/Remembering thick lead pencils

Remembering thick lead pencils

By Jim Poling Sr.
From Shaman’s Rock

I yearned recently for a dose of nostalgia so I bought Carl Bernstein’s memoir Chasing History: A Kid in the Newsroom.

Bernstein and I had much in common as kids entering the newspaper business. (That changed as he became famous and rich. I’m still working on it).

Neither of us had much education, we started at roughly the same time and the editors who hired us did so with skepticism. We both had to find dress suits to start work in.

The newsrooms we entered as googly-eyed youngsters were similar. They were jammed with gunmetal grey desks groaning beneath stacks of old newspapers, newsroom library files, stenographer notebooks and Underwood 5 and Royal typewriters.

The Women’s News and Sports Departments were tucked into corners, away from the newsroom’s central core, where the “real important news” was collected, written and edited.

Every newsroom core held a desk – often U-shaped – where enthusiastic young reporters received lessons in humility. There sat stern, sharp-eyed editors with midnight black or blood red lead pencils poised to carve flowery writing into straight forward English, free of bloat and cliches.

A lifetime later I vividly recall approaching the editing desk with a brilliantly written story about a fatal car crash. It sang with pungent words and descriptive phrases worthy of the literary giants.

I watched horrified as the red pencil slashed and carved, leaving red blotches that looked like blood having dripped from a cut throat. My literary masterpiece was reduced to simple facts: Two people died this morning in a two-car collision on Highway 17 North . . . 

Such editing scenes seldom occur in newsrooms these days. Newsroom staffs across North America have been slashed by thousands. Copy editors have been the hardest hit.

The result is stories lacking the depth, accuracy and clarity that come from the sober second look of editing.

Television news, which never had much professional editing, has become a playground for language misuse, cliches and misinformation.

TV news’ absolute favourite cliché these days is “on the ground.” Reporters are ‘on the ground,” wherever that is or whatever it means.

Another is “reached out.” A reporter “reached out” to someone, which I assume means they asked someone a question.

Reached out makes me think of decomposing arms reaching out from the ground to pull someone into the grave.

Another is “Needless to say.” If it is needless to say, then don’t say it.

Some will accuse me of being petty and whiney. There are more important things to think about.

Indeed, there are, but being careful with words is important. What’s seen and heard in print and on screens spreads and starts to become standard.

Politicians and other authority figures regularly utter useless phrases like “reaching out,” “on the ground” and “thinking outside the box.” Most worrisome, however, is that politicians, in particular, misuse language to blur clarity and accuracy, and to create misinformation and disinformation.

An example: Ted Cruz, the extreme right-wing U.S. senator from Texas, said participants in the anti-everything insurrection that paralysed Canada’s capital city are heroes.

They were not heroes. They were protesters demanding that government make changes that they felt were needed. They had every right to do that, of course, until they began breaking laws and trampling other people’s rights.

Heroes are people who do brave acts, often at risk to themselves. Heroes are people like Adam Attalla, the 18-year-old who risked his life in January to rescue three children from a burning home in Mississauga.

Calling protesters heroes is misinformation designed to further a political agenda. It also shows that even attending private schools and elite universities does not make a person like Cruz immune to stupidity.

It was fun for me to read Bernstein’s book and remember “the good old days.” But it’s sad to realize that many of the checks and balances that kept news and information honest and factual no longer exist. Anyone gets to write or say anything they want without editing, notably on unedited social media platforms.

The good old days are gone, along with the thick lead editing pencils. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, provided we find other ways to ensure that what we write and say is accurate, honest, fair and clear.