Journalism affords many examples of the perennial phenomenon that the number of horse’s asses in the world far exceeds the number of horses.
This is not to say that journalism lacks smart people; I’ve had the good fortune to work with scores of literate, knowledgeable, sensible people, a great many of them on copy desks, over nearly three decades. But — well, let’s take as examples five notable figures from a paper far removed in place and time. *
Item: There was an editor who had been elevated to high rank apparently because he was too dim to be a threat to anyone. In presiding over the daily news meeting, he developed a series of comments on proposed stories that committed him to no decision: “I’m not opposed to that.” “I’m not bothered by that.” “Let’s not rule that out.” (Once his synapses misfired, and he said, “I’m not opposed to being bothered by that.”) Then he would vanish into his office, emerging only when the local and national television news programs had shown him what the top stories of the day were.
Item: After this nameless paper published an article describing how a man — a “killer” — had committed a series of “murders” — none of which had gone to trial and in some of which no charges had even been filed — this editor responded to the staff’s concerns about the propriety by posting a memo that said: “This guy is in so much trouble that he’s never going to have time to sue us” **
Item: This editor objected to the word Britons in a front-page headline, saying that it must be a typo, because he had never seen it before. This was during the Falklands War, when the paper had been referring to Britons in stories for several days. ***
Item: This editor issued an order forbidding members of his staff to exchange electronic messages in foreign languages. The background: It appeared that this editor had one or more sycophants on the staff who looked over the shoulders of colleagues suspected of views subversive to the management and reported on their exchanges. To test this premise, a few of the subversives took to sending one another old Latin tags, scraps of opera libretti in Italian and other purely innocuous texts. The edict followed in short order.
Item: When a particularly vexatious copy editor left the paper for another, this editor scheduled a good-riddance party on the copy editor’s last day. As it happened, the copy editor’s friends had scheduled the farewell party for the same saloon. The honoree got to watch his colleagues come through the door and halt momentarily as they discovered that a choice was to be made. I enjoyed it hugely.
* Yes, I am on vacation, supposedly working on the manuscript of my book on editing. Think of this as a warm-up exercise.
** Quoted from memory. I was a fool not to have made a personal copy, which I could later have donated to the Newseum.
*** You, the reader, might find it disconcerting to learn that some reporters, copy editors and editors do not read their own newspapers, though they expect you to do so.