Martyrs for the cause of journalism

They outraged an advertiser, pissed off the publisher or fell afoul of right- or left-wing political correctness. Now these articles killed by major magazines and newspapers have found new life.


Charles Taylor
July 27, 2004 12:00AM (UTC)

American journalism is alive and well. It's just homeless.

At this stage of the game, it is Capra-esque fantasy to believe that there is any publication in America where editorial content has not been affected by at least one of the following: pressure from the advertising department; fear of taking on a powerful subject; kowtowing to publicists in order to gain access to celebrities; fear of presenting a point of view that may unnerve a publication's targeted demographic; unwillingness to report negatively on people who may be friends or cronies of the publication's bigwigs; political correctness from right as well as left (the fawning coverage of the Reagan death rites was an example of the former); orthodoxies of one stripe or another; and the idiotic veneration of "balance" -- what Pauline Kael called "saphead objectivity" -- that renders publications a print version of television's dueling heads, telling the reader that all opinions are worth the same.

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The journalistically displaced find temporary shelter in "Killed." Edited by David Wallis, this collection of journalism, each example killed by the very magazine or newspaper that had commissioned it, reads like a brief for the timidity that has taken hold in American journalism. Each entry is preceded by a brief introduction, usually by the author, explaining why the piece was killed. The specific reasons vary from piece to piece; the unifying reason is gutlessness.

David Wallis acknowledges that there are valid reasons why pieces get killed. He lays them out in the introduction to the book. "A competitor gets the scoop first," he writes. "Vital photos are unavailable. News events outpace the story. A dropped ad shrinks the available editorial space. The publication unexpectedly dies, or the subject of the article does ... And finally, honest disagreements occur."

A few of the pieces in "Killed" are the victims of those honest disagreements. For most of them, honesty doesn't enter into it.

It's hard to imagine any working writer who won't be delighted by "Killed." The book is a testament to the cravenness and cowardice of editors. Which isn't to say that editors as a species are the enemy. A writer who has been blessed to work with a good editor will tell you that he or she is a combination of boss, mentor, friend, co-conspirator and guardian angel. As the late critic Mark Moses put it about an editor he loved, the editing process is "a conversation at the end of which we have a piece." Good editors will work to sharpen a writer's voice, to bolster and streamline a piece's arguments, to save writers from themselves. Any writer who's honest will admit to having had cherished lines that some good, savvy editor was kind enough to say was bullshit. My first professional editor attributed all his editing instincts -- and they were good instincts -- to his "ear." He knew when the rhythm of a sentence was off. He knew when you were trying to get by with a mediocre sentence, and he made both himself and me work until the rhythm was right and the mediocrity was gone. And then he had the generosity to make me feel like it was my work that had fixed the problem.

Editors who build that kind of trust can do anything. One of the best editors I've ever worked with would quite often lop off at least part of my opening, cut a thousand words from my copy, switch sections around. And she was able to do it because again and again she proved to me that her changes were in the service of the piece. In other words, she was making me look good.

If there's a common thread among terrific editors it's that none of them have any use for the "because I'm the boss" approach. Good editors have enough faith in their own instincts, and enough respect for writers, to believe that they are obliged to explain their decisions -- and they know that reasonable, intelligent authority can always explain itself.

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Good editors know that it's the writer's name that will appear on the top of the piece, not theirs. And they believe that if a writer has been hired to do the work, then it's the writer's voice that should carry it.

Too often, writers are given assignments because their work at another publication has impressed an editor. Then, instead of honoring the voice that impressed him or her to begin with, the editor will work to take out every trace of individuality in the writer's work because it "doesn't sound" like the publication. It's not a writer those editors want, it's the journalistic equivalent of tofu.

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But then, as the jazz critic and columnist George Frazier (himself no stranger to battles with editors) once put it, "There are a lot of dumb bastards in the world." Some of them go into journalism. And, as in any other field, many of those go right to the top. In an old Nichols and May routine, Mike Nichols plays a TV producer voted "the most total mediocrity in the industry." To what does he attribute his success? "Whatever suggestions the advertisers make," he says, "I take 'em." That character may be the new model of success in journalism, a field where the ability not to take ethics too seriously may actually be a career plus.

In his intro, Wallis tells the story of Edward Kosner, who in 1997 was the top editor of Esquire, killing a David Leavitt short story because of its gay theme. "No advertiser was consulted," he claimed. It later came to light that Chrysler had demanded of the publications it advertised in, including Esquire, notification "in advance of any and all editorial content that might encompass sexual, political, social issues or any editorial that might be construed as provocative and offensive." Of course the four pages of advertising Esquire would have lost would have been costly. But Chrysler's list is so broad and so vague it gives the automaker virtual carte blanche over all editorial content. No one can be a hero all the time. Every job entails compromise. But in a situation like that, a magazine must decide whether it's in the business of advertising or journalism.

Work as a writer for any amount of time and you collect at least a few stories to make people's jaws drop. For a while, in the mid-'90s, I did the "Book Currents" column in the New Yorker twice a month. My job was to line up a notable person and ask him or her to pick five books on a given topic. I then wrote up their choices as a short column. I asked Paul Fussell to select war memoirs, Chuck Jones what books he'd like to see made into animated movies, Taylor Branch to pick memoirs from the civil rights years. When a new editor was put in charge of the column, he decided that instead of interviewing anyone, each column would focus on five recent thematically linked books and that my job was to write something about each of those books. When an assistant editor conveyed the editor's decision to me, I said this amounted to reading 10 books a month, for a fee of $500. The assistant editor told me, "You wouldn't be expected to read them."

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In effect, the magazine was asking me to provide 10 blurbs a month for a column that always ran opposite a full-page Barnes & Noble ad. I told this assistant editor that I didn't write advertising, I thanked him for the good work he'd done with me (he was a great guy), and I quit. I'd be less than honest if I didn't say that the fact I had a steady job and could do without the $500 a month made it easy. Not all writers are that lucky. And Wallis is quite right in his introduction to complain about how writers collude in their own marginalization -- accepting contracts that assign publications total copyright or allow them to kill a piece on the vaguest of pretexts for paltry fees.

It's the dumb bastards whose decisions are called on the carpet in "Killed." Like Detroit Free Press executive editor Carole Leigh Hutton, who spiked Carlo Wolff's negative review of Free Press staffer Mitch Albom's "The Five People You Meet in Heaven." The review had been given to Wolff, a freelancer, in the first place because the paper had felt that giving it to a staff member would create a conflict of interest. Hutton was not only dumb enough to kill the review but to justify her decision in a column in which she wrote, "I decided not to publish it because I think all our employees should be protected from, as one colleague put it, 'the ethical dilemma and no-win position of passing critical judgment on a colleague's work.'" I can only hope that some enterprising staffer at the Free Press pointed out to Hutton that, by her logic, editors should be abolished.

Some of the pieces in "Killed" were never published because of fear of legal action. That can be a legitimate excuse if the survival of an entire publication could be wiped out by one lawsuit. But what does it say that two of the three pieces here most likely to have attracted lawsuits were both commissioned by Vanity Fair? The Condé Nast organization, a fantastically successful magazine empire, can hardly cry poverty. Then editor Tina Brown made one of her notorious last-minute decisions to spike Ann Louise Bardach's 1992 "Moonstruck: The Reverend and His Newspaper." The piece was about how Sun Myung-Moon (I'll call him "Reverend" the day I refer to "Minister" Farrakhan -- or "President" Bush, for that matter) was attempting to exercise editorial control over the Washington Times, the paper funded by Moon's Unification Church. Even worse was Vanity Fair's decision to kill John Entine's "The Stranger-Than-Truth Story of the Body Shop," an exposé of how Anita Roddick's worldwide chain of "green-friendly" cosmetics stores screwed over its own employees and put near-toxic products on the market. Vanity Fair caved after Roddick hired the same law firm that used Britain's ludicrous libel laws to scare off exposés of the late press baron Robert Maxwell.

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Depriving the public of the Entine piece meant depriving them of information about a company that put out products that, contrary to its advertising, did rely on chemicals and animal testing, and, in one case, tested 1,000 percent above industry standards for bacteria, including E. coli. This is not even the most egregious example cited in "Killed." One of the pieces not provided for the book was an investigation that showed the lax standards for abortion practitioners in some states and named some providers whose practices had actually injured patients. The editor of the women's glossy this was written for killed it because she worried it would harm the pro-choice movement. In other words, she kept quiet about women being butchered in the name of preventing women from being butchered. The writer pulled the piece from "Killed" for fear of reprisals from his employers, fearing he could lose 15 percent of his income.

Of course, advertising played a hand in some of these pieces never seeing the light of day, like a 1996 Details piece by Erik Hedegaard on rocker John Mellencamp continuing to smoke after his heart attack. Hedegaard reports: "The ad department had only one thing to say: that the story would never, under any circumstances, ever see the light of day in the pages of Details." At which point the head of the ad department should have been summoned to the editor's office and shown the door a few minutes later with his balls nailed to his forehead.

What may be even more alarming about the cases that "Killed" brings to light is that many of these pieces didn't even need the pressure of an advertising department to be killed. Many were done in by the trivialization of American journalism. T.D. Allman's 1999 "Living Well Is the Best Revenge" is a wonderful profile of three young Chinese men Allman had met during the Tiananmen Square uprising 10 years earlier (including the one who had conceived the enormous Goddess of Liberty seen in the square during those days). The piece does a fine job of charting the enormous changes that had come over China in that time. GQ killed it in favor of a profile of Steve Forbes who, by 1999, was little more than the answer to a Trivial Pursuit question.

You certainly can't imagine Mark Schone's "Unfortunate Con" not finding a home in a magazine culture that cared anything about good nonfiction writing. It's a long, fascinating and sad piece about James H. Hatfield, the Arkansas writer who claimed to have uncovered witnesses who told him a sympathetic Texas judge had quashed George W. Bush's arrest for cocaine possession. When Hatfield's criminal past came to light, and when nothing in his story checked out, his Bush bio, "Fortunate Son," was pulled by St. Martin's Press. Hatfield ended up killing himself shortly after the book was reissued by Soft Skull Press.

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Rolling Stone, which commissioned the piece, was apparently disappointed that Schone disproved the conspiracy theories that suggested Hatfield was murdered by dark GOP forces. Editors told Schone the piece was too long and too "depressing." Schone sums up the situation faced by writers like him, as well as the decline of a once-great magazine: "In an era when 'hot' lists are feature articles, and Hollywood publicists pick cover shots, there just aren't that many major magazines around that will assign a story like this one, much less publish it."

Sometimes it's just orthodoxy that ends a piece's life. Todd Gitlin's "The Clinton Legacy and America," a review of Hillary Clinton's "Living History" and Sidney Blumenthal's "The Clinton Years," was commissioned and then killed by the London Review of Books last year. Editor Mary-Kay Wilmers did the executioner's duties, saying, "It reads like a review in an American paper." The irony is that the point of Gitlin's piece is that no review like his had run in any American paper. Blumenthal's book, fiercely critical of the press for stoking the fires of Whitewater with no evidence, was reviewed by the very people he took on.

Joseph Lelyveld, former executive editor of the New York Times, under whose watch Times reporter Jeff Gerth filed discredited stories on both Whitewater and Wen Ho Lee, was given the job of reviewing Blumenthal's book for the New York Review of Books. Not only couldn't Lelyveld get the facts of Whitewater right, he also accused Blumenthal of leaving out salient facts that were right in his book, raising questions whether Lelyveld had read the book at all. (Full disclosure: Blumenthal is now Salon's Washington bureau chief. I have met him exactly once, at a party for his book's publication.) The orthodoxy involved here was most likely, as Gitlin surmises, that the London Review of Books couldn't bear to go against conventional left thinking about Clinton and run a piece praising the accomplishments of a centrist presidency.

There are pieces in "Killed" spiked for more perfidious reasons than Gitlin's. But the situation Gitlin is talking about in that piece -- the nearly universal derision that greeted Blumenthal's book and the failure of the press to do even basic reporting on the motives and connections of the players in the Clinton impeachment -- is one that speaks urgently to the problems with American journalism. In a culture where the New York Times indulges in public breast-beating about the deceptions of Jayson Blair and brings in to clean house a former editor (Lelyveld) who had published shoddy reporting on two major stories under his own watch, what standards are less-venerated publications operating by? (Michiko Kakutani's preemptive strike on Bill Clinton's autobiography a few weeks back, placed not in the book section but on the front page, didn't even bother to mention her own paper's collusion in hyping Whitewater.)

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"Killed" is both heartening (there are journalists out there still hungry to do good work) and depressing (the odds against those journalists are more stacked than they ever were). It's not just an entertaining compendium but a valuable one. And in order to maintain its value, it should be the first in a series.

Here's what I propose: "Killed" should become, along with "The Best American Short Stories," et al., a yearly staple. The release of the book should coincide with an awards banquet (let's call it "the Tinas," in honor of the editor responsible for killing the largest number of stories featured in the inaugural volume) to benefit the National Writers Union, at which plaques are handed out for most craven appeasement of sponsors, most extravagant celebrity ass-kissing, most fearful of printing a strong opinion without accompanying balance -- and other awards to be determined. The winners will have their unlisted home and cellphone numbers distributed to a rotating committee whose job, during the next year, will be to call them at inopportune moments (say, 3 a.m.) and play audiotapes of Edward R. Murrow into the phone. Fellow writers -- join me in making this dream happen! We have nothing to lose but our incomes.


Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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