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Fit to Print

A brief history of Timesian introspection.

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* If something is merely a "rumor," we do not report it. And this one, about the condoms, is way out of line.

* We need to overcome a certain reputation for daunting stiffness. Words like "exculpatory" and "subsidence," side by side on page 1, don't help.

* Nobody talks like this. Usage authorities agree that a transitive verb shouldn't be sundered from its direct object.

* "Gourmet" has been drained of meaning by commercial overuse, especially as an adjective (gourmet cat food). Words like "epicure," "food lover" and "judge of fine cooking" now serve better. -- recent Greenies critiques

Editors and reporters at the New York Times call them Greenies -- or, more soberly, postmortems. The stapled sets of Xeroxed pages, distributed in-house four times a week and compiled into weekly "Best Ofs," contain recent clippings scrawled or pasted over with praise and criticism, ranging from copy editors' pet peeves to kudos for the perfect headline.

The first internal Times critique was nothing like today's Greenies. Late Timesman Ted Bernstein, a prolific author on English usage, praised scoops and skewered grammatical gaffes in a two-sided newsletter he started in the fifties called "Winners & Sinners." Bernstein's departure from the Times in the mid-seventies coincided with the ascension of executive editor Abe Rosenthal, whose reign, at least one insider suggests, was less about genteel praise and self-criticism than about "making sure that the guilty were punished." Under Rosenthal's direction, then-copy editor Allan Siegal (now assistant managing editor) scribbled critical notes in green felt-tip pen -- the first Greenies. The tone of a Greenie -- or "Siegalgram" -- was more pink slip than memo. "You were supposed to show it to the offender," says David East, a longtime copy editor who now heads the foreign copy desk.

When Max Frankel replaced Rosenthal in 1986, bringing in a kinder, gentler management style, Siegal lightened his approach, doling out more praise and becoming something of a linguistic progressive. In his new memoir, Frankel credits Siegal with injecting nineties sensitivity into Times style (before his efforts, the word gay was taboo).

Since taking over from Siegal five years ago, current Greenies editor Bill Borders has deliberately brought reporters into the dialogue. He now distributes "Best Ofs" to hundreds of staff members. "The goal," he writes earnestly at the front of the packets, in yet another sign of the new, softer-focus, more user-friendly Times, "is to stimulate discussion."


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