David Rodeback's Blog

Local Politics and Culture, National Politics,
Life Among the Mormons, and Other Stuff

Normal Version

Saturday, April 11, 2009
Bureaucracies Don't Laugh. People Do.

. . . A good laugh is a terrible thing to waste.

I was talking with someone yesterday who hadn't heard of the now-famous "Quorum of the Twelve Apostates" typo in a photo caption in a recent issue of Brigham Young University's student newspaper, The Daily Universe. The story even hit the national news; one nationwide radio report I heard began rather insightfully and with a slight bow to Plato, "Who Edits the Editors?" Yesterday's interlocutor may have been the last person in the valley to hear of it, but in case he was not, here's a lengthy article from BYU's NewsNet about it. If you read it, note these words:

  • "deep concern"
  • "people will take offense"
  • "We ourselves are offended."
  • "The worst possible thing happened."
  • "a sad commentary"
  • "upsetting"
  • "an unacceptable mistake"

If you read the article, be sure to savor student Marcie Anderson's commentary on lining bird cages, which requires no comment from me.

The Communications Department's formal statement does get a comment. The article quotes it:

"Clearly this is an unacceptable mistake, and we'll be spending a great deal of time with our students over the next several weeks to carefully examine our review processes," Department of Communications administrators said in a formal statement.

I hope they also spend at least a few minutes reviewing their unfortunate tendency to split infinitives in formal statements.

I understand the proclivities of bureaucracies, where even the most trivial . . . anything . . . is a matter of grave seriousness. I also understand that genuine religous devotion can sometimes -- tragically -- manifest itself as utter humorlessness, where anything connected with one's church is concerned. Such is life. But join me for a moment, if you will, in imagining an alternate reality.

What if the managing editor or the department chair or the university president had said something like this instead?

Mistakes happen, especially when one is writing on a tight deadline. When you're writing for and editing a newspaper, you make some of your mistakes in public. Of course it's embarrassing. Of course we regret our mistakes, including this one, and we try to make them as infrequently as humanly possible. But isn't it nice when a public mistake doesn't really hurt anyone, and we can learn our lesson while we laugh about it for minute or two -- or in this case maybe a few decades?

I asked the Daily Universe to save some copies for me. I'm keeping one for myself. I'm having one framed, and I'll give it to the Universe staff if they want it -- as long as they promise to enjoy it. I'm sending each member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles his own copy with my compliments. And I'm sorely tempted to give a small stack to the Development Office, for use as a fund-raising reward, just to see if our own bureaucracy can swallow it.

We ought to learn from our mistakes. One of the things we might learn from this one is that a good laugh is a terrible thing to waste.

As I said: an alternate reality.

Perhaps we can we agree that this is less harmful than cockroachs in the cafeteria, and that, where embarrassing things in BYU print are concerned, it's less grim than the classic Daily Universe headline of BYU folklore,  "Student Volunteers Help Rape Victims."

Jenny Rader comments (4/10/09):

I was so relieved to read that you also saw some humor in the typo. While I used this example to illustrate to my sons the importance of careful proofing and paying close attention to detail (they are in sore need of many such examples), I could also easily see myself in the poor student's place. End of semester, finals, a deadline to meet -- I could quite naturally read apostates as apostles. That poor student will never forget it, nor will the rest of BYU, which makes such an error that much the worse.

I had hoped to see the administration see at least a little humor in the situation, but perhaps given the subject matter, that wasn't an option. You might consider tracking down the unfortunate student and emailing him/her a copy of your blog post. It might help relieve some stress to see that others view this as a humorous mistake. Then again, it might not. I'm still embarrassed about a single error in the final manuscript I sent to my editor 15 years ago, and since the copy editor caught the mistake, it clearly did not have a large audience.

Normal Version