Canaries in the free press coalmine

Dear President Trump,

Over the past week there’s been at least one copyediting error in about a fifth of the articles I read in the WP. If I thought you perused your now-hometown paper with any regularity, I’d ask if you’ve noticed them too, but since you allegedly don’t read (let alone peruse), and there’s not an iota of evidence to the contrary, I’m going to assume that you’ve missed these blips. Really, whether you happen to be hip to them is completely beside the point; I’m bringing them up because they worry me – they feel like so many little canaries in the coalmine setting off alarms. Heretofore the WP has been flawless, with no such mistakes littering their online offerings and it feels like something is amiss. Maybe someone crucial is on vacation and the second stringer isn’t up to the task, but surely there are copy editors across the various departments and not all the lead folks go on vacation at once.

Since I’m bringing it up, I feel a little bad that I’ve not kept a careful record of these things. I considered it when I noticed the first glitch, but dismissed it as a fluke so didn’t bother and then was rushed or whatever the next 15 times. What I can offer in terms of data are the two from today. The first appeared in the Health & Science section and was a contribution from a woman named Robin Raven, who I don’t fault at all – this was a copy-editing issue, for sure (plus, how cool to have two bird names). Raven’s article is about the letter she would write to her 10-year old self after her 10-year old self wrote her first suicide note in the wake of her father’s suicide earlier that year. Here is part of what she would include in the letter:

“I stopped painting my past misery on each present moment. I learned the copying skills that have helped me handle my past when it shows up, to experience each emotion as it comes and then let each one go.”

Of course it’s just a coincidence that “copying” got subbed in for “coping” when I’m fussing about copy editing problems, but it’s kind of odd, as is the irony of the particular mistaken word choice given what she was really saying.

The second occurred in Judith Kerr’s obituary. The article closes with a sweet remembrance of how she broached death in one of her many children’s books:

“Mog was tired,” Ms. Kerr wrote, below an illustration that showed her former playmate curled up on a blue-check blanket, as his ghost rose peacefully into the air. “She was dead tired. Her head was dead tired. Her paws were dead tired. Even her tail was dead tired. Mog thought, ‘I want to sleep forever.’ And so she did. But a little bit of her stayed awake to see what would happen next.”

Mog was clearly a female cat and yet the WP morphed her into a male cat just before Kerr used no fewer than six feminine pronouns to describe her dear departed cat.

It’s surely a coincidence that both the mistakes I picked up today were in articles about death. Although I can’t show you since I didn’t track them, the other errors were in editorials about you or straight up news pieces mostly about you (sigh). The WP has been stalwartly dealing with this sort of material for eons (give or take, plus another sigh), so I think it unlikely that all of a sudden their copy editors have hit their limits in terms of being able to proofread emotionally heavy writing.

What I’m afraid this could mean is that the WP is cutting corners and sacrificing excellence to expediency or economy. Who knows whether this portends something worse than two in ten thousand words being off in a given day, but it’s troubling nonetheless, and it bears watching. I don’t see anything online about solvency concerns, understaffing, or notices of layoffs, but something is off. There is never a good time for a democracy’s Fourth Estate to stumble, but in the context of your sustained, all out assault on journalism and the free press, it’s an especially bad time for the WP to have even hairline cracks in its armor.

May our information sources be safe and stable.
May we be willing to go to bat for them and not take them for granted.
May we all recognize that a healthy democracy requires a truly free press.
May you not start a war.

Tracy Simpson

P.S., copyediting courtesy of Laura with an assist from Dryer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (Dreyer, 2019).

One thought on “Canaries in the free press coalmine

  1. Tracy,

    This is a fascinating observation which deserves more thought and attention—my journalism forbears have their ears perked up.


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