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The Word Tsar of the New York Times.

Assistant Managing Editor of The New York Times, Allan Siegal. He oversees usage and style at the Times. A revised and expanded edition of his “The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage” (Times Books) has just been published.


Other segments from the episode on June 7, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 7, 2000: Interview with Arthur Sulzberger, Jr.; Interview with Allan Siegal; Review of Kurt Weill's album "Die Buergschaft."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. on his
career in the newspaper business and being named publisher of the

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., has been the publisher of The New York Times
since 1992, and has also been chairman of The Times Company since 1997. He's
a member of the fourth generation of his family to run the paper. His
great-grandfather, Adolph Ochs, bought The Times in 1896.

Sulzberger was named Publisher of the Year last month by Editor and Publisher
magazine. The editorial explaining the choice said, `Arthur Sulzberger Jr.
certainly had the benefit of every advantage that comes with membership in one
of the foremost newspaper families in the world. He easily could have managed
to maximize profits and enrich both the family and the shareholders. Instead,
he has revamped the organization, flattened the management structure,
diversified the staff, moved boldly into digital media and made The Times
more accessible to a wider range of people other than white, upper-crust New
Yorkers.' Sulzberger took over the paper just as the Internet was about to
transform communications.

I think many journalists and editors agree that some stories are very
important, but not necessarily popular. Some stories are very important to
cover, but they won't necessarily attract a large readership. For example,
certain international stories with countries that most people couldn't even
find for you on the map; they're important stories--they're not going to be
the most widely read ones.

On the Internet, you can actually analyze exactly how many hits each page has
had, so you can really tell how popular a story is, whether it's being read or
not, how many people are reading it. I'm wondering how you're letting that
guide, if at all, your decisions about how much time to spend, how much space
to give to a new story now.

Mr. ARTHUR SULZBERGER Jr. (Publisher, The New York Times): It's a very
important question and one that we've grappled with, not only since the time
of the Internet, but for years, because while the Internet gives you the
ability to do that on a daily basis, the truth of the matter is that polling
has given you a chance to do that on a regular basis for years. And in fact,
when we were working in the late '80s and early '90s to rethink The Times, we
did work--research into what people were looking for, what were they
interested in, how did they read the paper, and all of that information flowed
up to the senior management team of the paper, and here's the simple way we
look at it.

We're going to give people stories on hunger in Somalia whether they want it
or not, because that is our responsibility, to them and to democracy.
So--and I've yet to see a research report that ever has a reader saying, `I
really want more on the hunger in Somalia,' or any of the stories akin to
that. That's our job, and we're going to give that regardless of what people
tell us.

Now when it comes to remaking the Living section, or Weekend, there we have
more flexibility, and if we discover that people really aren't interested in
one area of coverage that we thought was important, but they're very much
interested in another area that we didn't--wasn't quite on our radar screen,
well, we will adapt to that. Now we're still, obviously, going to cover--just
to take culture for a moment--we're still going to cover the theater and
Broadway. We're still going to cover the music scene of jazz, which is not
nearly as popular as other music, because that's part of who The New York
Times is, of who we are.

So you learn intuitively, inside yourself, where to listen and where it's
inappropriate to listen, and that's why, you know, despite what everyone--what
you're seeing around the wor--around this country, and what I think is a clear
shift away from foreign coverage, we actually have more foreign bureaus and
foreign reporters than we used to.

GROSS: What are some of the most interesting things you've learned from
surveys about readers and how they read your paper, things that have led to
what you consider to be good changes?

Mr. SULZBERGER: They don't make jumps the way we used to--we always thought
they jumped from a page-one story. I think that came as a little bit of a
shock. You've really got to have a compelling piece for them--for many of
our readers--to jump to the inside pages. So we're...

GROSS: So what's that--yeah.

Mr. SULZBERGER: We're writing briefer, our stories are generally short. Now
do we still do major takeouts? Of course we do, but in a time when people
really do say that they are pressed for time, you better be sure the story is
very compelling...

GROSS: So does this mean you're trying...

Mr. SULZBERGER: ...before you...

GROSS: condense more in the front page?

Mr. SULZBERGER: No. No, I don't think it means that. We're not trying to
condense more on the front page. We're just--we're being more judicious in our
use of space.

GROSS: My guest is Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of The New York Times.

Why did you want to go into the family business?

Mr. SULZBERGER: I wasn't talented enough to do anything else. If you don't
accept that answer--I actually wasn't--I took it step by step. From the age
of five, when I finally got over wanting to be a fireman, I went into--I
just--I guess a high school newspaper side. Didn't wind up becoming the
editor of the paper, but one of the senior editors. I stayed out of it in
college. I wasn't even a part of the college newspaper, and then jumped into
it when I graduated, and discovered, to my joy, that I really liked it. I
loved reporting, I loved writing, and thought I'd make a career on the news

GROSS: What was it like reading the paper when you were growing up and
knowing that, you know, your family owned and published the paper? I mean,
you must have felt a certain connection.

Mr. SULZBERGER: Well, first of all, I'm going to confess now that I wasn't
one of those remarkable children who, at the age of seven, picks up The New
York Times and settles down into an armchair. I think my first paper was,
perhaps, the Daily News, and it wasn't until I got into high school that I
started to really read the paper in depth, because, quite frankly, until late
in high school, junior, senior year, it wasn't that critical to my life. It
only became more critical, as you become, in my case, politically aware.
Those were the days of the Vietnam War and the demonstrations, and The Times
became an important tool to grow, personally.

GROSS: Did you feel like a traitor, bringing the Daily News into your house?

Mr. SULZBERGER: No, no, of course not, I mean, any more than--in fact I
think my father subscribed to it. I think I read it there. No. If you read
newspapers and if you love newspapers, you just don't read one--at least I
don't--and we subscribe, for example, at home to The Wall Street Journal and
that's one of the joys of this business. It just doesn't have to be The New
York Times.

GROSS: What was the biggest newspaper or family crisis you remember from your

Mr. SULZBERGER: I think that would have to be the Pentagon papers and my
father having to fly back from London on the overnight plane to get back into
that--back into this country because we'd just published the Pentagon papers,
and the government had been going crazy.

GROSS: What's the closest you've come to having to decide what to publish,
the closest to the Pentagon papers--what's the closest?

Mr. SULZBERGER: I understand.

GROSS: Yeah. Sorry.

Mr. SULZBERGER: It has to be the--that's OK--it has to be--well, that's a
good question. We've--Joe Leyleveld was asked this question recently,
and--our executive editor--and he actually responded that it was the
presidential impeachment story and Monica Lewinsky and how we covered all of
that. And I think from his perspective, from managing the news room on a
day-to-day basis with a running story that was really pushing the envelope of
what The New York Times was comfortable with--that's absolutely the right

But in my case, you know, as publisher, the Unabomber would be the moment
where it was most critical as to whether or not we were going to publish

GROSS: The Unabomber had sent--I think you and The Washington Post--letters
basically saying that if you published his manifesto, he'd stop killing.

Mr. SULZBERGER: That's correct. And he gave us a lot of--thank goodness--a
lot of time to make that decision as to whether or not we were going to
publish, either The Post or The Times or perhaps in unison--certainly gave us
time to come to some agreement internally at both papers, and then to come to
an agreement with each other, and of course, with the Justice Department and
the FBI at least giving us some guidance and advice.

GROSS: You--I don't know if it was you, personally--but The Times took the
letter to the FBI and the Justice Department and talked with them about the
pros and cons of actually giving in to this demand on publishing the
manifesto. What kind of discussion did you have before even bringing it to
the Justice Department and the FBI, discussion about whether it was
appropriate to ask them about a news decision?

Mr. SULZBERGER: No. No, I didn't think any of us felt it was inappropriate
to ask. We often seek advice. It would have been inappropriate to be told
what to do, and the Justice Department, to their credit, never once told us
what to do. They worked with us by giving us information. We also had people
from the outside giving us information, but I think it's fair to say that when
Don Graham and I walked in to meet with the Attorney General on that last
meeting, we both knew that we were going to pub--we were inclined--unless the
Justice Department said, `Look, really, we don't think you should do this'--we
were inclined to publish it. The fact is, they then asked us to, so it was
really a meeting of the minds.

GROSS: Did you have any reservations about publishing it?

Mr. SULZBERGER: Oh, of course I had reservations. How could you not have
reservations? But if you--but I think the reservations were outweighed by the
positive nature of what we thought we were doing, and in fact, as you know, it
did, indeed uncover who he was and he was captured.

GROSS: Is that because the brother read it in The Times, or Post?

Mr. SULZBERGER: He read it in The Washington Post--the Washington Post wound
up printing it, although that was a joint decision by The Times and The Post,
and we covered half the costs. But we decided only to choose one paper in
which to print it, and for reasons I'm not going to get into, we chose the
Washington Post.

GROSS: So the brother read it in there and recognized that this was
probably--his brother was probably the Unabomber.

Mr. SULZBERGER: That's correct. That's right.

GROSS: I think the big fear in doing something like this is it's going to
start a trend where other people say, `Well, I'll stop committing murder if
you publish my manifesto.'

Mr. SULZBERGER: Right. I considered this The New York Times' plan for world
peace. If every murderer and every terrorist group agreed that they would no
longer murder or terrorize, I will open up these pages and we'll just, in a
couple of years there'll be--the world will be a truly better place. That
sounds a little cynical, but in truth this was not some guy who was saying he
was going to kill somebody. This was somebody with a clear track record of
murdering people and maiming people. And we had reasons to believe that
he was also--and this'll sound a little odd--a man of his word and that in
truth he was going to stop if we published it. So there were two or three
different things that played in. But it was not an easy decision, and the
brain trust we collected at The New York Times when we first sat down to
discuss it was all over the map. Some people felt that we had no choice but
to publish it. Others felt that it would be the absolute wrong decision to
publish it. And by the end of the process, by the end of the month or two
that we worked on this issue, we were unanimous in our decision.

GROSS: Has anyone else written you that `I will stop doing this is you
publish my manifesto or my article'? Have there been any copycats?

Mr. SULZBERGER: Not that's made it to me.

GROSS: My guest is Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The New York Times.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The New York Times.

Now in our early years in newspapers, you worked--let's see, you worked at a
paper in North Carolina...


GROSS: worked for the Associated Press in London, you worked for The
Times in many positions--at the metro desk, as a foreign correspondent.

Mr. SULZBERGER: No, not as a foreign correspondent.

GROSS: Not as a foreign correspondent?

Mr. SULZBERGER: I was the Washington correspondent for The York Times...


Mr. SULZBERGER: ...but never foreign correspondent. I...

GROSS: And I think you worked in the advertising department for a while.

Mr. SULZBERGER: Advertising, production, yeah.

GROSS: Were you consciously trying to groom yourself to become publisher and
learn everything you could about each aspect of the paper?

Mr. SULZBERGER: Probably. The big shift was really from the news side to
the business side. And I must confess I took that step with a lot of
trepidation. I had a wonderful, I guess, almost a decade working as a
reporter or editor for newspapers or wire services, and I loved that world. I
didn't know whether or not I was made for the world of business, so when I
moved to the advertising department to try my hand at that, I really thought
that, `Well, you know, if it doesn't work, I'll go back to news and make my
career there.' It turned out that I was--I found the business side as
compelling as the news side and rather enjoyed it. I won't say I was a great
ad salesperson, but I learned a lot and kept proceeding.

So I'm not sure it's quite as conscious as it sounds. It was a step-by-step
process and I took each job and just tried to enjoy it, and in truth did.

GROSS: How do you define your job now as publisher?

Mr. SULZBERGER: Strategy I think is the biggest--my biggest concern. What
is the strategic direction of the newspaper, and what is the strategic
direction of the company? Because I'm publisher of The Times, to be sure, but
I'm also chairman of The New York Times Company, and that's a somewhat larger
plate. So strategy, personnel--big--you know, where's the next generation of
leadership coming from? And continuing to push the organization to become
comfortable with things like the Internet, with television, with new means of
distributing the quality information. And always ensuring that the quality of
what we produce is of the highest caliber.

GROSS: What did you most not want to inherit about your father's life when
you watched him running The New York Times?

Mr. SULZBERGER: Strikes.

GROSS: Uh-huh. Why was that the worst thing?

Mr. SULZBERGER: Because strikes suggest that in the end you couldn't find an
accommodation between two important points of view--the need for leadership and
management of a public company that has to have profits to succeed and grow,
and the needs of the work force, the men and women who are responsible, in the
end, for producing that great newspaper. And his was obviously a more
difficult time than mine, but I think it's fair to say we've found a way to
reach greater accommodation. It's not perfect, we still have issues, but it's
not quite as volatile as it used to be.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. SULZBERGER: Well, thank you. It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Arthur Sulzberger Jr. is the publisher of The New York Times.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Allan Siegal of The New York Times on the new sytlebook
that he co-authored for the paper, the first update in 23 years

Allan Siegal is often called the word czar(ph) of The New York Times. He's
overseen usage and styles since 1977. Siegal has co-authored a new edition of
The Times' "Manual of Style and Usage," the first new version since 1976. In
addition to explaining the difference between who and whom, that and which,
another confusing usage questions, and explaining when to use commas and
semicolons, the book discourages writers from overusing puns, insists that
reporters quote their sources accurately without cleaning up the quotes,
offers advice on how to attribute sources who want to remain anonymous, and
suggests graceful approaches to gender-free language. I asked Siegal how the
stylebook is used at the paper.

Mr. ALLAN SIEGAL (The New York Times): We have 1,100 people on our news
staff--that's a pretty shocking number--and most of what you read in the
morning's New York Times is written between about 9:00 in the evening and
midnight. And that's a lot of decision-making about language made very, very
quickly, and this enables them all to be on the same page and not have to run
around to a whole bunch of different reference books or ask somebody, `Do we
spell it T-E-N or 10?' And the stylebook has always been a good place to find
out if something is slang, if it's too informal, for issues like who and whom;
a place to check the answer, rather than leaf through grammar books. And
sometimes you just want to know, `Do we capitalize president, or lowercase it?
Capitalize cardinal or lowercase it?' All of these things are in the

GROSS: What are some of the biggest changes in The Times stylebook between
when you first got to The Times and now?

Mr. SIEGAL: Well, the most famous thing that happened this time is that we
caught up with some social policy issues that really differ today from what
they were 23 years ago when we did this book last. We didn't allow people to
say `Ms.' because we thought it was a political statement back then. We
didn't allow the term `yea' because it was considered, also, political or too
politically correct for our readership in the 1960s and '70s. We changed that
some time in the 1980s, but the book still carried all of these outdated
prohibitions. And then we also tried to do--to reflect the end of the Cold
War. A lot of country names changed and terminology changed and 23 years ago,
when we did this book last, there was no Internet, there was no Web. No one
know what `www' meant. It probably didn't mean anything.

GROSS: In the forward to the new New York Times "Manual of Style and Usage,"
you quote a few paragraphs of writing that you think were, you know,
particularly excellent. Let me read one of those paragraphs, and this is from
journalist Barry Burack(ph), and he was writing this from Afghanistan. It
says, `With gunfire snapping in the wind and artillery blasts punctuating his
sentences, the commander of the Taliban's front line forces was in a boastful,
triumphant mood today. He removed his artificial leg, sat comfortably on a
blanket in his small brick fortress and pointed a few hundred yards to the
north where, lodged in the foothills, was the last bastion of what was once
grandly called the Northern Alliance. Quote, "We are giving the enemy 10 days
so that anybody who wants to get out can get out," said the commander, Haji
Mula Abdu Satar(ph). "Then by the will of God we will crush the life from
anyone who remains behind."'

Now what principles of writing are illustrated in that paragraph?

Mr. SIEGAL: First of all, Barry paints a word picture. You may forget the
Afghan political situation sooner or later; you won't forget the picture of a
guy unstrapping his artificial leg to give the interview. The gunfire is
`snapping in the wind.' He uses brisk, active verbs. He doesn't beat around
the bush. `We will crush the life.' Granted, that's the quote he's using,
it's not Barry himself, but he selects vivid, direct language; short words,
nothing fancy.

GROSS: Allan Siegal co-wrote The New York Times' new "Manual of Style and
Usage." He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and
this is FRESH AIR.

(Funding credits given)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, we continue our talk with Allan Siegal, co-author of The
New York Times' new "Manual of Style and Usage." And Lloyd Schwartz reviews
the world-premier recording of Kurt Weill's 1932 opera "Die Buergshaft."

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with Allan Siegal, assistant managing editor of The New York Times. He's
overseen style and usage there since 1977. He co-wrote The Times' new manual
of style and usage.

You have an interesting entry about slang in "The Times Manual of Style and
Usage," and I'm not sure you particularly--that you were the one that actually
wrote this entry. But let me quote it anyways. It says, "Current slang
create the embarrassing spectacle of a grown-up who tries to pass for an
adolescent. Some slang expressions will evolve into standard English. Others
like crunch, for slowdown, and edgy, as in on the cutting edge, show up so
relentlessly that they vault overnight from the novel to the hackneyed." I
like that idea of current slang sounding like a grown-up trying to pass for an
adolescent. What kind of slang do you find acceptable? What do you find
objectionable? How do you draw that line?

Mr. SIEGAL: When a writer has a good ear and he hears people using slang and
he quotes it or even borrows it to create the scene that he or she witnessed
and it's fresh--the reader hasn't heard it lots of times that week or that
month, that's good use of slang. When it's just prefabricated, when it makes
the story sound like 20 or 30 other stories you've heard and when it makes us
sound like some other publication, then it's a false note. I happened to look
up the expression `poster boy' the other day, and I found that in the last 30
days, The Times has called people poster boys for one thing or another 20
times. Now, clearly, that expression is in trouble.

GROSS: Right. So is this the kind of thing that you do sometimes is check in
the computer how many times a certain expression has been used, to see if it's
crossed the line into cliche yet?

Mr. SIEGAL: The computer helps us to verify our instincts. I've discovered
that we've suddenly started referring to people by this basketball figure,
`go-to guy,' meaning the person you can trust in a pinch. And suddenly in the
last week, everybody's been a go-to guy for one thing or another. The prime
minister of Britain has an aide who is a go-to guy. That's going to get stale
very fast.

GROSS: Let me get to an expression that's used a lot that you discourage in
the stylebook, and that's inner city. What don't you like about inner city?

Mr. SIEGAL: It's come to be a euphemism. It usually means black or black
and poor. And it's imprecise. The inner city of Manhattan is the Upper East
Side and Upper West Side, and they're not any of the things that we usually
talk about when we say inner city. But there's something worse about it. If
you use a euphemism when what you really want to say is black and Latino and
poor, it sounds as if you think there's something wrong with those
expressions. Well, there's nothing wrong with being black or Latino or poor.
And there's nothing wrong with talking about those traits in straightforward,
direct language.

GROSS: If what someone was trying to say was that the neighborhood was poor
and it was predominantly African-American in population, how would you have
them rewrite it without using inner city?

Mr. SIEGAL: I'd have them say exactly that. Or very often, when I see inner
city in copy, I say, `What do you mean? Let's just say what we mean.' If
inner-city kids have been more exposed to this illness or this problem in
school, let's say what kind of kids we mean.

GROSS: Now what about using African-American vs. black, or Native American
vs. Indian? How do you suggest your writers decide which is the more
appropriate way to describe a group?

Mr. SIEGAL: Well, we learn from our experience. A little while ago, you and
I were talking about the years when The Times wouldn't use `Ms.' or `gay,' and
that caused a fair amount of bitterness both outside the paper, ultimately,
and inside the paper. And that recollection has made it very easy for us to
deal with questions like Latino vs. Hispanic or African-American vs. black.
We simply encourage our writers to ask people how they'd like to be referred
to, organizations, people we write about. There's nothing really wrong with
using any of those expressions if they're comfortable in context.

GROSS: Of course, like, if you're talking about a large group of
African-Americans, some of the people in that group will prefer the word
`black,' and some of the people will prefer `African-American.' So then
you're kind of lost.

Mr. SIEGAL: If we get lost, we count on our writers to use their judgment
and find the way. What we have told our folks is, `Let the writer make the
choice. The writer's name is going to be on the story. The writer should
accountable for that kind of choice.'

GROSS: Now one thing The New York Times hasn't budged on is, you still can't
just call somebody by their last name. It has to be Mr. Miller, not Miller,
or, you know, Ms. Gross, not just Gross. And one way--you're probably
familiar with this example, if you talking about King Kong, Mr. Kong, a
seven-story simian.

Mr. SIEGAL: There are lots of--I'm happy to say that all of those myths are
just that, myths.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SIEGAL: There's one about the pop singer Meat Loaf who is alleged to
have been called Mr. Loaf.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SIEGAL: It didn't happen. We do use last names standing by themselves
in our sports pages, of course, as everyone does, and in our magazine and in
our Sunday Book Review because those are more leisurely, different-sounding
publications than the main part of the newspaper. But in the newspaper, we
think there is a value to stopping and calling people Mr. or Ms. or Mrs. or
Miss, if that's what they prefer, in exactly the same way that congresspeople
refer to each other as the `distinguished representative from Georgia.' Now
the speaker may or may not think that the representative from Georgia is
particularly distinguished, but it's courtesy that keeps the conversation at a
level of civility. And we believe in that very much in discussion of public

GROSS: Try to remember how you deal with hip-hop performers like Chuck D;
does he become Mr. D?

Mr. SIEGAL: We'd probably repeat the whole name all the time. No, we
wouldn't call him Mr. D.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. SIEGAL: I guess the first rule of style is don't be ridiculous.

GROSS: Uh-huh. Now there's a lot of linguistic wars over things like
pro-abortion or pro-choice, pro-life or anti-abortion. What advice do you
have on that?

Mr. SIEGAL: We try very hard to choose language that won't let any personal
sentiment be visible or present in what we write. We don't say pro-choice
because that's the term used by one of the sides in the debate. At the same
time, we don't say pro-abortion because that's what the other side uses, or
pro-life. We try to talk about abortion rights, advocates, the abortion
rights position, the anti-abortion position. We try to use language that
neither side would contest.

Now I have to admit to you that we have come up against one piece of that
debate that we don't know how to solve: the surgical procedure that is called
by its critics partial-birth abortion. There is simply no neutral way to say
that. And if anybody has suggestions, please write to me at The New York

GROSS: What are some of the things you've come up with and then rejected?

Mr. SIEGAL: Oh, there are all kinds of--the technical expression for it is
intact dilation and curettage, which is incomprehensible to most readers. And
I'm told it isn't particularly precise anyway. And I don't remember what all
the others are that we have tried to use, but we generally now use the
expression `partial-birth abortion,' but we say that it is what one side calls
it. It's a very unsatisfactory solution.

GROSS: My guest is Allan Siegal. He oversees style and usage at The New York
Times. We'll talk more after our break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Allan Siegal. He co-wrote "The New York Times New Manual
of Style and Usage."

Can you give us a sense of what the line of editing is like? A reporter
writes a story; how many editors read it before it's published? What are
their different functions in the process of editing?

Mr. SIEGAL: Well, at this point, if I don't tell you that much of the time
there's too much editing, my boss will kill me, because Joe Lelyveld, the
executive editor, has made a kind of crusade of convincing the staff the best
editing is the editing that involves one writer and one editor, one-stop
shopping; everything that needs to get done gets done in one pass. And if the
story is long enough and complicated enough and we need to go back at it
again, then the same editor deals with the writer who has dealt with her or
him first time around. Now that doesn't always happen.

But typically, a story written for the daily paper is assigned by one editor
or at least discussed by that editor with the reporter who's going to write
it. When it's turned in, it's looked at by a second editor who is an
assistant editor in the department--metropolitan news or national news or arts
news--and then it goes to a copy editor when the assistant editor is satisfied
that it's organized correctly, that it's about the right length, that there
are no glaring omissions of facts. It goes to a copy editor whose role ought
to be just to check spelling, grammar and compliance with the stylebook, and
then to write the headline. Now, of course, a good copy editor will patch
omissions that others have made and ideally will go back and say to the
supervising editor, `Hey, you forgot to tell us whether this legislation is
likely to be voted by the other House. Does the president plan to sign it or
not?' That kind of thing can slip by the first-line editor. But ideally
there's one substantive editor on every story and then a mechanical
copy-editing phase.

GROSS: I want to talk to you about obscenity, vulgarity and profanity. The
stylebook says The Times writes unblushingly about sexual behavior, art
censorship, science, health, crime and similar subjects, opening its columns
to any newsworthy detail, however disturbing, provided the approach is
dignified in the vocabulary, clinical rather than coarse. Tell us what your
guidelines are for obscenity, vulgarity, profanity if you're describing a rape
or you're describing a painting that is the subject of censorship and the
painting or the photograph is explicit in its sexuality.

Mr. SIEGAL: We've learned a lesson during the Mapplethorpe controversy
about the sexually explicit homosexual photographs in which we were describing
them in ways that were so general and vague that readers told us they had no
idea why there was a censorship issue. And we took away from that a sense
that we really ought to talk in grown-up language about exactly which body
parts were seen doing what. And I think we do that equally in a newsworthy
rape story. Happily, we don't, as a newspaper, cover the amount of crime that
would cause that to be on every page of the metropolitan section every day.
But when we cover a highly newsworthy sex crime, we're very explicit about the
body parts and the specific activities that were mentioned at the trial.

GROSS: How did The Times describe Mapplethorpe's work at the time of the
controversy and how would that have changed now?

Mr. SIEGAL: I think toward the end of the development of that story, we
talked very specifically about--oh, I don't think you want to go into it on
the radio, but there were, you know, objects placed in body openings that we
had referred to in generalizations in some of our earlier stories and we were
very specific about it later on because it became a constitutional issue. And
if readers are going to have an opinion about what the Constitution should
allow and what it should prohibit, we think we owe them the basic textbook
guidance about what the argument's about.

GROSS: Now you sometimes--The Times often runs corrections when there's been
a misspelling or a person has been called by the wrong name or a photograph
has been inaccurately identified. You also run editor's notes to rectify
lapses of fairness, balance or perspective. How do you decide when a piece is
worthy of that kind of editor's note?

Mr. SIEGAL: Very often reporters or editors come over to me and say, `This
is what happened in today's paper. Is it worth a correction?' And my answer
to them is always, `If you were writing that story now, knowing what you know
now, would you do it that way?' They'll always say, `No, of course not.'
Then I say, `Then there's still time to fix it. You can at least fix the
record and fix your conscience.' And we put a correction in the paper or an
editor's note.

GROSS: A good example of that?

Mr. SIEGAL: Yes. There was an editor's note just the other day where we had
written about an interview with Betty Friedan, the feminist author. And she,
in her new book, accuses her former husband of having physically abused her.
And we describe that at some length. I gather we did try to reach her husband
for comment, and for some very peculiar reason, his telephone number, even
though it was listed, wasn't available from directory assistance. This sounds
like a--I can see you raising your eyebrows but, in fact, that's really what
happened. And we never got his side of the story into the paper.

And then he wrote us a letter asking that his side of the story get in the
paper and we edited the letter for length because it wasn't necessary to go on
at the length that he did, or at least we didn't have space available to let
him do that. And we put his view in the paper in the form of a letter. And
as luck will have it--and sometimes these things just are luck--the next
letter in the Letters column, right under his, was another letter from another
reader who believed the accusation against him. And so it had the effect of
completely wiping out the equal time we had tried to give him.

Well, he wrote to us and complained about that and we ran an editor's note
saying that first of all, we should have tried harder and found a way to get
his response into the same story as the accusation and that secondly, when we
then ran a letter from him we shouldn't have coupled it with another letter
from a reader who didn't believe him. That made us look, at least, to careful
readers, as if we had a conscience in handling that story rather than saying,
you know, `We own the printing press, and to heck with you, Mac.'

GROSS: My guest is Allan Siegal and he has overseen usage and style at The
Times since 1977 and he's the co-author of the new "New York Times Manual of
Style and Usage."

Color photos: When The New York Times added color photos on its front page, I
think a lot of people thought, `Well, that's just it,' because newspapers are
supposed to have black-and-white photos and color is what USA Today does.
Color is what magazines and USA Today do. How do you think color photos have
affected the paper one way or another and has it given you a longer deadline?
In other words, do you have to go to press sooner in order to print the color

Mr. SIEGAL: Well, I'll take the last part first. No, we don't, because
desktop publishing technology came along so quickly that we can print color
photos now just about as quickly as we can print black and white.
Occasionally we may have to close the color portion of a page 15 or 20 minutes
before we close the black and white. But we can keep the black and white open
till the last minute. People used to say to me--because I was on one of the
planning groups that worked out the conversion of color in the paper--people
used to say, `I don't want you to do that. You know, it's going to make The
Times into a comic book.'

And I used to say, `Life happens in color. We give it to you in black and
white. Can you name anyplace else in the newspaper where we knowingly give
you less than we know, less than the whole truth? If we know that the
president is married to a redhead or the president is himself a redhead and we
just show you his hair in gray--can you think of anyplace else in the paper
where we are systematically withholding information?' It was a way of telling
people more, of giving them more of what the scene looked like.

Now we knew that we were going to do it in a way that was conservative in
design terms and responsible, consistent with the look of the paper as it had
been all along. At this point, I should put in a plug for my colleague Tom
Bodkin, who is the design director and who really devoted years of his life to
making sure that when we went to color, it would be with the same values and
the same emphasis as the black and white that we did. But readers have been
gratifyingly understanding about that I think because we occasionally get
complaints about various things, but I know of almost no complaints about
color as such.

GROSS: How many newspapers a day do you read?

Mr. SIEGAL: Four or five. The local New York ones and I certainly try to do
justice by The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

GROSS: And why is it important to read those?

Mr. SIEGAL: To know who's doing as well as we are, who may be doing
something better, who has an idea that's worth expanding on in our own paper.
And what kin--for that matter, who's following us, what kinds of things we've
done that have had enough impact so that others felt that it was necessary to
go back and do them the next day.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. SIEGAL: It's been my pleasure, Terry. Thank you very much.

GROSS: Allan Siegal co-wrote The New York Times' "New Manual of Style and

Coming up, one of Kurt Weill's most neglected works is now on CD. This is

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Operatic works of Kurt Weill

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kurt Weill and the 50th
anniversary of his death. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says that one
of the most significant events of these landmark dates is the revival and
first recording of one of Weill's most neglected works, the opera "Die
Burgschaft," "The Pledge."

(Soundbite of "Die Burgschaft")


Kurt Weill's political and moral fable "Die Burgschaft," the bond or the
pledge, was first performed in Berlin in 1932, just before the Nazi takeover,
which is one of the reasons it wasn't performed in Germany again until more
than a decade after World War II.

It was also Weill's major break with his collaborator Bertolt Brecht, with
whom he'd worked on eight previous pieces, including "Threepenny Opera" and
"The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny," a partnership that produced,
among countless memorable numbers, "Mack the Knife," "Serabiajani(ph)," the
"Alabama Song," and the "Bilbao Song."

His new librettist was Caspar Neher, Brecht and Weill's brilliant set
designer. Neher's story owes a lot to Brecht's plays, though the tone is less
satirical than appalled and saddened at the way money and power undermine "The
Pledge," the social bond, the human instinct for kindness--public or personal.

(Soundbite of "Die Burgschaft")

SCHWARTZ: Ultimately, Neher's plot goes back to a parable in the Talmud in
which kindness and generosity prevail over self-interest. But it's not people
who change, the chorus keeps reminding us, it's the circumstances that change

The particular circumstance of this opera is the invasion of an ominous great
power. In the end, the kind man who once pledged to cover his friend's death
coldly refuses to protect him from a murderous mob. This grim fable
foreshadows not only the Nazis but also the corporate greed of the 1990s.

Yet if the tone is different from Brecht's glittering cynicism the music
remains unmistakably Weill's, though from the very first notes, he achieves a
new level of urgency and momentum. Weill's orchestration, especially his use
of winds, reaches new expressive heights. The composer Ernest Bloch said this
music had a touch of a Jewish Verdi to it.

(Soundbite of "Die Burgschaft")

SCHWARTZ: Weill uses small and large choruses in an extraordinary variety of
ways. Each individual number fits into a larger design with cinematic
fluidity. "Die Burgschaft" combines the simple narrative of folk opera with
the solemn choral pronouncements of oratorio.

(Soundbite of "Die Burgschaft")

SCHWARTZ: The performance, conducted by Julius Rudel, is by turns hard
driving and lyrical and shot through with nervous energy. It's too bad Weill
didn't live to see a revival of this ambitious work. It may never be as
popular as the "Threepenny Opera" but anyone who loves Weill's music will
cherish it.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix. Kurt
Weill's opera "Die Burgschaft" was recorded at last year's Spoleto Festival.

(Credits given)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "Die Burgschaft")
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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