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Killed!
Ever wonder why some articles just don't work out?


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I must be mellowing in my old age, because when some waffling Slate editor killed an assigned story of mine (for the usual spurious reasons) not long ago, I didn’t give her a particularly hard time about it. Oh, at first I tried, just for old times sake…

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Her: I can put through a small kill fee…

Me: The full fee is shockingly small enough. Put that through.

Her: [Usual stream of protesting blather.]

But you know, anything to help a struggling little company like Microsoft. (At that point, Slate hadn’t been sold yet to the Washington Post.) Plus by now I pick my battles, so I dropped it.

My reward was about 15 pages of payment-processing forms to fill out, with a fantastic number of meddling questions. Am I: Asian/Pacific Islander, Hispanic/Latino, Native American (enrolled in a federally recognized tribe)? Is my business 51 percent woman-owned? Am I a 51 percent disabled veteran? And so on.

This was a first in almost 20 years of freelancing, which has meant almost 20 years of having pieces killed. But the craziest part was I couldn’t simply check a box saying I’m an independent contractor, thanks to the struggling Microsoft’s cheap habit in the ’90s of making freelancers behave like de facto employees–which had caused them some expensive legal trouble.

“For legal reasons, we must be able to demonstrate to the government that you work for others…” So: “Other publications I have written for include: (Please list at least three publications).” Since Slate is an online magazine, I thought of listing Biteme.net and Screwyou.edu, but decided that would be unladylike. I did spend some time, though, thinking of three publications that would express the above sentiments in a subtler way, I think eventually settling on Highlights, Hustler, and Dog Fancy.

All of which is to say that Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot to Print is quite a trip down memory lane for me, as well as a compelling inside-the-sausage-factory tour for anyone interested in media vagaries. Editor David Wallis (who, full disclosure, occasionally resells my pieces through his Featurewell syndicate) has assembled two dozen killed pieces, each prefaced by an explanation of what went wrong.

As it happens, the chronological parade begins and ends with two book reviews. The first is a 1942 George Orwell critique of a now-obscure tome criticizing rich Americans in the Far East; editors of the London Observer, writes Orwell scholar Christopher Hitchens, worried the topic was unpatriotic during wartime. The last is a negative review by Carlo Wolff of the Detroit Free Press star columnist Mitch Albom’s saccharine The Five People You Meet In Heaven–assigned (and immediately killed) in 2003 by the Detroit Free Press. Well, you could see the problem there going in.

The bulk of the stories here, though, are feature articles, not reviews, and date from within the last 15 years, a time when the magazine world hasn’t been exactly breaking new ground in fearlessness. Some writers, in fact, were too nervous to let Wallis include their work: An expose of dangerous abortion providers–killed by the women’s magazine that assigned it because editors there worried it would hurt the pro-choice movement (shades of Orwell’s sensitively p.c. editors at the Observer!)–was withdrawn from Killed, as Wallis explains in the book’s intro, because the reporter in turn worried about losing income from offended women’s magazines.

Sometimes the decision is strictly financial. Maybe the magazine doesn’t want to risk being sued by a deep-pocketed plaintiff who can afford to spend years and millions of dollars in court: “I think it is fair to say that taking on a billionaire mogul, especially one who happens to believe he’s the Messiah…was the primary factor” in why Ann Louise Bardach’s piece about the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and the Washington Times was killed by Vanity Fair in 1992, Bardach speculates. Or the magazine doesn’t want to offend major advertisers: Erik Hedegaard’s Details story about spending a day chain-smoking with singer John Mellencamp, who continued to puff away after a heart attack, was seen as “a genius concept” by the editor but not by the magazine’s tobacco-company-dependent advertising department.

No journalist likes hearing this sort of thing, but at least the fears above were serious and maybe not even unreasonable. What’s irritating are the quisling editors who get a piece that’s exactly as ordered and then worry that someone, possibly, might be offended. In 1997, for instance, former Spy contributor Larry Doyle (who’s since gone on to write for The Simpsons) got a call from Us, which was then trying to be a hipper, edgier People.

Us wanted a satiric, celebrity-style profile of a fictional celebrity publicist, because (as Doyle explains dryly in Killed), “a few months earlier, I had done a faux celebrity profile of Beavis and Butt-Head for Rolling Stone, which unlike much current journalism, was known to be fake when published.” Doyle’s resulting piece is very funny, but apparently Us worried it would hurt the magazine’s relationships with non-fictional publicists.

Sometimes a piece is too nutty even for true believers, like Robert Fisk’s 2002 defense of Islamic terrorism called “Remember ‘the Whys,’” although you have to wonder what else Harper’s thought they might get from Fisk when they made the assignment. And then sometimes the timing is just off. I thought “Mein Doll,” a 2001 Jamie Malanowski New Yorker profile of a man who makes G.I. Joe-sized Nazi figurines, was funny–but probably not exactly what readers were in the mood for just after Sept. 11.

Or maybe the editor’s just asleep at the wheel. How else to explain why, in 1984, Vanity Fair’s Tina Brown told P. J. O’Rourke to go ahead and cover the Lebanese civil war? The piece was killed, of course–”You can’t make fun of people dying!” Brown said, which makes you wonder why she sent someone like O’Rourke to Lebanon in the first place. But it later became a highlight of his travel essays book, Holidays In Hell.

More important, it gave O’Rourke a new perspective on what being killed can really mean. “If I get out of here,” he recalls thinking while in Lebanon, listening to bombs explode, “I’m never going to worry about things that won’t kill me. I’m never going to worry about the rent. I’m never going to worry about articles being rejected. And I’m certainly never going to worry about earning a living as a humorist, because if I can make fun of this, I can make fun of anything.”

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.



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