Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Big picture, little picture

Hey, what better way to celebrate Midterm Day* than by having a look at the array of stuff that confronts a copy editor dealing with a 1A story? Here's the top of a big profile that could have benefited from a harder look on several levels:

LANSING -- In the final 18 days it took to disgorge a state budget deal with a major tax increase, House Speaker Andy Dillon lost nearly 15 pounds, a lot of sleep and maybe some friends.

Here's a straight-up usage question. It's not a "grammar" issue (yes, there are folks who can't tell the difference); the verb's installed right-side-up and has wires going to all the proper terminals and everything. "Disgorge" is just the wrong verb. It means "to give up on request or under pressure," says the 9th New Collegiate -- especially, as the OED adds, "to give up what has been wrongfully appropriated" (it quotes the Iron Duke: "to make the French Generals disgorge the church plate which they have stolen").

[Does that mean "disgorge" is a wrong verb for all news writing? No. Here's Time from August 1990: "President Bush vowed not only to defend the Persian Gulf but also to force Saddam to disgorge Kuwait." It's not a usage issue in such a case, though it is a framing issue: whether international relations should be discussed in mythical terms, for one, and how and to what effect nation-states are personalized as their leaders. Go ahead and read the whole thing for a sobering look back at how news readers learn about the world. But back to the legislature!]

Some days he lived on protein drinks, unable from stress to eat.

Now, Dillon and at least nine other legislators are targets of recall campaigns by antitax crusaders. And the novice House speaker enters another pressure cooker as the Legislature approaches an Oct. 31 deadline to slash $435 million in spending.

The home of the World's Largest Stove and the World's Largest Tire now has the World's Largest Pressure Cooker too? I think we're straying into mixed-metaphor territory here.

The $1.3-billion tax increase approved last month has roiled the public. It brought torrents of invective on talk radio and editorial pages aimed at Gov. Jennifer Granholm and legislative leaders like Dillon.

Let's shift levels of analysis for a second. The concern raised by this graf isn't about writing; it's about how we know what we know -- specifically, how we "know" the stuff that we claim is objective, empirical knowledge. It's essentially a polling question, meaning it's about validity and reliability. And come to that, "how roiled is the public over this tax increase?" is an ideal question for survey research. But if there is such a poll, neither this paper nor its purported rival has carried anything about it. That leaves us with talk radio and editorial pages, neither of which can be assumed to be an accurate reflection of public opinion.

That's sort of the fun thing about being a copy editor. You get to engage with stuff at all sorts of levels: reasoning, epistemology, usage, framing, whatever. I hope editors always have the time to engage in at least a few of those, and I hope the problem downtown isn't a bad case of "work smarter, not harder." Because that's what it's starting to sound like.

* What, you mean it's not a holiday on your planet?


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