Tuesday, March 30, 2010

He has to pay WHAT?

W. Charles Bailey Jr., a Baltimore attorney who says that this blog is one of his favorite diversions, has found what he thinks is an error in an Associated Press article, and with it, he raises a question about editing.

He has given me permission to quote at length from his note:

Mr. Bailey: I have a copy editor question that may actually be a topic for your blog.  It seems to be a classic example of a lack of good copy editing.

I opened my NY Times browser I and found the following AP Article:

Maryland:  Dead Marine 's Father Must Pay Protestor


March 29, 2010

Lawyers for the father of a Marine who died in Iraq say a court has ordered him to pay legal costs for the anti-gay protesters who picketed his son’s funeral. The protesters are led by Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. The father, Albert Snyder of York, Pa., had won a $5 million verdict against Mr. Phelps, but it was thrown out on appeal. On Friday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Maryland, ordered Mr. Snyder to pay the costs of Mr. Phelps’s appeal. The United States Supreme Court agreed earlier this month to consider whether the protesters’ provocative messages, which include phrases like “Thank God for dead soldiers,” are protected by the First Amendment. Members of the church maintain that God hates homosexuality and that the death of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan is God’s way of punishing the United States for its tolerance of it.

Reading the article, I was left with the understanding that the Court ordered the deceased Marine's Father to pay the legal fees of that despicable organization that pickets soldiers' funerals.  As a lawyer, I was stunned, because the American rule is that legal fees are not paid by the losing side. The only time the rule is set aside is when there is some statutory exception mandating a fee shift.

I suspected that the AP was mistaking "legal fees" with "costs" associated with an appeal.  Specifically, I suspected that the Court did not order the Marine's father to pay legal fees, but only ordered him to pay under a standard procedure that taxes the costs of photocopies to the losing party.  This is found in Federal Rule of Civil procedure 39, and applies in every case.  Suffice it to say, though, that the cost of copies, while expensive, are not the same thing as "legal costs" such as attorneys' fees in litigating an appeal.

I looked up the opinion and, sure enough, the only thing that was assessed was the usual copy fees.  In other words, this was what happens in every case.

So, my question is whether or not this is the sort of thing that a good copy editor should catch?  It certainly would be news if the court had assessed legal fees.  That's why I took the time to go and look up the case.  That didn't happen, though. Instead, the Court just applied the rules that have applied to all appeals for a long, long, time.

So is this a blunder or what?

My response: There certainly appears to be sloppiness in the Associated Press reports. One dated March 29 referred to an order “to pay the protesters’ appeal costs,” and one dated March 30 to an order “to pay legal costs.” Both stories were posted on The New York Times’s Web site, and the language appears in numerous other news sites.

I too thought that the order was to pay the legal fees. Had the article referred to an order to pay “court costs,” I would have assumed that it meant expenses such as filing fees and photocopying of documents, rather than attorney fees.

This is precisely the sort of distinction that a sharp-eyed copy editor might have made, and a well-timed question could have led to a call to the AP for a clarification, which the AP could have in turn sent out to subscribers. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer copy editors in the business, and those who remain have less and less time and encouragement to raise necessary questions. 

Recognize the inner bully

Never mind that Romantic era and Victorian gush about the innocence of children. I have been convinced for years that on any given day any given group of children is thisclose to Lord of the Flies.

You might want to consider the nine students at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts who face criminal charges over a relentless campaign of harassment that led fifteen-year-old Phoebe Prince to hang herself.

No, children are not civilized human beings, and it takes a great deal of effort over a long span to bring them to that point. Judging from the behavior we can witness on the Internet and in public discourse, the process has been incomplete for a substantial segment of the adult population.

I am not speaking from a platform of moral superiority here, and I suspect that most of us have reason to feel shame in recollecting our childhood and adolescence. Though I was, as a bookish, nearsighted teacher’s pet, occasionally bullied in elementary school, I sometimes took the other side.

Children have a feral gift of identifying the weak in the pack and turning on them. There was a girl in elementary school in Elizaville, Kentucky, who was cross-eyed and slow-witted, and some playground genius recognized one day the phonetic similarity of Margaret and maggot. I’m not sure that she was ever taunted to her face with the word, but I can’t rule that out.

I said nothing. If you ally yourself with the weak, you too step forward to be attacked.

There was a boy in my class, until the year he failed to be promoted to the next grade, who was short and wizened and quiet. I remember mocking him one winter because he wore a red jacket with a hood. (I no longer recall what led me to single that garment out.) As an adult, I realize that he, like most of the class, was a child of farmers of limited resources, and any clothing he wound up with he was doomed to wear. But, as usual, compassion arrives late in the day.

It appears that the teachers and administrators at South Hadley did little or nothing to help Phoebe Prince, and I doubt that there are many places where anyone would. In the first place, it is extraordinarily difficult to govern the behavior of children and teenagers. In the second, there appears to be a widespread belief that, like puberty, enduring bullies is a necessary part of adult formation, the toughening required for a harsh world. And in the third – you have probably known them – there are people who appear to have gone into teaching because they like to push people around and children are available for it.

I have no remedy. I would like to think that those of us who aspire to be civilized can take a hard look at the bully who lives within us and keep him in restraints, modeling better behavior. But it’s not easy, and it doesn’t always work.

Try to keep up

I’ve been meaning to write up some appreciations of Jack Lynch’s The Lexicographer’s Dilemma and some books on language sent over by Oxford University Press, but other matters have pushed themselves to the fore. Be patient. The posts will be coming, as will one about the important matter I hinted at previously.

For now, some random amusements:

Item: Arrant Pedantry suggests that there could and should be peace in the valley between prescriptivits and descriptivists (the while linking my name, though I am not worthy, with Bill Walsh’s and Jan Freeman’s). You Don’t Say heartily endorses his reasoned and irenic tone.

Item: One of Andy Bechtel’s students at Chapel Hill has written a guest post at The Editor’s Desk about the importance of editing beyond journalism:

When I received my employee handbook at orientation, I was appalled to see a typo, spelling error and incorrect word choice on every single page. The PowerPoint presentation wasn’t any better. And when my boss got up to speak, I cringed when I heard the word “interpretated” fall out of his mouth.
Individuals and businesses seem to be under the mistaken impression that editing is only for news media. But it’s not just about using the language correctly. It’s about maintaining an image.

Worth a longer look.

Item: As a longtime reader of British detective fiction, I would be happy to see some Britishisms creep into common use here, in exchange for the Americanisms we have exported.

There has been some whingeing (whining, peevish complaint) about gone missing (a perfectly fine neutral term that can accommodate both abductions and simple wandering off), though even a git (a fool, a twit, a useless person – think of the contempt you can pack into that short vowel and terminal consonant) can suss out (figure out, investigate to discover) what it means in context.

Any other admirers of P.D. James, Colin Dexter, Reginald Hill, Martha Grimes, Ian Rankin (Scotland for aye!), and their like out there who would care to suggest additional terms?