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There were giants in those days -- 2

Journalism affords many examples of the perennial phenomenon that the number of horse’s asses in the world far exceeds the number of horses.

This is not to say that journalism lacks smart people; I’ve had the good fortune to work with scores of literate, knowledgeable, sensible people, a great many of them on copy desks, over nearly three decades. But — well, let’s take as examples five notable figures from a paper far removed in place and time. *

Item: There was an editor who had been elevated to high rank apparently because he was too dim to be a threat to anyone. In presiding over the daily news meeting, he developed a series of comments on proposed stories that committed him to no decision: “I’m not opposed to that.” “I’m not bothered by that.” “Let’s not rule that out.” (Once his synapses misfired, and he said, “I’m not opposed to being bothered by that.”) Then he would vanish into his office, emerging only when the local and national television news programs had shown him what the top stories of the day were.

Item: After this nameless paper published an article describing how a man — a “killer” — had committed a series of “murders” — none of which had gone to trial and in some of which no charges had even been filed — this editor responded to the staff’s concerns about the propriety by posting a memo that said: “This guy is in so much trouble that he’s never going to have time to sue us” **

Item: This editor objected to the word Britons in a front-page headline, saying that it must be a typo, because he had never seen it before. This was during the Falklands War, when the paper had been referring to Britons in stories for several days. ***

Item: This editor issued an order forbidding members of his staff to exchange electronic messages in foreign languages. The background: It appeared that this editor had one or more sycophants on the staff who looked over the shoulders of colleagues suspected of views subversive to the management and reported on their exchanges. To test this premise, a few of the subversives took to sending one another old Latin tags, scraps of opera libretti in Italian and other purely innocuous texts. The edict followed in short order.

Item: When a particularly vexatious copy editor left the paper for another, this editor scheduled a good-riddance party on the copy editor’s last day. As it happened, the copy editor’s friends had scheduled the farewell party for the same saloon. The honoree got to watch his colleagues come through the door and halt momentarily as they discovered that a choice was to be made. I enjoyed it hugely.


* Yes, I am on vacation, supposedly working on the manuscript of my book on editing. Think of this as a warm-up exercise.

** Quoted from memory. I was a fool not to have made a personal copy, which I could later have donated to the Newseum.

*** You, the reader, might find it disconcerting to learn that some reporters, copy editors and editors do not read their own newspapers, though they expect you to do so.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:06 AM | | Comments (8)


I love that last story - wow, what a great thing to witness. How did his colleagues decide? Who "won"? I must know more!!

Ah, yes, that dimwit. He's the one who also forbade the use of the term "loved ones" -- because, he claimed, it pertained only to the recently deceased. (If he had said it was a cliche, I could have sympathized.)

He also would stand over the shoulder of the person unfortunate enough to be laying out Page One and say, "Nah, I don't like that" repeatedly. He would never say what he DID want; he would just wait until the latest attempt was put forth to say, "No, not that."

For item four, I have to guess that you were sitting on the farewell side when people walked in (the real cynic in me would guess you were the guest of honor). I doubt folks on the other side enjoyed it nearly as much.

Oh yeah him: We may be talking about more than one dimwit. The supply appears to be inexhaustible.

Steegness: Trust that inner cynic. I was the honoree.

Sam: I believe that if an impartial scorekeeper had been appointed, the official result would have shown a higher total at my table.

I suppose I could be writing my memoirs this week, but there are too many people still on this side of the ground.

When will your book be available? Can we pre-order it from amazon now?

Looking forward to it...

And some people think that Dilbert is fiction.

The manuscript is still far from ready for submission to a publisher, assuming that one would be interested.

About dismissing libel in crime stories: Long ago I asked an assistant city editor to rewrite a brief because once again a reporter had convicted a defendant before the trial.
"Well, TECHNICALLY it's libelous, but he's too poor to sue us, so don't worry about it," I was told.
Another ACE referred to such construction as the paper's "style."

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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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