Think Snow

It's Time for An Editor's Code of Conduct


{This is from “Everyone Needs an Editor (Some of Us More Than Others)”, my memoir about my time in the news business. For some reason it seems appropriate to reprint it here.}


A dispute a few years ago over the quality of a completed story assignment is reported to have led a veteran editor of The Washington Post to punch a reporter after the reporter called him a three-syllable word beginning with "c." Every account I've read indicates the word wasn't "cowpuncher."  

That incident coming more than 30 years after I slugged a subordinate at Radio Free Europe shows me that newsrooms need an Editor’s Code Of Conduct. Here's a rough draft of what one might look like.

I ( insert name ) do hereby pledge that I will never slap, stab, slug, shoot, strangle, or suffocate a writer/reporter nor will I scream "you stupid son-of-a-bitch" or "you're the biggest asshole I've ever met and you obviously come from a long line of assholes" when the aforementioned person turns in copy, either near or far from deadline, in which:

- The lead sentence begins with the word "meanwhile."

- The lead sentence is 87 words long, has nine commas, four parenthetical thoughts and ends with a question mark.

- Montana is described as a state in the Midwest.

- The writer/reporter, when questioned about a key element in the story, says, "How would I know? I don't understand it myself."

- A person named Miles Brewster IV is quoted as an eyewitness to a big apartment fire in Connecticut when three weeks earlier a Miles Brewster IV was said to be the only person who saw a mother drive her car and her kids into a lake in Utah.

- The name of the town from which the reporter is allegedly reporting is consistently misspelled.

- The lead paragraph says so-and-so was badly hurt in an accident, and the fact that this person is now the late so-and-so is buried in the 11th paragraph. 

- The expressions "as everyone knows" or "as is obvious to anyone" are used.

- The writer/reporter refuses to include any meaningful background information, claiming "we've already reported that."

- A radio talk show host is portrayed as speaking for "Middle America," wherever that is.

- The copy looks exactly like what was on the AP wire minutes ago, including the same five typos.

- An analysis piece ends with the wishy-washy "only time will tell."

- The writer/reporter misuses (after having the difference explained to him
2,367 times) the words "infer" or "imply."

- The writer/reporter, when asked about a quote that doesn't make sense, says, "Well, I think that's what she said. I didn't write that part down."

- Any politician who isn't from the East Coast or the West Coast is said to be "a leading representative of the Bible Belt."

- The winners of the World Series are called the "World Champions."

That's as far as I've got. An Editor’s Code Of Conduct probably would also need a line or two reminding signatories that there should be no uninvited touching of other staff members (either above or below the waist, either in the office or out), and a reiteration that baseball bats, blow torches and hedge trimmers are forbidden in the newsroom.   

Drawing the work of Irene McCoy.

Drawing the work of Irene McCoy.