By Tom Shales
People sometimes told me they couldn’t imagine the Washington Post’s Style section without me, which was flattering in a way, but what came to pass was considerably more surprising: the Washington Post without the Washington Post. Yes, the paper still exists and appears daily, but its golden age fades further and further into the mists of memory.
Another thing I used to hear about me and the Post, where I spent roughly 39 varyingly rewarding years, most of those as TV critic, was that my pristine copy veritably flew out of my typewriter (later the PC) and directly into the newspaper with nary so much as a glance from an editor. That is not at all true. Some pieces were edited lightly and some were mutilated but all passed before the eyes of several editors, including the much-maligned Style copy desk.
I regularly denounced editors as a species, insulting them with such disparagements as, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach; those who can’t even teach, edit.” Editors, I liked to say, were all failed writers, and bitter about it, but that kind of logic produces such similarly flawed thoughts as critics are all failed performers or failed somethings. Having now reached an age of reason, that little lull just before senility, I do feel inclined to apologize for those blanket indictments of all editors.
I do recall sometimes feeling frustrated in my kill-the-editor campaign by the fact that every time I wanted to take a flame thrower to the copy desk, one of its tireless drones would find a hideous error I’d made in a story and save my ass. I always tried to thank the editor in question for what she or he had so beneficently done.
Occasions for gratitude to editors ended up becoming fairly numerous. It was a sometime copy editor, Reid Beddow, since deceased, who “moved” my review of Dan Rather reporting from Afghanistan for “60 Minutes” in 1980 and, noting I’d compared Rather in his disguise as looking like an extra out of Gunga Din, came up with the best headline that ever graced a Shales piece: “Gunga Dan.”
The nickname was quoted frequently and usually was attributed to me and my marvelous cleverness. I would apologize to Reid, who couldn’t have been nicer about it—in fact, few people I’ve known in journalism were nicer, period. He smiled and was very decent about it. The glory, such as it was, still went to the guy with the byline.
Reid, again, thank you.
But this was intended as a piece about “Horrible Editors I Have Known.” Believe me, there have been plenty. The worst were writers taking sabbaticals from writing. You’d think they’d be the most sympathetic to another writer’s plights, but you’d be wrong. Late in my Post years, I wrote a very critical piece about the hugely fashionable Christiane Amanpour, an international gadfly who in moving from CNN to the bigger bucks of ABC News landed the plum position of hosting the Sunday-morning panel show “This Week,” which Roone Arledge had originally created as a vehicle for the great David Brinkley.
In the piece, I accused Ms. Amanpour of being distressingly anti-Israel in her reporting from the Mideast and cited instances of others making the same charge. The former reporter who edited my review declared himself an expert on the region and said it was all very complex and pity the poor Palestinians and so on. Then he removed from the piece every example but one of Amanpour being criticized for alleged bias.
Never mind whether Ms. Amanpour was totally unbiased or slightly biased or the most biased Israel-basher in history; the point was that by gutting the story of those references, I was made to look like the only person who ever raised the issue. Out came jackals in droves to carp and trounce—“and he only had one example!” The main point of the piece did survive, which was that Amanpour was the wrong person for this job, something she confirmed in her debut broadcast and in every subsequent show she hosted (one of her refinements to the format was to jettison the weekly roundtable of pundits, George F. Will et al, which had always been a highlight of the program, and thus create more air space for herself).
It took nearly two years, and a plunge in “This Week’s” ratings, for ABC News executives to swallow their pride and throw her off the show. She was replaced by the eminently qualified George Stephanopoulos, still hosting it today.
In my first few years on the staff of the Style section in the early ‘70s, several editors stopped me in the halls to say they were happy to have helped “discover” me. Ahem. One edited several of my longer pieces, one of which was the first major interview with a promising new singing star, Bette Midler. She’d previously been written about in publications like the Village Voice and was ready to break into the mainstream in a big, big way. I used to see her in New York at a club called Upstairs at the Downstairs (or was it the other way around) where she did electrifying sets with a small trio led by pianist Barry Manilow.
The editor bludgeoned the bejesus out of my story, reducing it to one-third its original length, because, she said, this Bette Midler was obviously a freak and would never amount to crap. Furthermore, by stating in the piece that Midler had performed frequently at New York’s Continental Baths, an establishment with a predominantly “gay” clientele, I was opening up the Post to “a million-dollar lawsuit.” It didn’t seem to impress this editor that the gayness of the Continental Baths was, if a secret, the worst-kept one in the world.
It was a long time ago, yes, and the word gay was hardly tossed around as glibly as it is now; if a President of the United States then had alluded in a televised speech to same-sex marriages, he would have been derided as a wild-eyed loony. Even so, the editor’s reaction was patently absurd. But she was adamant, and I was advised not to appeal the “ruling” to Ben Bradlee or Howard Simons, the Post’s top editors, because they were, uh, very busy. So the piece was butchered and I, not the editor, looked like an idiot for referring to the Continental Baths as “colorful” or some other euphemism.
The editor later “came out” as a lesbian.
Ideally, writers in Style had regular assignment editors with whom they worked and with whom they could develop a mutual understanding that would lessen the need for screaming matches. A critic obviously has a great deal of leeway in stating opinions and doesn’t have to sneak them into a piece as a reporter might try to do. For several what seemed like pleasant years, I was usually edited by a youngish man with whom I shared a variety of interests. That meant we could joke about the same things and he would come up with suitable, as opposed to idiotic, suggestions for things I couldn’t or shouldn’t say in a newspaper.
It seemed like a pretty good fit, and the editor appeared comfortable with the fact that my stories often came in perilously close to, or perilously after, the 6 o’clock deadline (which got earlier and earlier as the wonders of technology seeped into the newsroom). It seemed a minor sin because my pieces usually did not require a heavy edit.
I have forgotten now who broke the news to me, but after that editor had left the Post and I had been bounced around among others, someone gave me the 4-1-1: My friend the editor had HATED working with me. I was close to crushed. I was accustomed to being disliked, but not by someone I considered a kindred spirit and with whom I’d had a pleasant working relationship.
There were the occasional signs. The first time I had pneumonia (oh yes, I have suffered!), doctors feared it was some nasty new strain and I was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit at Sibley, a great DC hospital. One day a delegation from Style appeared and, the greater danger having passed, filed into my room for a goodwill visit. It was so very kind of all of them. Strangely, though, “my” editor hung back, almost hidden behind the others.
It occurred to me much later that, while fellow writers and a few editors were wishing me well and making the kind of irreverent jokes that journalists love to make, my editor was back there barely visible thinking to himself, “The miserable fat son-of-a-bitch! I hope he never comes out of here alive.” Damn.
But I was lucky—and I thank God—to have had a few wonderful editors, brilliant editors, instructive and inspiring editors, as well as the occasional two-timing, narrow-minded backstabber. Thank you to the great editors—so great that if any of them read this, they will know that I mean them.