“OR YOU CAN DO BETTER.”
That’s how Jim Murphy, Bloomberg’s first New York Bureau Chief, ended his note to the staff on Feb. 8, 1991.
Jim was highlighting a mistake made by a rookie who used the word “garnish” instead of “garner.”
The mistaken headline read: “Payroll-tax Cut Garnishes Liberal, Conservative Support.”
Jim described it as a “AT ONCE WOEFUL AND WONDERFUL GAFFE.”
He posted on a bulletin board (Bloomberg MSG wasn’t yet invented). He didn’t name the hapless fellow, but it easy enough to look up.
It was me. I was 26 and less than a year into my first real job.
I knew he wasn’t trying to be mean, but I felt so humiliated that I printed it out and kept it.
I never forgot that you garner respect and you garnish food.
Putting aside Jim’s “yelling” via UPPER CASE (Bloomberg didn’t yet support lower-case text) and the public shaming (no one would condone that today), the note made two important points.
The first was that management, namely the Bureau Chief, was reading, even a lowly press summary.
Second, that words matter.
Jim wrote : “THE WORD WANTED IS, MAIS OUI, “GARNERS,” WHICH IS NOT ONE OF MY FAVORITE ALL TIME WORDS. IT’S A HEADLINE WORD LIKE “MULL.”
He’s right. “garner” and “mull” are terrible words. Journalese. Not something anyone says.
He suggested the headline: “Payroll-tax Cut Wins Liberal, Conservative Support.”
Jim was burly and bearded, cut from the same cloth as two other New York journalism legends, Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin. Jim was born in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He served in the army during Vietnam.
He was trying to educate a new generation of financial writers who came from another world, places like Kenyon, Oberlin and Wesleyan.
Jim wasn’t the kind of guy who would recommend a style guide or essay like Orwell’s Politics and the English Language.
He kept it short: “do better.”
Jim died in 2010 at the age of 66. At the time he was writing the Mark to Market column for the Dow Jones newswire.
Hours before he died he sent his editor an email.
He was feeling sick but he would be back in the office soon.
I’m glad I saved Jim’s note for all these years.