Tuesday, July 8, 2008

It's Madison, Not Monroe

Factual Error:

In a tribute to the late Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) in Tuesday's Washington Times, Ed Feulner of the Heritage Foundation writes:
On the Fourth of July in 1826, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson - Founding Fathers and presidents - both died. On the Fourth of July in 1831 James Monroe - primary author of the Constitution - died.
He's correct about the dates and the men who died on Independence Day in 1826 and 1831. He's wrong about James Monroe's claim to fame.

The primary author of the Constitution was James Madison, who went on to become the fourth President of the United States. Monroe, who succeeded Madison to the presidency in 1817, was not even present as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. (Monroe did, however, serve in Virginia's convention to vote on ratification of the Constitution.)

Where are the copy editors at the Washington Times?

Monday, July 7, 2008

Senator Douglas Must Be Miffed

Factual Error:

In a Washington Post Book World review of Daniel Mark Epstein's The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, Catherine Allgor writes (on page BW05):
For Mary Todd Lincoln, as for many First Ladies, the most active politicking took place in the years before her husband won the highest seat in the land. While Abraham was a senator, Mary sought patronage posts for him, wrote his letters and used her own correspondence to outline his position on slavery to Southerners.
Allgor is identified as a professor of history at the University of California at Riverside, so surely she must know that Abraham Lincoln never served as a senator.

Lincoln was a member of the Illinois House of Representatives and of the U.S. House of Representatives early in his political career, and in 1858 he engaged in that famous series of debates with Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas in an attempt to win election to the United States Senate -- but Lincoln lost that time, only to defeat Douglas two years later in the presidential election of 1860.

Perhaps the error is found in the book under review, and Allgor's repetition of it is an oversight. Perhaps she wrote "senator" when she meant to write "candidate."

However it found its way into Book World, however, it was up to the copy editing team at the Washington Post to check this new fact and delete it before publication.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Constitutional Fact Check

(This is cross-posted from my other blog.)

Perhaps it is understandable, if not entirely excusable, when a historian makes a factual mistake in something he writes, when the mistake deals with more recent events than those he is describing.

But one would think that a prestigious newspaper like the Washington Post would have fact-checkers on staff to make sure that errors do not end up in print, especially on the heavily-visited op-ed page.

In a piece published Wednesday, "Three Cheers for July Second,"Andrew Trees -- who used to teach at a tony New York private academy, Horace Mann School, until a racy roman à clef called Academy X got him in hot water -- talks about the how John Adams predicted that our big national holiday would be celebrated on July 2, the day the Continental Congress voted for independence (two days before the Declaration of Independence was subsequently approved). Trees makes this suggestion:
I propose we make July 2 a national holiday to celebrate the Founders for some of their greatest but least appreciated attributes -- their mistakes.
Irony alert: Later in his article, Trees writes about the originally proposed amendments that led to the Bill of Rights:
The Bill of Rights as we know it also is not what was initially proposed. The original first two amendments, one of which concerned the number of constituents each member of Congress had and one regarding congressmen's salaries, were never ratified by the states. What we think of today as our First Amendment freedoms were actually third on the list.
"Never ratified by the states"? Um, perhaps the first one, but not the second.

What could have been the First (or Second) Amendment eventually became the Twenty-Seventh Amendment, ratified on May 7, 1992. It is the most recent amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the one that took the longest path from proposal to ratification. It reads, according to the National Archives:

Originally proposed Sept. 25, 1789. Ratified May 7, 1992.

No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of representatives shall have intervened.
Trees may have missed this development, focused as he was the "delicious, malicious stuff" (in Jonathan Yardley's words) recounted in Academy X. If he didn't learn about the 27th Amendment while writing his book, The Founding Fathers and the Politics of Character (could that require another irony alert?), then at least the Post's opinion pages staff should have caught the error.

Or maybe it's just one more mistake for us to celebrate on July 2.

Let's Start with These Examples

Poor Word Choice:

In an article on how new media is being used in the presidential campaign, Washington Times correspondent Kara Rowland wrote in the print edition of July 1 (one day before Rowland's birthday, as it happens):
...despite some aesthetic differences, the functionality of the two campaigns' official Web sites are virtually identical. Visitors are greeted by pictures of each man looking confidentially out into the distance.
"Confidentially"? Doesn't she mean "confidently"? Or are Barack Obama and John McCain being somehow conspiratorial in they way they look "out into the distance"?

Factual Error:

I do not want to pick on the Washington Times in this first substantive post, but on the same page as Rowland's article (July 1, 2008; page B4) is the jump of an article about a Colorado congressional race, in which one of the candidates is openly gay.

Valerie Richardson reports:
If elected, Mr. [Jared] Polis would be the first openly gay man to win a House race without the benefit of incumbency. Both of the known homosexual men to win House seats - former Rep. Gerry Studds and Rep. Barney Frank, both Massachusetts Democrats - disclosed their sexuality after having first won election to Congress.
Rep. Tammy Baldwin, Wisconsin Democrat, was the first openly gay woman to be elected when she won in 1998.
This news will come as a surprise to former U.S. Representatives Steve Gunderson (R-Wisconsin) and Jim Kolbe (R-Arizona), both of whom were re-elected after they revealed their sexual orientation to their constituents. Gunderson was re-elected once after coming out in 1994 (he retired at the next cycle) and Kolbe was not only re-elected several times after coming out in 1996, he became chairman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. Kolbe retired after the 2006 election.

Where were the copy editors at the Washington Times?

Where Are the Copy Editors?

The newspaper business is going through cataclysmic changes. Readership is down, advertising revenues are down, newsstand sales are down. More people are getting their news from television and the Internet.

As a consequence, newsroom staffs are shrinking. The Washington Post, for instance, recently made a major buy-out offer to its employees, which led to many veteran reporters and editors choosing early retirement. The Post's longtime, low-key executive editor, Leonard Downie, has announced his own retirement, and the newspaper has a new publisher, Katharine Weymouth.

Similar -- and sometimes more drastic -- changes are taking place at other major newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and New York Times.

As these seismic shifts are being felt, old-fashioned copy editing is falling through the cracks. I am finding more, and more frequent, errors in the daily newspaper than ever before -- errors that normally would be caught before publication by competent and sharp-eyed copy editors and proofreaders.

Don't get me wrong: There are few more admirable miracles than the production of a major daily newspaper. Even before -- or perhaps especially before -- the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, the idea that an event could occur at noon, be discovered at 1:00 p.m., a reporter dispatched at 1:30, and a story and analysis written, edited, typeset, and printed by midnight for the early editions the next day is practically unfathomable.

Instantaneous communication -- with any blogger (myself included) able to post audio, video, photographs, and text within minutes after an event and letting the whole world know about it -- has jaundiced our opinions on the press. Reporters and editors deserve a great deal more respect than they often get.

But ...

In my other blog, Rick Sincere News and Thoughts, an eclectic mix of political and cultural commentary that has been on the web since December 2004, I every once in a while pick up on a disjointed word choice or odd sentence that does not, to be kind, serve its author well.

Sometimes I have found factual errors that should never have seen print. (For example, see my blogpost on historian Andrew Trees, who seems unaware that the Twenty-Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified 16 years ago.)

As these items come more frequently to my attention, I want to point them out and ask, "Where are the copy editors?"

Sometimes these items are unintentionally (I hope) funny; sometimes they are embarrassing; sometimes they are just sad. But they need to be identified and corrected.

I have started this narrowly-focused blog to bring these errors, mistakes, and howlers to the surface. I don't intend to be picayunish. I won't, as a rule, wag my finger at simple typos (typographical errors). But wrong word choice, badly constructed sentences, and errors of fact are fair game.

I'm also interested in opening up a dialogue on the question of copy editing. Is it an art or a craft? Is it a lost art, or a lost craft? Is it still necessary in the Internet Age? (I obviously think it is.)

I learned to edit at the feet (metaphorically speaking) of Ernest W. Lefever and Carol Griffith at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in the early 1980s. They not only taught me the skills involved in working with a manuscript, but also instilled in me high standards for what constitutes acceptable grammar, punctuation, and syntax. Those standards animate what will follow in this blog.

I don't intend to have any particular targets here. I suspect that the Washington Post, Washington Times, and Charlottesville Daily Progress will be the most frequently cited, simply because those are the newspapers I read in their print editions. Other publications may meet my gaze, but only if I run across an item on their web sites. I may also bring to my readers' attention the comments of others in the same vein.