December 21, 2014
A front page with too personal a touchSunday, May 4, 2014
Stop the presses, I’ve got egg on my face
For The Herald
I once got to do so — but not over any late-breaking major story. In fact, the incident reflected no credit on me.
It happened at the outset of the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, the one in which Bangladesh became independent. I was doing that day’s frontpage, and illustrated it with a map. I saw it contained irrelevant information in the area still called East Pakistan, and decided to eliminate it.
In those days, each page we worked on became an actual, black-on-white paper original (it’s all electronics now), from which a same-size negative was then made. (Further steps followed, hot lead was poured, and so on). It would have been possible to use white ink to blank out the offending bits on the original map. But an easier procedure was to cover them up later on the negative, using an opaque ink. One of the reasons it was easier was that it didn’t have to be done by us journalists in the newsroom, but by the workers in the printshop who handled the negative. Union rules even forbade journalists from sticking their fingers in that part of the work.
So, on the white map, I just smudged out the offending parts and wrote in, “that has to be covered up later,” i.e. in the printshop. You guess the rest.
The Herald was at a corner on 25 de Mayo street; the printshop was across the road on Tucumán. Each night, one of us — and that night it was also yours truly — crossed over, after all the pages were finished and proofread, to check them one last time, on the negatives. With no time to read everything anew, we simply reread the headlines and verified that all illustrations were in their proper places and right side up, but didn’t look at them, or the text, in detail again.
It was bound to happen: I forgot all about the correction, and gave the paper the go-ahead. It was only when I had reached Retiro on my way home, and had one foot on the train, that it hit me. Like a sledgehammer. The correction! The printshop guys should have done it — but had they? The odds were they’d missed it...
My race back is a blur, but I vividly remember running the last bit up Tucumán. Some workers were on the sidewalk, already loading some bundles of newspapers onto trucks. I screamed,“¡Paren la máquina! ¡Paren la máquina!” In singular, because the paper used only one press. And we never called it a press; to us it was always “the machine.”
They stopped it. And no, the correcting fluid hadn’t been applied. As they now finally did so, they explained: some of the first copies had already gone off on trucks to the provinces. However, only the corrected version would be sent out in BA and its surroundings.
They omitted one detail. The copies that were distributed in the newspaper offices each day, for everyone to see the last night’s work, were taken from the first batch.
The uppermost boss was the publisher Basil Thompson, the legendary “BT.” He seldom came into the actual newsroom, and normally, other than polite greetings in the hallway, only spoke with the editor, Bob Cox, and a couple of other top people, not a deputy night editor like me.
I was sitting at my desk, digesting what had happened — and wondering, what if my note had used more, er, “vivid” language? Bob, as I recall, hadn’t said anything to me about the incident, because right then I noticed that BT himself had entered the newsroom. And he was walking straight towards me.
Every inch the unflappable gentleman. He raised one eyebrow. “I saw your handwriting on the front page this morning,” he said icily. Then he turned, and left. In a different organization, I’d have been fired forthwith. As it was, let me tell you: his words stung.
There is a coda, but any smile wears thin in this part. Myself, I call it sabotage. Years later, on a bus, I came across one of the printshop men of the time, and brought up the event. “Oh,” he said, “we had seen your message, but let it through anyway, as a joke. We thought you’d catch it later, and remind us. You say you didn’t?”
Nicolás Meyer, who welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org, is a Spanish-English-German translator.