Thursday, May 28, 2009

Istory and Yoo

My paper on Wednesday ran as its main headline "A Historic Nomination" about Justice-designate Sotomayor. I expected calls alleging the usual supposed left-wing bias and carrying water for minorities. Instead, we got nailed by people upset that we did not say "An Historic Nomination."

To those who left e-mail addresses or phone numbers, I and others responded that our stylebook, and the AP stylebook, said that "historic" and "historical" are to be preceded by "a." I noted that we would precede "honorary" with "an" and that it depended on whether the "h" was aspirated when you pronounced the word by itself, and quoted Bill Walsh's book "Lapsing Into a Comma" as noting that this apparently comes from a British pronunciation.

Most people were mollified, and, as often is the case, simply grateful that someone from The Newspaper had actually called them back. One woman was unimpressed and said, essentially, so I have to adapt myself to your being wrong. All of those I talked to had, like me, gone to Catholic school in the 1950s. So, once again, newspaper readership seems to be toppling into the grave; on the other hand, perhaps it was just that the high-water mark of teaching "an historic" as the only proper phrase was in Catholic schools in the 1950s, in an era when schools taught rules, Catholic schools taught rules that had divine oversight, and the language was seen as under attack from phrases such as "like a cigarette should" -- in other words, the era when the gatekeepers of cultures were being totally undermined by a revolutionary change agent, television.

(Discussion question: If the Web were totally regulated by a government agency as television was before cable, would the head of the Internet Communications Commission be describing online content today as a "vast wasteland" and would such a quote be eagerly picked up by traditional media? Further, is the Web a vast wasteland today in the same proportions as television may have been in the early 1960s? 25 points. Keep your answer under 400 words.)

OK, cranky old folks. Yet the reaction to my paper's employment of John Yoo as a columnist seems not to be confined to retired English teachers.

John Yoo could certainly publish his views on his own Web site. He could be linked to any number of conservative news-and-politics sites. The issue is not that the views of Yoo could be suppressed.

The link between "A historic" and John Yoo is that even in its damaged state, people still have certain expectations of a newspaper -- expectations that they do not have for other media. The newspaper is supposed to reflect and stand for what is right, whether it be linguistically correct or morally correct. The newspaper is supposed to seek the truth and not be complicit in coverups, lies, and the general human search for entropy. The newspaper is supposed to be one of the institutions that hold the community to a higher standard.

So far, we have not discovered a media replacement for that role, which is largely based upon print's combination of near-universal access to a product with a high cost of entry for producing similar products, which makes it both ubiquitous and singular.

My son has been challenging me recently about my mention of community institutions. When you look at the changes in society, the 1950s vs. now; the more roles, options, choices people have; the continuing rise of social justice; the limits that were placed on people in an era when everyone had to read the World-Herald and shop at Brandeis or Kilpatrick's to see an informed and representative choice of what was available, in news or merchandise -- exactly how did these slow-moving, bureaucratic, closed-minded, often racist and sexist institutions (including mainstream churches, and schools in the era of rote learning) make things better than they are now? It's a good question, and part of the answer has to be -- they didn't.

But community institutions such as newspapers -- which are in some ways the last community institutions -- still stand for the community's desire to be better than it is. When the Penn Center development was proposed for Philadelphia, where was it unveiled to the community? Gimbel Bros. In that era, a department store was part of what was telling a community, you can reach higher than you are reaching today. And it was not just an store saying this; it was something that was Bigger Than You Are. The answer to "what's bad about the loss of institutions" is that it loses the balance in which some things are bigger than the individual. (At the same time, 50 years ago the balance was out of whack as well, in institutions' favor.) A newspaper still fills that role. If it did not, we would publish John Yoo's column and no one would care.


A Cassel said...

Lovely post, David. A pleasure to read, even if I think the Yoo connection is a little tenuous. In those dim days of the 50s and 60s, newspapers in fact did publish lots of columns by people as dubious as Yoo, (Walter Winchell, the Alsops, Pat Buchanan) and nobody much cared. Seems to me the outrage threshold for what newspapers do has grown lower even as their influence has waned; how many protest marches were there outside the NYTimes when it played the Holocaust on one column on p14A? No, I think the kind of angst typified by the Yoo affair is mostly exogenous to the newspaper biz, except insofar as newspapers are big, single targets (much easier than attacking a school minnow-bloggers). I think what's missing in the advance handwringing about civic-life-sans daily-dead-trees is the entirely self-interested pleading from flacks and fundraisers who will lose the anchor upon which they rest like barnicles, and feed like parasites. They'll miss us more than anyone. (And by the way, nobody knows that more than your current publisher.)

Luke Morris said...

Declining young readership definitely has something to do with your lack of phone calls from people my age, but don't forget that a lot of us handle errors in a different way now.

Public humiliation is the method of choice it seems. People my age choose to leave a smartass comment under the story insulting your grammatical "error" or bad headline. The other method is to scan and send the page with the "goofed" hed to a place like Failblog. I have done both with botched text in our rival paper. Option three, give it to Leno and hope he shares it on national TV.

Impersonal, yes. But that's how the game has changed since Leno and 4chan.

rknil said...

All of that stems from newspapers treating their readers like idiots. Now the people are firing back.

I have little sympathy. Too many people in newsrooms today cannot write. They cannot edit. They cannot think. They are no smarter than the readers. In fact, they are usually dumber because they fail to address the myriad problems within their own offices.