When Editors Do Something Really Dumb

By Jack Limpert

I edited 490 issues of The Washingtonian and every month when the new issue arrived I opened it thinking, What little time bombs are ticking this month? Mistakes come with the territory when you’re putting together a good-sized magazine.

Your first wish is that there be no certified letters from law firms. Then you wait for the calls, e-mails, and letters. The most abusive phone calls usually came from fellow members of the media: Oscars for loudest vocal performances by an aggrieved journalist go to Sy Hersh and Carl Bernstein.

The strangest calls came from Jack Kent Cooke, the colorful, cantankerous owner of the Washington Redskins until his death in 1997. When he didn’t like a story, he’d call and ramble for 10 minutes or so—he didn’t want a correction, he just wanted someone to listen. After he died, there were stories that he had taped all his phone calls and I worried that a transcript of one of our calls would show up with me only saying “Yes, Mr. Cooke” 10 times.

Maybe the best letter was written on April 29, 1980, by author and playwright Larry L. King. He had written a piece for the May 1980 issue about the 20th anniversary of DC’s Monocle restaurant, a Capitol Hill hangout. The headline: “Monocole”s 20th Wingding: Larry King and Connie Valanos Reminisce About Pols & Princes As Pals Plan Big Blowout.” The problem was not with the article but with the author’s note.  It was supposed to say “Larry L. King, who lives on Capitol Hill, is an author and playwright (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas). His latest book is Of Outlaws, Con Men, Whores, and Politicians, and Other Artists (Viking).” What a helpful copy editor had done was insert “a radio talk show host” into the author’s note description of his work and it breezed by all of us. The Larry King radio talk show host was a very different kind of journalist, one that the writer Larry L. King had no use for.

Larry L.’s letter:

Dear Jack Limpert,

I just can’t understand why  some jackass in your shop gratuitously inserted in my writer’s sketch, in connection with the Valanos piece, that I am “a radio talk show host.” I am not, have never been, and never hope to be.

I’ve been confused enough with “the other” Larry King and now, without checking with me—and, for the first in in my experience, tampering with the author’s information—you bastards have complicated the problem. Fuck it, fuck your magazine, and fuck the careless shitass who inserted that erroneous information.

Larry L. King

There are times when it’s best for an editor to throw in his cards and fold. My April 30 note back to him:

Dear Larry L. King,

Well, it shows how dumb magazine editors can be. One of our editors (as you might expect it was a Harvard graduate) didn’t know there were two Larry Kings. I hardly ever think about the radio Larry King, and when I saw the author’s note, which I assumed had come from you, I told myself that maybe you are doing some radio gig and I never even thought about the Larry King who is on radio. So a series of three dumb mistakes add up to one very big one. What can I say other than dummy, dummy, dummy, why am I not getting smarter as I get older?

Jack Limpert

Comments

  1. I once got in trouble writing about journalists–don’t ever do that if you can help it. It was early in my career–Washington Journalism Review before it became, what is it–American Journalism Review…? I did a piece called The Two Byline Bedroom–married couples, competing papers. They had a party for the issue and I had to hide out in the john. I was scared! Richard Cohen, in particular, was very interested in schooling me in a scathing way. I didn’t put anything that was incorrect and they all had been interviewed–they just didn’t like it.

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