You Can Put Pickles Up Yourself: Charles McEwen ’69

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As I remember it, James Reston, the New York Times columnist, gave a speech some years ago at Wake Forest University. And since Wake Forest is a good Christian school, Reston began with a reading from the Book of Luke: “And Jesus entered and passed through Jericho. And, behold, there was a man named Zaccheus … and he sought to see Jesus who he was; and could not for the press….”

Critics would have you believe that the press is still a problem. But those of us who have worked as journalists—in my case, as a copy editor for the New York Times for 27 years—have endeavored mightily to prove them wrong.

Exactly what do copy editors do? At the Times, they take over where the assigning editors leave off. The job often involves a bit of polishing and smoothing; a lot of checking—of facts, spelling and grammar, and Times style; some trimming, to make the copy fit the space; and finally, some creative writing, of captions and, most particularly, headlines.

Often, copy editors are the line of last and best defense, helping to ensure the accuracy and fairness of the report. Not too infrequently, I sent a story to the Times’s in-house lawyers when I was concerned about libel. And I never hesitated to suggest that a reporter ask for a response from anyone or any group subjected to criticism in an article.

Davidson was a good training ground for the Times. Ethical conduct was the order of the day. The Honor Code demanded truthfulness, and it was rigorously enforced. As a copy editor, I insisted on that same sort of honesty. I had the good fortune to work at a newspaper where truth-telling was paramount. In this chaotic world of Tweets and electronic twaddle, of news “consolidators” and television anchors who “misremember,” this is no small thing.

Despite editors’ best efforts, mistakes do get through. Names, facts, even headlines can be flat-out wrong. Or maybe just amusingly two-faced. One of my favorite heads appeared in the food pages of The Evening Sun in Baltimore: “You Can Put Pickles Up Yourself.”

Or maybe the problem is a bit of miscommunication. In olden days, reporters could dictate copy over the phone to the Times’s recording room. In an interview with Mary Matalin, the political strategist, the reporter asked if she were going to become “the female Rush Limbaugh.” She replied: “No. He’s sui generis.” But that got transcribed—and printed—as “No. He’s sweet, generous.”

This is the sort of error, very tough to catch, that gives copy editors nightmares. But on a good day, the nightmares are held at bay: spelling and grammar are perfect, the reporting is all accurate, those criticized get their right of response, the copy and heads sparkle. And readers “see Jesus,” thanks to the press.

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About Author

John Syme '85

Senior Writer John Syme graduated from Davidson with a French degree in 1985. After gigs in newspaper, advertising, translation in France and cross-country travel writing in the United States, he returned to alma mater in 2001. He has no immediate plans to graduate again.

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