Editors let columnist Andrew Potter down

Political commentator Chantal Hébert got it partly right this week in her “contrarian take” on the Andrew Potter column in Macleans that created a storm of controversy in Quebec and led to his departure from a plum directorial job at McGill University.

He was guilty of shoddy journalism, she summarized.

Potter’s commentary contained “sloppy generalizations” that “were demonstrably false,” Ms. Hebert said in her piece on the Toronto Star site.

Indeed, many other political commentators and journalists in general agree and echoed her views, even if they decried Potter’s apparent forced resignation from McGill’s Institute for the Study of Canada.

In his apology and letter of resignation, Potter, too, said he did a somewhat shoddy job in the commentary that painted Quebec as suffering from some social malaise.

Very nobly, he fell on his sword without pointing the finger at anyone else. And I’m sure Ms. Hébert and every other respected political columnist in Canada — think Don Macpherson, Paul Wells and Andrew Coyne, to name just three others — would have done the same thing. They all would assume total responsibility for what they wrote — even if there are others who should shoulder some of the blame.

I’m speaking from a copy editor’s perspective now. When a story — commentary or straight reporting — that’s full of holes gets into the paper, we are as much to blame as the writer is. We are the last line of defence. It is part of our job to check the facts, to challenge them if we have doubts, to query the writer.

The political columnists I have had the honour to work with over the years have never been guilty of such weak journalism. But they all needed an editor to go over their copy before it was published. My paper would never dream of posting or printing one of their columns without it being seen by one or three people, i.e. the Opinion editor, the Executive editor on occasion and, finally, the nuts-and-bolts people, the copy editors.

True, many publications have cut back on copy editors these days. But that is not an excuse for a publication to run badly edited or unedited stories or columns. The people running news organizations are ultimately responsible for what is in their papers and magazines and on their websites.

I don’t know how Macleans works, i.e. if they have copy editors or anyone who vets and corrects copy before it is published.

But regardless of the process at Macleans, its management and its editors are partially, if not totally to blame for the “shoddy journalism” they published. They let Andrew Potter down. They did not catch his fall.

If I had been the copy editor who handled that piece and let it get online the way it did, I would be embarrassed now, and apologizing to him and to my paper.

Of course, I may be getting this all wrong: the managing editors at Macleans may feel there was nothing wrong with the gist of the piece, other than the two major corrections they made after the fact, blaming one of them on an editing error

I really am wondering, though, just how much editing that piece initially received. Did it only get a cursory look, have a headline slapped on it, and get posted quickly with a view to maximizing reader clicks.

Macleans might consider doing a piece on the editing process that preceded the publication of Potter’s column. I think a lot of people would read it — and learn from the mistakes.

— Jillian

Photo credit: Photo credit: Matt Hampel via Foter.com / CC BY

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