You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

Here I am, blame me

The Baltimore Sun

Time was, and now apparently still is, that the copy desk got little or no respect in America’s newsrooms.

When I worked at The Cincinnati Enquirer’s copy desk, a reporter with whom I was chatting one day described the process his copy underwent on the desk as “running it through the dull machine.” (I was familiar with his oeuvre, which was notable for non-Euclidean uses of the comma.)

When I came to The Sun, there was a reporter who referred to the process his copy underwent on the desk as “running it through the Dullatron.” (This artist indulged in metaphors so fulsome that he was known on the desk as “the Purpleizer.”)

And there was the supervising editor who habitually referred to the copy desk as “a necessary evil.”

It was commonplace for a writer to go on a tear about the way some copy editor had “drained the life” from his story or the degree to which the copy desk had “exceeded its remit.” On roughly half of the occasions I’ve known about, the odious changes had been made by the writer’s assigning editor, not the copy editor.

Editors at the loftier reaches of the newsroom were aware of this attitude, and not averse to exploiting it. On a couple of occasions on which members of the staff resigned rather than accept assignment to work for me, I was not sorry to be the newsroom’s nuclear option.

So I toil on, my equanimity unruffled as it has been for these many years, tirelessly making writers’ subjects and verbs agree, sorting out confused homonyms, rectifying inconsistently spelled names, pruning stylistic infelicities, or addressing the scary questions—as I did one night when an article for a Sunday section front was determined to be riddled with libel an hour before deadline.

Also, I take the rap when the blunder is in fact my own.

But, as the business continues to reduce, or outright eliminate, copy editing, a question comes to mind.

When I’m gone, who you gonna blame?

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