MEDIA WATCH

Precision and the art of the blue pencil

George Bain February 27 1984
MEDIA WATCH

Precision and the art of the blue pencil

George Bain February 27 1984

Precision and the art of the blue pencil

MEDIA WATCH

George Bain

A recent newspaper report on Senate reform said: “Elected senators would sit for one nine-year term. They now sit until death or their 75th birthday, whichever comes first.” That was reassuring to know. It disposed of any worry about the chamber of sober second thought containing any actually dead senators, waiting around to be 75 to retire.

Also in my file Media: Editing, there is the clipping of a story from Regina last year beginning, “Federal Transport Minister Jean-Luc Pépin bulled by about three dozen angry farmers Monday following a meeting . . . . ” Bulled past, perhaps? As a reader, it is my double misfortune to read “by” as an action performed upon—and to have been introduced at an impressionable age to “bull” as a verb related to a bull’s principle purpose in life, as in “a bull bulls a heifer.” The farmers may have been angry about what was being done to the cherished Crowsnest Pass grain freight rates, but there is protest and protest, and the impression, however fleeting, of the genial Pépin being bulled in that sense by 36 angry farmers—three whole dozen—is unsettling. Especially at breakfast.

The proposition being advanced here, in a roundabout fashion, is that editing is a capricious business, always has been, and is becoming worse. (Before anyone runs oif with the notion that editing is something that happens—or, more often nowadays, doesn’t happen— only to newspapers, magazines and books, let me introduce another note from the Media: Editing file. It is about the radio reporter who spoke of a stretch of highway as being “notoriously accident-prone.” While the people who drove on it may have had a tendency to wrap themselves around trees, it seems unlikely the highway itself was liable, or disposed, to mishaps. A pothole now and again, perhaps, a trace of winter heave, but....)

The question, to come back to newspapers, is who was doing the editing the day that one of the papers I read reported that the Tories and NDP in the House of Commons “reacted with indignance” to the government’s borrowing bill? Who was not wielding the blue pencil—which may be part of the trouble; there isn’t one to wield any more,

except figuratively—the day that a leading newspaper said that the column Sondra Gotlieb writes in Washington is “in the form of a letter to a ficticious composite of her girlfriends in Canada”? Where was the steely eyed editor of yore when a third newspaper, under a picture, said “Robert McCall clings extaticly” to Tracy Wilson, whoever Robert McCall and Tracy Wilson may be?

What sort of editor let by him, untouched, a reference to the Japanese steel industry trying to “force down prices ... of metallurgical coal”? By what accident or oversight was a reference to someone’s having written on “arctic pipelines and other portentious things” allowed to get into print? Why did we read, “The story now, Charboneau infers, is only about his determination to recoup the best bits of his past”? Where was the editor’s head the day when, in a newspaper of world renown, the heart of New York was spelled not just once but twice in one paragraph, “Manhatten”?

Did the editor who read the following read it with the editor’s traditional fine sense of order and logic disengaged: “The book coincided with the renewed interest in Britons who spied for Moscow following the recent deaths of Donald Maclean and Anthony Blunt”?

In the immortal words of a Globe and Mail editorial of years ago, “Whither are we drifting?”

Wither we are drifting—or have drifted—is into new technology, that’s wither. When writers still wrote on paper, copy had to pass through a gatemore prosaically, through the hands of a copy editor—before it was sent out to be set in type. Theoretically, it was right before it became type. Copy that is written at a computer terminal goes at once “into the system,” as the saying goes, and has to be called up to be read if miscellaneous errors and solecisms are to be removed. If it goes in wrong, there is a likelihood that it will stay wrong.

Still, nothing was perfect before, either—not when a Toronto paper once ran a front page head: “Headless torso found foul play hinted.” There was, in the opinion of Jim Coleman, the sportswriter, more than a hint of foul play. “I can see,” he said, “that he might have been able to get off both legs and an arm, and perhaps even his head, but that second arm, he’d have needed help.” £>