The Editor's Desk

Thoughts on editing for print and digital media

Month: March, 2008

Chronic town

Cary, N.C., is a suburb of Raleigh. It’s known for its tough zoning regulations and its appearances on “best places to live” rankings in magazines. The old joke is that Cary stands for “Containment Area for Relocated Yankees.”

Cary has a population of more than 100,000. To many of us, that would make Cary a city. North Carolina law, however, allows a municipality to call itself whatever it likes. (Hello, Village of Charlotte!)

Despite its size, Cary prefers to be a “town,” with the official flag flying that label proudly. Some of its residents are buying into that idea, and one man successfully pushed for the replacement of 50 road signs so drivers cross the “town limits” rather than the “city limits” when entering Cary.

At $2,000, that’s a fairly pricey edit.

Fact and opinion

William Kristol had to know he would be under a microscope when he accepted a columnist position at The New York Times late last year. As a well-known advocate of the Iraq war and other Republican causes, Kristol has formidable political opponents. Those opponents were shocked and angered that Kristol would be given a weekly column on the Times op-ed page. They wanted him fired before he had written a word, and their complaints prompted a response from the public editor at the Times.

Given that, you would think that Kristol would be particularly careful to get his facts straight in his pieces for the Times. Columns, after all, require solid facts to support their arguments. Errors of fact expose columnists to attack and damage their credibility. Editors can ensure that columnists meet the requirements of this part of the job. As an editor at The Weekly Standard magazine, Kristol should understand that.

So far, Kristol has stumbled on the facts. His first column had an attribution blunder. The latest mistake in Kristol’s work on the op-ed page should give editors pause about the quality of his work. The subject of his most recent column is Barack Obama’s church and the pastor’s comments about the war and other political issues. Kristol alleges that Obama was in attendance when particularly controversial remarks were made from the pulpit. Yet, as noted here, Obama was not there that day in July 2007.

To its credit, the Times has quickly added this note from Kristol to the top of the online version of the column:

In this column, I cite a report that Sen. Obama had attended services at Trinity Church on July 22, 2007. The Obama camapaign [sic] has provided information showing that Sen. Obama did not attend Trinity that day. I regret the error.

This is a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t go far enough because the error is still in the column. It’s an assertion that is central to Kristol’s argument, not just a piece of trivia. That part of the column needs editing as well, which is easy enough to do online.

Additionally, the column needs a rewrite for the wire services. Many newspapers run Times columnists a day or two after their works appear in the Times. It’s possible some newspapers will run the Kristol column as is, which will spread the error.

UPDATE: Keith Olbermann of MSNBC has named himself one of his nightly “Worst Persons In the World” for a goof related to the Kristol column. Earlier in the week, Olbermann had singled out Times executive editor Bill Keller for the Worst Person “honor” for not firing Kristol. Alas, Keller plays no role in the editorial pages and has no say on the hiring and firing of op-ed columnists. (Related post here.)

Here comes the sun

With National Grammar Day behind us, it’s time for Sunshine Week. That is when journalists, librarians and others remind us of the importance of open government.

Access to council meetings and public documents is to government reporters what punctuation is to copy editors. Some of us are more passionate about certain elements of our profession. As journalists, we understand that each is important in its own way.

For more about Sunshine Week, check out the official site, this Editor & Publisher story and this graphic from The News & Observer.

Interesting reading

  • Cory Doctorow of BoingBoing, on how to get bloggers to write about you (assuming that’s something you want).

Citizen Spitzer

The resignation announcement of Gov. Eliot Spitzer of New York didn’t make the front page of The News & Observer. It was, after all, an expected story that happened fairly early in the news cycle for the Raleigh paper.

The Spitzer story was all over TV and the Web on Wednesday, and it was on the N&O front page earlier in the week. And lately, the N&O has been busy chasing North Carolina’s governor, and one governor on the front is enough.

The Spitzer story got pretty good play inside the paper, however. The two-story package was the display lead on page 3A, and it included a sidebar with this headline:

Prostitute aimed for career as a singer

This brought to mind one of my favorite newspaper headlines from the movies. It’s from “Citizen Kane,” and it appears as newspaper kingpin Charles Foster Kane is running for governor of New York. A rival newspaper exposes his extramarital affair, leading with this headline:

CANDIDATE KANE CAUGHT IN LOVE NEST WITH ‘SINGER’

The Highly Moral Mr. Kane and his Tame “Songbird”
Entrapped by Wife as Love Pirate Kane Refuses to Quit Race

The headline effectively destroys Kane’s political career, and his personal life suffers as well. On election night, his own paper must choose the latter of these two headlines:

KANE ELECTED

CHARLES FOSTER KANE DEFEATED, FRAUD AT POLLS!

The cinematic technique of using a newspaper front page to move a story forward can come off as cheap and lazy. The headlines on such fictional pages rarely ring true in their wording or presentation. The headlines in “Citizen Kane,” however, work on multiple levels, and they represent another reason why “Kane” is a brilliant movie.

Indeed, the “singer” headline is mentioned later in the film, when Kane tries to transform his mistress, now his wife, into an opera star. Kane radically edits a colleague’s negative review of her performance, a significant violation of his “declaration of principles.” Kane’s motivation for doing so is explained this way by that colleague:

The whole thing about Susie being an opera singer, that was trying to prove something. You know what the headline was the day before the election, “Candidate Kane found in love nest with quote, singer, unquote.” He was gonna take the quotes off the singer.

Unlike some Hollywood writers, Orson Welles understood the power of well-worded headlines when he created “Citizen Kane.” The “singer” headline is not just used to move the story forward. It’s an integral part of the plot as another push toward Kane’s downfall. That headline also reads well and has the “sizzle words” that managing editors love the desk to use in display type.

Orson Welles would have been a great copy editor.

It’s almost time to confer about the future

I’m looking forward to two conferences this spring. They happen to share a theme: What does the future hold?

I hope to see you there.

Unstuck in time

Paper Cuts, a New York Times blog about books, is asking readers to contribute “a favorite signature passages in books they love — a sentence or two that seem to convey the essence of a complex, beautiful work?”

Here’s mine. It’s from “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut, in which the main character, Billy Pilgrim, watches a movie on television:

He came slightly unstuck in time, saw the late movie backwards, then forwards again. It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this :

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.

The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn’t in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed.

The passage epitomizes Vonnegut’s view on war as well as his writing style, which has a journalistic tone. Like much of his work, this is absurd, hilarious and heartbreaking all at the same time.

I thought of this passage when news came last year that Vonnegut had died. So it goes. I am heartened that his writing is still with us even if the man himself is not.

Monstrous words

The latest news in the campaign for the Democratic nomination comes down to a word: monster.

That is the word that an adviser to Barack Obama used to describe Hillary Clinton. In an interview with The Scotsman newspaper, Samantha Power is quoted this way:

She is a monster, too – that is off the record – she is stooping to anything.

Power apologized for the remark, and the Clinton campaign called for Obama to fire her. A few hours later, Power resigned. This may be be a typical tiff between campaigns, but it’s interesting to journalists in other ways.

First, note how Power attempted to edit herself. Few reporters, however, are going to let a source go off the record in the middle of a thought. And they shouldn’t. It appears that Power, whose job requires the ability to interact with the media, agreed to this interview and its ground rules. She cannot toggle between being on and off the record as she speaks, and she cannot do so unilaterally. (More back and forth on this issue here.)

Second, consider how “monster” has several meanings. Yes, it’s a big, scary creature. It can also be an “inhumanely cruel or wicked person.” It can also be anything that’s huge, such as a force that’s impossible to stop. Clinton could fit the latter definition and not the others. It’s hard to know which definition Power intended.

Third, take a look at The Scotsman’s headline on the story:

‘Hillary Clinton’s a monster': Obama aide blurts out attack in Scotsman interview

The editors there are playing loose with Power’s quote in this headline. They put words in her mouth that are unnecessary. The second part of the headline comes off as self-promotional on the part of the paper. If “monster” is the angle to play up in the headline, try this:

Clinton is ‘a monster,’ Obama aide says

As for the political damage that the remark will inflict on the Obama campaign, I would be surprised if it has a major impact. Then again, perhaps we will see this cause-effect headline:

Clinton claims win in Wyoming caucus; ‘monster’ gaffe looms large for Obama

Let’s hope not.

UPDATE: The reporter for the Scotsman defends using the quote in an MSNBC interview and also takes on the insufferable Tucker Carlson.

Interesting reading

  • Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher, on media coverage (or lack thereof) on the financial cost of the Iraq war.
  • Laura Ruel of UNC-Chapel Hill, on the pros and cons of Dreamweaver, Flash and other software in the journalism classroom.
  • The News & Observer’s Under the Dome blog, on “chilipunking” a Libertarian candidate for governor.

HuffPo and the front page

The Huffington Post uses this collage of newspaper front pages to illustrate its big story of the moment. Mashing up the print media is a curious way for an online-only publication to show the importance of the news, no? Then again, HuffPo also promises to “watch TV so you don’t have to.”

Related post here.

UPDATE: HuffPo has changed its main image to a similar collage, this one of screen grabs from TV “news” shows from this morning.

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