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/.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Three things the Vatican could learn from Richard Nixon

1. Yes, some people dislike you and take glee in your misfortune. Do not give them ammunition; they will use it.

2. Not everyone, however, who reports on what you did – or failed to do – is an enemy, and, anyhow, facts are facts.

3. Cover-ups magnify and spread the initial crime. 



Gee, I used to think I was a journalist

A good, strong burst of cleansing anger gets the day off to a running start.

Steve Yelvington quotes on Twitter a remarkably stupid remark by someone named Chris Pirillo, a self-described “media-friendly geek who produces content and catalyzes communities” (whatever that means). Here is what catalyzed me: 
If you didn't get a degree in Journalism, you're not a journalist - not even a “citizen journalist.”*
It is no secret – I disclose it to my students at Loyola every semester – that I have no degree in journalism, that, in fact, I never took a course in journalism in college. At Michigan State in the 1970s you had to take the three-term introduction to communications sequence as a prerequisite, and the one term I spent in that sequence was the single dumbest waste of time in my undergraduate career.
As much as journalists like to think of themselves as members of a profession, like physicians and lawyers, they –after thirty years in newspapering, is it permissible for me to say “we”? – are engaged instead in a craft. It is a craft that can be learned in journalism school, but it is also one that can be learned, as I learned it, by apprenticeship.

There is no board certification in journalism, no qualifying examination, no licensing. Edmund Wilson – Edmund Wilson! – described himself as a “literary journalist,” and the people who compile announcements of church suppers and school lunch menus for publication also call themselves journalists. Just about anyone who writes anything that is published – and putting things up on the Internet counts as publication – has a reasonable claim to that elastic term journalist, whatever some bumptious content producer and community catalyzer may say.
This bedevils legislators trying to figure out who should be covered by a shield law and journalism school deans struggling to divine where, if anywhere, their programs are headed, but that is their problem, the reality to be dealt with.
The current status of the craft is this: If someone writing for publication calls himself a journalist, anyone who challenges the assertion has to prove otherwise. Insisting on a degree in journalism? Well, the abundance of published journalists who have not studied journalism – and in some cases lack an undergraduate degree – makes that a shaky argument to stand on.

*Copy-editing note for Mr. Pirillo: Because journalism is not a proper noun, it is not capitalized.

The last of the Earlys

My mother had a sharp tongue – as the proverbial expression has it, the only edged tool that gets sharper with use. It is part of her legacy to me.

She employed it on Election Day one year when she heard that a local official in Fleming County, Kentucky, had made improper use of an official vehicle to ferry supporters to the polls. When word got around, that official confronted my mother and demanded to know whether she had been spreading the story.

That official, commonly for the area, was a tall, beefy character, and he obviously intended to intimidate my mother, a short, slender woman. His mistake. My mother looked him in the eye and said, “I told everybody I saw, and the ones I didn’t see I called and told.”

(I suspect she also fixed him with the expression that we her children knew as “the camel look,” a glare that could have melted glass. My daughter can produce the same look, evidently by genetic inheritance.)

As the postmaster of the fourth-class office in Elizaville for twenty-four years, she was admirably placed to both receive and transmit information. Nearly everyone in town came by the post office, and in the long interval between the morning mail and the afternoon mail she observed all the comings and goings. If someone drove past, she could identify who it was, where he was going, what he would do there, and when he could be expected back. And if she couldn’t tell you that, she would work the phone until she could.

Living in a small town in Kentucky in those days subjected you to a level of surveillance that Stalin would have envied.

My sisters and I came to call her “Murn,” a local mispronunciation of her name, Marian. “Murn, why are those children calling you Murn?” the source of the mispronunciation once asked her. It became one of her favorite stories. She liked to tell stories, stories of the family, stories of the local people, and mildly improper jokes. (Ask me sometime about the three clergymen who called on the farmer’s wife.)

In her seventies and eighties, after the death of my father, she started dating, and at the time of her death in November 2001 was seeing someone who had been a sweetheart in elementary school, whom she had not seen in decades. Afflicted with Parkinsonism and half a dozen other chronic ailments, she insisted on remaining independent, living alone in the house on the family farm, grudgingly consenting to the presence of a companion at nights. 

Independent is one term, stubborn another, and, as you may imagine, she was not always easy to get along with. As her heart was giving out, my older sister, Georgia, tried to comfort her. Almost her last words were a sharp remark about the likelihood of the ambulance’s arriving in time. She spoke her mind, and she lived on her own terms to the end.

Marian Early McIntyre, the last of the Earlys, would have been ninety-three years old today.