. Hayseed. Hold cigar at diagonal. Remove band or not as you prefer. Never wear red necktie. Provide light snorts for ladies if entertaining. Effects of harder stuff on frail sex sometimes disastrous. Bathe in cold water every morning. Painful but exhilarating. Also reduces horniness. Have haircut once a week. Wear dark clothes after 6 P.M. Eat fresh fish for breakfast when available. Avoid kneeling in unheated stone churches. Ecclesiastical dampness causes prematurely gray hair. Fear tastes like a rusty knife and do not let her into your house. Courage tastes of blood. Stand up straight. Admire the world. Relish the love of a gentle woman. Trust in the Lord.



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