Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Sour Notes We Do Not Hear

Lee Hills was not a physically imposing man, but if you were a 28-year-old, newly-minted assistant city editor summoned to his office, you were staring at a giant.  Hills, editor and publisher of the Detroit Free Press, had risen from humble, small-town beginnings to become Jack Knight's right-hand man in editorial matters for the Knight family's excellent chain of newspapers.  He was smart, fair and he oozed dignity.

"Do you stand by this story?" he asked.  I knew that if I said "yes" the meeting would be over and he'd back me to the hilt till the story's flaws were laid bare.  If I said "no" I knew that he would rightly demand why in the hell I should remain in an editor's post on a newspaper whose integrity ultimately was his responsibility.

"There are no serious factual errors in it," I said, "but there are two minor ones.  I believe they require a standard correction notice.  They should not have escaped my notice.  Deadline pressure is the reason they slipped by -- but not an excuse. "

"Is that all?" he asked.

I hope my hesitation was not as long as it seemed to me.  "No," I said.  "Two minor errors of fact are not the problem with the story.  The problem is that everyone who handled it -- especially me -- was tone deaf."

"Interesting choice of words -- tone deaf," he said.

"The overall tone of the story is wrong," I said.  "Too often when we're writing or editing a piece, especially on deadline, our inner ear fails us, we go tone-deaf.  In this story, the sequence of thought in some of the paragraphs, the language, the choice of words,  all add up to a tone that isn't right.  We weren't hearing the same music that the readers of the story would hear.  And that's a failing on our part."

"As you no doubt have guessed," he said, "I have received a complaint about the story."

I waited for a shoe to drop.  It was a most terrible moment.

"I will tell the complainant that we are publishing a correction of the two facts we got wrong. Please see to it that I get a copy of the correction."

With a sigh of relief I accepted his gesture of dismissal and went back to work.  But I wasn't off the hook.

Some time later Jack Knight himself was in town for an editors' meeting.  He'd just been the subject of a Time magazine cover story that called him "crusty" and a "curmudgeon" and the owner of a chain of newspapers producing some of the best journalism in America. "Crusty," he said.  "I wonder if they meant that I'm tough on the outside -- or hollow on the inside?" It was all he had to say about the magazine story.

How privileged I am, I told myself, to labor in the shadow of such great journalists.  Whereupon I heard Lee Hills utter my name, and call upon me to repeat what I'd said to him about deafness because he thought Mr. Knight and the other editors here assembled might find it interesting.

An even more terrible moment.

I think I managed to say pretty much the same things I had said to Hills in our  meeting, but to tell the truth, my memory is a blur.  Jack Knight seemed to give my words a slight nod of approval -- perhaps I simply hoped that -- and Lee Hills said, "Thanks, Tom," and moved on.

The movie in my mind replayed those scenes from yesteryear just the other day when a major newspaper published a story about a young man whom I know and an important matter in which he was involved.  There were few serious factual errors in it but the tone was entirely wrong.

It was a grave injustice to a good man who does good work, of that I am certain.

I am almost as certain that neither the writer nor his editors heard the sour notes when the piece went into print.

Sad.  Being made to hear them would make them better journalists.

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