What Kind of Writers Scare This Editor

By a longtime editor in New York City and the Midwest

Over my career, I’ve found that most dangerous writers are dangerous in ways that quickly became obvious—and in that sense the danger usually dissipates. Once, years ago a writer with whom I worked briefly submitted the manuscript for a profile in which he made light of a major local businessman for breaking into tears when describing the sudden death of his secretary—as if a mere secretary was unworthy of all that emotion. When I pointed out to the writer his moral misjudgment, he immediately recognized his mistake. But I could never look at him—or anything he wrote, including his signature—the same again.

The one time (as far as I know) that a writer submitted a story with major parts plagiarized, the misdeed came out quickly in fact checking. And, in general, the most troublesome writers—those who resisted changes, who clung steadfastly to overstatements, who pushed back against more reporting—were simply not good and hence didn’t get invited back. In my experience, top-level writers almost always welcomed strong editing.

But when I think of dangerous writers, I think of another sort of danger—one that brings risks, but also excitement and rewards. The sort of danger that comes from taking on a tough subject with a powerful, challenging story. Writers who produce those stories are usually very good. But it’s easy to be seduced by their exhaustive research, the strength of their reasoning, the cohesion of their narrative. The flaws—if there are any—don’t jump out under careful scrutiny or pop up in fact checking. As someone who still believes in journalism as a search for truth (as opposed to a prosecution), I worry about falling under the spell of a well-prepared, tough-minded story.

Don’t get me wrong: I relish publishing those stories—they make much of what we do worthwhile. But over the years, more often than not, they were the reason I paced my study at three in the morning.

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.

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