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Review-a-Day
Powells.com
Saturday, July 10th, 2004


 

Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot to Print

by David Wallis

A review by Gerry Donaghy

Back in 1958, Betty Friedan returned to her alma mater, Smith College, to administer a questionnaire to returning alumnae. She wanted to determine if college education had any effect on women and their ability to find husbands and live a happy life. The results of her investigation were to be presented in McCall's, a magazine that had previously published her work. She approached this task by wondering if it was higher education that was making women unhappy or the current definition of their gender. She determined that it was the latter, and when she presented her findings to the editors at McCall's they refused to publish them. She subsequently submitted the piece to Ladies' Home Journal and Redbook, neither of which would publish it without substantial revisions. Friedan stuck to her guns, eventually using this aborted feature as the basis for her classic 1963 book The Feminine Mystique.

Sadly, of all the features that are presented in Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot to Print, Friedan's is one of only a few to have a happy ending. Starting with a suppressed book review by George Orwell, a writer who in his lifetime never experienced the literary clout he currently enjoys, editor David Wallis lovingly collects over six decades worth of rejected, suppressed, and otherwise abandoned essays. And the subjects are as varied as the reasons for their termination. In some of the cases, no reason is clearly given for a piece's demise (only the editor's hairdresser knows for sure), but you can pretty much guess that if a magazine like Details kills a morbidly hilarious celebrity piece that focuses on the minutiae of John Mellencamp's cigarette smoking, it's probably for fear of losing tobacco advertising dollars rather than any pretense of journalistic integrity. In another case, Neil Steinberg's hysterical parody of both corporate branding and trade-show antics, "Mascots Reign at the Fall Show," was killed because his editor at Granta didn't realize that it was fiction.

It's not just fear of losing advertising dollars that deters editors, some of these pieces were killed for fear of litigation. Some of the most shining examples of investigative journalism featured in Killed (the pieces on Body Shop founder Anita Roddick's business practices, and those referring to the Reverend Sun Myung Moon) were eighty-sixed out of fear of litigation; the sad truth being that it doesn't matter if what you print is true, if your opponent has deeper pockets than you just the threat of a lawsuit will keep you in line.

Killed is more than just a thoughtful read, it is a call for editorial accountability. It speaks volumes about the unexplored world of the all-powerful editor: an Oz-like figure that nobody really understands, yet who is capable of not only suppressing a story but also keeping "troublesome" writers from ever finding work again. As editors become their own brand of celebrity (Graydon Carter at Vanity Fair; Tina Brown at Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and Talk — she's killed more stories in this book than anybody else) and a significant number of them are receiving stock as compensation, the editorial process itself should be made as transparent as possible, not only for writers, but for readers, as well.

The fact that these articles never ran should not, however, detract from the quality of writing contained in Killed. Without a doubt, these are writers at the top of their game, showcasing everything from socio-economic observations (T. D. Allman's "Living Well Is the Best Revenge," which chronicles the changes in post-Tiananmen Square, China), to political humor (Terry Southern's "Check-Up with Doctor Strangelove," killed in 1963, should be required election-year reading) to the aforementioned investigative journalism.

Assuming that the publications mentioned in Killed had their readers' welfare in mind, the fact that their editors weren't stepping over each other to publish these pieces defies logic.


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