Friday, February 11, 2011

The end of the copy desk

I heard a name today and was immediately transported back to a college classroom, cowering as a bombastic professor raged at our class.

John Carroll, former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor of the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun and the Lexington Herald-Leader newspapers, was honored today as the 2011 recipient of the William Allen White Foundation National Citation in a ceremony at the University of Kansas, where the Journalism School bears White's name. And, Carroll was only a minute or two into his acceptance speech when he invoked "the name," the name which gave me an immediate nostalgic rush and elicited a knowing chuckle from others in the audience--students, faculty, KU administrators, and alumni of the Journalism School.

The name was John Bremner, former professor at the J-School, who lorded over Editing classes from 1969 to his retirement in 1985. And, in citing Bremner, Carroll was making a point about the "end of the copy desk"--of lax standards in the field of journalism which would have Bremner railing at those who are practicioners of the written/digital word.

You see, Bremner's personality was one of "constant outrage," as described by Carroll. Yet, Carroll hired Bremner's students whenever possible, knowing that they would have been schooled by one of the best editing instructors in the country.

To say that Bremner was a student of the language would be like saying that Steve Jobs paid attention to technology. Bremner drilled and drilled his students on proper grammar, and was a champion of logic and rhetoric. It was his personal passion to sharpen the skills of writers and editors--a quest that seemingly made him permanently frustrated at what he called the "steady growth of literary ignorance."

Bremner was a mountain of a man--a 6'5", white-haired, booming-voiced Australian. He was an ordained Catholic priest who ultimately left the priesthood. He was biting in his criticism and, when particularly frustrated, would open the window of his second floor classroom and yell out, "Help! I'm being held captive by a class of idiots!"

He had high standards for editing and expected his class, and graduates, to meet them. He took on what he dubbed "hyphenitis," the overuse of hyphens, and "synonymomania," a writer's reluctance to use a word more than once in a passage. Bremner urged his editors to be relentlessly skeptical, often saying "If your mother tells you that she loves you, check it and then check it again."

Professor Bremner's influence grew well beyond the campus in Lawrence and he was often called to speak at conferences and seminars for newspaper editors. It was at one such gathering that Bremner said, "Jesus Christ once said 'Where two or three are gathered together...' But, he couldn't have said precisely that. He didn't speak English. And, why would he have said 'gathered together?' When you have 'gathered,' you don't need 'together.'"

It was heartening to hear Carroll reference the influence of Bremner, but it was also incredibly discouraging to hear Carroll use this as an example of the declining literacy in the field of journalism--a profession which has changed dramatically given the rise of blogs, social media and other outlets for writers.

Bremner died in 1987 and his obituary in the New York Times attributed this quote to my former professor, "I have witnessed the steady growth of literary ignorance during a career of more than a third of a century. Many of my students arrive in my writing and editing classes as college juniors with an almost total ignorance of English grammar and usage and only a smattering of any foreign language. And these are prospective journalists whom one would expect to be less illiterate. But the blame is hardly theirs. It belongs mostly to their teachers."

If Bremner said that in 1980, what would he say now given a world where logic and rhetoric have to fit into a 140-character space on Twitter?

I miss Professor Bremner but, even more, I miss what he stood for--language used correctly, factual reporting, editors who play an important role in the news consumed by readers, and teaching which leaves an indelible mark on the life of a student.

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