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An End, and Amends

By James T. McKenna | October 1, 2008
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Like much of the televised world, the McKenna household was captivated in August by the performance, dedication and grace of the world’s athletes gathered in Beijing for the Summer Olympic Games.

My 20-year-old son bared a chauvinistic streak, which was drawn out by a French swimmer’s taunting of my son’s hero of the Games, the aquatic phenomenon Michael Phelps. I tried to tutor him on the "spirit" of the Games, about sportsmanship and "fields of friendly strife" — and the antithesis of all that: the daily tallies of which country had garnered the most medals. After Phelps and his teammates defeated their French counterparts soundly, my boy watched those tallies keenly — and I left that fight for another day.

We all enjoyed the instances of the underdog conquering the favorite: top-seeded Roger Federer falling to James Blake, for instance, and Japan’s defeat of the U.S. in softball, a sport the Americans had so dominated that the International Olympic Committee dropped it from the 2012 Games. There were poignant moments, too, such as when the women’s volleyball team from the former Soviet republic of Georgia defeated Russia as Georgian troops battled Russian invaders back home. It hardly dimmed the moment that the "Georgian" women were actually Brazilian players, because Georgia couldn’t afford to send a volleyball team to Beijing.

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Like much of the world, the judging used in some of the Olympic events, most notably boxing and gymnastics, mystified us. But my mind turned to other things in reading one critique of the gymnastics judging. A writer for The Washington Post named Joel Achenbach on Aug. 21 tried to illustrate the confusion the gymnastics judges sowed. Noting that the American gymnast Shawn Johnson got mystifyingly low marks for most of her performances, he wrote, "[T]he only explanation seemed to be that the judges didn’t like gymnasts built like fire hydrants."

That comment stunned me. If Achenbach’s complaint was with the judges, why insult a 16-year-old girl, who, by the way, is obviously fit, talented and pretty and looks nothing like a fire hydrant? Johnson is a world-class athlete; she eventually brought home a gold and three silver medals. She’s also a classy young lady; in TV interviews during the Games, she praised teammates and competitors alike and gracefully deflected efforts to lure her into criticism.

But Shawn Johnson’s a 16-year-old. Grown women and men would be hurt if likened to a fire hydrant. Achenbach’s a smart guy, I suspect, and is fully aware of that. He’s got three children, according to the biography offered by the publisher of his books, so I suspect he’s had direct experience helping a young one cope with hurtful words. Consider, too, that he wields words for a living. He should know better. In this case, he chose to spice up his piece with a pithy phrase at the expense of someone who didn’t deserve such treatment.

That’s what journalists do sometimes. They lapse into aiming for writing that makes them look smart and pithy instead of telling a story accurately and justly. I know because I’ve done it myself, more times than I care to remember.

Circumstances made this a matter of concern for me. This is the last editorial I’ll write for Rotor & Wing. After five-and-a-half years, I’m relinquishing the reins once this issue is off to the printer. Achenbach’s inconsiderate remark made me reconsider my own transgressions, and this seems an opportune time to offer amends.

I’ve probably written 200 or so feature stories in my time here with you, edited more than that, and penned and approved many, many more news briefs in "Rotorcraft Report" and on our Web site in that period. That’s a lot of material about a lot of individuals, companies and organizations. If, in expending that ink, I was inconsiderate in my comments about or descriptions of those people and outfits, please allow me to apologize for that.

We journalists like to think that readers and the subjects of stories let us know right away if we include errors in our published products. I know that’s not the case. We do hear about the big mistake, sometimes gently and sometimes not, and about the pet peeve (such as citing Dallas when Fort Worth is the more accurate reference to Texas geography). You readers also tend to be quick and accommodating in alerting us to incorrect aircraft designations, and we always have appreciated that.

But there can be many small errors in a piece that don’t irk you enough to provoke a letter to the editor but do illustrate that the writer and editor aren’t as intimate with an aircraft or program as readers might prefer. For errors of this kind, and for the larger ones, too, I apologize for myself and the editors and writers I’ve supervised.

There have been a few occasions where I’ve gone toe to toe with an individual on a story. I’ve always tried to remember in those cases that while the subject may be material for a story to me it very likely is the livelihood of the person squaring off with me. In cases where I’ve failed to keep that in mind sufficiently, I hope those involved will forgive me. In all cases, I hope those with whom I’ve squared off will accept that the matter was a professional dispute and not a personal one.

There is no way you readers could know this, but I’ve been far harder over the years on the writers who contribute to this magazine than on almost anyone who has been a subject of our reports. In a few cases, the writers in question could not or would not follow in the direction in which I’d decided to take the editorial efforts of the magazine. In a rare case, a scribe fell short of the journalistic standards that every reader has a right to expect of the material presented in a reputable publication. But I’ve been harsher and more strident in my efforts to uphold those standards than most of the writers deserved. Perhaps I can still make that up to them.

It’s been great fun and a privilege to serve the readers of R&W. I leave to you all to judge whether I’ve done so well.

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