Editors at Work: When Rich People, Lawyers, or Advertisers Try to Tell You What to Do

By Jack Limpert

Gawker is in an expensive legal battle with wrestler-celebrity Hulk Hogan and today there were reports that Peter Thiel, a tech billionaire, secretly funded Hogan’s lawsuit against the we’ll-publish-almost-anything website. Gawker then said it would use the Thiel allegation to contest the damages awarded in Hogan’s lawsuit:

Hogan sued Gawker Media, Nick Denton, and former editor A.J. Daulerio in October 2012 after Gawker published several excerpts of a sex tape depicting Hogan having sex with the wife of his best friend, the Tampa-area radio shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem. In March of this year, a jury in Pinellas County, Florida awarded Hogan $140,100,000 in damages. Today, Gawker will appear in a St. Petersburg court to contest the jury’s verdict.

Margaret Sullivan, now a media writer for the Washington Post, then tweeted:

The huge threat to press freedom when the super-rich use the courts to take down a publication, from @joshtpm http://talkingpointsmemo.com/edblog/a-huge-huge-deal

Rich people using their money and their lawyers to intimidate a publication. After 40 years editing the Washingtonian, I know the feeling. It’s one of the ways editors can be put on the defensive.

My main rich people antagonists were the two most recent owners of the Washington Redskins—Jack Kent Cooke, who owned the team from 1974 to 1997, and Dan Snyder, who bought the team in 1999 and still owns it. Cooke didn’t just intimidate—he sued. Here’s a link to a 2013 post that describes how Cooke made us defend a lawsuit and pay huge legal fees. Snyder didn’t like to be interviewed but we often heard from his lawyers with the threat of an expensive lawsuit always in the background.

An earlier lawyer intimidation involved Katharine Graham, owner-publisher of the Washington Post. This is from an earliest post:

In the early 1970s I got a call from Edward Bennett Williams, the best-known litigator in Washington. He had founded the Williams and Connolly law firm, and was famous for representing some of the nation’s most colorful people—Frank Costello, Jimmy Hoffa, Frank Sinatra. And he represented the Washington Post and was close to publisher Katharine Graham and editor Ben Bradlee.

We were working on a story about Katharine Graham and a part of it had to do with the death of Philip Graham, the husband of Katharine Graham, in 1963. It was a story that Mrs. Graham undoubtedly did not want told.

Williams called. Without much beating around the bush he said: “Are you sure you want to pick a fight with me?”

The Washingtonian then was a young, struggling magazine, trying to build a staff and to make an impact but still losing money. It was owned by Laughlin Phillips, an heir to the Jones and Laughlin steel fortune, and he was a good owner—he loved Washington and wanted the magazine to do tough stories to make the city better. But when we talked about the call from Edward Bennett Williams, he said he didn’t want to pick that fight and I didn’t blame him. It wasn’t a story where the public interest was involved, and maybe it did delve too deeply into private matters, even if the subject was as powerful a public figure as Mrs. Graham.
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Mrs. Graham, it should be added, was a very good publisher in how she handled calls and visits from powerful people who wanted her to tell editor Ben Bradlee what should and shouldn’t be published in the Washington Post. According to all involved, she always listened politely and then never pressured Bradlee or other editors to change how they reported the news.

My Washingtonian publisher for many years was Philip Merrill. He once called me into his office to say that he’d just had a call from Mort Zuckerman, owner of U.S. News & World Report when it was a significant magazine. “Can you believe it,” Phil said, “he called to try to get me to change what we’re saying about him.” Phil greatly admired Mrs. Graham and he couldn’t believe Zuckerman would expect a fellow publisher to tell his journalists what to write.

The toughest situations involving journalistic ethics involved advertisers. Rich people and lawyers can try to intimidate a publication by threatening to sue—hiring lawyers and defending any legal action can be very expensive. Advertisers pressure an editor or publisher by threatening not to buy ads.

Again, Phil Merrill never let pressure from advertisers affect the editorial side. As an editor, I sometimes felt I had to have lunch with advertisers but the most pressure I got was from our ad staff, who would come to my office and suggest wouldn’t it be great to write about such and such. I always listened because they had one rule: they could come to me but never go to writers or other editors to suggest coverage that would please a potential advertiser. As the editor, it was my job to say no.

As for publishing something that would displease an advertiser, one distinction I learned to consider: the difference between substance and style. Substance was real journalism, getting at a good story, the truth. Style was sometimes a writer showing off. When the Whole Foods supermarket chain came to Washington, one of our writers did a piece on how Whole Foods was affecting food buying and she wrote something like, “When Whole Foods (or as my friends call it Whole Paycheck) opened…”

I edited out the “Whole Paycheck” line, partly because Whole Foods bought some ads and sold a lot of newsstand copies of the magazine.

A legitimate edit? To me that “Whole Paycheck” line wasn’t journalism, it was a writer just trying to be cute. As Sam Brown once said about politics in Washington, “Never offend people with style when you can offend them with substance.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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