Not an error
Anyone who has worked for a daily newspaper for at least a week can recount some imbecilic remark from a higher-up.* Generations of journalists have shared the unenviable role of Mr. Salter, the foreign editor of the Daily Beast in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, as he meets with the publisher, Lord Copper:
“Mr. Salter’s side of the conversation was limited to expressions of assent. When Lord Copper was right he said, ‘Definitely, Lord Copper’; when he was wrong, ‘Up to a point.’
“’Let me see, what’s the name of that place I mean? Capital of Japan? Yokohama, isn’t it?’
“’Up to a point, Lord Copper.’
“’And Hong Kong belongs to us, doesn’t it?’
“’Definitely, Lord Copper.’”
But even I, inured to idiocy by more than three decades of exposure (I was in a graduate program in a university English department before resorting to journalism), was stunned to read on the Testy Copy Editors’ Web site the response a copy editor got after proposing to correct a published error:
“If nobody notices, it’s not wrong.”
We have the sovereign pronouncement: “If the president does it, it’s not illegal.” And we have the morning-after pronouncement: “If we never speak about it, it didn’t happen.” And now from journalism we have the epistemological pronouncement: “If no one perceives it, it’s not an error.”
This is the kind of thinking — if that is the correct term — that leads newspapers to post unedited copy on the Web. It’s cheaper to do without editors. But I suspect that people do notice errors, even when they make no complaint.
(Sun readers, bless their hearts, do complain, frequently and in detail. Just think what they would say if they also saw the errors our copy desk catches.)
I suspect that the readers who do not complain do the easiest thing: They turn away and seek information elsewhere. Imagine the fate of a retailer who says that everything is fine because no complaints are coming in, while ignoring that the number of customers is dwindling.
Then there is the other kind of noticing, the kind that comes as a reader sees that the publication has let through a false and damaging statement about him.
My mother wanted me to become an attorney, and it’s too late now. But you young people out there, you go into the law. Study libel case law. There’s a good chance that you may be able to make a living off what remains of American journalism.
*Candor compels me to point out that, drudge though I am, I count as one of the lower higher-ups in this shop.