The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Wes Pruden, R.I.P.

Posted on | July 17, 2019 | Comments Off on Wes Pruden, R.I.P.


He was 83 years old, and died after spending a full workday in the offices of the Washington Times. He was the last of the old-time newspapermen, and the word “journalist” was prohibited from appearing in the pages of the Times during his tenure as editor-in-chief.

That rule was one of several variations from the AP Stylebook known as “Prudenisms,” reflecting Mr. Pruden’s preference for plain English and his hostility to euphemism, jargon and lazy writing. For example, “controversial” was prohibited, as were “alleged,” “allegation” and “allegedly.” If someone was accused of wrongdoing, then you had to cite a source making that charge, rather than just saying the person allegedly did whatever it was. Also, under Mr. Pruden’s rules, “gay” was not an acceptable synonym for homosexual, which meant that, as an assistant editor on the national desk, I had to change this in AP wire stories.

The Times used courtesy titles, so the President would be “Mr. Trump” and the Speaker of the House “Mrs. Pelosi” on second reference, and we were not allowed to use “Ms.,” so that on second reference a certain New York Democrat would be Miss Ocasio-Cortez. Also, we did not use “Dr.” as the honorific for a Ph.D., but only for an M.D. This was because doctorate degrees were a dime a dozen in D.C., and even many high-school principals could demand a “Dr.” if we ever let that get started. This particular Prudenism really ruffled the feathers of James Dobson of Focus on the Family, who had a Ph.D. in psychology and always insisted on being called Doctor Dobson, but the editor’s rule was unbending and on second reference he was always “Mr. Dobson.” I seem to recall Ralph Z. Hallow on the phone with Dobson’s people, getting an earful of complaints about this, as the “Doctor” thing was part of Dobson’s brand, as it were, but it was Mr. Pruden’s paper, and complaints were useless.

Some of my colleagues at the paper grumbled about Mr. Pruden’s curmudgeonly ways, but having an old-fashioned editor was in many ways a great blessing, because he was utterly invulnerable to any kind of political correctness or manufactured “controversy.” Of course, every liberal on the planet hated the Washington Times, so there was never any shortage of “activist” types indignant about our coverage, but there was no pressure they could bring to bear on Mr. Pruden that would make him flinch. A reporter whose story touched off a firestorm of outrage knew that, as long as he had the facts right, Mr. Pruden had his back. As long as the Old Man was happy with your work, it didn’t matter who else might be angry about it. He had courage, and a sense of honor.

Did I mention he hated blogs? It’s true. Mr. Pruden despised amateurism of the kind where every crackpot with a laptop can pretend to be an “investigative journalist,” e.g., Jason Leopold. Mr. Pruden believed in hierarchy, in paying your dues and sticking to the facts. One of the rules in Mr. Pruden’s newsroom was that you could not base a story entirely on anonymous sources. An over-reliance on “sources say” tends to undermine the reader’s confidence, and rightly so. No intelligent person believes a word of anything published under the byline of Jason Leopold, who would have been thrown down the stairs by Wes Pruden.

There is no shortage of “journalists” nowadays who deserve to be thrown down the stairs by an old-fashioned editor, but I probably shouldn’t start naming names. Let’s just say that if you’re a pudgy “media critic” with fewer viewers than Spongebob Squarepants, you should probably be grateful you never had to work for Wes Pruden. God bless his soul.



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