About Editing

Anybody Here Have a Really Good Bullshit Detector?

By Jack Limpert

The provocative back-and-forth on Sunday between Bill Keller of the New York Times and Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer-journalist who has $250 million in backing to start a so-called activist  journalistic venture, included these comments from Greenwald about editors:

We absolutely believe that strong, experienced editors are vital to good journalism, and intend to have plenty of those. Editors are needed to ensure the highest level of factual accuracy, to verify key claims, and to help journalists make choices that avoid harm to innocents.

But they are not needed to impose obsolete stylistic rules, or to snuff out the unique voice and passion of the journalists, or to bar any sort of declarative statements when high-level officials prevaricate, or to mandate government-requested euphemisms in lieu of factually clear terms, or to vest official statements or official demands for suppression with superior status. In sum, editors should be there to empower and enable strong, highly factual, aggressive adversarial journalism, not to serve as roadblocks to neuter or suppress the journalism.

Greenwald’s second graf is aimed directly at the Times. Here’s how Keller described what the Times tries to do:

Journalists in this tradition have plenty of opinions, but by setting them aside to follow the facts — as a judge in court is supposed to set aside prejudices to follow the law and the evidence — they can often produce results that are more substantial and more credible.

Editors at magazines, where I spent most my career, would look at Greenwald’s second graf and dismiss it. Magazines are always looking for passion and unique voices.

When Greenwald talks about editors, he seems to be looking for people to copy edit and fact-check. What he doesn’t focus on is the most important quality an editor brings:

A good bullshit detector.

Editors are there to read the story and say, sometimes just to themselves, things like:

Doesn’t make sense.

Unclear.

Don’t follow.

You’ve got to be kidding.

You believe everything people tell you?

What planet are you living on?

You want to go to court and defend this?

Needs more.

Let’s discuss.

It’s sitting down with an aggressive journalist and in effect asking: Who made you judge, jury, and executioner? I had one writer who said of someone he was targeting, “Among his other criminal activities…” The complication was that the target had never been convicted of a crime but it’s how some investigative journalists think. Too often they want to make the package a little too neat. They need a tough editor.

The weakness in Greenwald’s argument (says an editor who worked with about a thousand writers over the years) is that there are very few writers where there aren’t tradeoffs in what they’re good at and not so good at. Maybe Greenwald with all that money can hire just superstars—the equivalent of Michael Jordan or LeBron James—but almost all the writers I dealt with often needed help from someone with a really good b.s. detector.

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