Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Copy Editing: Questions of Identity

A couple of nights ago I was watching a program on the Kennedy assassination -- the point was to support the Warren report and the single-bullet theory, and this being TV today, I have no idea what the program name was or what channel it was on -- and I saw for the first time the video of Lee Harvey Oswald being shot. (Digression: Just like the NFL, a bowling tournament my father was in decided not to cancel on Nov. 24, 1963, and he would routinely take me along to the lanes, where I would amuse myself playing pinball, drinking Cokes and looking at the league standing sheets that used to line the halls of every bowling alley. Bored, I called my mother at home and she said, "I can't talk! Lee Harvey Oswald was just shot!" Relaying that information made the rest of that tournament irrelevant to most of the bowlers.)

The program had extensive interviews with Oswald's brother Robert, and it struck me, as he was talking about how Lee Harvey Oswald wanted to go down in history as a big shot, that Lee Harvey Oswald probably never expected to go down in history as Lee Harvey Oswald. He was just Lee Oswald to his friends and family. But Oswald became Lee Harvey, because no one knew who he was and reporters got the formal police identification when he was arrested for killing Officer Tibbett; yet his killer never became Jack Leon Ruby, because nearly everyone who saw him shoot Oswald already knew who he was -- the cries of "Jack!" start on the tape just a second after the shot -- and thus reporters simply identified him as Jack Ruby, not needing to wait for the formal police ID. (Also, "Lee Harvey" rolls off the tongue easier than "Jack Leon.")

Jimmy Carter certainly stopped the newspaper tradition of referring to political leaders by their full names with middle initial, although at first he was just an annoying exception to the rule. At my first job, which was a very old-school paper, I was taught to always use full legal names with middle initial because 1) it helped the morgue file the clips and 2) consistency equaled credibility. With arrests, you used the middle name because the person might be J. Wesley Wright to the public and thus John W. Wright would be meaningless -- and this also would make sure the clips got in the right file. Of course, this was also in the days when you had to identify women as "Miss" or "Mrs." because "readers would want to know if they are married."

But as a result of Carter's self-identification -- famously taking the oath as "Jimmy" instead of "James Earl Carter Jr." -- using legal names seemed as passe as wearing hats. Instead it became a matter of self-presentation. Pennsylvania Gov. Richard L. Thornburgh had been Richard L. Thornburgh in news stories throughout his long political career, but in running for the Senate in 1991 he asked to be known in news reports as "Dick Thornburgh." This puts the reporters covering the campaign in a bind -- do you risk being sent to Siberia by the candidate over his first name? No, you lobby the copy desk to change the rule. Similarly, the Philadelphia Flyers' Bobby Clarke wanted to be seen as more managerial when he went into team management and asked that he henceforth be known as Bob Clarke. We compromised, referring to him as Bob in the present tense and Bobby when remembering the Broad Street Bullies. The night Wilson Goode was elected mayor of Philadelphia in 1983, our sidebar referred to him by his legal name -- Willie Wilson Goode -- in the first edition but was changed to W. Wilson Goode by a very high ranking editor who felt that we might look like we were being disrespectful to the city's first black mayor by pointing out that his first name, which he did not publicly use, did not carry the same historical resonance as, say, Richardson or Thacher.

One local politician who recently moved from the district attorney's office to the county board of commissioners suddenly started losing his middle initial and "Jr." in news stories. We had no idea why but wondered if he wanted to lose the image of power he had and be seen now as a man of the people. Turns out he had simply moved into the domain of a different beat reporter, one who thinks people should be called in the paper the way they present themselves. We insisted that the county's Web page be used as a reference, assuming that would reflect how the person wished to be known, and got into a discussion about whether county Web pages are put together by low-paid functionaries who give such matters no thought. But I had never liked giving in on Dick Thornburgh very much. You don't get to change the rules in mid-stream just because you want to.

And, of course, all of this would have been simply an academic copy editor question had it not been for the controversy over the middle name of the current president, who took the oath of office with almost his full name -- the "2nd" was not intoned, perhaps because the chief justice would have said "Barack Hussein Obama faithfully 2nd" -- but who clearly identifies himself as Barack Obama, not Barack H. Obama, in his signature, his literary works, and among his friends -- yet whose mother and grandparents always called him "Barry." What's a poor copy editor to do? What if someone runs for office named "Richard Adolf Smith" and you go along with calling him "Dick Smith" and the opponent says it is a conspiracy to delude Jewish voters? Well, you cross that bridge when you come to it.

But at the same time, Google has become the universal newspaper morgue, and while "Jimmy Carter" or "James Earl Carter Jr." will bring you to many of the same places, "John W. Wright" vs. "J. Wesley Wright" now matters a great deal. And while Barack Obama may have put the "that doesn't sound American" name question to bed, "Bobby Jindal" still sounds different than "Piyush 'Bobby' Jindal" and you know some bloggers, and, yes, the occasional less-than-informed reporter, will somehow make the possible presidential candidate Robert Jindal at some point despite his having taken the nickname out of a childhood love for the "Brady Bunch" character.

So what is a copy editor to do? Use the official reference? Which official reference? Which Web page of the official reference? Insist on the legal name? Say it's a free-for-all? On the one hand, it's an academic question because Barack Hussein Obama II was elected instead of John Sidney McCain III; on the other hand, it wasn't an academic question to Ann Coulter during the campaign. Names still have power. What, in this time of less copy editing, should the beleaguered corps of copy editors insist upon?

2 comments:

Stephen said...

AP says President Barack Obama – so, that's what I run with. Unless it's a headline. Then I run with B.O. Great little story. Love reading your posts.

John said...

Following a consistent practice with people's names is iportant for more than the neat organization of clips in the morgue; it's the thing that might prevent you from running with an obituary a photo of a living person with a similar name. That happens still.