Jewish World Review August 16, 2001 / 27 Menachem-Av, 5761

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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If I were the editor ... -- "I'M not the editor," I was explaining to the questioner in the audience, "so--"

"But if you were the editor," he persisted, "what would you do?"

If I were the editor ...

Well. If by some wholly unforseeable concatenation of circumstances I became the editor of a newspaper -- not necessarily *this* paper, you understand -- the first thing I would do is make corrections much more conspicuous.

Fixing errors should be a matter of pride, not embarrassment, for people in the news business. They deal in a perishable commodity and have to turn it around on very tight deadlines; of course they make mistakes. If I were an editor, the paper would highlight its commitment to accuracy every day by giving corrections the same prominence as the errors they are meant to repair. And whenever possible, corrections would appear where the error appeared: Sports mistakes would be fixed in the sports section, business mistakes in the business section -- and mistakes in op-ed columns would be corrected on the op-ed page.

If I were running the paper, reporters would report the news. Period. They wouldn't provide "news analysis" or commentary -- that would be done By analysts and commentators, who would not hold themselves out as reporters.

The lines would not be blurred: It would be the job of reporters to tell readers what happened, not what the news means or what their personal opinion of it might be. News analysts would be chosen for their expertise -- military developments might be analyzed by a retired general, for example, or Wall Street's gyrations by a stock-market scholar. The venting of opinions would be restricted to editorial writers and columnists, and not just in the paper, either. There would be a standing rule in my newsroom: Reporters would not be permitted to jeopardize their reputation for objectivity by going on TV to pontificate.

Speaking of TV: I would cut way back on the amount of newsprint devoted to reviewing television shows. TV is the enemy of newspapers, and I feel no obligation to provide publicity for my enemy. Once upon a time in America, everybody read the paper; in some cities, readers could choose from four or five dailies, most of which put out new editions every few hours. Then came television, and newspapers began their long decline. No TV show urges couch spuds to turn off the tube and go read a paper. Yet newspapers are forever coaxing readers to check out the latest sitcom or HBO special. Here's one editor who won't play that game.

Besides, what burning need do TV critics fill? A review can be indispensable in helping to judge whether a play or movie is worth the price of admission. But the price of admission to "Friends" or "Mystery!" is nil. Viewers have no trouble deciding for themselves which shows they like and which they are happy to miss. A few hundred harsh words from a theater critic can close a play. But what impact has a newspaper review ever had on the fate of a TV series?

If I were the editor, word abuse would be a felony. The use of impact as a verb would be banned on grounds of ugliness. The alleged word proactive would be replaced in all circumstances with active, which is what it means. Diverse would no longer be used as a synonym for multiracial. And great caution would be taken with the loaded word reform -- a bill's proponents may hail it as "education reform" or "campaign finance reform;" reporters and headline writers may not.

In the right hands an obituary can be great journalism -- stylish, informative, memorable, compelling. It is a great pity that American journalists tend to disdain obituary writing as grunt work. Our British brethren know better. Here is how the London Times began last Friday's sendoff of Viscount Whitelaw:

"Willie Whitelaw was one of the most influential British politicians of his day. He was also a quintessential Conservative. Large, ebullient, amiably noisy and sometimes marvellously confused in his use of the English language (he once warned against the dangers of prejudging 'the past'), he made friends and disarmed enemies with remarkable ease. His highly idiosyncratic comments on life and politics ... were widely savoured -- none more so than his celebrated complaint in 1974 that the Labour Party was `going around the country stirring up apathy.' " Marvelous!

Give me a paper to run and I'll make the obit desk one of the newsroom's prestige posts. Something else I'll do: Require stories about opinion polls to quote the relevant questions. How a poll query is framed can make a huge difference in the results. A question about "affirmative action" will generate one set of numbers; a question about "racial preferences" will generate a very different set. Readers should be able to glance at a sidebar and learn exactly what was asked.

I could go on, but this column can't. So one last answer for the fellow in the audience: If I were editor, job applications from aspiring reporters with journalism degrees would go to the bottom of the pile. Journalism isn't a body of knowledge to be learned from textbooks and lectures. I'd want reporters who made use of their college years to study something substantial -- history, anthropology, art, physics. What sets good journalists apart is not courses in "Feature Writing" and "Enterprise Reporting." It is curiosity, energy, and mental discipline. Got those on your resume? When I become editor, let's talk.

Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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