I have a feeling John McIntyre is one of those copy-desk chiefs I would have loved with an all-consuming passion right up until the moment I didn’t. Recently released from the Baltimore Sun, he now writes a blog at…
(May I just pause for a moment and marvel at how I could almost put that sentence on a user key? Name of Journalist worked at Name of Newspaper for XX years, was [laid off/bought out] in Year and now keeps a blog at URL. While you’re spending your richly subsidized retirement updating your Facebook friends on your golf handicap, publishers of the world, I hope you spend a few moments considering you once had a workforce that cannot stop working, who took lousy/so-so money for most of their careers and now do it free. And you flushed it away. Although that’s not what you’re thinking, is it? You’re thinking, “I could have paid them even less and bumped the profit margin a few more points. Dumb me!”)
Back to McIntyre: He, like many of us, has been considering the Strange Case of Alessandra Stanley, the New York Times’ TV critic and corrections machine. Her “appraisal” of Walter Cronkite contained seven errors. Clark Hoyt, the NYT public editor, tries to get to the bottom of it:
In her haste, she said, she looked up the dates for two big stories that Cronkite covered — the assassination of Martin Luther King and the moment Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon — and copied them incorrectly. She wrote that Cronkite stormed the beaches on D-Day when he actually covered the invasion from a B-17 bomber. She never meant that literally, she said. “I didn’t reread it carefully enough to see people would think he was on the sands of Omaha Beach.”
It gets better:
For all her skills as a critic, Stanley was the cause of so many corrections in 2005 that she was assigned a single copy editor responsible for checking her facts. Her error rate dropped precipitously and stayed down after the editor was promoted and the arrangement was discontinued. Until the Cronkite errors, she was not even in the top 20 among reporters and editors most responsible for corrections this year. Now, she has jumped to No. 4 and will again get special editing attention.
I could go on like this for many, many words and you know what I will say, so let’s not, and instead turn to McIntyre’s central advice to writers, because it is universal, no matter what your job:
You, the reporter/writer, are responsible for the accuracy of what you write. It is your job to make sure that every statement of fact, every quotation, is represented accurately. If you slap something together and turn it in assuming that someone else will clean up after you, you are committing malpractice.
This should go without saying, for everybody in every job, and yet, it happens every day. About six weeks into my own stint on the copy desk, after dealing with yet another editor who shrugged when I pointed out he’d just turned over a story to me, the paper’s last line of defense, with sentence fragments and repetitive passages and weird tangents, etc. … I feel the Saigon flashback starting already. Anyway, I told my own boss, McIntyre’s equivalent, that I finally understood exactly what Holden Caulfiend was talking about when he said he was the catcher in the rye. All those stories are running toward the cliff, and I have to catch them before they pitch over the edge. You get this one, and another one slips right by you, and — (descending whistle sound) splat.
If only there were fewer of them. If only the previous editor had worked a little harder on it. But as one whose true job was as a writer, to me it always came down to the source. If only the reporter had taken her job seriously in the first place. But there are lots of Alessandra Stanleys out there, or were, writers who think it’s not their job to look up silly things like how, precisely, Walter Cronkite covered D-Day, or the date of the moon landing, or anything else. “That’s the copy desk’s job” — some of them would actually say that. They were big-picture people. Details were for the anal nitpickers in the thick glasses.
No matter what your job, if you work upstream of the cliff, you owe it to everyone to do it the best you can, at every stage. Especially now. Unless you’re Alessandra Stanley, evidently.
I said at the beginning of this tedious little lecture that I probably would love McIntyre until I didn’t. Sooner or later, all writers and editors face that estrangement. Maybe it comes over the latter’s hair-splitting over convince and persuade, or the teeny lecture they want you to listen to, the one where they stand over your desk and explain the difference between an argument and a quarrel. (I know I’ve used the argument/quarrel anecdote more than once, but the way that particular copy editor brandished that distinction, the smugness in his voice as he took credit for saving 60,000 households from the horror of seeing the wrong word describing what happened before a drug-related shooting– well, it still rankles. Especially when he was also fond of disappearing on deadline to chat up the interns in the hall. See above. Do your job.)
A little bloggage before I go:
Someone sent me this Modern Love column with a note: “How many people I wonder fail to understand that one prson’s meltdown is more about that person and not the spouse?” I’m not a big fan of Modern Love, but this one was worth reading.
< marilyn voice > Happy birthday, Mr. President: < /marilyn voice > Now go get yourself a lava cake.
It’s just like sitting around someone’s basement in high school! Highdeas — a place you can post the great ideas you get when you’re stoned. My favorite from the first page: a full body tattoo on your backside, so when you were naked ( you would need to be bald too), it would like like a person walking backwards, or vise versa It’s the “you would need to be bald too” part that cracked me up.