Berating & Insulting?
Did you ever feel like e-mailing a Milwaukee Journal
Sentinel reporter to
comment on a story?
Using the e-mail addresses for the reporters bylined at the top of Journal Sentinel
(JS) articles (replacing titles like Journal Sentinel education reporter) to be actually critical
of the writer and the editors can get you blacklisted from further use, if you're not
careful. As Managing Editor George Stanley wrote to me (like all such addresses at
the JS, his takes the form firstname.lastname@example.org):
Berating and insulting people with multiple emails is no way to communicate. It's
merely a way to get your messages automatically forwarded to junk mail boxes. If you
have something to say in the future, please write it in a civil manner and mail it, since
you do not appear to be capable of using email responsibly. You may be impressed by
your own intelligence, but we're not.
What outrageous remarks of mine brought that on? And why
was I writing in the
first place? First, I had long thought the JS was printing a lot of things in which the
reporters should have known better, but that the copy desk, at least, should
have caught. I was sensitive to these errors (when they were errors; some were
borderline calls, after all) as what I think is a normally educated reader on whom these
mistakes just plain grated. I was paying for a professional product, certainly,
and the JS was letting me down, probably saving money on staffing in the
process. As I wrote reporter Mark Johnson in an exchange over his use of the
word "nauseous" (when he meant "nauseated"):
Here, this was on the front page of a paper that used to be near
the top of most lists of great US papers (tho not any more), & that
probably still likes to think it belongs there.
As a reporter and editor myself, for various publications and now my Web
site, I suppose I am more than ordinarily sensitive to these things, but I can't be
the only one who cares. (Indeed, columnist Phillip Chard, in one of the more
gracious responses, to my gentle chiding that he wrote about "wailing on," for
"beating," when he meant "whaling on," confirmed that "Many of you caught
it," and the "grammar police" do indeed watch closely; in fact, they had
pointed out several errors that I had missed. [complete text here]
But the point for me is not that I enjoy playing "gotcha," though Mr. Stanley
seemed to think so (and what if I do? And why should there be a correct way for a
subscriber [at present, $192.50 plus tip] to point out errors, if the reader is
correct?), but just the opposite -- I hold the paper to the highest standard and
fervently hope that every time a commonly or uncommonly misused term comes
up that the paper will be right on target, thus vindicating my own usage.
Sadly, even editorials (which are the most often error-free) will use "alibi" for
"excuse," for example, making me seem pedantic if I insist in some bar that they
are not the same, or write that a Senate bill must "run the gauntlet" (7/19/04),
when it should be "gantlet." People confuse "literally" and "figuratively," or
"livid" with "red-faced" (it means the opposite, pale or somewhat purplish, like
a bruise) often enough in real life without the bad examples of JS reporters and
others to make my distinctions seem quaint in turn. I would like the truly
uneducated to speak and write the way they wish while being confident the JS is
upholding the standards.
But I am careful (Stanley might think gleefully so), to blame what I usually call the
JS's "weak copy desk," ultimately, for these too-frequent failings, though the reporters
usually still take it very personally. Some, of course, are gracious, as I said. Crocker
Stephenson (an accomplished and versatile reporter), when I pointed out that he had
used "enormity" as a synonym for "vastness" or "immensity" (it means great evil;
look it up), got my respect when he wrote back:
I checked my dictionary, and you are exactly right. I love these sorts of distinctions,
and I'm glad you clued me into this one.
Crocker [complete text here]
Others will simply ignore me (many do) -- although I think they
should be required
to answer any reasonable message that doesn't involve profanity or plain looniness,
while being provided enough time in their workday -- or at least respond with a
mechanical acknowledgement, as did Dennis Getto:
Thanks fro [sic] the correction. I'll pass it on to the desk.
Now, I'll admit that in my original letter to him I was a bit of a smart-ass, though hardly
vicious, but it was one way to make it worth writing, by attempting to be somewhat
entertaining (somewhat like a restaurant review itself). [Below:]
Subject: Greedy waiter
Dear Mr. Getto:
I was surprised to read in your review of Pizza Man (Fri. Jan. 24) that "after finishing
our pizza and salads, our waiter took the time to put down fresh paper placemats
and silverware" & that you appreciated it. Surely after eating your pizza & salads he
should have done more than that -- eliminate them from your bill, perhaps, or at least
give you free dessert.
Forgive me for saying the weak JS copy desk was out to lunch on this one.
But Mark Johnson, when I replied to his first response
with a little of my own
history after I wrote him concerning "nauseous," countered as I would expect from
one of those sensitive souls Stanley feels the need to protect:
I'm glad you wrote back. I wondered what kind of person would send such
a snotty email (perhaps you forgot the remark, "you ought to be ashamed").
Based on your note, I'd say you think a great deal of yourself. And, wow,
you've got the clips to prove it!
Great zinger, except that my reference to clips had been about examples of good
copy editing from the old Milwaukee Journal from the days of retired News Editor
Tom Barber, who loaned me books on the subject, such as Theodore M. Bernstein's
"The Careful Writer." It had nothing to do with my writing, as I had only been a
library clerk there at the time, in what movies call "the morgue." [To be honest, I can
see how he might misread my remark.] But here was a common thread, with reporters
consistently misreading my messages and compounding their errors by writing back
with misinterpretations, misspellings, grammatical errors, and so forth (generally
corrected if I reprint them here). Perhaps because they had so many responses to
readers to get through each day or just didn't care, they left themselves open to further
censure in a way I would think they'd be doubly cautious about doing. (And even a cub
reporter should be ashamed of confusing "nauseated" and "nauseous"; doubly so for
a copy desk).
Not surprisingly, since reporters tend to be as contentious as lawyers, if my
position wasn't unassailable (and even if it was), many would fight back with whatever
ammunition they could come up with. Some, such as Whitney Gould and Meg
Kissinger, wouldn't back off an inch, though they were at pleasant enough about it,
unlike Stanley, whom I had to mention to Kissinger when I wrote a second time after
she defended what I thought was at best an archaic usage of "awoken" in place of
By the way, it's not that I carried this matter around in my head since
Sept. It's just that I have long felt that the JS's copy editing has gone
downhill, maybe because they are understaffed & overworked, & I began
saving examples, perhaps for an article of my own. Something finally
snapped, & I began e-mailing a few offenders. Sadly, tho you & Crocker
Stephenson were professional about it, others -- including George
Stanley -- responded like prima donnas, enraged that they could be
criticized, tho reporters do it every day on your pages to others. Spice
& Bivak and Tim Cuprisin often drip sarcasm in their columns, to name
2 examples (& you could certainly sting), yet Stanley lectured me on how
to communicate properly. [Actually, he just told me I wasn't being
responsible, without offering any guidelines --M.Z.]
At least the hyper-sensitive & defensive replies I got -- & just what are
the reporters' e-mail addresses supposed to garner? Lots of praise? Fat
chance, I would think -- can be material for any commentary on the matter I
may write for another publication. . . . Especially since Stanley implied I
was being cut off from further communication except for US Mail for my
temerity. I'll see whether this gets through; even a two-word reply will let
me know (you can make it rude; I can handle it). [complete text here]
JS Ignores More Editing Errors
As it turned out, I am not banned (so far), though I have stopped trying to deal with
the clinkers even as newspapers with circled passages keep piling up until now, when I
have a Web page where I can take them one at a time and, I hope, contribute to the
general literacy in my own small way. But I am concerned about this apparent loss of
vigilance at the JS on two fronts. Not only is the copy desk doing poorly for a major
paper on even the most commonplace errors in prominent spots, the attitude towards
it seems both indifferent and unduly protective of the writers. What happened to the
days when a city editor would publicly excoriate a reporter for his or her infractions?
I can attest that when I worked there poor or incorrect usage, along with the
offender's name, was circled and posted prominently for everyone on the editorial
floor to see. This led to some knowing snickers among the staff, but at least someone
cared. News Editor Tom Barber went so far as to gift wrap and send by office mail
lumps of coal to staffers who trotted out for their leads the overused Christmas-time
phrase "'Tis the season."
But Mr. Stanley, for one, thinks the demeanor of the critic towards these
milquetoasts is what's important here, though of course I used no profanity nor even
insulting names (well, "inept," but I think it was justified; an editorial writer wouldn't
hesitate to use it), just humor, even if labored at times. And these are personal
e-mails, easily erased and ignored (as many seem to have been), not anonymous threats
on an answering machine, after all. But "berating and insulting?" And why should my
putting something on actual paper be considered any less insulting? Instead of letting
my gentle correctives do a job without his heavy hand (and reinforcing the fact that
there are readers, and they care), it seems he prefers to discourage critical
communication altogether, however well-intentioned, though involved readership builds
All right, just how nasty could I have been? Is Stanley somehow right to banish me?
And I did feel I had to cool it a bit to continue the project. Here is a typical early
message, to tech writer Stanley Miller:
Cc: George Stanley
Subject: Annoying word usage
Dear Mr. Miller:
I was surprised (& irritated, but not aggravated) to read in your article "Picking up
the pieces" (Tue. Sept. 17, 2002) that the loss of data from a computer "can be
aggravating." Surely you -- or the weak JS copy desk, at any rate -- should know that
"aggravating" means "to make worse," not "annoying" or "irritating." Thus, one
can aggravate a condition -- such as an illness -- or even a situation, such as a natural
disaster. But a Stanley Miller, for example, can not be aggravated unless Stanley
Miller is a term for an existing malady -- a possibility, but one I don't think you would
A recent JS story, by way of illustration, correctly used the term ("Timber
proposal runs counter to record," on Sun. Sept. 22, 2002): "Partial cutting done
historically typically aggravated the fire hazard and made things worse when fire
came along. . . ."
Let's hope you & the inept copy editors mark your lists of often improperly-used
words accordingly, tho one would think the copy desk already knows better. Apparently
not. [Apparently they don't care, either, as Miller wrote (Oct. 26) about sending
someone in a computer game to "aggravate the Clintons."
overly clever, perhaps, but so what? I figured at least
he'll remember it, and
why should I be restricted to just a dull bill of particulars when I can try to be lively, as
writing should be. Miller, by the way, never answered -- nor did Leonard Sykes or
Duane Dudek -- though Stanley's warning to me was copied to them, apparently as his
way of supervisory hand-holding. Sykes was the one who had felt my weak lash for
writing "We are literally staring down the barrel at a war with Iraq," when, of
course, a whole country can't literally stare down a barrel, and a war couldn't be at the
other end, but rather some entity capable of holding the rather enormous gun. Trivial?
Not for a prominent column in what aspires to be a first-rate newspaper. More
egregious -- and repeating something I have indeed debated at the tavern -- was his
interview with writer Walter Mosely about the "black American experience" as a
"torch leading the country away from its 'Ugly American' profile." Now perhaps not
everybody realizes these days that a helpful (though unpolished) engineer in the "Ugly
American" was the hero of the ironically titled 1958 Eugene Burdick and William
J. Lederer novel about American aid programs in southeast Asia, while the "pretty
American officials are overwhelmingly arrogant, rude, and incompetent." but the JS's
"urban affairs" reporter, or the copy desk, ought to. A Google search will easily bear
this out, and I have no patience with someone who might say that the all-too-common
usage that makes our boorish tourists into Ugly Americans has become accepted.
Though you can argue that time has distorted certain phrases, so that "gilding the lily,"
for example, has become standard (look up its history if you have to), they never, to my
knowledge, completely reverse their meaning. Even if one might, this is a
contemporary, copyrighted work, reprinted in 1999, not Shakespeare, available today
in libraries and from Amazon.com for $11.16 (and also a Marlon Brando film).
As for Dudek, another repeat offender, I first nudged him a little when I saw that he
had written of the movie "Tadpole" that "its premise revolves around statuary rape,"
which calls up an interesting mental picture because of what must have been just a
typing error, and didn't really expect a response. Neither did I expect nor get one when
I noted he had ignored the germ theory of disease when he wrote he could have caught a
recent cold at the Toronto Film Festival "from sitting in ice-cold hotel rooms" or
"often-freezing theaters." Never mind that researchers have again and again shown
that even sitting in a chilly draft with both feet in buckets of ice water will not give one
a cold. And I don't want to hear either that somehow this can lower one's resistance, as
they have also noted that cold germs don't linger in the body (as some serious viruses
will) waiting to erupt when provoked. The JS itself has published science articles on
this subject. This may have been a criticism too general for him to bother with, but I
was also annoyed when in several stories he referred to former Whitefish Bay
Weather Underground figure Bernardine Dohrn as "Bernadine." As I pointed out,
maybe he wasn't familiar with her, but the copy desk sure should have been. Since my
job at the old Journal library had been to look up just such celebrities whenever a
reporter needed a file to refer to, I knew she would have accrued many clippings that
spelled her name correctly [as it generally was after I wrote in, coincidence or not].
But film critic Dudek (who wouldn't hesitate to trash a movie that didn't please
him) strayed also with the widespread practice of using "begs the question"
(10/03/02) when "raises the question" or "calls for the question to be asked" is
what was meant. Also known as circular reasoning, "Begging the question is what
one does in an argument when one assumes what one claims to be proving.
(Skeptic's Dictionary.) It is a term of logic or debate, and drives me up the wall when
misused -- but any copy editor should see a red flag whenever it is used.
Just recently, for example, Mike Nichols wrote in his Ozaukee County column of
Sept. 3, 2004:
Sick and tired of Chicago traffic
We're staying home this holiday weekend because we just got back
from a trip to Maine that included a couple turns -- by both us and our
stomachs -- on the new, super-cool, super-fast Lake Express car ferry.
Which begs what, to me anyway, will forevermore be an essential
Chicago tollways, or regurgitated ham and cheddar?
Pass the Dramamine and the mayo. To me, it's no contest. . . .
[Note: My spell checker suggests toll ways, but that's a minor quibble.]
The list goes on and on, of course, or there
would be no need for this page.
Twice, recently, Washington reporter Katherine M. Skiba used invite for invitation
(front page of July 24, and July 6, 2004). She, like many reporters and TV
commentators, is also given to calling (also July 26) the lectern (a reading stand that
can hold scripts, even if most speakers use Teleprompters) a podium (a raised
platform, such as Olympic champions and orchestra conductors stand on.) Dudek,
again, wrote (July 23, 2004) of Halle Berry that she is "too good of an actress. . . . ,"
one word more than any English teacher would approve of, that good copy editors
routinely excise. Syndicated and wire service copy is not free of error, of course,
though it is presumed vetted before it even arrives locally. To take a random example,
Washington Post reporter Rob Stein wrote (Sept. 6, 2004) of "treatments that
staunch cancer's ability to grow," when the correct American usage is stanch,
according to the Oxford Pocket Fowler's Modern English Usage.
Goals & Guidelines
I could go on, of course (as I will, eventually), since the infractions pile up faster
than I can deal with them, but I want to deal with some general concerns, such as, "Who
made you the expert?" and, "Why bother when there is lots of media criticism of real
substance to be made?" I have to emphasize that I have not made it my life's work to
join the previously mentioned "grammar police," nor do I have any special qualifications
-- I admit it right away -- except some experience as a reporter and editor; I was also an
English major, for what it's worth. But I always took pains to write correctly and learn
as much as I could from those authors who did care enough to write books about word
usage, and tried to assimilate a few basic style manuals for pleasure and to rely on
when in doubt. Now, of course, the Web offers a lot of reference material, and I have
a few basic resources at hand, as well: dictionary, Associated Press Stylebook, the
Pocket Fowler's Modern English Usage, The Careful Writer among them.
None of this means that I am interested here in arcane word lore or catching someone
on an obscure point. Just basic good English and good journalism -- the JS, after all,
is even used as a classroom teaching aid, at the corporation's urging. So if I spot what I
call an error, it is sure to be something an average reader can appreciate, and all the
more useful because I have such ordinary qualifications. And some references these
days, I have to admit, are more permissive than I would be (the Oxford Pocket
Fowler's, for example, would allow decimate in the new sense of "to kill or destroy a
large number," as opposed to the Roman military's meaning of punishing only one in
10, on the grounds that the Roman cohorts aren't around any more and the distinction is
unneeded; my Webster's New World Dictionary now lists the use of enormity as of
"enormous size or extent," though "loosely," when it should be restricted (according
to Fowler's, Bernstein and myself) to "great wickedness" or "depravity." So I
generally just point it out when the experts disagree, and have long given up entirely on
bemoaning "hopefully" used as an introductory phrase. It is here to stay. However, I
think I will continue to insist, along with Bernstein, that "minimize" means to actually
reduce something to a minimum, not speak of it in a way that diminishes its
importance. At least for a while. But George Stanley notwithstanding, just as the
price of admission to a ballgame includes the right to heckle without being punched by
a player, I feel my purchase of what should be a reasonably well-edited paper comes
with the right to complain if it's not, whether on a Web site or in e-mails.
Of course, there are larger issues to worry about -- and other publications to deal
with besides the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and I intend to cover them as I come
across items of concern. Critiques of real substance -- which is also something the
average reader doesn't readily find, despite such valiant local efforts as Dave
Berkman's Media Musings column in the Shepherd Express -- are something that
for the most part I'll use my daily journal for as topics arise.
Some indication of the range of items that I think I may be dealing with here -- or
have already covered, if not for the last time -- is in this list of things that are especially
irritating, as they occur to me: Of course, William Safire or the late Theodore M.
Bernstein could do it better. But they aren't going to.
The Exhibits So Far
[For entertainment purposes only. Please, no wagering. See primary sources (Fowler's, Bernstein,
OED, etc.) to settle bar bets or for definitive usage.]