Don’t Put Something Like That in an Email—Come Talk to Me

By Jack Limpert

Two stories this week highlighted the dangers of saying too much in emails.

Barry Levenson, a reporter for the Washington Star who went on to become rich enough to own a sports team, now is selling his controlling interest in the Atlanta Hawks NBA franchise after a 2012 email he wrote became public. In the email he complained about too many black fans at Hawks’ games and he suggested ways to get more whites to come to the games. The email went viral and quickly was judged racist.

A Weekly Standard story this week described how William Langewiesche, a writer for Vanity Fair, seemed to work far too closely with a lawyer, Steven Donziger, on a story about how the Chevron oil company operated in Ecuador. When Chevron was hit with a $9.2 billion judgment and countersued, emails between writer Langewiesche and Donziger, the plaintiff’s lawyer who was suing Chevron, became public. The Weekly Standard story suggests that the emails showed that the alliance between reporter and plaintiff’s lawyer—something that happens more often than is acknowledged—created journalism that if not unethical seemed to cross lines of fairness and objectivity.

As a magazine editor, I heard the email alarm bells go off fairly regularly. Sometimes it was a Levenson type email about how the magazine operated, what we covered and didn’t cover, what we thought of certain people. In the early digital days, I’d sometimes tell writers or editors that I’d rather they didn’t say such and such in an email and they’d say, “No problem. I’ll delete it.” It didn’t take long for it to sink in that you can hit the delete key all you want but emails are forever.

The alarm bells rang loudest when we were working on a story that could get lawyers involved—and in my more paranoid days that was a lot of stories. Any litigator will tell you that after a lawsuit is filed, one of the first things a lawyer does is ask for all emails to and from you, your editors, the writer, and others. What seems okay when you write it—”This writer needs really good fact-checking”—can be very hard to explain in a deposition or trial.

Doing journalism is not the same as Chicago politics but there were times when I used the old Windy City line: “Never write it if you can say it, and never say it if you can just nod your head.” I didn’t mean the last part but sometimes it is better to not send that email.


  1. ““Never write it if you can say it, and never say it if you can just nod your head.” I didn’t mean the last part but sometimes it is better to not send that email.”

    Too bad you don’t mean it all. You could have been the coolest editor — just nodding your head then turning around in your high-back leather chair to face the credenza. (How would this work at a standing desk? Another reason to reject standing desks.)

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