Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Out of the Closet

Well, I took my career in my hands last night and dangled it over the abyss, as reckless as Steve Irwin on too much cough syrup. On our front-page we were about to run a New York Times story (we subscribe to their wire service) on the fallout from the Abu Ghraib mess. It contained prominently the phrase, "... the horrific descriptions and photographs that have emerged in recent days of acts of humiliation, sexual and otherwise, at Abu Ghraib prison ..."

I read this several times, then suggested to my fellow copy editors that perhaps the word "horrific" was hyperbole, and that simply describing "acts of humiliation, sexual and otherwise," was sufficient. Also (though I didn't say this much out loud), perhaps we can safely trust the readers, who had seen the pictures and read the descriptions, to have their own emotional reactions, and know what they were and give a name to them, without being told what to feel by the NYT.

My reaction to the pictures and descriptions, for instance, was revulsion, a need to re-check my moral principles against the difficult decision to have this war right now, and rage at the handful of idiots who risked an entire century for some jackass stunt. (My reaction on seeing the full Army report of them, today, is even stronger).

But "horrific?" No, this wasn't the stuff of horror movies. In itself, it was the stuff of hell night a Phi Kappa Sigma when I lived across the quad from their house at Dickinson. Culturally, it was a brutal insult. Politically, it was a disaster. But "horrific?" Twelve-foot-tall spiders are horrific. No: bodies burned and mutilated and torn apart and hung up on bridges are horrific. Men with machine guns executing little girls and then videotaping the scene while the babies bleed to death in their car seats. That's horrific.

But I didn't say that, either. I asked if we could agree to drop that one word. At first I got blank stares. Part of it, perhaps, was incredulity that I, or any of us, would presume to rewrite the prose of a NYT story. Copy-editing them usually is limited by custom to fixing their many misplaced commas. Who was I, a small-town ink-stained wretch, to presume to know journalism better than the Gray Lady?

And to make matters worse for myself, I recommended a change in a direction that could only be interpreted in many minds here as "supporting that asshole Bush." Remember this is a place where I hear almost daily, from a variety of sources, that no sane person could fail to vote for John Kerry. These are the same copy editors who wanted to remove a mild insult to the French from an account of a patriotic rally. The mayor had said it in public, but it was deemed too "editorial" for a news story. My attempt, the last time I was given a wire page to fill, to include a picture of Nazi-style desecration of a Jewish cemetery in France likewise was objected to as not newsworthy.

At first, consent was granted to remove "horrific" -- as long as it was replaced with something equally strong. I pointed out that "acts of humiliation, sexual and otherwise" seemed to describe the crimes pretty well, and that adding more adjectives was redundant. No further objection was made, but I had to pick up the paper this morning to be sure the change I suggested had been made and approved at the top. It was. Chalk up one small victory for sanity.

My editorials, meanwhile, used to be solicited and praised. Now those I've offered haven't been running. I guess it was finally discovered that they have a tendency to focus on the importance of the war effort, not on the things that go wrong with it.