November 15, 2021

In Error There Is Encouragement

by Leo Morris

I bow to no one in my disdain for Governor Holcomb. After all, it is my duty as a political columnist to be a government watchdog, and as the state’s chief executive, the governor should be prepared to take his share of criticism.

I can’t be certain of how many negative columns I’ve written about him, but it must be north of half a dozen by now. I feel as if I could type “Governor Holcomb” in my sleep.

Which is apparently what I did last week.

In a column about how important constitutions are, I wrote, way down in the penultimate paragraph, “Governor Holcomb and the General Assembly are engaged in an epic battle over what the governor’s executive powers should be and how much control the legislature should have over its own actions.”

At least that’s what my brain said I wrote. What my fingers actually came up with was, “Governor Whitcomb and the General Assembly . . .”

Well, that blew up my email.

“Do you mean Governor Holcomb?” one reader politely and succinctly inquired. “Leo, you’re getting old,” another one said. “Ed Whitcomb was governor in the 1960s.” There was even an attempt at humor: “Was it that dadburn autocorrect?” one man asked. Only one reader responded to the meat of the column and offered his view that the courts, no less than the governor and the legislature, are less than respectful of constitutional imperatives.

I take two lessons from this.

One is that, no matter how trivial errors are, readers will notice them and, more often than not, pounce on them, ignoring whatever point the writer was trying to convey. This is dismaying but understandable. I was reading a novel recently in which one character was said not to be “phased” by something, instead of the correct “fazed,” and it yanked me right out of the storyline I had been happily immersed in.

But the other is that most of the people who encounter my columns seem to read them all the way the end, which pleases me a lot more than it probably should.

Although I have strong feelings about the issues of the day and am less than shy about expressing them forcefully, I am not naïve enough to think I am winning hearts and changing mind. I suspect most people who read opinion columns these days do so either to reinforce their own views or to augment the scorn they feel for those with opposing views. Confirmation bias has become Americans’ default mode.

No, my less ambitious, and, I think, saner goal is merely to make sure my take on the issues is out there, unambiguously stated and logically argued. If that side loses in the end, it won’t be because it wasn’t plainly available.

So, if readers want to know my position in its totality, they have to make it to the end of the columns, which gives me my goal: To make the writing interesting enough to carry the ideas to the end.

And that’s not an easy task for someone trained in the “inverted pyramid” style of newspaper writing. As you may know, news stories were supposed to be written with the most important facts – the who, what, when, where, why and how – crammed into the first couple of paragraphs.

There were two reasons for this. One was to allow editors, if facing a space crunch, to trim the stories from the bottom up, confident nothing vital would be lost in the process. The other was to accommodate readers with short attention spans – the majority, alas – who would seldom read beyond the second paragraph.

Newspapers are in decline, but attention spans are even shorter, and the new media springing up even more aggressive in compensating for them. Information consumers are invited to jump into and out of the middle of complicated issues, leaving with no more sense of nuance or perspective than they came with. We know more and more, and understand less and less.

Dragging someone to the end of a 600- or 700-word column, then, is a major victory, and I’m glad to have evidence that I accomplish it every now and then. Even at the cost of a hit to my reputation as a careful writer.

Thanks for indulging me. I feel so much better now. I hope that is a permanent change, not just a faze I’m going through.

Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at


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