For All Their Blessings, Computers Have Hurt Writing
In two bestsellers during the 1970s, “Strictly Speaking” and “A Civil Tongue,” the late television journalist Edwin Newman asked rhetorically: “Will America be the death of English?”
I wonder what Newman would think of the text trash that permeates so much of our writing today: “u makes me so hupy … can we b 2gether 4ever … plz … ”
At the time those books were published, computers were only beginning to transform global communications. It’s doubtful that Newman, respected even among print journalists (which is unusual), foresaw the deleterious impact this emerging technology would have on our writing.
I was a cub reporter at a Wisconsin newspaper, fresh out of college, when Newman was counting his royalties from those books. The Old Man, clearly a product of The Front Page, presided over that newsroom with a mailed fist.
The Old Man could rant and rave and bellow like Billy Sunday, the famous evangelist of his era. I believe he would have held his own against attorney Clarence Darrow, whose cases dominated American journalism in the early part of the last century.
Perhaps the Old Man was there when Darrow asked William Jennings Bryan, in the Scopes Monkey Trial, where Cain found his wife. I do not know. But I can see him snickering at the pathetic response: “I let the agnostics hunt for her.”
The Old Man had heard the linotypes rattle and the presses roar. He knew the wonderful smell of printer’s ink and hot lead. Now, near the end, he was trying to impart some wisdom to brash, young reporters who felt more oats than responsibility. He was not just correcting our writing; he was molding us into respected members of The Fourth Estate.
I recall being summoned to the Old Man’s desk, always unceremoniously, countless times over writing mistakes. On one of those dreaded occasions, I had written: “The driver was arrested when he failed to stop for a red light.”
Reminded of the bawdy implication of the expression “red light,” I nodded complete understanding, and left to make the necessary adjustment. Considering the matter closed, I was baffled, irritated, and embarrassed to be called a second time over the same sentence. I was fuming, in fact.
I stood at his desk again, the whole newsroom listening, a few bold souls stealing glances. All over a simple sentence. The Old Man made me wait, while I cooled my heels, pretending to be busy with other copy.
My sentence, revised by earlier edict, now read: “The driver was arrested when he failed to stop for a red traffic light.”
Finally, the Old Man looked up, a single eyebrow arched in disapproval. “Would you stop for a green traffic light?” he asked quietly.
I was deflated.
On another occasion, I had written, in all seriousness: “Two Milwaukee men drowned today while fishing in a boat on Green Bay.”
“It may be,” the Old Man allowed, “that these men were, in fact, fishing in their boat, presumably with little success. It is more likely, however, that they were seated in the craft, with their lines in the water.”
The story was quietly and humbly revised without contacting the coroner. Oh, how I hated those tete-a-tetes.
Reporting on a tragic car accident, I once declared: “The vehicle left the roadway and went into a ditch on U.S. 41.” Back to the lion’s den.
The Old Man ventured that readers would thank me profusely for pointing out the deplorable condition of a major interstate highway. “There may be a pothole in that road,” he scowled, “but I doubt there’s a ditch.” Smart ass.
No one in that newsroom was spared from the Old Man’s barbed editing. We were all called to his desk. Often.
I once overheard the Old Man chastise our society editor (in those days, newspapers had such mentors of proper etiquette) because she had written: “Members are asked to bring a dish to pass.”
That sentence, the Old Man growled, reminded him of the cannibal who passed his brother in the jungle. Members henceforth brought a dish to share.
When computers replaced typewriters in that newsroom, something was very different. The new machines were quieter, of course, but that wasn’t it. Then it struck me: there was no longer hard copy, and we no longer being called to the Old Man’s desk over our mistakes.
He was now rewriting in secret, and we were all the poorer for it.
About The Author
|Professional Writer And Editor|
|I am a professional writer, with hundreds of published stories to my credit, and a former newspaper editor. I also served as director of communications in the corporate arena. I am a recipient of state, national, and international first-place writing awards in the areas of education, business, ...|