Friday, December 6, 2013
Remembering Ben Siegal | Last Word
San Antonio lost a giant last week.
Ted Fehrenbach was internationally known as a writer, a thinker and most notably as the author of "Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans."
His panoramic account of our state remains the most enduring book on Texas history 45 years after its publication.
Fehrenbach has justifiably been celebrated in death as he was in life.
But San Antonio lost a lesser-known treasure last week, a newspaper editor.
Ben Siegal was not Ben Bradlee.
He didn’t hang out with presidents, or supervise reporters who helped bring presidents down.
Of course, the San Antonio Light, where SIegal spent decades as a reporter, city editor and head of the copy desk, wasn’t the Washington Post.
But Siegal’s role was important. He was, for many years, the enforcer-in-chief-of-standards.
Siegal was legendary for the “little things” on which he insisted.
A typical example was mentioned in John MacCormack’s elegant obituary of Siegal.
Laura Lippman, now a best-selling detective novelist, recalled Siegal’s rigid distinction between an argument and a quarrel.
If violence was involved, it was a quarrel.
When I was a young reporter, Siegal instructed me that a quote such as “The dead guy was trying to get away,” was followed by the words, “Jones said.”
To write “said Jones” was wrong, unless it was followed with a descriptive clause: “said Jones, who witnessed the shooting.”
Seagal’s standards went beyond word usage.
He also ferreted out weaknesses in reporter’s stories, making them rewrite them repeatedly, adding information as necessary.
Siegal’s long list of rules inevitably became known as Siegalisms.
Few were monumentally important in themselves, but together they created a culture of care.
Siegal’s insistence on the rules could be exasperating, even comical.
In fact, Ben gave me my favorite story ever about an editor.
To appreciate the story, you need to know one arcane journalistic convention.
When you write something that is correct but may not look right – say, a weird spelling of a name – you would signal to the editors that it was correct by putting the initials "cq" after it.
It is a convention of unclear origins.
In 1992, President George H.W. Bush came to San Antonio to play host to a group of Latin American presidents for a drug war summit at the McNay Art Institute.
I wrote a column noting that the summit was drawing very little national attention.
It wasn’t on the front page of the New York Times, nor before the commercial break on the evening network news.
For reasons I can’t recall, the column also mentioned the police riots during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.
So I wrote a headline that both captured the theme of the column and alluded to the chant that went up in front of the Chicago Hilton as television cameras recorded police beating student protestors.
The headline was: “The whole world is not watching.”
But when I looked at the paper the next morning, the headline read: “The entire world is not watching.”
I knew immediately to whom I needed to talk.
Why did you change it, I asked Ben Siegal?
“Whole means ‘healthy,’” he said. “If you mean entire, you say entire.”
I went to the city room bible, the unabridged Webster’s, looked up the word “whole” and lugged the huge tome over to Siegal’s desk.
I explained to him that I was referencing the Chicago chant: “The whole world is watching.”
And I pointed to the definition.
“Whole: 1. Entire. … 7. (archaic) Healthy.”
He didn’t look up. “You should have "cq"-ed it,” said Siegal with just a hint of a smile.