Tuesday, August 11, 2009

You too can be Montesquieu

Waiting at the Evergreen coffee house on Cold Spring Lane for a friend to arrive, I picked up from the discarded books available on the shelves a copy of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters. Leafing through it, I came across a passage describing the behavior of the French that I thought well summed up today’s traffic on Twitter, Facebook, and cell phones:

They are always in a hurry, because theirs is the important business of asking everyone they meet where they are going and from where they have come.

This literary device putting a foreign observer in one’s own culture and recording his naive perspective is a well-used device in satire. In another 18th-century instance, Voltaire’s “The Huron,” a Native American is brought to France, converts to Christianity, and proceeds to take the New Testament seriously. Hilarity ensues.

Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop takes a humble nature writer from the country an turns him into a foreign correspondent for The Daily Beast, opening up the lunacies of Fleet Street in what is still the funniest newspaper novel.

Now I am about to go off for two days to visit a retired colleague and his wife in the country. (Just in time, too, because if I have to read any more crack-brained theories or outright lies about health care legislation, I might apply to be euthanized myself.) During this interval, why don’t you put fingers to keyboard and bring an innocent outsider onto the domestic scene and record what he or she discovers? Particularly about journalism. On my return, I’ll publish here anything that’s not libelous or obscene. Write a paragraph; write a page. Don’t worry that you can’t outdo Waugh; only reality can accomplish that.

Those whom the union protects

Last week, when I argued that the mores of newspapers protect stars and incompetents, a number of responses in public comments and private messages went along this line:

Managers are often at fault and, goodness knows, you've described the lawyers' dilemma and unfortunate response accurately. I fear you may have left one culprit off the list. (Intentionallly?) Local unions (or Guilds, if you believe that confers a more precise image) play a significant role in protecting under-performers as well.

Having worked as both a dues-paying member of the Newspaper Guild and as management scum, I know the perspective on each side of the aisle.

Unions do protect under-performers. They have to. They exist to represent the interests of their members, and their members are interested in not getting fired. To protect all their members, they are obligated to defend each. And I don’t object to that. Having a union establishes an orderly, open means of dealing with personnel issues.*

I also think that blaming the union for problems with unsatisfactory employees is too easy for managers who have abdicated their responsibilities. Contracts include probationary periods, and a manager who is paying attention can usually tell within those first six months whether an employee is up to the job. Even after that, there are procedures for evaluating. The real difficulty comes with an employee who has been sub-par for years and who has merely been shifted from one desk to another (often with the ultimate threat of transfer to the copy desk) — there’s always the temptation to deal with a problem by moving it elsewhere.

By contrast, when something that management really cares about happens — an employee is discovered to have been stealing money, to have sexually harassed other employees, to have plagiarized or fabricated, to have downloaded pornography into the company computer — action is swift and certain, and that employee finds himself out at the curb.

It’s just that competence in doing the work doesn’t engage the same sense of urgency.

*I concede that it’s not always easy for managers, as on the occasion when a lawyer for the Newspaper Guild contrived to persuade an uncommonly dim hearing officer that I was not qualified to testify about the duties of a copy editor.