Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Sunday, June 9, 2019

Mueller report: redacting is not editing

Robert Mueller produced a 448-page report. U.S, Attorney General William Barr cut it down to four pages, of which only two actually dealt with the content of Mueller’s report.

            When Congress insisted on seeing more than Barr’s  brief summary, Barr produced a “redacted” report, with large portions of Mueller’s  text blacked out. Some pages had not one readable word remaining.

            A friend asked me, “What does ‘redact’ mean?”

            I gave her a dictionary definition -- to edit, to prepare a manuscript for publication.

            That definition illustrates how definitions themselves can and must change. Because what Barr did to Mueller’s report is an utter contradiction of editing. Any definition is -- by definition, if I dare use that term -- the way a word has been used up to that time. It is a snapshot, an understanding frozen and preserved. It cannot define how a word will be used in future.

            Disclosure: I have a personal bias on this subject. I worked as an editor for forty years. I’m proud of my work and my shills. I take umbrage at anything that denigrates my profession.


Before they become problems

            At the most  basic level, an editor checks spelling and punctuation. Not just because someone somewhere established rules that must be followed. Rather, because spelling and punctuation affect meaning and comprehension. For example, did you notice that in the paragraph above, I misspelled “skills” as “shills”? Makes a difference, doesn’t it?

            Or consider this pair of sentences:

·      Donald said Theresa is a loser.

·      Donald, said Theresa, is a loser.

            Same words; opposite meaning.

            A few years ago, a single comma’s placement cost Rogers Communications $1 million in a contract dispute with its Maritimes associate Bell Aliant. Similarly, the lack of a comma cost Oakhurst Dairy in Maine $5 million in overtime pay.

            It’s an editor’s job to find those potential problems, before they cause problems.


Fine tooth comb

            But few editors restrict themselves to spelling and punctuation. They’ll examine every word. Does “loser” adequately describe Donald in the example above. Or is he an idiot? Maybe even a dolt? Did Donald merely “say” his insult? Or did he snort, fume, or rant?

            Editors also consider the sound and rhythm of an author’s words, recognizing that although we may read without speaking, we still sound the words in our minds. Awkward word combinations cause readers to stumble, even when reading silently.

            Going further, editors will examine a writer’s logic, research, and organization. Has the writer ignored any significant information? Is any fact questionable? Or worse, false? Does the argument flow logically?

            I used to teach that an editor had to be simultaneously the writer’s most intelligent and most stupid reader. The most intelligent, to catch slips that even a peer-review panel might miss. The most stupid, because if someone can misunderstand, someone will.

            For 25 years, I taught a program called Eight-Step Editing. One of those steps called for finding the one thing that mattered most to readers, and moving it to the beginning. As an example, readers don’t care how many tons of fill went into the Mount Polley dam; they want to know why it broke.


Deletions and excisions

            Of course, editors do edit, in the sense of deleting unnecessary words, phrases, and examples, for clarity and simplicity. Or to fit a shortage of space.

            I remember my first exposure to a skilled editor. I wrote a story for the university student newspaper -- one paragraph per page, the norm in those pre-computer days. The editor threw out a third of my pages. Revised another third. And re-organized all that was left. But it was a much better story when he finished.

            William Barr, however,  did not remove unnecessary words and phrases. Instead, he excised the most crucial information.

            Barr’s purpose was not to make the Mueller report clearer or easier to understand. It was to conceal information. His redacting declared, “I can’t trust you with this.” Or, “You don’t deserve to know this.”

            Consider a hypothetical example: “BLACKEDOUT years ago our BLACKEDOUT on this BLACKEDOUT in BLACKEDOUT and dedicated to BLACKEDOUT that all BLACKEDOUT. Now we are BLACKEDOUT whether BLACKEDOUT so conceived, and so dedicated, can BLACKEDOUT.”

            Did you recognize it? That’s the first two sentences of Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, as Barr might have redacted it.

            If redacting is editing, it’s editing with a wrecking ball.

            Obviously, I have not read Mueller’s report in its un-redacted form. I cannot therefore venture an opinion about its quality of writing. But I can say with certainly that what William Barr did to it was not editing.


Copyright © 2019 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.

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Margaret Chan liked last week’s column about dealing with offensive emails, but thought that sometimes more direct action is needed: “I live in the UK and I fear that the level of political discourse here has descended, in many cases, to that of playground taunting and bullying.

            “A person I knew (from church) began emailing me after I moved away from the area. Many of her emails were friendly, funny, and shrewd. However, in among this sort of inoffensive emailing, she would send out an offensive racist mail -- about Muslims in particular. Each time, I made an in-depth response, trying to show that what she said was offensive and in fact untrue.

            “Gradually I realised that her emails were in fact often/usually repeating racist right-wing stories which were spread widely via the internet.

            “I think there are any number of people busy doing this sort of thing. I realised in the end that there was no use in trying to argue against her views because she was only interested in spreading hate-filled propaganda. So in the end I asked her to no longer email me.

            “Although you suggest we should engage with people who express offensive views, I think there comes a time when we have to take a stand and say 'no more!' My arguments were never going to give this person pause for thought and somehow, by continuing to receive her views, I began to feel that I was in some way condoning them.”


Heather Sandilands offered two thoughts: “I agree that we need to listen first. In my experience, views that hold no tuck with the other side’s perspective are usually rooted in pain. Let’s hear the pain; once they feel heard there is less volatile emotion.”

            Heather’s other thought took me to task: “And let’s remember the adage about logs and splinters; epithets like ‘Trumplet’ add gas to the fire.”


Tom Watson wrote, “You suggest that stopping to think would be a step forward. In a recent blog, Seth Godin wrote, ‘Thinking is not worth the hassle.’ Is that, then, why people choose what they want to believe, vote the same way they always have, and act on emotions rather than reason? Because thinking just takes too much work?"


David Gilchrist commented, “I, too, have been getting too many of these hate messages from a couple with whom I get along well. I agree with you that it is not good to ignore them; but trying to enter into arguments can be counter-productive. So I try to share some personal experience that tells a different story.

            “One time, I forwarded your column about a young Muslim lady asking if humans are capable of ending war. That correspondent cut me off her email list. But this recent couple seem to accept my points of view -- though not necessarily changing their own; we continue to be friends. I have to believe that this approach does help them to rethink some of the prejudices that they have accepted from their ‘Christian’ friends. It is a very deep concern; and my mantra has become: ‘Don’t tar everyone with the same brush just because they have the same skin colour, politics, or religion’.”


I continue to get mail about the previous week’s column on abortion.

            Rachel Prichard recommended an article: https://www.burnabynow.com/opinion/blogs/so-sam-oosterhoff-you-want-to-make-abortion-unthinkable-here-s-where-to-start-1.23840609

            I agree. It’s worth reading.


The second half of David Gilchrist’s letter went on, “As for the abortion issue, it is far too complicated [for an unequivocal]  YES or NO. But it also puzzles me that the strongest voices to forbid it, are those who support Capital Punishment -- as one of your other respondents mentioned. I may think I wouldn’t [have an abortion]; but that’s easy to say when I am a male and can’t get pregnant! Trying to walk in a woman’s shoes puts a very different face on it. But I don’t believe that men should have the right to make the final decision. We can suggest alternatives, including offering real help, etc., to make life easier for women who choose to continue the pregnancy; but I don’t believe that we have the right to demand that the woman pay the whole penalty of a man’s pleasure -- especially if it was not consensual.

            “Thank you for keeping us involved in these serious issues, and not letting us sweep them under the table. We are forced to think about them -- even if it is only for a few minutes: and that [means] we continue subconsciously dealing with them more than we realize.”






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To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. (This is to circumvent filters that think too many links constitute spam.)

                       Ralph Milton’s latest project is a kind of Festival of Faith, a retelling of key biblical stories by skilled storytellers like Linnea Good and Donald Schmidt, designed to get people talking about their own faith experience. It’s a series of videos available on Youtube. I suggest you start with his introductory section: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7u6qRclYAa8

                       Ralph’s “Sing Hallelujah” -- the world’s first video hymnal -- is still available. It consists of 100 popular hymns, both new and old, on five DVDs that can be played using a standard DVD player and TV screen, for use in congregations who lack skilled musicians to play piano or organ. The website for this project has closed but you can continue to order the DVDs by writing info@woodlake,com

                       Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. <http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca>

                       I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has beautiful pictures.

                       Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom or twatsonATsentexDOTnet



                       The late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures now have an archive (don’t ask how this happened) on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. Feel free to browse all 550 columns.



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