Tom Shales Asks: What Do Editors Know?

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Tom Shales won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1988. Photo by Tom Zito.

By Jack Limpert

Tom Shales was a college dropout when I hired him at $50 a week to write about entertainment for a weekly newspaper in Washington. He went on to win a Pulitzer at the Washington Post and I edited The Washingtonian and we’ve kept in touch. One constant: Tom enjoys insulting editors.

Two weeks ago I wrote about parting ways with a film critic over a review of the Oliver Stone movie JFK. In a comment, Tom wrote, “Jack, as a critic who once worked for you, I am shocked!” (Tom likely was smiling when he wrote that.) Then he said, “Moral—Editors should stick to what they know (if anything) and give critics absolute independence.”

Jim Romenesko wrote  about the JFK movie controversy on his his media blog, adding this line at the end: Tom Shales: “Editors should stick to what they know.” (

Tom then emailed me:

I see an incomplete quote from me at the bottom of Mr. Romenesko’s website. So I’m completing it here. The previously missing words are in all-caps…

Editors should stick to what they

Hahaha!!! That felt SO good!

My email to Tom:

I’m the last person who would try to defend editors as editors. What good editors do is protect good writers from all the evils (publishers, accountants, advertisers, etc.) of a newspaper or magazine, and what the bad editors often do is too much actual editing.

Tom’s response:

You do “get” that I have long since made editors my bêtes noires, right? That I find it not just funny but convenient to blame them for all the ills of — well of everything.  You know better than to take anything I might say about editors personally, I’m sure, and so do Mary Hadar and John Pancake and Shelby Coffey and — well, let’s hold off on Shelby.

Shelby, it’s your turn.
Tom adds this note: “I wasn’t exactly a college dropout, I just couldn’t pass chemistry, a university requirement until the mid-70s when they re-admitted and graduated me.


  1. As you can see here — — American University’s School of Communication tried to backdate Tom’s graduation date to 1967, a time when he was still being denied a degree because of the godawful chemistry requirement he had not met. Then, when they later saw him to be one of their “Notable Alumni,” and wanted to add him to their list of same for their own reasons, they bestowed him with their degree and recognition — better perhaps than the honorary doctorates so many non-degree-holders get?

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