What Kind of Writers Are Dangerous?

By Jack Limpert

I worked with maybe a thousand writers while at The Washingtonian and editors always worry about what kind of writers might get them in trouble—corrections needed, lawyers sending registered letters, or simple unfairness that makes a publication seem venal or dumb.

Wanting to write something about dangerous writers, I sent several journalists this email:

In your experience, what kind of writers are the most dangerous?

We had one good feature writer back in the 70s and 80s who either fell in love with the subject, and thus overdid all the good points and ignored the bad ones, but who sometimes ended up not liking the subject and did the reverse. He made both approaches interesting but we finally decided it wasn’t good or fair journalism.

And we had more than one so-called investigative reporter who once he set his sights on the target would cut corners to make the target look guilty.

Any other dangerous types come to mind?

P.S. One of Phil Merrill’s best lines about what kind of people are the most dangerous: “Bright, charming, articulate with very bad judgement.” Along the same lines, there are lots of writers who seem bright and charming in conversation but who can’t write or think clearly.
A response from one of Washington’s top national security writers:

I think both those types are pretty dangerous, and I’ve met them. I’ve also come to believe that lazy reporters, or timid ones, also are dangerous.

It baffles me the extent to which young reporters today are often reluctant to just pick up a phone and ask someone a question, especially when  it’s an impertinent or an inconvenient one. I think their hesitation partly stems from the younger generation’s over-reliance on technology to communicate.

But I also worry that no one has taught them it’s not their job to make friends with their sources. It’s not their job to get people in power to like them. It’s their job to report a story. Sometimes that makes the reporter uncomfortable, but that’s the job.

I think people who can’t get over that are dangerous because they end up either writing a story that’s not full and accurate, or they start cutting corners to fill in all the details they don’t know, because they were too afraid to ask for them.
My email back to that writer:

Some very good points.

After I left UPI, I became editor of a weekly that was part of a countywide chain of papers and I covered city hall in the city where the weekly was located. I ended up doing a story on the mayor that made him so mad that I had trouble getting anyone at city hall to talk with me.

I mentioned the problem to an old Detroit journalist and he said that sometimes a beat reporter should call in a writer from elsewhere at the paper to do a story that once published is going to make it hard for the beat reporter to continue to function. Some people might call that cowardly, I’d be inclined to call it pragmatic.

It gets at how can a beat reporter best operate. I wonder if any of the White House reporters ever do that—let someone else do the story that is going to really piss off the sources on your beat.
The writer’s email back:

I think that probably does happen, absolutely. And a beat reporter has to grapple with that all the time. I figure when covering politicians or government officials it’s a bit easier, since they might be rotating out soon enough. But sometimes they hang around an awfully long time. And I’ve found that corporate types have an even longer memory, and are even less fond of being kicked in the teeth.

Whenever I have had to write a story that I know is going to make someone on my beat mad, I’ve gone back over the story and looked for places where I can be more fair without watering it down. Sometimes it’s just a sympathetic sentence. That at least satisfies me that I’ve acted in good faith, and it usually makes me less anxious. But a long time ago an editor told me not to pull punches, and he was adamant about it, so I’ve followed that advice. I don’t pick a fight. But I don’t pull punches.


Help wanted: So what kind of writers are most dangerous to good journalism?  Any further thoughts will be welcomed—either as a comment to this post or as a separate post with your byline.





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