I heard on the radio this morning that Ben Bradlee, Executive Editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate era, turns 93 today. If you’ve ever seen “All The President’s Men”, you’ll remember Jason Robards’ turn as Mr. Bradlee, which won the actor an Oscar. At one point in the film, Bradlee raises questions about his reporters’ source for an article, but then realizes that he must trust them to do their job properly. “I can’t do the reporting for my reporters,” he admits, “which means I have to trust them. And I hate trusting anybody. Run that baby.” One wonders what Mr. Bradlee thinks of that trust level today, or indeed, what Perry White would think of it.
News that a rare, pristine copy of the first comic book to feature Superman sold for $3.2 million this weekend has generated a substantial amount of media reporting over the last couple of days. Unfortunately, the rush to report also generated numerous errors in grammar and punctuation, enough to make any high school English teacher go into paroxysms of rage. At the same time, the hurried storytelling has revealed, once again, that too many news outlets are committing factual errors in the urge to upload.
It’s hard to know where to begin with this piece from MTV News, for example. Opening with poor verb-subject agreement (“statistics” is plural in this instance, not singular) is not a good omen for what’s to come. I realize that many of my readers and followers have a problem with my pointing out this sort of thing. However, errors in grammar and punctuation do make a difference. This is a fact made all the more apparent when reading a bullet point like this:
4. This debut issue features the first appearance of Superman, alias Clark Kent and Lois Lane.
When you do not put a comma after “Clark Kent”, the headline becomes rather different, as I think you’ll agree.
Then there are the obvious research and reasoning issues with this piece. For example, the author’s statement about Christopher Reeve being the first to play Superman on the silver screen is simply wrong. Not only was there a live-action Superman series shown in movie theatres back in the 1940’s, in addition to animated cartoons, but George Reeves played Superman in the first feature film about the character in 1951.
The piece concludes with Reason No. 5 for the price of this very expensive comic book. The author explains that Superman was originally an orphan, and that neither the Kents nor Kansas were mentioned at first in his mythology. I’ll choose not to split hairs over the Last Son of Krypton being an orphan, and instead focus on the real problem with this assertion. It isn’t so much that it could have been phrased better, but the fact that it’s irrelevant to the story. It’s a bit like saying that a Francis Bacon painting sold for tens of millions of dollars because his last name also happens to be Twitter’s favorite pork product.
Of course, I don’t mean to pick on this individual writer, per se. The real issue in my mind is whether anyone at MTV News actually does any editing, given that they let this piece be published as-is. Keep in mind, this is just one, short piece on a pop culture subject, so one has to ask oneself what else are editors at major media outlets allowing to slip past on more serious matters.
Trying to put out a well-written, well-researched story is more important than simply throwing information onto the digital wall as quickly as possible, and hoping that at least some of it sticks. Without common writing standards, and the enforcement of those standards by editors, writing becomes a kind of free-for-all, in which no one may point out anyone else’s faults. Yet if you don’t tell me what I’m doing wrong, how am I ever going to get better?
If you write online, you have just as much responsibility to your readers when you hit “publish” as a newspaper or book publisher does. If you expect your online readers to pay attention to what you’re about to tell them, then you have to be authoritative, and back it up with facts. You also have to command the language, rather than either allowing language rules to intimidate you, or pretending that they don’t matter when they most certainly do. Just because blogging is a new form of media, doesn’t mean that you should be allowed to escape the virtual red pen of a good editor.
Clark Kent could have snapped Perry White like a twig, if he wanted to. Nevertheless, he respected his editor, and followed his orders when it came to writing a story. Let’s all try to aspire to good writing and good editing in following that example, even if that means being corrected for mistakes, so that we can improve upon the writing powers we already have.