Regretting the error.

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.

Posted at 8:29 am in Media |

21 responses to “Regretting the error.”

  1. Bill Breen said on August 4, 2009 at 9:07 am

    Nancy: Check out the “After Deadline” blog @ NYT… you’ll love it.

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  2. Bill Breen said on August 4, 2009 at 9:11 am

    Somewhere, Sister Therese, the grammarian with a ruler, is smiling….

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  3. coozledad said on August 4, 2009 at 9:13 am

    Two highdeas:
    1) The Guzz Buzz: A food grade detergent addition to bongwater that solubilizes THC and doubles as a flavoring agent, like Kool Aid, giving the bongwater a smoothness and drinkability…
    2) Nanna: A banana peel placed in the microwave, toasted, crumbled, and added to your smoke, to mask the reek and give the high a “tropical feel”.
    I remember a Lenny Bruce sketch where he talks about an adolescent discovering glue-sniffing and thinking he’s the new Louis Pasteur. That’s precisely how I felt when I came up with these two. Sad, really.

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  4. Jenflex said on August 4, 2009 at 9:21 am

    I loved the Modern Love essay, too. As a mother, manager, wife, and daughter. Is there anywhere that lesson isn’t applicable?

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  5. brian stouder said on August 4, 2009 at 9:41 am

    Speaking of errors, just last night Grant brought last week’s Time Magazine(the one with an astronaut in full regalia standing on the moon) to me, and said “I thought Neil Armstrong was the first person to walk on the moon”, and I replied that indeed he was – whereupon Grant flipped the Time over and pointed to the back-cover ad from Louis Vuitton. The ad has a picture of Sally Ride, Buzz Aldrin, and Jim Lovell all gazing up at the moon, and has this copy:

    “Some journeys change mankind forever. Sally Ride, first American woman in space. Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11, first steps on the moon in 1969.
    Jim Lovell, Apollo 13, commander”

    This actually made me angry (on the one hand) and proud of Grant for catching it (on the other!). The thing is worded poorly enough that one can parse and argue that it isn’t technically in error….but I’d argue that it’s a hell of a lot further OVER the damned cliff than “quarrel” versus “argue”!! (Pam went to the Louis Vuitton website that the ad points to, and on their website…they REWORDED it!!!, saying something like ‘Buzz Aldrin, Second person to walk on the moon’)

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  6. Jeff Borden said on August 4, 2009 at 9:56 am

    When I teach journalism classes, I ask my students to memorize three rules to live by as they report, research and write their stores.

    1. Write only what you know.
    2. There are no dumb questions.
    3. When in doubt, leave it out.

    A good copy editor will pull more bacon out of the fire than a short-order cook, but the onus has always and should always be on the reporter to be correct. What an enormous pity that Ms. Stanley continues in her position and even gets her own, personal copy editor when far better reporters are out on the street.

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  7. whitebeard said on August 4, 2009 at 9:57 am

    Thank you, Bill Breen, for sending me on a delightful educational jaunt through past After Deadline blog entries, even though I have abandoned my blue pencil (or blue felt pen in more affluent newsrooms) for a life of relative leisure.

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  8. alice said on August 4, 2009 at 10:19 am

    Hmmm, that Modern Love column, I thought it was common knowledge that “I don’t love you anymore” is manspeak for “I have a girlfriend.”

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  9. Mary said on August 4, 2009 at 10:38 am

    In the morning email from my dad, frustrated journalist: “AAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!!”

    Maybe two days too long at the beach condo is driving him out of his gourd, I thought. So I scrolled.

    It’s Tuesdays with Twitter over at Wylie’s house!
    (Can’t figure out how embed the link… what am I missing? One swift kick to anyone who says a Y chromosome.)

    “Three ways to make your tweets more useful

    Are you a welcome guest or an intrusive pest on Twitter? Here are three ways to make your tweets more useful to your followers.
    1. Use Angela Maiers’ 70-20-10 rule.

    Want to tweet tweets that followers like to get? Educational consultant Angela Maiers (@AngelaMaiers) recommends that:

    * 70 percent of your tweets share resources — blog postings, articles, opinions and tools

    * 20 percent of your tweets engage in conversations and connections

    * 10 percent of your tweets “chirp,” or chat about yourself, your life and your thoughts…”

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  10. Jenflex said on August 4, 2009 at 10:38 am

    Wonder how they fact-checked this one:,0,7721966.story

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  11. Sue said on August 4, 2009 at 10:58 am

    Jenflex, I can tell you that they could have put the word “Jagermeister” anywhere in that story without fact-checking.
    Don’t mess with Wisconsin women. They’ll put up with all sorts of crap, right up until the moment they won’t.

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  12. Ed Tarboosh said on August 4, 2009 at 11:09 am

    I must be an anal nitpicker with thick glasses who doubles as an unemployed/unpaid/amateur copy editor. I suffer through the errors and omissions of the Cincinnati Enquirer and Hamilton Journal-News on a daily basis. Surely the absence of many furloughed copy editors is to blame. But your comments about the lack of oversight on the part of some writers/reporters inspires me to come out of the closet and forgo the twelve-step program to rid myself of my obsession.

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  13. bryan said on August 4, 2009 at 11:44 am

    Hey Nance,

    You old friend Tim Goeglein has resurfaced. He’s now vice president of Focus on the Family.

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  14. coozledad said on August 4, 2009 at 11:57 am

    I think it’s funny Goeglein closes his little spiel with a quote from noted lunatic anti-Semite Ezra Pound. I don’t think Pound intended “Make it new” as a call to swipe other folk’s stuff and slap your name on it:
    “More important than politics, however, is culture. Two great conservatives, Edmund Burke and William Wilberforce, both believed that, important though government is, morals and manners were more important. Fostering moral excellence in the schools, museums and universities is central. We need a new generation of poets, playwrights, sculptors, composers and musicians to keep our culture refreshed. In the words of Ezra Pound, we need to “make it new.””

    They really have hit bottom haven’t they? No wonder the current face of their movement is a Russian tranny hooker.

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  15. Danny said on August 4, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    Have any of you noted the story about the Obama/Joker posters that are turning up in Los Angeles? Some are bemewling these as “mean-spirited” which they are, but really. How quickly they forget.

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  16. jeff borden said on August 4, 2009 at 12:20 pm


    Agreed. The Obama-as-Joker posters are stupid since the Joker was clearly an anarchist, not a socialist, but who cares? The most powerful man in the world is always going to be pilloried. I’m a huge Obama admirer and they don’t bother me a whit. Ditto with those idiot birthers. I saw that crazy Russian lady on MSNBC yesterday and thought I was watching the kind of performance art personified by Sacha Baron Cohen in “Borat.” Let `er howl. She’s a loon but a funny one.

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  17. Jenflex said on August 4, 2009 at 12:31 pm

    Sue, LOL!

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  18. Catherine said on August 4, 2009 at 12:34 pm

    LA has a long and significant history of guerrilla postering as street art. The Obama/Joker posters are part of that tradition. Robbie Conal is one of the fathers of the movement. Here’s my favorite of his posters — it’s Jesse Helms, with the title “Artificial Art Official:”

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  19. John McIntyre said on August 4, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    I, too, growled at those smug copy editors who wasted their time and yours with pointless distinctions about “over” and “more than” or the AP Stylebook’s imbecilic “split verb” superstition. I might have gotten somewhere with them if I’d just been given a little more time. Or a sidearm.

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  20. nancy said on August 4, 2009 at 2:32 pm


    Glad you stopped by. The editor in this case was particularly maddening because he was so pleased with himself, carefully explaining that arguments were based on logic, whereas quarrels were characterized more by emotion. To which I asked, “How do you know this wasn’t a logical disagreement? You have money I believe is mine, therefore I will bust a cap in your ass. Sounds logical to me.” He just couldn’t be stopped.

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  21. paddyo' said on August 4, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    I was a reporter for 32 of my 33 years in newspapers. There was one year of temporary insanity, at a young age, as an assistant city editor and, also, a copy editor.

    But being a reporter means being an editor, too, and I’m just bowled over by the extent to which the NYT, and apparently others, will coddle reporters/writers who seem not to notice, or care, about shoddy work . . . and how those reporters/writers can make excuses for it.
    Like the “Modern Love” storyteller linked above, I’m just not buying it.

    Yeah, sure, the occasional copy editor was insufferable. Plenty of us reporters were and are insufferable, too.
    And a couple of times I had copy editors who edited errors INTO my stories. Thank goodness it was only that — a couple.

    More often than not, the copy desk saved my butt, saved me from myself. I’ve always taken pride in my clean copy, but 100 percent error-free? A rarity for anyone, because 100 percent clean 100 percent of the time is impossible. (And please, please: “Spell check” only gets you part of the way there.)

    All of which is why we have editors, and especially, copy editors.

    Anybody who turns in half-assed copy, on deadline or not, should be ashamed of himself/herself. Sure, it hurt if I fumbled and the desk didn’t catch a mistake, and I wasn’t afraid to point that out, just as a reminder that neither of us is infallible. But the responsibilty starts with me.

    If somebody ever said to me, “That’s the copy desk’s job” (no one ever did, but obviously some folks thought it), I’d had verbally slapped him/her upside the head.

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