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A threadbare aristocracy

Responding to yesterday’s post, my esteemed colleague Denise Covert disagreed respectfully — a startling phenomenon, unaccustomed as I am to being treated respectfully — and entered a spirited defense of the knowledgeability of copy editors:

But you cannot teach them to be a human sponge for all manner of knowledge, from local institutional knowledge (sadly missing lately due to so many buyouts/layoffs) to general potpourri. Like mild OCD, only certain people are like that, and it is those people who are the truly successful copy editors.

Be at ease, Sister Covert. I’m not belittling the intelligence of copy editors, or of other journalists. Though the dolts I’ve encountered in newspapering over the years have been numerous, they do not appear to exceed the general distribution in the population. And if it seems odd that so many of them have reached positions of authority, one need only look at, say, the United States Congress or the upper reaches of the clergy for comparison.

But the comment on yesterday's post merely underscores the point I was trying to make yesterday. Journalism — good journalism, with effective editing — does require intelligence and analytical ability, but not highly specialized knowledge unavailable elsewhere. Copy editors in particular are most effective when they posses a wide fund of general information, and those are people I look for in hiring. But that information is easily acquired through wide-ranging reading and retention.

It may be true that in an age of superficial education and a prevalent self-absorption that encourages inattention to the world around them, people may be astonishingly ill-informed. Look at the people Jay Leno quizzes on the street. But that doesn’t mean that information is accessible only to an elect.

The melancholy truth is that in our grand Republic, it is as true today as it was 80 years ago when H.L. Mencken wrote: “Here [in the United States] the general average of intelligence, of knowledge, of competence, of integrity, of self-respect, of honor is so low that any man who knows his trade, does not fear ghosts, has read fifty good books, and practices the common decencies stands out as brilliantly as a wart on a bald head, and is thrown willy-nilly into a meager and exclusive aristocracy."



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:56 AM | | Comments (1)


Lest you think that I am merely a megaphone for Mencken, I direct you to his contention that "the American people, taking one with another, constitute the most timorous, sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mob of serfs and goose-steppers ever gathered under one flag in Christendom since the end of the Middle Ages, and that they grow more timorous, more sniveling, more poltroonish, more ignominious every day."

I dispute that we are getting worse.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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