MY LETTERS TO THE EDITOR OF THE ARKANSAS DEMOCRAT GAZETTE

I guess Paul Greenberg has finally become sufficiently annoyed with me to put me on his spam blocker, because for the past four weeks he hasn't acknowledged receipt of my emails. I guess my voice is no longer being heard. I can't say that I blame him. I've been writing him since the first of November, correcting his grammar, style and composition, pointing out his weaknesses and flaws, subjecting his Sunday column to the kind of criticism you can only get in graduate school.

After all, who edits the editor? Nobody. Anybody at the paper does so at the peril of their jobs. Only a Nobody can tell the boss anything. And he's tired of hearing it.

His loss is your gain. I'm just going to start posting my letters to the ArDemGaz on my blog.

Don't expect any political opinions here. I started writing to Mr. Greenberg over issues of grammar, usage, style, structure and fact-checking. That's the chief issue in these pages. He's the editor of the only statewide editorial page. I found his compositional skills lacking for such an important job, and I took it upon myself to help him improve.

I'll post any replies of his along with my notes.

RTJ -- 12/23/2005


Dear Mr. Greenberg:

Regarding your column "Two Obituaries," published in your column of 18 December:

You did two things in your essay this week that bother me. They're not exactly wrong, but in editorial writing they're poor form.

Thing one, you wrote about your subjects (Richard Pryor and Eugene McCarthy) without naming them until you were two thirds done with the column. This was especially problematic since there were several celebrity deaths last week. Unless the reader is already well-informed, he'll be confused for a few paragraphs until he figures out who you're writing about. On the other hand, if he is already well-informed, what are you giving him in your column that he doesn't already have?

Matter of fact, you do give him something, although imperfectly.

You give the reader a series of symmetrical contrasts. One was A, the other was B, one was apples, the other was oranges. Then once you name your subjects you break the pattern that you spent so much time training the reader to expect. You mention two of McCarthy's career high points and follow that with a vague nondescription of Pryor, NOT a conversationalist, NOT a Social Critic, NOT an entertainer. You've substituted vagary for analysis. If you had wanted to maintain the symmetry, you would have mentioned a couple of Pryor's high points and contrasted them with McCarthy's.

While we're on that paragraph, you say Pryor WAS NOT an entertainer when the whole country thinks he WAS an entertainer. When you say something that contradicts what the whole country believes, you should back it up with some facts. I accuse you of the same thing I always accuse you of doing. You put together a fancy rhetorical turn and didn't stop to think about whether or not it was true. You sacrificed substance on the altar of style. Again.

And after all this comparing and contrasting, what is your conclusion? Americans are diverse, and you add, "Hey, what a country."

You went a long way to reach not much.

That's what you encourage us to glean from the lives of these two great Americans? Yakov Smirnov's catch phrase? Do you really think it's worth your reader's time to read the whole column just to get to "Hey, what a country!" That's like ending a classical concerto with "Shave and a haircut, two bits."

Sincerely,

Russell T. Johnson

RTJ -- 12/23/2005


Dear Mr. Greenberg:

Regarding your essay "Outside looking in" published in your column of 25 December:

This one is pretty well done. I have no objections to speak of. You compiled a series of anecdotes from your own experiences illustrating the conflicts created by Jewish and Christian holiday traditions and concluded that focusing on those conflicts opposes the purpose of a season that celebrates peace and good will. It was all presented in a straightforward way.

You write pretty well when you don't try to get fancy.

Sincerely,

Russell T. Johnson


Dear Mr. Greenberg:

Regarding your column "New Year's Resolutions," published in your column of 1 January 2006:

I deleted the quotes by famous people (fully 40% of the text) from your column and discovered that you had written this:

Aquarius: "More fruits and vegetables, less meats and sweets. Copy to Ariel Sharon. Don't turn on that television. An hour from now, you'll still be surfing with no clear purpose."

Capricorn: "Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and dull. When you wake up, get up."

Sagittarius: "When with friends, never look at the clock. Look up old friends. Make new ones. Never drink alone; life is with other people."

Scorpio: "Practice what you preach. Better yet, don't preach, just practice. For every new book you read, read an old one."

Libra: "It is good to love others, but don't forget to love yourself. Give yourself a nice, gentle pat on the shoulder from time to harried time. Even with all your sins and hang-ups, you're not such a bad sort. How can you be?"

Virgo: "God loves you. Rely on grace. Don't dwell on your shourtcomings. He'll let you know soon enough when you mess up."

Leo: "Make exercise a must, not something you'll do if you have time. Just do it. Ditto, giving to charity. Both will leave you feeling so much better. In body and soul."

Cancer: "Pray more, wish less. Answer your e-mails only at the end of the day. Or else you'll never get anything done. Save your most productive hours for better things. Let a smile be your umbrella."

Gemini: "Visit New Orleans this coming year. Dine at Galatoire's . Be good to yourself. Kiss somebody every day. Yes, your dog is somebody."

Taurus: "When you're down, dress up. Plan ahead, but not too far. Remember that you learn most from your critics."

Aries: "Look at the familiar as if you were seeing it for the first time. Remember people's names. Be nice."

That was meaner than you deserve, but I want to drive home the point that you wrote your column out of a random collection of quotations and aphorisms which can be found in "The Great American Bathroom Book" series.

That by itself is not bad, but there is no synthesis, no cumulative meaning. It's like a randomized horoscope where you leave it to the reader to make sense of the fragments you've gathered.

You're a "bag of tricks" writer and this is one of your favorite tricks. In my critique of your November 2 "Writing Well is the Best Revenge" column, I pointed out the same thing. You spill out these literary pieces onto the page without any effort to assemble them into a greater whole. A pile of bricks is not a house, and a box of fortune cookies is not a column for a serious big city newspaper.

Sincerely,

Russell T. Johnson

RTJ -- 1/2/2006


Dear Mr. Greenberg:

Regarding your column "In context" of 8 January 2006:

In this column you defended your paper's quote of Howard Dean, who said, "The idea that we're going to win this war is an idea that is just plain wrong."

I found your defense of the context of the quote to be well-organized, suitably thorough, economical, well-composed and fair (to Dean).

However, if you're going to use Dean's quote as a starting point from which to state that Clinton fibbed about his stance on the first Gulf War, you should have provided before and after quotes from Clinton to support that contention.

Your last paragraph: "But, dear valued correspondent, do keep waiting for us to apologize for quoting Howard Dean exactly and in context. Hell could freeze over any time now."

This is not satire. This is sarcasm, condescension and disdain. I've seen you take this tone many times with me personally and in your column (see my letter to you of 6/13/05 regarding "Response to Engineer with a PhD"), and I still can't imagine what you think you gain by doing this. The reader's letter isn't quoted, so I can't guess if it deserved this treatment or not. I tell you again as I've told you before, you come off looking bad when you do this.

You could have said something like, "As you see above, the added context does not change the essence of the quote. Mr. Dean thinks the war is a losing proposition with or without the added text. I hope this satisfies all those who complain that this quote distorted Mr. Dean's meaning."

A quote from the next to last paragraph: "A decade has passed since the first Gulf War,...."

Not ten, but sixteen years have passed. I can believe you were just ballparking the figure, but in this case your ballpark is a mile away from the game. In that very same paragraph you accuse Bill Clinton of being loose with the facts. To preserve your own credibility you should be careful and precise with your own facts, particularly one that is this widely known. You could have said "More than a decade has passed...," but you didn't. You can use ballpark figures when you use your column for a poetic reverie, not when you're accusing an ex-president of lying.

Sincerely,

Russell T. Johnson

RTJ -- 1/8/2006


Dear Mr. Greenberg:

Regarding your colum of 15 January, "In the eye of the camera:"

I'll say this for you. You are loyal and you are on message. Reality melts before your pen.

In the plus column, you did write on a subject of some substance. This is the first time I've seen you do that.

When you call Democratic Senator Byrd a "Senator Phoghorn," you probably mean to refer to Senator Jack S. Phogbound, a character from the Li'l Abner comic strip. You must have confused this character with the cartoon rooster Foghorn Leghorn. That cartoon rooster was an imitation of another character, Senator Claghorn, from the Fred Allen radio show. The bombast you ascribe to Phoghorn actually originates with Claghorn. Senator Claghorn and Senator Phogbound have nothing to do with each other. Your Senator Phoghorn is apparently a collage of all these characters.

Twice you used the arcane structure, "How describe the impression (Alito) leaves?" and "How describe him?" None dast blame thee, but it sounds a little pretentious the first time and more pretentious the second time. Making your antique rhetoric even less effective is the fact that you ridicule Senator Byrd for his antique oratorical style. Having both examples in the same paragraph only emphasizes the double standard you apply.

Vagary is something I've often criticized you of, and the words you use in praise of Alito are vague. You speak of his "elemental decency" and his "personhood." You say his opinions are "unfailingly workmanlike." "...So little pretension married to such basic competence."

So even though the subject of Alito's hearing has substance enough for an editorial page, your observations are thin and vague and could apply to anybody you wish to praise at a moment's notice. If you had given the description and asked your readers to guess who you were talking about, you might not get two guesses to match. You could have written these descriptions without watching the hearings at all. (Maybe you were watching a Foghorn Leghorn cartoon.) On top of that, you're not even trying to create the impression of impartiality or objectivity. This is just an excuse to praise your ideological toadies and insult the opposing ideological toadies.

Sincerely,

Russell T. Johnson


Dear Mr. Greenberg:

Regarding your column of 22 January 2006, "Miss Hillary has a tizzy:"

I think I've discovered the source of most of your errors. Every time you end a sentence you forget what you just wrote. When you follow that sentence with a conflicting sentence, you don't even notice.

In paragraph 5 you say that Hillary's problem in addressing the black audience is that she failed to talk black to them. In your words, misquoted and uncredited from Duke Ellington, "If it ain't got that swing, it don't mean a thing." Next paragraph you suggest "These people are used to that old-time religion and its powerful cadences."

So M.C. Greenberg is the expert on how to talk to black folks. That's nice to know. Next week please write a column about how you establish your street cred. You think Hillary was her usual, reserved, tightly wound white self. But the last sentence of paragraph 1 you say she "...lets fly with her best, if wooden, imitation of Al Sharpton.

You wrote two opposite things -- first that she was imitating a black preacher and second that she was too whitebread and should have imitated a black preacher instead. Well, which is it? You can see how your reader might think you are confused.

Next paragraph: Now that you have counselled her to not be herself, you say that Bill Clinton's success with black audiences came about because, unlike Hillary, he could be himself. So which is it? Be yourself or mimic your audience? You contradict yourself like this all the time.

Then you came up with this one. "Black churches are the only venue in which (Bill Clinton) ever showed a natural talent for oratory." That is an utterly unsupportable statement. How wrong does something have to be before you won't put it in your column? When the Democrats need a speaker, Clinton tops the list. If there's a critical congressional race that needs help, the local Dems ask for Clinton first. For you to suggest that he's a strong speaker in black churches and weak everywhere else is just plain crazy. Nobody is going to accuse you of being right about that.

I checked the OED, and I think you misused the word "tizzy." A person can be "in a tizzy" but a person can not "have a tizzy." You might be able to debate the point, but all seven of the usage examples said "in."

Then you did something that proves you're not paying attention. You bring up the time that Republican Newt Gingrich said of the Democratic administration that the White House Was being run like a plantation. You conclude that although two opposing politicians said exactly the same thing, one was intended to stir up racial tension and the other wasn't. How can your reader take you seriously when you say incongruous things like that?

And speaking of people who are trying to stir up racial tension, you try to work a little of that magic yourself when you refer to Clinton's secretary as "his black servant." You should be ashamed of yourself for that one. If you're trying to portray Clinton as a racist by using that description I'm here to tell you it boomeranged on you.

Now that paragraph is part of your vita and it waits in the wings like Banquo's ghost to haunt you at the least opportune time. The next time you're trying to accuse somebody of cultural insensitivity you'll hear something like, "Aren't you the guy who referred to Clinton's personal secretary as 'his black servant?'"

You went on to compare Clinton to Nixon, "Richard Nixon had the decency simply to resign from the California bar when he was disgraced." while Clinton had merely let his license lapse and had not applied for renewal.

What on earth could you mean by this comparison? It's like saying one has better character based on shoe size. If you want to compare these two, you've chosen the least significant basis for that comparison. Nixon left office in disgrace, Clinton served out his second term just fine. Clinton had sex with an intern, Nixon subverted the constitution he had sworn to defend and tried to rig an election. Do you really have to go to this trivial detail of nonrenewal of an Arkansas law license to find a way to say that Nixon's character is better than Clinton's? How would Clinton go about resigning if he's already not a member? Why would he renew his license now that he's a New Yorker? The bar thing is meaningless. It suggests nothing about either man. It's just something for you to jabber about.

As long as you're trying to compare Clinton to Nixon, you lambaste Clinton's pardon of Marc Rich, yet make no mention of Ford's pardon of Nixon. Once again, you apply a double standard, depending on the party. Your writing is full of internal contradictions, conflicting statements and double standards. Does anybody proof your work before it goes to press?

Sincerely,

Russell T. Johnson

RTJ -- 1/22/2006


Dear Mr. Greenberg:

Regarding your column of Sunday, January 29th, 2006, titled "Happy 250th:" (I noticed how you changed the way you write dates, so I changed mine for this note.)

You might have titled the column, "How to make a newspaper column out of movie references, quotes from other people and commentary from record jackets."

Out of 15 column inches, 5 1/2 come from movie scenes and quotes from Barth, Miller and Szell. 37% of your column comes from Bartlett's and something you saw on TV.

The rest is doubletalk, artspeak and Vogon poetry. For example, "We find ourselves at peace -- not at rest. For in Mozart we discover there is nothing static about peace, that it is the state of being whole, at one with the universe."

My main complaint is one you've heard from me many times before. You're short on substance, long on style, and you don't have much to say other than "Mozart -- good." Out of respect for your subject matter, I'll leave it at that for this week.

Sincerely,

Russell T. Johnson

RTJ -- 1/30/2006


Dear Mr. Greenberg:

Regarding your column "Say what?" of 5 March, 2006:

The sentence "And, guess what!" is an exclamation and requires an exclamation point.

Not only was the substance of your reply incorrect, the tone of your reply to "Punctillious" was as usual snide, disrespectful, smug, imperious, impolite and condescending despite the literal text to the contrary.

If you don't want to appear imperious, don't use the regal we. For example: "So I'll thank you not to put your inflections in our voice. We'll choose our own tone, and indicate our choice by the accompanying punctuation -- in this case a polite question mark rather than a peremptory period." and... "Please, sir/ma'am/whatever the case may be, since your punctiliousness did not extend to signing a name to your email, we do not address Gentle Readers in so imperious a fashion." Oh yes you do, and in practically every paragraph. You put in everything but the sneer.

Sincerely,

Russell T. Johnson

RTJ -- 3/7/2006


Dear Mr. Greenberg:

Your column of 26 March 2006, "In Praise of Plagiarism," was much better than usual, better organized, clearer and more direct.

Your friend accused you of padding your column with quotations, calling the practice "gifted plagiarism." In paragraph two you write, "My friend calls it plagiarism; I call it literary allusion."

You and your friend are both wrong. You use quotations. Lots and lots of quotations. Lots and lots and lots of quotations. A quotation is when you repeat another person's words verbatim. An allusion is when your subject is so well known to your reader that you simply have to mention the subject to remind the reader of the whole of the content.

Here's an example of a quotation: Abraham Lincoln said, "You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time; but you can't fool all of the people all of the time."

Here's an example of an allusion: Remember what Lincoln said about fooling people.

Other than that, you gave me little to complain about. I still think you overuse quotations, but you make a reasonable defense of a bad habit.

Sincerely,

Russell T. Johnson

RTJ -- 3/29/2006


Dear Mr. Greenberg:

Regarding your column of 16 April, 2006, "Arabs R Us:"

You complain that a reader has misquoted you, and in doing so has radically changed the meaning of your words. Let's take a look.

You wrote:

"You wouldn't think Southerners would need to have the Arab mentality explained to us."

She misquoted you this way:

"Southerners would need to have the Arab mentality explained to us."

You said your words were "...twisted and my meaning distorted...."

In actual fact, the meaning is the same. Both quotes carry the same two meanings, first that Arab and Southern cultures are similar and second, that Southerners won't get it unless you explain it to us. The quote was inexact, but the meaning was unchanged.

You waste your indignation and make yourself look petty by falsely accusing her; but as you say in paragraph one, "nothing that provides grist for a column can be all bad."

Sincerely,

Russell T. Johnson

RTJ --4/16/2006


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