Brian Williams: Lack of Copy Editor Causes Problems

When we watch NBC’s Nightly News, we hear things we shouldn’t be hearing. But some things we should be hearing, we don’t hear.

A competent copy editor would spot the lapses. And if the copy editor missed them, the managing editor–the anchor Brian Williams–should spot them. So let’s look at some of these lapses in excerpts from Williams’s scripts–and gather a few tips on journalism along the way:

“With the recession causing Americans to cut down on just about everything, it turns out passport applications are way down, a full 25 percent lower than last year.” (March 26, 2009.) A full 25 percent? We’ve heard of a full plate, a full glass and a full life, but a full 25 percent? Sounds like an effort to make 25 percent seem more robust.

“As several of the organizers and musicians explained, because instruments and human hands perform poorly in such cold weather, because it was such a momentous occasion, they could not take the chance at [should be of] sounding badly.” (Jan. 23, 2009.) Sounding badly? Sounds terrible. Should be sounding bad. We use the adjective bad when a verb functions as a linking verb. Linking verbs include forms of to be (am, are, was, were, will be) and verbs associated with our five senses: look, smell, feel, taste, sound. So whoever let that script slip by is entitled to feel bad–not badly.

“And today marks a sad milestone, an anniversary in the popular culture of this country. This is otherwise known as ‘the day the music died.’ Fifty years ago today, Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the ‘Big Bopper’ all died when their small plane went down after a concert on a snowy night in Clear Lake, Iowa….” (Feb. 3, 2009.) Sad? Sad for whom? Audiences don’t need an anchor to tell them when news is sad. But the crash happened 50 years ago.

Journalism students are taught not to characterize news as good or bad, happy or sad. Or amazing, shocking, disturbing or alarming. Listeners can decide for themselves how good or bad the news is. Chances are, they don’t watch newscasts with a clipboard, checking off each story as good or bad news.

Sad to say, Williams didn’t identify one of the three crash victims: “The Big Bopper” was Jiles P. Richardson, a singer and songwriter. With a little Googling, I found that “the day the music died” refers to the lyrics of a song memorializing that crash of half a century ago.

When Williams reported that space junk had threatened three astronauts on the International Space Station, he said, “The grapefruit-sized piece of an old rocket motor floated safely by, thankfully.” (March 12, 2009.) Fortunately, Williams doesn’t express his thanks after every bit of good news, every rescue, every safe landing. But he does interject thankfully from time to time. He uncorked two thankfullys last month (March 2009), three last September and three in July. In most months he uncorks only one, thankfully.

“Fire is also making news in China tonight, where a huge blaze in downtown Beijing engulfed a luxury hotel under construction and damaged the new headquarters of China’s state television. It was a bizarre sight at first. The suspected cause is a fireworks show that went up just before the building went up in flames. No reports, thankfully, of deaths or injuries so far.” (Feb. 9, 2009.) Everything on a newscast is making news, right? The fire began the previous day about 8:30 p.m., Beijing time, and was put out by 2 a.m., Beijing time. When that’s converted to Eastern Standard Time, the fire was out by 1 p.m. That was the afternoon of the day Williams said, at 6:30 p.m., EST, the fire was making news in China tonight. In Beijing, it was 7:30 a.m., the next day.

“Wall Street took all of today’s news in stride….” (March 6, 2009.) Taking something in stride is such a cliche. Ever hear of anyone’s not taking it in stride?

“On a day when the markets went to new record lows, the president took the unusual step of talking about….” (March 3, 2009.) New record is an old redundancy. Correct: new low–or record low. Went is weak. The Dow Jones Industrials had lost 299 points that day. Strong: fell, sank or dropped.

“The state of New York has a new U-S senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, appointed today by Governor David Paterson….” (Jan. 23, 2009.) Has is a linking verb, so it expresses no action.

Strunk and White say in their Elements of Style, “The proper place in the sentence for the word or group of words that the writer desires to make most prominent is usually the end.” And their sentence is an example of the construction they suggest. So let’s sharpen the script: “New York’s governor has chosen a new U-S senator–Kirsten Gillibrand. She’s taking the seat of Hillary Clinton, the new U-S Secretary of State….”

“The news from Alabama [where a man shot 10 people dead] was followed by news from Europe. Another mass shooting, this one today by a teenager, a former student at a high school in Winnenden, Germany. Correspondent Robert Moore from our broadcast partners, I-T-N, is there for us tonight with the latest. Robert, good evening.”
Robert Moore: “Brian, good evening. Yes, this was a horrifying sequence of events that has shaken Germany to the core. It began at 9:30 this morning when a former student at this school, dressed in black, carrying his father’s stolen pistol [his father didn’t steal the pistol; in fact, his father had registered it with the police], walked into the school and simply opened fire. He killed many of the students, most of them women, by shooting them in the head at very close range. The police tonight have issued a poignant detail, saying when they found the bodies of those students many of them were actually carrying and still clutching their pencils. [if the students were clutching them, no need to say they were carrying them]. After that, he fled the school. He was pursued by more than one-thousand German police officers. Eventually he was cornered, and then he decided, we [we?] believe, to shoot himself, although there were earlier reports he had been shot by a police marksman. Certainly tonight, Germany is a nation bewildered. Because, behind all of this, there is no clear motive. Brian.”

WILLIAMS: “Robert Moore in Winnenden, Germany, for us tonight. Robert, thanks.” (March 11, 2009.)

What’s your reaction to that coverage? If you don’t have anything bad to say, read it again. The problems: neither Williams nor the reporter told us how many people the German teenager shot dead: 15. Nor did anyone provide the shooter’s age; a teen can be anywhere between thirteen and nineteen. The shooter was 17. (The ABC and CBS newscasts that evening carried the age and the number of dead.) All of which again prompts us to ask: How can a network put on a first-rate newscast without a first-rate editor? I’m not running down Nightly News‘s copy editor, because Nightly doesn’t have a copy editor. Scripts are reviewed by any available senior producer, not by a fulltime, qualified editor–a pro.

“Tonight, we have another story sent in from one of our viewers, also from New England about a woman performing a badly needed service and Making A Difference in the lives of her grateful customers. Her story tonight from NBC’s….” (March 26, 2009.) Two tonights. And not the only item that night with twin tonights. Come to think of it, the profusion of tonights on Nightly News prompted someone (namely me) to suggest renaming it the Tonightly News.

“Two years ago, Ann first discovered everyday life there to be a struggle simply to survive. And now Ann has gone back again [this is her second trip, so no need to say again] traveling to Chad and its border with the Darfur region.” (Feb 19, 2009.) First discovered is a redundancy: discover means to be the first.

“We’re covering the world tonight, starting in Israel.” (Feb. 10, 2009.) Covering the world? After 45 words about Israel and 64 about Iran, Nightly News carried no other foreign coverage. (The only Williams covering the world that night was Sherwin.)

“We bring another week to a close and with apologies. Tonight, again, there are some grim numbers to report, starting with jobs in January down almost 600-thousand.” (Feb. 6, 2009.) Apologies? If an anchor starts apologizing for delivering bad news, he’ll be one sorry guy. But how about apologizing for some of those scripts–and getting a copy editor?

(c) Mervin Block 2009