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January 30, 2014 4:52 AM Graphics and Newspaper Editing

By Michael O'Hare

One of the results of the economic squeeze on newspapers has been a loss of editorial talent, including copy-editing (has anyone else noticed how rough and sloppy the prose is getting?), and publication of truly terrible stuff that a good editor would have protected us from. And at top-end outlets, like the New York Times. Poor Carl Levin and Angus King have a sensible op-ed in today’s paper that a copy-editor could have tightened and sharpened in a single pass, and the art editor, or whatever intern is doing that now, saddled it with a cut so bad as to garble their argument just by sitting there on the page.

If I understand it properly, this picture is constructed around the expression “to throw a monkey wrench into” some sort of machinery, and the American Eagle is about to do it (L & K are warning against Congress ginning up new sanctions against Iran while negotiations seem to be working). Almost everything that could go wrong does, though. Only partly because the wrench isn’t a monkey wrench, but something miscalled (like Kleenex for tissue) a crescent wrench— a useful thing that fixes stuff and has no association with sabotage. I had to deconstruct the picture for at least a minute before I got it. The only eagly thing about the bird, who could almost be a dove with malocclusion especially given its size compared to the wrench (one of my dead-end misreads, actually), is its beak. But in a cartoon, you need to be careful about the things that quickly identify your subject. If a bird is going to read as “the USA” it has to have white feathers on its head and tail, big strong feet with serious talons, and feathery legs. If it’s a hawk, what do the arrows have to do with it?

Actually, nothing works here. The bird isn’t flying, nor sitting on anything (one of my wrong tries was that it was hanging on the wrench), and it certainly isn’t about to throw anything, as both its dainty little feet are tangled up with graphic symbols it took off a flowchart. The bird on our national coat of arms has real, physical arrows, and for a reason.

If he threw the wrench into the negotiations as rendered (that is, rendered as an enormous poker game), it would fall on the table and astonish everyone. But it wouldn’t break anything; the metaphor needs something like a machine with gears and stuff…maybe with the diplomats turning a crank?

A picture that has to be turned into a word paraphrase and then back into a picture isn’t really graphic, or anything really (maybe a Sunday supplement puzzle). Somebody at the Times decided they couldn’t afford an artist who was ready for prime time, couldn’t afford an art editor who could coach artists, and couldn’t afford a managing editorial staff who could look at a page and say “wait a minute!” Maybe they were right about what they could afford, but if so, this episode is exhibit 203b.2 that we’re losing Really Important Social Capital.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

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