The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: February, 2008

Someone should have left this cake out in the rain

A friend at the newspaper in Augusta, Ga., passes along this amusing photograph. He’s unsure of its origins, but it appears to be from this “cake” collection at Snopes, the site that verifies and refutes urban legends. Snopes thinks this one is real.

Changing Times in Washington

The new executive editor at The Washington Times, John Solomon, is making some style changes at the paper. The City Paper reports these style updates at the Times:

  • “Clinton” will be the headline word for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
  • “Gay” is approved for copy and preferred over “homosexual,” except in clinical references or references to sexual activity.
  • The quotation marks will come off of “gay marriage” (preferred over “homosexual marriage”).
  • “Moderate” is approved, but “centrist” is still allowed.
  • We will use “illegal immigrants,” not “illegal aliens.”

Solomon, vilified by the left when he was a reporter at the AP and The Washington Post, is now under fire from the right, if some of these comments are an indication. (Some of the comments at the City Paper story have the same tone.) His liberal critics are still finding fault with him, too.

Muffley ’08

The Q section in the Sunday News & Observer asks: What makes a perfect president? The centerpiece built around a wire story includes this list of “great — or at least provocative” presidents from movies and TV shows.

Such lists are always open to addition and subtraction. The credit line for this one cites “staff and wire reports” so it’s hard to know how it was compiled. The list is OK as is, but it could be better with some editing.

If I had been in a newsroom conversation for this list, I would have suggested removing President Jack Stanton of “Primary Colors.” The book made more of a mark than the movie, and John Travolta does not make for a memorable president. I would have pushed for adding Merkin Muffley, the president played by Peter Sellers in the wonderfully titled “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”

The Muffley character is a rare voice of sanity in Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War comedy. This president attempts to make the best of the terrible situation that he faces, namely an unauthorized U.S. attack on the Soviet Union. Muffley is a mild-mannered leader working amid fools and madmen. Sellers, drawing inspiration from failed presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, plays the straight role to perfection. He received an Oscar nomination for his performance. (He also plays the title character and Capt. Lionel Mandrake.)

In the face of imminent war, Muffley is dedicated to diplomacy. He invites the Soviet ambassador into the “war room” despite the objection of his top military adviser. Even in that environment, he works hard to mediate disputes. (“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room.”)

Muffley deftly handles an inebriated Soviet premier in what would be the most difficult phone call in the history of the world. (“One of our base commanders, he had a sort of … Well, he went a little funny in the head.”) Muffley is deeply concerned about civilian casualties. (“You’re talking about mass murder, general. Not war!”) And he seems genuinely interested in Dr. Strangelove’s proposal for subterranean survival in a post-war world — not just for the female-to-male ratio of 10 to 1. (“You mean people could actually stay down there for a hundred years?”) Muffley’s efforts almost pay off, but of course, one U.S. plane carries through with the attack, setting off the Soviet “doomsday device.”

In addition to this classic depiction of a president, “Dr. Strangelove” also has a great line about newspapers. Confronted by the Soviet ambassador about an American doomsday device, Muffley denies any knowledge of the project. The ambassador’s reply: “Our source was The New York Times.”

As a character and as a leader, Muffley qualifies as great — or at least provocative. I hope that when this story rolls around again in 2012, he’ll make the list of memorable movie presidents.

Interesting reading (Music edition)

  • David Menconi of The News & Observer, on the challenges of narrowly focused music magazines in the age of the Internet.
  • Jon Wilde of The Guardian, on how the covers of music magazines aren’t as good as they used to be.

UPDATE: Maxim apologizes. Read some reaction here.

Barack Obama edits himself

A New Republic article compares the books and authorship styles of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. The story is pegged to the plagiarism brouhaha involving Obama’s speeches.

Deep in the story is some insight on Obama as an editor. Apparently, he files some clean copy, according to this editor:

I’ve never worked with any other writer who needed less line editing than he did. That’s how clean his writing is. That doesn’t mean we didn’t do some editing. I did a lot of different things. But he’s sort of a self-editing phenomenon. Sometimes my role was to stand back and watch him edit himself.

This leads to a question: If Obama is elected president, will he blog from the White House? And if so, will he have an editor, or will he publish straight from his computer in the Oval Office?

Lawsuit by blog

The latest legal move in the Duke lacrosse case is being blogged — by what appears to be the lawyers and 38 players involved in that move. They’re suing Duke University and the city of Durham, and they will apparently blog about their case as it goes forward.

The blog is called “Duke Lawsuit. Accountability. Responsibility. Change.” It has two posts so far from “Bob” and includes .pdf files of a press release and summary of the lawsuit. Other elements include links to blogs and books friendly to their argument. It’s on a Blogger template that FEV and others will find familiar.

The Duke Lawsuit blog is an interesting way to get out information: controlled and anonymous. It’s also a one-way avenue of communication as no commenting is allowed, although the news media are encouraged to contact the blogger(s) through a Gmail address.

UPDATE: The News & Observer sheds some light on this public relations strategy. “Bob” appears to be Bob Bork, son of legal scholar Robert Bork.

Style updates from AP

The latest style rulings from The Associated Press touch on the sensitive topics of race and ethnicity. Here they are:


A person of Asian birth or descent who lives in the U.S. When possible, refer to a person’s country of origin. For example: Filipino-American or Indian-American. Follow the person’s preference.


Sometimes used by Mexican-Americans in the Southwest. Not interchangeable with Mexican-American. Use only if a person’s preference.


Often the preferred term for a person from — or whose ancestors were from — a Spanish-speaking land or culture or from Latin America. Latina is the feminine form. Follow the person’s preference. Use a more specific identification when possible, such as Cuban, Puerto Rican, Brazilian or Mexican-American. See Hispanic, nationalities and races, and race entries.

I like how AP advises specificity. It’s more precise and detailed to write and edit in that way. Those details are sometimes hard to get, however.

A semicolon goes uptown

The sometimes baffling piece of punctuation turns up in the New York subways, drawing praise from Lynne Truss and others. The story about this usage is, curiously enough, doing well on the “most popular” lists at The New York Times, defeating Paul Krugman and David Brooks.

UPDATE: The blog Notes from the Copy Editor points us to some solid advice on how to use the semicolon.

To be a blog and not to roll

A recent column on the Poynter site asks: Are blogrolls still useful? My answer is yes, at least for some of us.

Blogrolls are those lists of links that many bloggers include on their sites. Some blogrolls are organized by theme, and others are just long lists. Like anything else, blogrolls require updating and revising so they don’t get stale.

The Poynter piece suggests that blogrolls are out of date because many readers use RSS feeds and thus do not see the blogrolls. These readers just see individual posts. Judging just by the visits to this blog, I see that more people are reading my blog this way. (However you get here, thanks for reading.)

I’m still going to keep and update my blogroll, however. I don’t use RSS feeds, so I turn to my blogroll as a guide to places I like to visit. It’s my starting point.

At other blogs, I glance through the blogroll to see what that blogger’s favorite places are. If it’s a blog that I have never visited before, those links give me an idea what the blog is about. On occasion, I will see a blog listed somewhere else that I will add to my blogroll. (The Watch Yer Language blog from the ACES blogroll is an example of this.) So blogrolls are like news tips.

Perhaps someday all of us will read online using RSS and other specialized filters. Until then, I will keep rolling.

UPDATE: I’ve added three blogs to my blogroll this week: Editrix, Notes from the Copy Editor and Grammarphobia. And I am keeping Nicole Stockdale’s blog, A Capital Idea, in there even though she hasn’t posted in a long time.

Interesting reading

  • Clark Hoyt, public editor of The New York Times, on establishing balance in reporting on science and medicine.
  • John Drescher, executive editor at The News & Observer, on reaching out to a reader who is often critical of the paper.

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