The Outstater

July 31, 2020

“There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” — Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld answering a question at a 2002 press briefing

AT A CERTAIN AGE you should be getting used to the generation gap, overlapping generation gaps in fact. But it still catches you by surprise some days — not only the disparity but the wanton abandonment of proven ways for no other reason than they are proven ways.

For instance, some of us can no longer credibly call ourselves journalist; we no longer have a clue as to what is happening in the modern newsroom.

This was brought home rather cruelly in a discussion with a youngish journo (that’s what they call themselves these days). There was surprise at my suggestion to reinstate what I thought was a routine prescription for any well-run newsroom — a strong copy desk. 

That is a desk with the power to reject poorly thought out articles and to require reporters to answer pointed questions about untenable aspects of a story, all in addition to having ultimate authority to edit for grammar, style and spelling and then write a headline and place it in the layout as per the publisher’s sense of context and priority.

They used to call it the Bull Pen, but no longer — for reasons that should be obvious.

All of that, the youngish journo made clear, was a squashing of journalistic creativity, of what brings joy to a story, of what makes news bright and interesting, of what encourages the spark of enterprise, and so on.

The generation gap in this instance was of such expanse I cannot fairly say that either of us understood the other’s point. Mine was that the absence of the Bull Pen had ushered journalism’s decline, as recorded by Gay Talese in “The Kingdom and the Power,” the classic 1969 memoir of his days at the New York Times.

Old fogeyish enough for you?

Also, the discussion brought into focus why I am having trouble understanding changes in the Associated Press Stylebook, which, in my has-been fashion, I have refused to update since it started getting woke in the late 1960s.

It wasn’t too much longer before the AP prohibited the use of  “illegal immigrant” to describe immigrants who were here illegally or “Islamist” to describe attacks that were done in the name of Islam. The AP explained that the terms were dehumanizing. The AP Stylebook, you see, had gone to war with the core purpose of journalism, i.e., to accurately describe what its reporters can see and hear.

Now the AP has made it the rule to capitalize “Black” but not capitalize “white.”  A spokesman patiently explained the reason to the unintiated: “White people generally do not share the same history and culture, or the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color . . . capitalizing the term white, as is done by white supremacists, risks subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs.”

Those are strange words to anyone who has studied this nation’s Anglo-Saxon underpinnings. The neat thing about early England was the successful blending (in battle or negotiation) of the Norse, Welch, Briton, Norman and others into a single people. It is why we have the rich and descriptive language of a Shakespeare and how we quarreled our way to the idea that even kings should obey the law — our exceptionalism, in other words, whether we are Black or white.

That said, and having been labeled as “ruddy” on my U.S. Navy ID card, I don’t describe people by their superficial appearance — unless, of course, they are homicidal and running at large, a distinction that the AP Stylebook refuses to make for fear of offending the at-large homicidal.

No matter, as I said, after 55 years I am giving up on journalism as a legitimate discipline. Instead, I would like to be known professionally as a “defenestrator,” someone who in the manner of King James II and the unfortunate 8th Earl of Douglas throws imposters out of upper-story windows.

My new title cannot be taken away because it predates 1619, when modern journalism began its recording of our history. And no, it is not capitalized.   — Craig Ladwig


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