An odd and very remote encounter with racism. Or was it? To be continued.

I’ve got a ton of good stuff to blog about, and I hope to get to some items over the next few days. Right now, though, I’ve got to say something about a weird experience I had yesterday.

I was on the train back to Boston, cleaning up the transcript of an interview I’d done in New Jersey, where I was reporting on a nonprofit news organization called NJ Spotlight News. I paid more than I usually do so that there would be a human set of eyes looking it over before sending it back. The quality was excellent — but there was a section in which my subject and I were talking about race. Every reference to “White” was uppercase and every reference to “black” was lowercase.

If you’ve been following changes in news style over the past few years, you know that some pretty significant shifts have been implemented. The Associated Press, The New York Times and The Boston Globe all decided to start uppercasing Black but not white. Here’s how Globe editor Brian McGrory explained the paper’s reasoning in January 2020:

Effective immediately, we’re updating the Globe stylebook to put the word Black in uppercase when it is used to describe a person’s race. After consulting with leaders in the Black community, we’re making this change to recognize that the word has evolved from a description of a person’s skin color to signify a race and culture, and as such, deserves uppercase treatment in the same way that other races — Latino being one example — are capitalized. Unless otherwise requested by a person we’re writing about, we’ll use Black, which is considered to be more inclusive, rather than African-American.

Why not “white”? As the AP described it, “white people in general have much less shared history and culture, and don’t have the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color.”

The Washington Post took a different position, uppercasing both “Black” and “White,” explaining, “Stories involving race show that White also represents a distinct cultural identity in the United States.” That’s fine, and I suspect that at some point others may follow suit.

But referring to uppercase White people and lowercase black people is something you’d expect from the racist dark reaches of the internet. I was kind of startled to see it come from a reputable transcription service — and no, I’m not going to name them, so don’t ask. I might let them know (now I’ll have this blog post to send them), and if I get a response, I’ll tell you what they said.

Janet Malcolm was a brilliant analyst of journalism’s ethics and morals

Janet Malcolm, at right. Photo (cc) 2013 by kellywritershouse.

Janet Malcolm, who died on Wednesday at 86, wrote perhaps our finest meditation on the ethics and morality of journalism. At The New Yorker, Ian Frazier has written an eloquent appreciation of her life and work.

“The Journalist and the Murderer,” a two-part essay published in The New Yorker that was later turned into a book, is ostensibly about a lawsuit filed by Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, a convicted murderer, against Joe McGinniss, who wrote about the case in his bestselling book “Fatal Vision.”

MacDonald sued McGinniss for fraud and breach of contract because McGinniss — in order to maintain access — had continued to pretend that he believed in MacDonald’s innocence long after he’d concluded the former Army doctor really had murdered his wife and two young daughters. Malcolm argued that was no different from what all journalists do.

We all know the opening line to “The Journalist and the Murderer”: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” So let me treat you to her lurid yet precise closing, less often cited, on the foolishness of those who let themselves be seduced by a journalist:

Like the young Aztec men and women selected for sacrifice, who lived in delightful ease and luxury until the appointed day when their hearts were to be carved from their chests, journalistic subjects know all too well what awaits them when the days of wine and roses — the days of the interviews — are over. And still they say yes when a journalist calls, and still they are astonished when they see the flash of the knife.

As

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No. In fact I had hoped to be able to say — since the judge kind of cheated me out of my opportunity to be redirected — Dan [Daniel Kornstein, the defense lawyer] said I had time to be redirected — then Bostwick cleverly ate up all the time with a bunch of silly questions so that — the judge just let him go on and on — and then finally there wasn’t really time because I had to catch a plane at a certain hour. However, the material I gave to Kornfeld, was that having looked at all this and having slept on this material the night after my first appearance at trial, I had a kind of insight, if you will, that the four intruders represented, psychologically speaking, the only truthful thing that MacDonald had told — that there were really four intruders — but, of course, they weren’t exactly as he depicted them — but there were four people who intruded upon the hedonistic — and — life style and whoring around of Jeff MacDonald — and four people who, you know, intruded into his disinclination to be a responsible husband and father, namely Colette, Kristy, Kimberly, and the unborn son. In my text I rendered this as: No. In fact — and this, too, was something I wasn’t able to say in court, since Bostwick cleverly ate up all the time with a bunch of silly questions and I had to catch a plane — the four intruders who MacDonald claimed were responsible for the murders represented the only truth, psychologically speaking, that he told. There really were four people who intruded on the hedonistic life style and whoring around of Jeff MacDonald: the four people who intruded on his disinclination to be a responsible husband and father; namely, Colette, Kristen, Kimberly, and the unborn son.

And here is how Malcolm edited the quote for publication:

No. In fact — and this, too, was something I wasn’t able to say in court, since Bostwick cleverly ate up all the time with a bunch of silly questions and I had to catch a plane — the four intruders who MacDonald claimed were responsible for the murders represented the only truth, psychologically speaking, that he told. There really were four people who intruded on the hedonistic life style and whoring around of Jeff MacDonald: the four people who intruded on his disinclination to be a responsible husband and father; namely, Colette, Kristen, Kimberly, and the unborn son.

Quite a difference. Malcolm defends her method on the grounds that spoken English is impossible to render in written English except with extensive editing, but that it should remain true to what the person actually said. “The idea of a reporter inventing rather than reporting speech is a repugnant, even sinister, one,” she says, all the while insisting that’s not what she’s doing.

But most of us were trained on the AP Stylebook, which takes a rather different view of what constitutes an accurate quote: “Never alter quotations even to correct minor grammatical errors or word usage. Casual minor tongue slips may be removed by using ellipses but even that should be done with extreme caution.”

William Zinsser, in his classic book “On Writing Well,” includes a useful discussion of the issue ranging from Malcolm to the legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, who took considerable liberties with what people told him. Zinsser’s verdict: “I know that it’s just not possible to write a competent interview without some juggling and eliding of quotes; don’t believe any writer who claims he never does it. But many shades of opinion exist on both sides of mine.”

I agree with Zinsser. When I’m writing longer pieces, especially books, I do some compressing and editing, but I would not go nearly as far as Malcolm. If a person is that inarticulate, well, that’s what indirect quoting is for.

I also disagree with Malcolm that what we do is “morally indefensible.” The idea that every interview is a con, and that our job is to smile and let our subject think we’re on their side before we plunge in the knife, is offensive and wrong. The value in Malcolm’s observation is that it makes us think about what we do so that we can be better journalists and — dare I say — better human beings.

By the way, I have long been convinced that Jeffrey MacDonald’s murder trial was grossly unfair and that he might even be innocent. Years ago I reviewed “A Wilderness of Error,” Errol Morris’ book about the MacDonald case, for BookForum. Morris is withering in his assessment of McGinniss; but he was frustrated with Malcolm, who was someone he admired, for failing to grapple with the possibility that MacDonald had not committed the monstrous crime of which he was convicted. You can read my review here.

More progress on the “M”-word

Robert Bertsche, a prominent First Amendment lawyer in Boston, passes along the latest news from the AP Stylebook Online (yes, I’m too cheap to subscribe):

dwarf The preferred term for people with a medical or genetic condition resulting in short stature. Plural is dwarfs.

midget Considered offensive when used to describe a person of short stature. Dwarf is the preferred term for people with that medical or genetic condition.

My 2004 edition of the AP Stylebook does not contain an entry for either word. Clearly the dwarfism community is making progress in its efforts to educate the public about the “M”-word.

In 2009, the New York Times’ then-public editor, Clark Hoyt, wrote that the Times had concluded the “M”-word was offensive.

I discuss the rise and fall of the “M”-word in Chapter Seven of my book on dwarfism, “Little People.”