• Salvatore Di Nolfi / AP Photos
  • Italian tennis player Fabio Fognini, shown here in September, made an obscene gesture to the crowd after a match this week—or maybe it was someone else. Good copy editing would make it clear.

Thomas Friedman writing in the Wednesday New York Times:

I can’t put my finger on it exactly, but you feel today in Washington a certain laxness, that anything goes and that too few people working for the federal government take pride in their work because everything is just cobbled together by Congress and the White House at the 11th hour anyway.

He offers a case in point. Visiting the White House, he passed through a Secret Service checkpoint and grabbed a door handle to proceed onto the White House driveway. The handle came off in his hand. The Secret Service agent shrugged. “It does that sometimes,” he said.

In a small mishap, Friedman finds evidence of serious dysfunction. And he should. A door handle is just a very small detail to a great institution like the federal government, but then so is each of us. We want to know the details matter. The broken window theory of policing holds that a broken window on the block that goes unrepaired sends a message: people here don’t care. It’s a harmful message.

I hope the Times sports department read Friedman’s column. I don’t inch my way through the Times looking for things to complain about, but I did give the sports section a once-over at breakfast, and a couple of nearly incomprehensible passages jumped out at me. One was a brief that said in its entirety:

Fabio Fognini of Italy bumped into Wang Chuhan, a Chinese wild card who beat him, 7-6 (5), 6-4, and gave an obscene gesture to the crowd at the Shanghai Masters.

Here’s proof that no story can be too short to be confusing. Who made the obscene gesture, Fognini or Chuhan? If you think it was probably Fognini, well, so do I, but the construction of the sentence doesn’t give us a clue.

And here’s the other passage, from a long article on cutting-edge hockey statistics:

By tracking shot attempts, they have been able to track puck possession for the first time, and determined that a team that shoots more, has the puck more, and wins more.

All those commas—what are they doing there? Are they punctuating a series? I don’t think so. I think a copy editor should have cleaned house. With a handful of keystrokes an editor could have turned that into this: “By tracking shot attempts they have been able to track puck possession for the first time. They’ve determined that a team that shoots more has the puck more and wins more.”

These little moments of clumsy composition send the same message as a broken window: we’re slacking off. But we get a fairly early edition of the Times here in Chicago. Stories can be corrected for later editions after ours is put to bed. So I looked for the stories online. If they’ve been fixed there, I told myself, my beef is too petty for words and I’ll let it drop.

But they weren’t.