You’re Fired . . . and I Wish You Nothing But the Best

By Jack Limpert

I’ve always thought people could learn a lot from sports—practice, teamwork, resiliency—so when I saw the words a football coach used in kicking a player off his team, I thought maybe that’s language to keep in mind if an editor has to fire a writer:

“I have dismissed Chad Kelly for conduct detrimental to our program,” Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney said. “He has had a pattern of behavior that is not consistent with the values of our program. I hope he will mature and grow from this and become the man and player I know he can be. I wish him nothing but the best in the future academically and athletically.”

So let’s say you have a writer who got you into trouble and you then found out he hadn’t been honest about how he reported the story:

“I have dismissed writer X from our magazine. He has stretched the truth in a way not consistent with the values of our publication. I hope he will mature and grow from this and become the writer I know he can be. I wish him nothing but the best in the future journalistically.”

Coaches might be able to get away with that kind of talk but not editors.

The truth is most writers—at least in the pre-digital age–got fired quietly. When things didn’t work out with a writer, I often figured it was more my fault than theirs and in almost all cases I’d sit down with them and say, “Let me help you find another job.” We usually gave them three or four months to find something and in most cases that worked.

The only public separation involved the magazine’s film critic, who wanted to give JFK, Oliver Stone’s 1991 political film, a rave review. I still think of it as a firing, but in re-reading the stories about it, the critic would call it a resignation. Here’s the AP story on it:

WASHINGTON (AP)  Film critic Pat Dowell never wrote a review her editors wouldn’t run. But that was before she gave 3 1/2 stars to ”JFK.” She’s now the ex-critic of Washingtonian magazine, after resigning when editor Jack Limpert spiked her words of praise for the controversial movie.

”The idea that the president, the Pentagon and the CIA are all acting in concert” to assassinate John Kennedy and cover it up ”is bizarre, just crackpot, preposterous,” Limpert said Friday. His view after seeing the film: “The dumbest movie about Washington ever made.”

Dowell’s unpublished critique called it ”a brilliantly crafted indictment of history as an official story.’

Crackpot? A brilliantly crafted indictment? Fired? Resigned? What was clear after we read the JFK review was that her time writing for the magazine was over.
——-
Fast forward to the digital present: Now lots of firings go public, maybe because the erratic economics of publishing have caused more people to lose their jobs. In the old days, when the job numbers were going up, not that many people got laid off or fired and losing your job suggested you were at fault.

Now it’s easy to blame the business, not the individual, and some of those axed go right to the web to celebrate their freedom and invite sympathy and offers.

As for the benevolent strategy of the editor helping the writer find another home, I’m still trying to do that but a lot of the good writing jobs—good defined as having the time to do real reporting, thinking, and writing —are much harder to find.

As for Chad Kelly, the quarterback fired by Clemson, college football is still a very good business.

Comments

  1. For more on the “JFK” movie, here’s a link to a good panel discussion of it posted by Frontline in November 2013: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/biographies/oswald/hollywood-history-the-debate-over-jfk/

    Here’s how the panel discussion is introduced:

    What obligation does Hollywood owe facts, accuracy, the truth? When popular history like Oliver Stone’s JFK gets hold of a subject, what kind of damage can be done?

    Those are the central questions in this panel discussion with authors Norman Mailer and Edward J. Epstein, screenwriter Nora Ephron, and producer/director Oliver Stone. Although Stone’s 1991 film was hailed as a cinematic tour de force, it ignited a firestorm of controversy for the way it mixed fact with conjecture, truth with fiction. The discussion was held at Town Hall, New York City, on the night of March 3, 1992. It was sponsored by The Nation Institute and the Center for American Culture Studies at Columbia University.

  2. So, in Limpert’s opinion, it’s crackpot to think the our government would ever assassinate anyone or participate in a false flag operation?

    This man was reasonably mentally competent and editor of a major publication?

  3. Critics should be independent and allowed to have their own opinion. If an editor strongly disagrees with such an opinion, he/she can publish two reviews, diametrically opposed, and let the readers decide for themselves. A critic’s “opinion” is just that and should not set them up to be “fired.”

  4. Jim Snell says:

    I have to wonder about an editor who would conceive of using this wording: “I have dismissed writer X from our magazine. He has stretched the truth in a way not consistent with the values of our publication.”

    Because that certainly implies that the magazine regularly stretches the truth in a way “consistent with the values of our publication.”

    And if that’s true, I have to wonder about the truthfulness of anything he publishes. Like this posting.

  5. Jack, you’re absolutely right about “JFK,” but whether the critic’s opinion is a fireable offense, I dunno. If that had been my practice, I would have had no critics at all…

  6. Tom Shales says:

    Jack, as a critic who once worked for you, I am shocked! Plus whatever fault you could find in Stone’s politics, his mastery of cinematic technique in JFK, and later on Nixon, was impressive. Gary Arnold, the great film critic of The Washington Post, was forced out because a couple of editors, one named Ben, were upset that he didn’t like Tender Mercies, which had made them cry — boo hoo. Posterity has not been kind to that corny film; Gary was right. It happens that for years, he was the US film critic considered most influential in his market. A rave from him could fill Washington theaters for weeks, even months. He was an ideal match of critic and readership. Moral — Editors should stick to what they know (if anything) and give critics absolute independence.

  7. Tom, I agree that critics should have absolute independence—I wasn’t trying to change what the critic wrote. But If the critic’s writing sets off the editor’s bullshit detector, why should the critic be treated differently from other writers? An editor needs a good b.s. detector and a good boredom detector. Then, trying to serve the reader, you make decisions about what gets published and about the people you hire and fire. Look at what lifetime tenure has done to higher education.

  8. Dan Mitchell says:

    I twice went through the rationales you offered , and I still must conclude that you fired a movie reviewer for liking a movie. And that you based that decision on the fact that the movie — a feature film, let’s remember, not a documentary — used conspiracy theories as jumping off points for the narrative.

    “JFK” (which I’ve seen only parts of, though they looked pretty good to me) is overwhelmingly praised by both critics and filmgoers. It had a top-tier cast and crew.

    But you fired a critic for liking it. There is no other assessment I can make: this is pure lunacy.

  9. Dan Mitchell says:

    OK, a followup to my last comment. I was just closing browser windows, and decided to look into this a little more. I hadn’t known anything about it. The story as Limpert tells it here doesn’t do him any favors. It makes it sound like just what I described above — that the reviewer was fired for liking a movie, and maybe taking the story a little too seriously.

    But now I see that the reviewer wrote: “If you didn’t already doubt the Warren Commission report, you will after seeing Oliver Stone’s brilliantly crafted indictment of history as an official story.”

    That first clause is crucial. This is just terrible reviewing, especially given that it was in a capsule, so the issues of truth-in-fiction clearly couldn’t be addressed in it. The review assumes that the film should be assessed strictly as an explicit argument by Stone — as if it were a documentary. That’s not the film’s fault, at all, but the reviewer’s. I don’t know whether the firing was just, but that’s a pretty goddamned loopy approach for a review of a film like this (or “Nixon,” or “Gone with The Wind” or “Hoffa” or “Titanic.”)

    But Limpert seems to make the same mistake, and his assessment is equally loopy. Both reviewer and editor could have stood to read this, from Ebert’s review:

    “The important point to make about “JFK” is that Stone does not subscribe to all of Garrison’s theories, and indeed rewrites history to supply his Garrison character with material he could not have possessed at the time of these events. He uses Garrison as the symbolic center of his film because Garrison, in all the United States in all the years since 1963, is the only man who has attempted to bring anyone into court in connection with the fishiest political murder of our time.”

    http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/jfk-1991

    So Stone, as he has often done (with varying degrees of success), was simply raising questions while also (and mostly) trying to make a cracking-good film — which by most accounts, he did.

  10. JFK was overwhelmingly praised? See the 1991 New York Times review of it at http://nyti.ms/1r60T6J.

    Or this Guardian review that 20 years later looks at JFK: http://bitly.com/17xw05J

    Keep in mind that the review under discussion was written for a Washington magazine serving a savvy DC audience. I didn’t think the magazine could run a review saying JFK was just another movie, that it was “a brilliantly crafted indictment” of the White House, Pentagon, and CIA without also pointing out that the documentary feel of the film covered up a screenplay that was dramatic but preposterous. At the time I said I thought what Stone was selling was bizarre, crackpot, and preposterous and it still seems that.

  11. Dan Mitchell says:

    A couple of exceptions don’t negate the fact. That’s why I said “overwhelmingly” and not “universally.” It has an 85 percent Rotten Tomatoes score. And I’m explicitly not defending the “brilliantly crafted indictment” line. I’m saying that you and your reviewer both approached the movie from the precisely wrong perspective, as if it were a documentary. That you believe it had a documentary “feel” doesn’t change that. From what I recall, Stone has always said that he never meant to present the film as a hard, conclusive argument for any particular theory about the assassination, as Ebert pointed out in my reference above. I’m not arguing that the film was great (I haven’t even seen the whole thing), but only that it was *considered* great by many people, most of whom judged it as they judged any other movie – by whether it worked as a movie. But you seem stubbornly myopic on this score, so.

    If you wanted to explicate the complexities of a bit of political historical fiction, it needed more than a capsule review. But if that’s all you had, the only option would have been to review it as a feature film, with perhaps one line, if at all possible, noting the problematic nature of mixing history with fiction and speculation.

  12. In the March 1992 issue of The Washingtonian, we published letters from readers who were “appalled” and “horrified” by what they saw as censorship of a critic. One letter said, “I consider Oliver’s Stone’s JFK to be an irresponsible piece of moviemaking which cannot be redeemed by any amount of fine craftsmanship. Equally irresponsible as journalism is your killing Pat Dowell’s review.”

    In that same issue, here’s how I responded:

    I saw JFK at a December 20 press screening put on by Oliver Stone for Washington political writers and editors. I thought the message of his movie—that a large conspiracy, based mostly in Washington, killed President John F. Kennedy—was an astonishing distortion of history. Stone had mixed fact and fiction to sell his political views. I thought JFK was a comic-book treatment of the city and was bad journalism and bad history.

    Our movie reviews are 25- or 30-word briefs that try to tell the reader what the film is about, who’s in it, and whether it’s worth seeing. When Pat Dowell’s review of JFK came across my desk on January 7, it said: “If you didn’t already doubt the Warren Commission report, you will after seeing Oliver Stone’s brilliantly crafted indictment of history as an official story. Is it the truth? Stone says you be the judge.”

    I thought the review was not accurate, not fair, and at that point it was too late in the deadline process to do anything about it. So I edited it out of the briefs and wrote a note to Ms. Dowell telling her that I had dropped the review. I told her, “Aside from bad writing, I thought the major premise of the movie was preposterous, and rather than try to edit the review of the movie, I thought it was fairer to you just to take it out.”

    Ms. Dowell wrote back, saying she’d resign if her review wasn’t published. I wrote back, accepting her resignation.

    She then appeared representing The Washingtonian at an American University forum to discuss JFK. She announced that she had resigned as The Washingtonian film critic. She said, “I thought it was a brilliant film. It is the American film of 1991. We only know as much of history as we’re told, and that’s often not the truth. I have no problem believing that a large conspiracy could exist….People do recognize that the Warren Commission is a cover story. Everything is a cover story—who elected Ronald Reagan, how did George Bush get elected president….Everything’s a cover story on the nightly news.”

    Should we have run the review? Ms. Dowell says Stone invites you to make up your own mind. Not in the JFK I saw. Stone was selling his own paranoid view of Washington and of history, and he wasn’t letting you be the judge. Was JFK an indictment of history as an official story? I’m not sure what that means. Did the review tell Washingtonian readers what to expect, what kind of movie Stone had made? I thought Ms. Dowell mostly was telling readers what they should think.

    Was dropped the review censorship? The Washingtonian is edited to be useful, to be interesting and informative, to try to give readers an intelligent perspective on the city. I didn’t think the Pat Dowell review did that.
    ———–
    Also in the March 1992 issue was a film column by Jayne Blanchard. Here’s her review of JFK:

    “Oliver Stone’s controversial, rabble-rousing examination of the Kennedy assassination polarizes audiences, who either love it or hate it. But beyond Stone’s heavy politics and manipulative style are excellent acting, led by Kevin Costner, a riveting detective story, and a reminder that democracy is a participatory sport.” Blanchard gave JFK three and a half stars, with three stars good and four stars excellent.

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