Sunday, June 3, 2012

Operating Without a Net

I realize it is foolhardy to make blanket assertions, but I feel relatively safe in saying that most Americans have probably been to a circus at some point in their lives — or at least they have seen video clips of a circus on television.

There are all kinds of attractions at a circus. Some are relatively benign, but some of the most enduringly thrilling acts ever seen involve tightrope walkers and trapeze artists. Over the years, the phrase "death defying" has become something of a hackneyed cliche, I guess, but when you see those performers doing their acts high in the air, it's really the only phrase that seems adequate.

Of course, most of them never have really been defying death. Most of the time, there has been a safety net in place to catch them if they fall.

It isn't an absence of faith in their abilities. It is recognition that, well, we all make mistakes.

That's kind of how I have always felt about newspaper copy desks. I have devoted a large chunk of my adult life to both the practice of copy editing and teaching it in college classrooms. I know there were many times when I personally prevented embarrassing errors from slipping into print.

A copy desk is a newspaper's safety net. More than two years ago, I wrote about the value of proofreading, and errors that have found their way into print in the last few months alone — on both sides of the political spectrum — tell me it isn't just journalists who need that safety net.

(Sad to say, though, many journalists are losing that safety net. When economic conditions are bad, one of the first cost–cutting measures at many newspapers is to cut back on the copy desk. Reporters aren't really conditioned to monitor themselves, but they are told they must now do that very thing. Maybe some will, but, in my experience, most will not so whatever their weaknesses are — spelling, punctuation, fact checking — rapidly become the newspaper's weaknesses, too.

(As a result, the newspaper's reputation suffers, producing a domino effect — lost circulation followed by lost advertising revenue ... followed by more staff cuts — or, perhaps, reductions in publication dates. Maybe both.)

Earlier this year, the White House announced via a press release that the vice president would attend a campaign event in Road Island. That mistake was widely reported by the wire services.

(I spoke to several people at the time who observed that anyone who aspires to be president — especially someone who is president — should know how to spell the names of the states. You could point out to them that Barack Obama went to college and almost certainly does know how to spell the names of all 50 states — even though he once said there were 57 of them, not 50 — maybe he was thinking about the steak sauce? — and that it was almost certainly someone who worked for him who made that mistake.

(But the point is that the mistake was made on his behalf. And it could not be excused as what the Nixon administration used to call misspeaking yourself. It was in print.)

And then, last week, Republican presumptive presidential nominee Mitt Romney's new campaign app misspelled America.

Likewise, I guess, anyone who aspires to be president — or already is the president — should know how to spell the name of the country he wants to lead.

Of course, Romney didn't input any of the words in the app's text any more than Obama was personally responsible for mistyping the name of Rhode Island on that press release. But they're the guys at the top. The ones whose names are on the letterhead.

Spelling doesn't matter if only one person — a narrator, for example — is going to read what you write. It may even be helpful to write everything phonetically to make sure the narrator's pronunciation is right and there aren't any awkward gaps in the narration — because that is all that really counts in TV or radio script writing.

But in a newspaper or a magazine — or a web site or a press release — or anything else that many people will read, spelling counts.

I know it doesn't count for some people. I see some truly alarming mistakes in posts on the internet — and in papers that are turned in to me in the writing classes I teach. Some people clearly don't know any better — or, worse, don't care.

But when you write something that many people will read, there will be some who will recognize a spelling error when they see it — even if most who read it do not. And there will be some who do care.

I guess politicians on the lowest rung of the political ladder can get away with spelling mistakes or typographical errors. The text of any speeches they give probably will not be archived anywhere, and few local officials tend to put out press releases or anything else in print.

But Mitt Romney and Barack Obama really should see to it that they have at least one competent copy editor on their staffs (the more the better) — especially in the digital age, when you can be sure that virtually anything presidents or would–be presidents have said in the past can be found somewhere on the internet.

Romney especially should be cognizant of that. About two months ago, he told the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention that "in some of the new media, I find myself missing the presence of editors to exercise quality control."

Based on that new campaign app, Romney could use some "quality control."

But so could the White House. Two years ago, the following appeared on the White House web site prior to the G–20 meeting in Toronto. (What follows was copied and pasted directly from the White House web site in the summer of 2010. All spellings and spacings are as they appeared. I intended to use it in my news writing classes, but I haven't done so yet ...):
Dear G-20 Colleagues:
When we met in London in April of2009, we were facing the worst worldwide economic financial crisis since the 1930s. We acted with unprecedented speed and aggressive action to boost demand and repair our financial systems. It worked.
In Pittsburgh, with recovery beginning to take hold, we agreed to work together to achieve a more balanced pattem of global growth and financial reforms to strengthen our financial system and protect our economies from instability.
In Toronto, we meet at a time of renewed challenge to the global economy. We must act together to strengthen the recovery. We need to commit to restore sustainable public finances in the medium term. And we should complete the work of financial repair and reform. Our highest priority in Toronto must be to safeguard a)ld strengthen the recovery. We worked exceptionally hard to restore growth; we cannot let it falter or lose strength now. This means
that we should reaffirm our unity of purpose to provide the policy support necessary to keep economic growth strong. It is essential that we have a self-sustaining recovery that creates the good jobs that our people need. In fact, should confidence in the strength of our recoveries diminish, we should be prepared to respond again as quickly and as forcefully as needed to aveli a slowdown in economic activity.
A strong and sustainable global recovery needs to be built on balanced global demand. Significant weaknesses exist across G-20 economies. I am concemed by weak private sector demand and continued heavy reliance on expolis by some countries with already large external surpluses. Our ability to achieve a durable global recovery depends on our ability to achieve a pattern of global demand growth that avoids the imbalances ofthe past. In Pittsburgh, we agreed that countries with extemal surpluses would need to strengthen domestic sources of
growth. Leaders and governments will need to decide for themselves how to achieve that objective. In some countries, strengthening social safety nets would help boost low levels of consumption. In others, product and labor market reforms could strengthen both consumption and investment. I also want to underscore that market-determined exchange rates are essential to global economic vitality. The signals that flexible exchange rates send are necessary to support a strong and balanced global economy.
We need to commit to fiscal adjustments that stabilize debt-to-GDP ratios at appropriate levels over the medium tenn. I am committed to the restoration of fiscal sustainability in the United States and believe that all G-20 countries should put in place credible and growthfriendly plans to restore sustainable public finances. But it is critical that the timing and pace of consolidation in each economy suit the needs of the global economy, the momentum of private sector demand, and national circumstances. We must be flexible in adjusting the pace of
consolidation and learn from the consequential mistakes of the past when stimulus was too quickly withdrawn and resulted in renewed economic hardships and recession. For our part, we will pursue measures to SUppOit the recovery in private demand and return the unemployed to work. At the same time, we recognize the impoltance of setting a credible medium-term fiscal path: that is why my Administration will cut the budget deficit we inherited in halfby FY 2013 and work to reduce our fiscal deficit to 3 percent ofGDP by FY 2015, which will stabilize the
debt-to-GDP ratio at an acceptable level in that year.
To support the recovery and strengthen the ability of our financial systems to deliver needed credit, we must maintain the momentum of financial repair. Resolving ongoing uncertainty about the transparency of bank balance sheets and the adequacy of bank capital, patticularly in Europe, will help reduce financial market volatility and the cost of borrowing. We should SUppOlt efforts to enhance transparency and increase disclosure by our large financial institutions and to act, where necessary, to strengthen the capital position of our banks. Our ability to grow
without the excesses that that put our economies at risk two years ago requires that we accelerate our efforts to bring needed financial refolIDs to completion. In the U.S., both houses of Congress have passed comprehensive financial regulatory refOlID bills. We must reiterate our commitment in Toronto to a common framework for reforms that provide:
0. more stringent capital and liquidity requirements: We want our negotiators to reach agreement on a new capital framework we can endorse in Seoul that will include higher common equity requirements, tighter definitions of capital, a simple mandatory leverage ratio, and appropriate liquidity requirements. While we consider reasonable transition measures, we must not lose sight ofthe need to make sure our financial institutions have the capital needed to withstand future stresses;
0. stronger oversight of derivatives markets: We want our negotiators to reach agreement to put in place across the major financial markets a consistent framework for oversight of derivatives markets. We should subject all dealers and all major participants in the derivatives markets to supervision and regulation, including conservative capital and margin requirements, disclosure and reporting requirements, and strong business conduct standards to mitigate the potential for systemic risk and market abuse.
0. more transparency and disclosure to promote market integrity and reduce market manipulation; and
0. more effective ji'Qlllework for winding down large global firms, along with principles for thefillallcial sector to make afair and substantial contribution towards payingfor allY burdens it creates in a way that protects taxpayers, creates a level playing field, and reduces risks to our economies.
In Toronto, I also look forward to working on our action agendas on issues ranging from energy and development, to governance reform of intemational financial institutions.
Together, we designated the G-20 as the premier forum for intemational economic cooperation. It is important that the G-20 demonstrates its continued determination to work collectively to address the renewed challenges facing the global economy. I look fOlward to seeing you in Toronto and reaffhming our unity of purpose and resolve.


Clearly, Obama and Romney need copy editors.

But, like so many others, they are working without one.

National politics, like high–wire acts, is a high risk–reward proposition.

It doesn't make sense to operate without a net.

Even considering the potential rewards, the risks simply are too great.

1 comment:

VicBlogger said...

That is really a big issue nowadays. It's incredible how much bad writing there is today. Without this net, as you said, things will only get worse. It is a pity our language is being murdered everyday.