Friday, February 15, 2008

Lessons From My Reporting Days - Editors Never Make Mistakes

Once, back when I was a reporter, when Reagan was president, the editors came into a meeting, with a spool of paper. We had long continuous feed rolls that fed into dot matrix printers in those days.

The city editor rolled the spool out along our conference table so that it stretched its full length.

"These are all the mistakes that have been made in the last two weeks," he said.

And by errors, he meant things that were actually wrong i.e. words spelled wrong, but he also meant deviations from AP style.

Sacred Texts
Moses was given the Ten Commandments in one hand and the Associated Press Stylebook in the other, or so it seemed.

The book is like one of many style guides that tells how to do things for the sake of consistency so that everybody isn't doing their own thing as far as a.m. vs am and the like. It would be print anarchy without the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, The Chicago Manual of Style or... ah ah ah AHHHH AHHH ah ah The Associated Press Style Book. (One-nine are spelled out. After 10 you go to digits. STAB are the street names you can abbreviate. St., Ave., Blvd. and so on.)

The spool wouldn't have been nearly so long without AP style errors. AP style was sacrosanct. Except when it wasn't.

"This is a case where our style supersedes AP style," the editors would say, usually when you called them on a point like whether or not to capitalize Antichrist. Did I mention I covered religion? Antichrist came up a time or two.

My first real life lesson in how editors are never wrong came long before that, however. I got in this pie fight, you see.

On the Pie Front Lines
Candidates for city judge and people in the media were pitted against each other on the Fourth of July in a pie eating contest the first year I was a reporter.

Everyone sat at a set of tables, and there were a bunch of pies with really thick cream toppings. I'm sure there was a time limit, but that became irrelevant because there were radio guys there.

The world was a more interesting place when you had local radio guys.

I got hit in the head with a banana cream.

From one direction.

Then I got hit from the other, and I wasn't the only one getting hit. There was pie to left of me, pie to the right of me...the air in front of me was thick with pie.

I gave as good as I got, coconut on a morning news guy, Boston cream on a candidate. When it was over everyone was wearing pie, and I did a half a league, half a league back to the newsroom to write of my adventure. A poet warrior!

They ran the story with a picture of me throwing pie on the front page. On the jump they ran a picture of a couple of candidates. The cutline--we journalist types called them cutlines, you probably thought they were captions--identified candidates.

One was the winner, the only guy who kept eating when everybody else was in battle. The other guy was just sitting there, but the cutline said he participated in the pie fight.

His supporters started calling around noon.

"He did NOT THROW ONE SLICE OF PIE! I was there! He is being falsely accused."

I didn't read the freakin' paper in the morning before work, so I had to find it and see what it said. I didn't remember giving any specifics about who threw what.

"Hmm," I thought, when I found a copy. "Wonder who wrote that?"

It was an editor of course, in an effort to polish my sparkling prose.

"I didn't write that," I told the city editor.

"Let me check on it," he said.

He talked to the editor who'd rewritten the line and came back.

"He said it was in the body of the story."

Now, in the story I noted that the guy who won was the only one who kept eating. I knew that because he won. They gave him a ribbon or something.

I didn't know who else was fighting because I was getting hit in the head with pie from about, let me see, one, two, three...there was that one guy from TV...five..NINE directions.

But because the editor had extrapolated from "ONLY CANDIDATE A KEPT EATING" that everyone else was fighting, it was my fault he changed my cutline and made it wrong.

The Moral of the Story
I didn't get in any real trouble. The falsely accused candidate laughed when we called him about it. It was after all A FREAKIN' PIE FIGHT. Sure it wasted food, but that meringue would've melted long before those pies could have been shipped to anyone hungry.

I walked away from the situation chastised and much wiser.

Think about it when you watch the news or read the paper. Reporters and editors are just humans.

6 comments:

Charles Gramlich said...

ROTFLOL. I thought I was reading a three stooges episode for a bit. Except for the mess of cleaning up, this must have been one 'sweet' story to cover.

The Ancient One said...

Reminds me of what when we taught our kids the rules about referees in youth soccer (substituting "editors" of course):

Rule #1 - Editors are never wrong.

Rules #2 - If an editor is wrong, refer to Rule #1

:~)

Lana Gramlich said...

I often try to remind myself that everyone is human, but then I realize that that's the problem. <:\ Fortunately I don't believe most of what the mass media presents, anyway.

Miladysa said...

"Sacred Texts
Moses was given the Ten Commandments in one hand and the Associated Press Stylebook in the other, or so it seemed." LOL

I could hear you reading this aloud as an old black and white film played. Seemed like a tale from the 30s rather than the 80s.

Very enjoyable :]

Erik Donald France said...

Excellent memoir. Thoroughly enjoyed it. Notice how internet news is riddled with slovenly errors?

Have you by chance seen any of this year's season of The Wire? Lots about an alternate universe version of the Baltimore Sun.

Sidney said...

Thanks, Erik. I am a couple of seasons behind on "The Wire" but I am interested in catching up. I saw Season 1 so I know it's brilliant.

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