The Self-Regard of Journalism Crowds a Curious Orphanage

Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot to Print , edited by David Wallis. Nation Books, 430 pages, $16.95.

I’ve had articles killed by editors-every working hack has-and, as an editor myself, I’ve killed articles by other working hacks, as well as by policy wonks, nutters who temporarily masqueraded as sensible, hopeful freelancers and senior government officials (who invariably use their assistants as ghosts, by the way). I’ve even killed a piece because, in one memorable case, the author demanded $10,000 for his 750 words; assuming it was a typo, I offered $100 for it, but no, it wasn’t.

Sometimes, spiking a truly terrible article is the charitable thing to do, but most often it happens because the submission, no matter how wonderful, has lost its immediacy-the very essence of journalism, the thing that makes it journalism , not scholarship-and doesn’t have the “legs” to withstand a few weeks’ delay. These things happen. It’s (usually) nothing personal.

Having been spiked, I’m a blood-brother of sorts to Killed ‘s contributors, who provide illuminating prefaces to their killed articles explaining why they didn’t run. Illuminating, that is, in the sense that these mini-essays unwittingly reveal the paranoia, bitterness and narcissism raging furiously within your average penny-a-worder’s breast.

They might, in a few cases, have a point, though it’s but a small one, for, despite what you may have heard about the sacred duty of the press to expose corruption and uphold the public interest, journalism can be a despicable racket-and one, moreover, that employs quite the stupidest and most vile people I have ever known. There is a jarring disconnect between the news business’ image (the charming idea that the “Fourth Estate” is about setting the world to rights and putting the system on trial) and reality (prizes and postings that reward the clubbable over the deserving, cute columnists who just happen to be related to someone important, and news-desk fart-catchers toadying the boss).

That’s the problem with Killed ‘s raison d’être, which is to create a “literary orphanage” that “rescues remarkable stories that editors commissioned, then abandoned,” in the words of David Wallis, himself an editor-of this volume, among other things. Enjoyable though most of their individual pieces are, too many of the book’s contributors seem unable to grasp that journalism is temporal, and that much of it deserves to be abandoned once the moment has been and gone. They labor under the misapprehension that they possess a divine right to publish worthy articles in their organ of choice, and that if said journal “abandons” their efforts to the “literary orphanage” of the rejections pile, then something murky must be afoot.

The bean-counters were afraid of losing Big Tobacco advertising if a story on smoking ran; the editors just couldn’t handle The Truth and prostrated themselves before the proprietor’s interests; political influence was brought to bear on the desk chiefs, who knuckled under-it all sounds a bit conspiratorial, if you ask me, which is not to say that such conspiracies do not exist (oh, they do, they do), but then, so what?

A free press is supposed to be, after all, a profit-making, point-scoring enterprise that diverts readers by entertaining, delighting, informing, titillating and surprising them enough to persuade them to send in those annoying subscription cards (circulation attracts the advertisers who pay the hacks’ salaries). Therefore, a degree of editorial discretion (i.e., benign censorship) and authorial sensitivity (i.e., writing to your audience) is needed to avoid frightening the horses. Put it this way: Ted Rall’s daddy-hating screed (included in Killed ) could never run in The New York Times Magazine on Father’s Day, and Mr. Rall should not only have appreciated that, but his editors should never have commissioned someone as coarse as Ted Rall in the first place. (Next time try Garrison Keillor.)

We’ve lost sight of those happy days of the 18th century when Tories and Whigs libeled each other in the robustly partisan press. Compare the vim, humor and spunk of, say, James Rivington’s Royal Gazette -a Loyalist rag published in New York during the Revolution that mocked the Founding Fathers-with the po-faced, unctuous reportage of the upcoming Presidential election in the better papers. Today, daily quality journalism is in a terrible state: It’s tedious, portentous and pompous, a product of the dire American fetish for “objectivity,” which really is the impossible dream.

The trouble is that while journalism is a trade in which people write words in exchange for shekels or glory, its practitioners now regard it as a professional craft to be handed down by a guild of “media professors” at expensive journalism schools. The inmates of these institutions would be better served by a diet of history or classics, subjects that impart the rudiments of stylistic felicity, cultivate the habit of weighing evidence and, perhaps most importantly, oblige pupils to think critically. Then, when an editor hurls them into the tumult of the night crime beat, they’ll hammer out lively copy rather than the funeral procession of monotonous declarative sentences that today passes for “proper” reporting. And so we find Howell Raines inflicting on an unsuspecting public a 20,000-word mea culpist snooze-athon in The Atlantic about “My” Times . Only a proper journalist like Howie would actually take hackdom so seriously.

Since similar displays of self-pity and self-righteousness are the verities of today’s journalism, what we hear less about in Killed is that editors are sometimes right. A case in point: Harper’s commissioned Robert Fisk to expose the “breakdown of serious journalism during the 2001 Afghanistan bombardment” (Mr. Fisk’s words). Good idea-except that after submission, an editor called and said it wasn’t “exactly the article we had spoken about over the phone” (Mr. Fisk, quoting the editor). When she suggested that he might wish to rewrite the piece “along different lines,” our stiff-necked Samson heroically refused to change a word of his copy and announced, out of nowhere, that he would not truckle to “pro-Israeli lobbyists.” Reading the article in Killed , I can quite see the editor’s point. Mr. Fisk drones on about the Palestinian tragedy, how he’s always being crucified by the Jews, the Turkish mass murder of the Armenians in 1915, Christian Phalangist militias in Lebanon … in fact, everything but the Afghan war. The piece is a rambling, self-absorbed mess, and it would have taken that poor editor a week to bash it into shape. Abandoned, and deservedly so, methinks.

Is Killed crammed, as the subtitle advertises, with “Great Journalism Too Hot to Print”? In a word, no. There’s some pretty good and even damn fine journalism among the 24 contributions, ranging from Betty Friedan to Jamie Malanowski (on a pervert who makes Dr. Mengele dolls “for the serious collector”) to Carlo Wolff’s ravaging of Mitch Albom’s dreadful efforts at writing, but it’s rarely hot , and in any case, a significant proportion of the pieces were later shopped around and published in rival outlets, so they really weren’t too hot to print after all. In the case of P.J. O’Rourke, the humorist (though I sometimes have my doubts), he filed a story for Vanity Fair describing his adventures in Lebanon-dismissed by the incomparable Tina Brown with one sentence, “You can’t make fun of people dying”-that later became part of his best-selling book, Holidays in Hell . I wish we all did so well out of being killed.

There is a lot of worthwhile stuff in here, but much of it is now dated. At the time, though, Todd Gitlin’s take on “The Clinton Legacy and America” should have been printed by the London Review of Books ; Vanity Fair should have run Jon Entine’s dissection of Anita Roddick and the Body Shop; and GQ should have gone with T.D. Allman’s look at China a decade after Tiananmen Square instead of bumping it for a profile of Steve Forbes.

Shoulda, shoulda, shoulda. But they didn’t. That’s journalism. You gotta roll with it.

Alexander Rose, deputy managing editor of National Review, is writing a book on espionage during the American Revolution for Bantam Dell.