About Editing

Editors at Work: Painful Experiences With Lawyers (Part Two)

By Jack Limpert

Nothing can intimidate an editor like a lawyer. A phone call, a letter—it can make your heart skip a beat and ruin your day, month, or career.

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 struggling magazine, trying to build a staff and to make an impact but 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 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.

Editors get calls like those—it’s the lawyer playing the role of a bully. In most cases, of course, the real bully is the person who hired the lawyer. Some organizations have a reputation for using lawyers that way—if you’re writing about, say, Scientology or PETA, you won’t be surprised if the subject of potential legal bills doesn’t come up. There are some people who seem too quick to have a lawyer call—I always found sports team owners the worst, but more about that in another post.

For the editor, the first move after a call from a lawyer is almost always to go to the publisher or owner—too much money can be at stake for the editor not to involve them. Then what to do usually goes to how good is the reporting and is this a story where the public interest is involved. Should the public know about this? If the answer is yes, then an editor is going to push hard to keep going. If the answer is no, then the bully may win.

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