Fat Steve's Blatherings

Sunday, April 17, 2005

All the News that Fits

      Mark Steyn reprinted one of his old columns in answer to a reader's request, and in it there's this tidbit:
Being granted access to the Times’s pages is a tortuous process for those of us used to the less fastidious ways of Fleet Street, whereby you file the piece at six p.m. and it’s on the streets in the first edition five hours later. With Miss Stevens and her colleagues, the filing date is usually some months before the Broadway show you’re writing about is due to open. This gives them plenty of time to do an initial edit. If, for example, you’ve referred to “Lloyd Webber,” the Times amends it to “Mr. Lloyd Webber” because every living person mentioned in the paper must be given his title. When you explain that Andrew is not a “Mister” but a “Lord,” Miss Stevens responds that unfortunately he has to be called “Mister” unless he’s a “Doctor.” Times style requires that everyone be accorded his proper title, even if it’s incorrect.

A pleasant two or three weeks passes discussing such issues. But then Miss Stevens submits the piece to her editor, who in turn passes it on to hers, and soon Times persons are calling my assistant in Britain at home at one a.m. London time with more serious dilemmas. “This word ‘bargain-basement,” said Miss Stevens. “Mr. Steyn may not be aware that in America the term has a pejorative connotation.”

“I think he does,” said my assistant. “That’s probably why he used it.”

“Oh,” said Miss Stevens. “We may have a problem.” The following night, at two a.m., she calls to say her editor’s editor feels a pejorative word is not appropriate at that stage in the sentence. Fortunately, the editor’s editor’s editor suggests an alternative formulation, though, by the following week Miss Stevens is calling to explain that the editor’s editor’s editor’s editor is unhappy with the revised sentence and would I mind if it were changed to something else. As the sentence it’s replacing is not one I wrote anyway, I don’t care. But the Times feels it needs to keep me fully informed of these concerns, usually in the wee small hours, when presumably AT&T gives them a discount rate. Two years ago I interviewed the late actor Daniel Massey for the Times. “I’m honored,” he told me. “I love your stuff in the Telegraph.” But that’s London. By the time Miss Stevens & Co. had filleted my copy for the Times and rewritten not just my sentences but his quotes, it didn’t sound much like either of us. I bumped into him on the street a few weeks after it appeared. “My God!” he said. “What happened?”

      Maybe I've a bad memory, but I can't recall ever seeing a New York Times story with a byline that read 'Article author's prose, and even some quotations, have been altered to fit with our sense of what ought to have happened.'



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