ILLUSTRATIONS: “And Moses lifted up his hand, and with his rod he struck the rock twice: and the water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their animals also.” Numbers 20:11. The scene imagined by François Perrier, 1590-1650. (Image: Wikimedia Commons.) Below: An image of the WSJ’s now justly famous correction, and the Old Copy Editor, editing old copy, early in his career.
For not a few years, I toiled in the now quaint profession of newspaper copy editing at the Toronto Globe and Mail and sundry other newspapers, most of them too terrible to note by name.
Practitioners were known as copy editors, sub-editors or, sometimes, just subs or deskers. We sat “around the rim.” Never mind, it wasn’t as bad as it sounds.
The work of resuscitating famous journalists’ gasping copy was dull, but the banter was engaging. Wit was valued by copydesk hacks, if not by the effete ranks of the reporting staff, whose efforts we salvaged, or our bosses.
In this role I had the opportunity to write a headline on a sports story about the Perth (Australia) Yacht Club’s fruitless efforts to force a French sailboat competing for the America’s Cup not to be named French Kiss:
Perth Yacht Club in uproar
over tongue-in-cheek name
I recall winning a bottle of scotch from my grateful colleagues for that one.
The newspaper industry and its fading digital shade has not benefitted from the elimination of those nameless, dedicated toilers in the cause of good usage, correct grammar, accurate spelling, entertaining headlines and a precise and always accurate count of the number of angels that can actually dance on the head of pin.
I have been the author of many corrections, most of them for other people’s errors, of course.
Naturally, for me, the Wall Street Journal’s already justly famous correction yesterday prompted not just the feelings of unbridled joy experienced by millions, but empathy, sympathy, and a wistful sense of nostalgia.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Benjamin Netanyahu said Moses brought water from Iraq. He said the water was brought from a rock.
Normally, a correction should not repeat the error, merely acknowledge it and provide the corrected facts. Sometimes, though, clarity and irony alike require the original mistake be included so that readers can truly understand the enormity of the error, not to mention to discomfit its author. Justice and the betterment of humanity are thereby served. The Journal’s correction is such a case.
The lesson is obvious: Don’t shout the headline across the room to a colleague lest your listener be a fool, or merely distracted by the pressure of deadlines. Write it down. Check it twice. This is axiomatic!
Indeed, my career as a copy editor was nearly derailed before it left the station by just such an error. Noticing a missing headline, I shouted across the room to a colleague at the small weekly newspaper where we worked:
fights for sex equality
The next day the newspaper returned from the printer emblazoned with the following:
fights for sexy quality
Auto-correct had not been invented, so that excuse was not available. One of the few blessings of the digital era is that catastrophes of this nature can be corrected as soon as they are spotted, and blamed on auto-correct.
Speaking of uproars, that one was furious. The fallout was harsh. My sincere horror at what had happened was deemed by many to be an unconvincing pose.
This is why people throughout the English-speaking world have sensibly adopted the term gender to express this concept, and why language purists, while their arguments always merit serious consideration, are not always right.
Let me repeat the lesson. Write it down. Check it twice.
The corollary is also true: When writing a headline, say it aloud, lest there be unintended meaning hidden in the sound of the words. This is especially true when writing a headline about Tiger Woods’ bright marketing ploy to play with his own balls.
If my former colleague, the estimable Murdoch Macleod, had followed this advice, he never would have headlined the story about an intoxicated musician who broke the window of a pawnshop and stole a fiddle:
Drunk gets 9 months in violin case
The world would have been a poorer place, but Murdoch would have been a happier man.
Young reporters who receive a note from the Old Copy Editor should consider it a compliment. It suggests there is hope for their wretched efforts.
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