Freelancer to Brauchli: Quit While You’re Ahead
Matthew Mendelsohn isn't upset with Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth, even though she may well have scuppered his 10,000-word piece on a quadruple amputee. She's still a good friend, he says. "I don't want Katharine to be exposed to this story."
His feelings about Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli aren't nearly as charitable. "Marcus should quit while he's ahead," says Mendelsohn.
What accounts for this rankling? Comments by Brauchli in Howard Kurtz's news-breaking story of Tuesday morning. In explaining why the paper didn't run Mendelsohn's piece on Lindsay Ess, Brauchli said this: "While the piece was beautifully photographed and nicely constructed, it was also similar to other pieces we had run in the magazine recently," Brauchli told Kurtz.
Just what pieces were those? Brauchli cited one such "similar" story in a Monday evening interview with me: A piece by Caitlin Gibson on a 13-year-old girl with dwarfism who was struggling to extend her limbs. "I'm not into hammering readers with repetitive stories on similar themes," says Brauchli.
First things first: The No. 1 editor at the Post appears to be committing what the towering former Washington City Paper Senior Editor Tom Scocca calls a "false plural." The limb-extension piece appears to encompass the entirety of his showcase of "other stories." A more precise articulation would have been "another story."
Second things second: Mendelsohn argues that the story of the 13-year-old undergoing limb extension and his story aren't actually similar. "I haven’t seen any other stories about a quadruple amputee who’s teaching fashion at VCU," he says. Comparing the two, argues Mendelsohn, shows an insensitivity to the handicapped. "It's lumping disparate disabilities in the same group....That's like saying we did a story about an Asian last year" as a reason for turning down further stories on Asians.
Maybe. Certainly Brauchli could have been more general on the matter, saying that the consensus among editors was that mag fare focused too much on death, destruction, and misery. But Brauchli's grouping together the two limb-related stories seems like a fair journalistic judgment. Readers don't make the fine distinctions that Mendelsohn makes about how his piece may differ from the other one. Their thought process goes more like this: Oh, another story having to do with arms and legs and pain.
Even so, Brauchli has been a touch schizophrenic in his references to Mendelsohn, switching between two distinct personas: Wise Executive Editor and Unwise Executive Editor.
Wise Executive Editor: "While the piece was beautifully photographed and nicely constructed, it was also similar to other pieces we had run in the magazine recently," Brauchli told Kurtz.
Skinny: Good move to credit the freelancer with good work. He's the little guy.
Unwise Executive Editor: "We're not running 10,000- or 15,000-word articles anymore. It's not because we don't value subtle writing and long-form journalism. But great journalism is not defined by story length or extended, novel-worthy dialogue."
Skinny: Bad move to discredit the freelancer. He's the little guy. Let's break this down into a couple of subcomponents:
a) It's true that Mendelsohn handed in a draft of about 10,000 words. That's what writers do after they've spent a year immersing with a subject. But when a freelancer hands in 10,000 words, it's not an "article," as Brauchli suggests, but rather a "draft." And drafts get broken down by editors, cut to pieces, shrunk, tightened, whatever. There are tens of editors at the Post who could have taken Mendelsohn's draft and distilled it into something far more digestible. For Brauchli to say length is an issue here is a pure cop-out.
b) Why is Brauchli slamming "extended, novel-worthy dialogue"? For one, he sounds like a traditional newsman hammering a precious, self-indulgent writer. Not too generous.
For another, why slam extended, novel-worthy dialogue? Seems to me I encounter some of that from time to time in the Washington Post. Just a few weeks ago, for instance, Post reporter J. Freedom DuLac did a fine story about D.C. lawyer Patrick Hand struggling to organize a tour for '60s band Love.
Here's an excerpt:
Steve Baenen, wearing a Deep Purple concert T-shirt, approaches the table where Hand has set up shirts, CDs and posters. His long hair pulled back in a ponytail, Baenen has made the two-hour drive from Green Bay, because "it's hard to find a trippy show anymore." He buys $30 worth of CDs. Hand gives him a concert poster that still lists the three original acts.
"What happened to the Prunes?" Baenen asks.
Hand: "Not enough advance sales. Not enough money to pay for everything."
Baenen: "That's a bummer, man."
Hand: "It is a bummer."
Now that's novel-worthy!