Those Copydesk Debates

Article excerpt

Those copydesk debates

Not long after President Nixon went to China in early '70s to pave the way for an invasion by the forces of Pizza Hut, a copy editor on the newspaper I was working for at the time committed a horrendous error. In a deadline, he referred to the nation as "Red China."

The People's Republic of China had never called itself "Red China," but the American media had adopted that terminology so readers, listeners and viewers wouldn't confuse the People's Republic of China with the real China, which we all knew was located on the island of Taiwan.

That worked fine until Americans started to worry about cholesterol. That was when Nixon decided that a diplomatic advance to Red China was essential to the economic well-being of the fast food firms that had contributed so heavily to his 1972 campaign. So Nixon went off to visit Red China, and the copy editor got into hot water when he called the place that in a headline.

After that, Red China was just China in that newspaper. Taiwan, which had been China, became merely Taiwan, which nobody there cared for much but which hardly anybody else worried about.

The point is that it's always difficult for newspapers to figure out what to call somebody or something in print if you are confronted with the popular use of a term that the somebodies or somethings don't use themselves. To minimize the odds of confusing people, newspapers tend to use formal names to the greatest extend possible - except in sports, that is.

In sports, people are referred to by the names they're called by other people, instead of by the names they sign on legal documents. Then again, sportswriters do a lot of weird things, especially with nicknames. Remember Dizzy Dean, the baseball pitcher? He had a brother Daffy. On the news side of the newspaper business, we could have called Gerald Ford Daffy Ford and Ronald Reagan Dizzy Reagan and not have been too far off, but even columnists on the news side are entirely too polite to do anything like that, not to mention all those copy editors who would be likely to go into cardiac arrest if they saw that in copy.

For example, I remember the turmoil Richard Milhous Nixon caused when he dropped the middle initial from his name on formal documents. This guy had been Richard M. Nixon for as long as he had been in public life. Newspaper copydesks across the nation greeted the deletion of the "M" with a level of panic usually reserved for nuclear attack or for a stiff hike in the tax on over-the-bar liquor sales.

Copy editors get worked up over things like that. Anybody who has ever worked on a newspaper copydesk can recount for you the violent, pitched battles that have erupted over the years over whether the "S" in Harry S. Truman's name should have a period after it. Since the "S" stood for nothing, English grammar dictates that it doesn't rate a period. On the other hand, Truman always signed his name with a period after the "S."

I know instances in which copydesk debate over this crucial point has spilled out into the hall, down the stairs and out onto the street. I know people who have had their glasses broken over whether the "S" gets a period or not.

The Nixon thing was like that. After all, what if some reader were to see the story about Richard M. Nixon greeting the Israeli prime minister under the White House portico and - without the "M" - conclude that this was really Richard Nixon who lived down the street and liked to run around the neighborhood dressed only in black socks and a trenchcoat? …