Editors, Writers, and a Good Question from Barney Calame

By Jack Limpert

Over the last three days, almost everyone in journalism has had something to say about what was wrong with this Grantland story. A wrap-up can be found here at the Neiman Storyboard.

A Facebook comment by George Anders raises a good journalism question. Anders was a longtime writer at the Wall Street Journal and he now writes books and is a Forbes contributing writer. Here’s what he said about the Dr. V story:

“He [Caleb Hannan] was a gung-ho journalist chasing a story. She [Dr. V] was a nervous source whose ground rules for talking were downright freaky. He pressed ahead; she ended up killing herself.

“The editors at Grantland just published this haunting account of how everything happened. I’m sharing it mainly because there’s a beautiful piece of advice that I got years ago from WSJ editor Barney Calame. It’s a simple test that can save everyone in situations like this.

“‘Are you writing about civilians?’ Barney often asked. It was a short-hand in his world—a way of describing people who didn’t have PR agents, media training, etc. The implication of Barney’s question: Go easy if you’re the first (and perhaps last) reporter that these people will ever meet. Help manage the interaction so that when it’s all over, you’ve treated them with decency and respect.

“I don’t know for sure if Dr. V qualified as a ‘civilian.’ But it was the right question to ask.”
For 40 years I edited a magazine in Washington, a city full of PR agents and media training, and looking back I wish I had known about Barney Calame’s simple test and had, as he did, constantly reminded writers of the difference between the people who are part of some government or corporate army and those who are civilians.

I  think those of us at the magazine all sort of knew that—one of the virtues of working at a local publication is that you run into lots of your readers at restaurants and ball games and you’re reminded they’re human beings. But the truth is at publications in places like Washington, New York, and LA there is a lot of newsroom skepticism, and some cynicism. Plenty of stories involve plenty of PR people and other kinds of handlers who consider working with the media a war game.

“Are you writing about civilians?” A good question for journalists to ask.
I bounced the civilians vs. combatants idea off Howard Means, a longtime writer and editor at The Washingtonian who now writes books. Here is some of what he said:

“To me, the larger issue is the standing for telling the Dr. V story in the first place. If there was any crime involved, it was surely victimless. The Pittsburgh investor, for example, might have been taken to the cleaners, but he drove himself there and parked out front. Otherwise, you have a wide array of golf enthusiasts ready to believe in any next-new-thing that will shave half a stroke off their handicaps. As Jack says, Dr. V was feeding them the same snake oil that TaylorMade, Callaway, and tons of others do.

“Without a crime of some sort to hook the story to, what we’re left with is a portrait of a very, very troubled person sliding practically from the first paragraph down a long slope into the jaws of self-administered oblivion.

“Lots of people want to escape their past, who they are, what they have been. We all invent histories for ourselves in one way or another — if only because we can’t remember what really happened. To turn one such person into a freak show for the delectation of readers must have been tempting as hell. But somewhere someone should have asked who gets hurt by this, and why, and what readers will ultimately learn from the experience. If all you’re left with is a carnival sideshow, then you’re in the entertainment business, not journalism.”

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