Friday, May 20, 2016

Knights of the Language War

I googled “Winners and Sinners” today and got reams of information about a martial arts movie.

God help us.

Winners and Sinners was the name of an in-house organ written by Theodore Bernstein, assistant managing editor of the New York Times, its guru of style, arbiter of grammar and usage and minder of language and taste.

Ted came to mind when I got to thinking about how sloppy writers and editors have allowed “media” and “data” — both plural nouns — to become commonly wedded to singular verbs.  “Where are all the slot men?” I asked myself.  Gone to graveyards, every one, myself replied.

Slot men, also called copy chiefs, were the last bastion against bad or careless writing in good newspapers, back when there were good newspapers and they cared about good writing.  Good slot men had virtually memorized Ted Bernstein’s books, “Headlines and Deadlines,” “Watch Your Language,” “More Language That Needs Watching,” “The Careful Writer” and others. Good slot men worried about the crimes against the language committed in common usage, and pounced upon them when they crept into newspaper copy.  Jim wilson of the Detroit Free Press wearied of the fight.  “I think we’ve lost the battle  of ‘anymore,’” he once lamented.

Ted Bernstein, who died in 1979, kept up the fight until he was in his grave.  Winners and Sinners waged the battle so elegantly, and so wittily, that it built up a subscriber list of “freeloaders” throughout the world of journalism.  “It has,” the Times reporter Wayne King once wrote, “the force of law.”

Ted, a kindly and genial presence in the Times newsroom, was no autocrat of the bullpen; he considered the language to be a living thing, always evolving, always illuminating the life of letters in new and exciting ways.  But he would not allow it to be altered by whim or fad or carelessness. 

As our political discourse coarsens, I am reminded of a debate that took place in newsrooms across the country during the political unrest of the 1960s.  The zealots of the young left were particularly profligate in the use of what the Knight Newspapers journalist Lee Winfrey called “a 13-letter appellation for those who are hopelessly Oedipusly inclined.” Copy chiefs and style arbiters on most newspapers militantly policed reporters’ copy to root out nasty words, even in direct quotations.  Many reporters argued that in the new standards of the times, newspapers should relax their rules.  Ted heard the arguments, weighed them, but wrote: “Be a motherfudger.”

Copy editors and slot men labored in under-appreciated anonymity. Ted used Winners and Sinners to applaud their efforts.  One of the favorite features of W&S was called “trophies of a headhunter” which singled out headlines that told the story with wit, or humor, or, as Ted often wrote, represented “a tough one made to look easy.”  The writers of trophy heads were always named.  Sinners, on the other hand, were spared public identification although their misdeeds were dissected in features like “two-faced heads.”

When Ted Bernstein died, the Times continued Winners and Sinners with other authors, including Evan Jenkins, a longtime national desk editor, but eventually it died.

Shoddy sequence of tenses, litotes, split infinitives, officialese and kindred sins are more remindful these days of Miss Thistlebottom than of the witty and wise journalist who invented her.  These are the days of reporters who  wrote fiction and had it published, of bureau chiefs who regurgitate the government’s lies unchecked and unverified, of propagandists pretending to be journalists who make heroes of people like Donald trump.

Sad.  Maybe it had its beginnings when we lost “the battle of anymore.” Who knew back then how far we would fall?

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