So this guy offers a piece of Matzo to his blind friend. The blind friend brushes his fingers across it and sputters, “Who writes this stuff!” I’m tempted to make similar outbursts when reading the New York Times. “Who edits this stuff!”
Earlier this summer, in the course of an article on its editorial restructuring–the 147th such article this year–the Times acknowledged that it employs 150 copy editors. These wordsmiths are among the several thousand editorial personnel at the Times, supposedly the editorial elite of the industry.
So how come, shortly before Hillary Clinton was to visit Boston for the Democratic National Convention, but before it was decided whether she would speak there or not, the New York Times ran on page 1 of its Metro Section the following headline: “Senator Clinton Will Be in Boston, But Not at the Lecturn.” On the “jump” page it picked up the story with the headline: “Senator Clinton Will Travel to Boston, But Not to Lecturn.”
Apparently neither the headline writer nor the copy editor knows the common spelling of “lectern.”
On September 1, in an article on a ban on caviar exports from Caspian Sea countries, the Times wrote, “It took affect this year…” Anyone who still doesn’t know the difference between ‘effect’ and ‘affect’ shouldn’t be working at the Times.
The Times’s corrections box, on page 2, has become one of the most-read features in the newspaper. All the Stevens can write in that their name is spelled Stephen, and the Stephens can write in that their name is spelled Steven. But inanimate objects cannot write in, and so the numerous spelling and grammatical errors concerning places and things go uncorrected.
These are not in the category of everyday typos, inevitable in every newspaper. No, these are errors that display an ignorance of orthography and grammar. One of the more annoying illiteracies of the Times is its inability to spell the past tense of “to lead.” Almost as often as not, the Timesmen spell the past tense as “lead,” when “lead” can only be the present tense of “to lead” or the name of the heavy metal. (The past tense of “to lead,” of course, is “led.”)
I don’t think a day passes without the Times getting it wrong. For instance, on July 24, the paper published the following: “On Friday, the rebel Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, who lead an uprising…”
Remember, the New York Times is regarded by many as the best newspaper in the world, both in substance and style, staffed by many reporters and editors who hold graduate degrees in journalism. These are people, echoed by colleagues at other newspapers across America, who had a rollicking time poking fun at Dan Quayle when, during the 1992 presidential campaign, he corrected a contestant at a spelling bee, telling him to put an “e” at the end of “potato.” But Quayle had checked out the spelling on a flash card he had been given, which mistakenly spelled the word “potatoe.” Since the plural does indeed have an “e,” it was a mistake easily made. To this day, Quayle is ridiculed for the lapse.
A few months ago, the Washington Post ran a lengthy article on the recently released private papers of the late Supreme Court associate justice Harry A. Blackmun, the most interesting and extensive of which concerned the death penalty. Blackmun had many differences with Chief Justice Warren Burger over this issue, but what enraged him was Burger’s inability to spell “homicide” correctly. “Blackmun’s anger is evident in nearly every page of the voluminous file,” the Post reported. “As the spring of 1978 went by, the meticulous justice went through Burger’s memos, furiously circling every example of the chief’s inability to spell ‘homicide.’” Burger invariably spelled it “homocide.”
The Times, which thought that Quayle’s understandable mistake in spelling “potato” was indicative of his stupidity, printed nothing on Burger’s mistaken spelling of “homicide.” (Nor did the Washington Post have any editorial comment on the Burger illiteracy–a missed opportunity to atone for its ridiculing of Quayle.)
All of this concerns orthographic ignorance. But the Times commits innumerable errors in syntax and style as well. It consistently proves that it does not know the difference between “that” and “which,” greatly favoring the latter. It also repeatedly confuses “what” with “which”: “What movie are you going to see tonight?”
And the Times too often displays a tin ear for language. How else to explain this from the July 10 editorial, “The Senate Report”: “By late 2002, you’d have had to have been vacationing on Mars not to know…” To let this monstrous construction get by in its lead editorial, supposedly a repository of good writing, means that one of their trusty copy editors had had to have been dozing.
–Sidney Goldberg recently retired after 30 years as senior vice president for syndication at United Media. Before that he was editor and president of the North American Newspaper Alliance.