Tuesday, August 07, 2007
Candidate presses flesh with copy editor
This column by the editorial page editor of The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., is making noise on the Web, being picked up by The Drudge Report and The Huffington Post, among others. The headline ("Why I see John Edwards as a big phony") is certainly effective at grabbing attention, and the writer, Brad Warthen, recounts three "phony" moments from the presidential candidate.

What many readers may overlook in the column is the unusual presence of a copy editor. About two-thirds of the way into the piece, Warthen recounts a meeting of the State's editorial board with Howard Dean, who (like Edwards) ran for president in 2004. (Such meetings are typical as candidates fish for endorsements.) A copy editor in question described as "a real Dean fan" sat in on the meeting and called Dean a "nice man" as the candidate shook hands with employees of various stature as he left the newspaper building.

I've never heard of copy editors being invited to such meetings. It's never happened at papers where I've worked. Is it a good idea?

On the one hand, it's heartening to see copy editors included in this part of a newspaper's operations. It's probably a good idea if the copy editor works on the editorial and op-ed pages. On the other hand, it's unnerving to see such unabashed fandom from a journalist. It opens the door to accusations of bias and favoritism, particularly if the copy editor is working on the news side.

Here is a previous post on the separation of news and editorial departments.

UPDATE: Warthen responds and clarifies in a comment to this post. He also responds at his blog.
posted by Andy Bechtel at 12:25 PM | Permalink |


  • At 10:12 AM, Anonymous Brad Warthen

    Andy, as I noted in my e-mail response, the copy editor worked for editorial, not news. Now that I've read your post, I should clarify further -- the copy editor was not in the meeting, as I recall. She could have been if she had asked -- as an observer. But I THINK (mind you this was almost four years ago) that the reason she rode down on the elevator with Dean was that that was her chance to see and speak to him.

    Now that you remind me, I have a picture that she shot of Dean, the administrative assistant and me on the elevator on the way down. Maybe I'll scan and post that.

    Finally, "copy editor" is a little slippery as a label here. That's her title. She is a part-timer of multiple skills, helping out in editorial on tasks ranging from pagination in QuarkXPress to fact-checking letters to the editor. If you think of somebody sitting on the proverbial rim word-editing copy, fixing style, writing headlines -- no, that's not what she does.

  • At 11:02 AM, Anonymous George Donner

    I think that the most interesting part of the incident is not the presence or absence of a copy editor; the most interesting part of it is what it reveals about what passes for journalistic ethics. The story isn't that Edwards is a phony, because Warthen's observations don't show that. The story is that Warthen doesn't like Edwards (or at any rate seeks affirmation and attention from those whose agenda includes attacking Edwards). So Warthen followed the Republican storyline, which is that someone successful like Edwards can't legitimately be concerned about the interests and needs of those less wealthy. Thus, he presented the picture of Edwards as a "phony" in order to feed into that storyline.

    The fact that the incidents he used to illustrate the point do not in fact illustrate the point doesn't matter to him. The only thing that matters to him is promoting his own sense of self-importance by tearing down a man he resents, and repeating the talking points the Republicans want to hear and gaining as much attention as possible by repeating the talking points Republicans want to hear.

    I think the key to the story is that Warthen and Edwards are about the same age, but while Edwards is wealthy, accomplished, and respected, Warthen is - not.

    Of course, Warthen can't admit that the reason he dislikes Edwards is because Edwards's success with his life tends to illuminate Warthen's failure with his life. So he invents a palatable reason, one that plays into the Republican storyline, in order to "bring down" Edwards to his own level.

    The fact that Edwards will always be a success, no matter what Warthen does, while Warthen is bound to remain a failure, doesn't matter to Warthen. What matters to Warthen is that for one day he can ignore the failure that stares him in the face every time he looks in a mirror.

  • At 12:54 PM, Anonymous Dickie Ann

    Warthen's memories of John Edwards show us only thing: Warthen doesn't like John Edwards. And that is worth very little to the vast majority of people.

    In addition, I have to wonder why he is back-pedaling on calling the Dean fan a copy editor. Her job description sounds like a copy editor.

  • At 3:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

    Warthen's anecdotes are reasonable, and they prove what they set out to.

  • At 3:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous

    Hey George,
    The reason I don't like Edwards is because he made his millions second guessing doctors by channeling the voices of babies, buys garish mansions, takes million dollar checks from hedge funds, charges students to listen to talks on poverty while getting $1250 haircuts on the same day, and the pretends to be a man of the people. Sure, he supports populist ideas - he will do anything to get elected. Go ask his old boss, John Kerry, what he thinks of him you and will get the same response. Go ahead and psychoanalyze Warthen, but Edwards gives his detractors plenty of ammo.

    It is a moot point. Clinton and Obama will walk all over Edwards and won't return his calls when he is slumming for some ambassador work to keep busy. (He sure as hell can't win an office in Carolina again.)

    Jack Straw

  • At 3:57 PM, Blogger Andy Bechtel

    George and Anonymous(2),

    Please keep the comments relevant to the topic at hand: whether it's ethical for copy editors to express themselves politically on the job.

    There are plenty of other places to discuss Edwards generally, including at Warthen's blog. I'm not going to delete your off-topic comments, but I would ask you and others to show some restraint here.


  • At 11:28 PM, Anonymous George Donner

    Of course it's ethical for copy editors to express themselves politically on the job; why wouldn't it be? What's unethical is for editorial page editors (or anyone else) to lie, and to cover up their true motivations. That's what Warthen did when he pretended that the incidents he witnessed made him believe that Edwards is a phony. Of course those incidents don't indicate any such thing. Warthen simply resents Edwards because Edwards is successful and popular and Warthen is an obscure failure.

    The ethical thing for Warthen to do would be to refrain from comment and simply say that he resents Edwards's success because Edwards's success highlights Warthen's failures. What the copy editor did or didn't do don't enter into it.

    What the position is doesn't matter, that's what we're finding out with the growth of blogs. Copy editor, editorial page editor, who cares? What's important is what someone has to say. Warthen started working in newspapers when there were substantial barriers to entry, where he and people like him could control who could say what. He sees credentials as all-important; he thinks his experience in newspapers gives weight to his opinions.

    Digby, however, when she shed her super-secret identity to accept an award, described what makes her a pundit:

    I have opinions

    I write them down

    Lots of people read them.

    Except for the fact that Wathen's writings aren't read by "lots of people," that describes what Warthen does.

    Now, what gives Digby (or some copy editor) the same right to comment to which Warthen feels himself entitled? It is the quality of the commentary, the insight displayed in the commentary.

    That's what's important, the quality of the work. Warthen sees the issue as one of credentialing. He has access given to him because his affiliation with a corporation: they provide him with a forum, they attract readers by giving them useful information (primarily ads and coupons - nothing much else in that particular newspaper has any value), so he sees his opinions as important and more worthy because of the credentials he has.

    Warthen doesn't do good work because he doesn't have to. For him, credentials have always been a substitute for accomplishment. He has failed in his life because he has never done good work, and he has never done good work because he has always allowed credentials to substitute for quality. He resents those whose good work has led to their success because he sees himself as just as worthy as they are. The fact that their work is better than his doesn't matter to them. His view is that his credentials should lead to the same success they enjoy.

    That's at the base of the hatchet job on Edwards. It doesn't matter to Warthen that Edwards achieved his success by exhibiting all the qualities that Warthen lacks - industriousness, intelligence, and above all, honesty. Warthen has credentials.

    But that's not how journalism works anymore, especially political commentary. Unlike Warthen, nobody gave Digby anything, ever. She earned all her accolades, she gained her huge following by meeting the needs of her readers, by studying events and speaking about them with wisdom. Credentials have nothing to do with it.

    It's the same with a copy editor. It doesn't matter whether it's a copy editor, a janitor, or what. It's ethical for all those people to give their opinions, because credentials don't matter, quality does.

    What's not ethical is for a failure like Warthen to do a hatchet job on a successful man or woman like Edwards because he resents that success, credentials or no credentials.

  • At 3:02 PM, Anonymous George Donner

    To kind of address another issue that relates to my earlier comment but wasn't fully addressed, I think a lot of journalistic rules aren't overarchingly important. Maintaining the separation between editorial and news isn't important, even maintaining the separation between news and advertising isn't important. I think that such a practice is OK, but it really doesn't help that much, and it can present a false picture of how the enterprise operates. Suppose somebody works in editorial and news, and suppose they express their political opinions to their colleagues, and even to members of the public. What are they doing? They are ADMITTING that they have political opinions. Does that affect their work? Does having a rule that restricts people in jobs from where they express opinions from interacting in certain ways from those whose jobs are to report news really affect how the work is done? I would answer "no" to both questions?

    People have opinions, they have interests, what's important is not whether or not you admit that you have interests and opinions, it's whether you let them affect your work. And that's a matter of integrity, not of following or not following what seem to me to be artificial rules.

    It doesn't matter whether advertising is separated from news. The news people know what side their bread is buttered on, and the public depends on their integrity to keep the news reporting from being affected. It doesn't matter whether editorial is separated from news, the news people know what the publishers of the paper want to hear, and again the public depends on integrity to keep the news from being tailored to what the paper's employees know their publisher's attitude to be.

    Artificial rules about separation don't really do anything. There's plenty of horrible news coverage. For example, hundreds of straight reporters presented Howard Dean as some sort of madman by repeatedly playing a tape of him raising his voice to make himself heard over the voice of the crowd, but filtering out the crowd noise. Hundreds of straight reporters attack John Edwards for his so-called hypocrisy by inventing a rule that a rich person can't advocate for the poor and middle class. The reason they do this, as Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic Monthly revealed, is that they don't like John Edwards and are trying to bring him down. Now, these people can adhere to all the rules of separation they want, but they don't have integrity, so the rules of separation don't do any good.

    And this is why the question about was it OK for the copy editor to express her political opinion isn't the important question. She already had an opinion, expressing it was just admitting it. There's no ethical question.

    The person who was unethical is Warthen, who pretends that his views are different from what they really are. He doesn't think that Edwards is a phony based on the events he witnessed, he is predisposed to see everything Edwards does as wrong because Edwards is a success, while Warthen is a failure, and because Edwards promotes political views that Warthen opposes. Warthen's analysis is basically as follows:

    (1) Everything Edwards does proves that he is a phony.

    (2) Edwards did something.

    (3) Therefore, what Edwards did proves that Edwards is a phony.

    Presenting that kind of analysis for public consumption is unethical. Somebody from the news department being a fan of Howard Dean, and expressing that fandom, isn't.