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Q&A: David Wallis

The editor of Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot to Print talks about his new book and the culture of censorship that gave rise to it.

- July 6, 2004

It's rare when a writer can irritate industry potentates with stories that aren't even his own. But with the recent publication of Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot to Print, David Wallis, who compiled the collection, might perform just that feat. Killed is a collection of stories—penned by such writers as Ted Rall and George Orwell and axed by such titles as The New Yorker and Vanity Fair—that were deemed too provocative to publish.

Wallis is no stranger to controversy himself, having written on topics ranging from postnatal ambivalence to women who fantasize about Osama bin Laden. For this collection, he opted not to include any of his own stories, instead hand-picking Killed's accounts of war, sex, and culture from his online syndication service, Featurewell.com, which represents more than 1,000 journalists, and from his own research.

When a story gets killed, execution-style with a shot to the hed, the usual suspects tend to be financial interests or fear of political retribution, Wallis argues. And he also found that the FCC's current rampage against indecency now has editors cowering in fear over potential "language malfunctions." As a result, he says, some of today's most incendiary and ground-breaking stories are going unpublished. Wallis recently spoke to mediabistro.com about his new book and "the culture of censorship" that gave rise to it.

Birthdate: January 18, 1967
Hometown: New York City and Sag Harbor
First section of the Sunday Times: "I ease in with Sports, then I go to the Week in Review, which I love. I throw away Automobiles—and Jobs, because I never want to have a job."

You once said that it's a Sopranos world out there in the media. Has Killed allowed you to seek vengeance for those who've been whacked by the media mafia?
It's not really a book about vengeance. It actually should inspire hope and let aspiring writers know that even people like George Orwell and Betty Friedan and P.J. O'Rourke struggled to get their work published. My first story that was killed was in Men's Journal—it was one of the first pieces I'd ever written. It was about frog hunting in the island of Dominica. The piece wasn't killed for a controversial reason; the editors said it wasn't "user friendly." But it was, I thought, a really great piece. And I kept on submitting it, and it finally ran in the Los Angeles Times. So to aspiring writers, I would tell them not to give up. Keep on trying to get their work published, even when it's a challenge.

What inspired you to let these stories see the light of day?
As the editor of Featurewell, I would be offered great stories, provocative stories that had been killed. Over the past couple of years I collected them, and I realized that censorship in the media was more common that I had originally thought. So my mission was to clue in readers about what they weren't supposed to read—important information that editors withheld, whether it be about tobacco or a company that misled consumers or about missile-sized holes in airline security.

There's a story in Killed written by Betty Friedan in 1958 that eventually led her to write The Feminine Mystique. Do you think editors today are stifling such revolutionary writers?
I would tend to say yes because I think the media has gotten more repressive and cautious. There are fewer independent publishers today. We've lost, since 1975, two-thirds of our independent newspapers and one-third of our independent television stations. So the mavericks who would dare to publish incendiary stories are less likely to be running magazines. Today, we see editors who are more cautious because they're employed by multinational, publicly traded corporations and often paid in stock. You're less likely to find that maverick out there who'll say, "Damn the torpedoes," and publish a controversial piece. They're more worried about protecting corporate profits and generating growth for shareholders. They're more worried than they should be about offending readers. There's a lot more caution in the media today.

Are there any mavericks left? Where are they all hiding?
I would say that the folks who run The Atlantic are putting out great journalism, and I think they're less influenced by the market. And The New Yorker, they're somewhat insulated because of Si Newhouse's patronage. They don't have the same profit concerns. I think The New York Times Magazine turns out great journalism still.

What about the Times itself?
I think they're more cautious than they need to be. The Times played down the Senate's vote to ban news organizations from photographing military coffins, running a brief piece about this national scandal on page A17. Why would they do that? It should have been a front-page story.

The New Yorker didn't flinch in allowing Seymour Hersh to put the administration in his crosshairs, and now the Times is faulting its own gullibility and lack of aggressive journalism before the war. Even if editors are more cautious in the name of profit, do you really think editors today are less likely to kill a story that ruffles political feathers?
Post-9/11, there's been a host of examples where the government has cracked down on the media. One recent case that should raise concerns was the FCC's $1.75 million fine leveled against Clear Channel because of Howard Stern's "indecent" behavior on the radio. The Dixie Chicks were effectively banned from the radio after they rebuked George Bush at a concert. I think that creates a chill that editors, whether they are conscious of it or not, pay attention to. I call it a culture of censorship.

I was really struck by the case of a radio host named Sandra Tsing Loh. She was a radio host at KCRW in Santa Monica—a very powerful NPR station. And she inadvertently uttered the word "fuck" on the air. And the station not only fired her but they deleted her archive of work in March of this year. What has it come to that we're so afraid of the word fuck? All I can say is fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. They fired this woman who did a series on knitting! I think that should give people a lot of pause.

Do I think that the same type of thing goes on in the print media? I do. Just the other day the writer Rory O'Connor did an opinion piece for a newspaper called AM New York. It was about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the publisher of the paper did not like the column or did not agree with the opinion Rory expressed and they killed the specific column. O'Connor then wrote about this clear case of censorship on his website, and they fired him as a columnist. It seems that even in an opinion piece, it's dangerous to express an opinion. The level of self-censorship and censorship that's going on today I think doesn't quite approach the days of the McCarthy era, but it comes close.

It's that bad?
I don't know if it's that bad, but it's bad. I recently wrote about several cases where editors and reporters at college newspapers are forced to either tone down opinion columns or lose their jobs. At LaRoche College, a Catholic college in Pennsylvania, school administrators confiscated copies of their student paper before Homecoming because one opinion columnist dared to suggest that condoms might be a good idea to prevent births out of wedlock. And they didn't want the parents to see that. Where do we learn to accept censorship? Where do we learn not to question authority? We learn it at j-schools, at our colleges.

How do writers and editors break out of this mindset?
I don't know how you break out per se. What I would like to see, I'd like George Soros to form a nonprofit newspaper company to compete in one-paper towns that have terrible newspapers, such as New Orleans, Oklahoma City, and even a place like San Diego. I would love to see a nonprofit start-up give people unvarnished news.

Today, people often get their news—especially foreign coverage—from one source: AP. In the quest for growing profit, quality has gone way down. Newspaper publishers just feed wire copy to their readers because it's cheap. Maybe people need to get angry. There needs to be an option for people. There needs to be an option for advertisers.

But aren't advertisers a part of the problem? Aren't they behind a lot of this censorship to begin with?
Advertisers are always going to try to control the media. It's up to the editors to resist that temptation. In 2000, the Pew Research Center and the Columbia Journalism Review reported that approximately one-third of journalists they surveyed avoided articles that they knew would upset advertisers. An earlier study showed that 40 percent of business publication editors "had been told by the ad director or the publisher to do something that seriously compromised editorial integrity." Less than half of those respondents said they would rebuff such a request. So they're admitting it—anonymously—that advertisers have a lot of power.

Beyond profit and politics, what are some other reasons behind an editor's call to put the kibosh on a story?
Protecting friends. I thought it was incredible that the Detroit Free Press—this is a piece that's in Killed—spiked a negative review of Mitch Albom's book. They assigned a freelancer to review their columnist's book. And rather than print it and let the chips fall where they may and let Albom suffer a slight bruise, they killed the piece and ultimately embarrassed their paper.

And legal reasons. In this country, people think that we have a legal system that favors journalists. Maybe so, compared to the restrictive British laws, which stanch a lot of journalistic inquiries. But in this country, it's possible for large corporations to create havoc by launching nuisance lawsuits against publications. A lot of publications prefer not to go down that route.

Is that why Vanity Fair spiked the exposé of The Body Shop that's now in your book?
That was written by Jon Entine. It shows Anita Roddick and The Body Shop as less ethically pure than they like to promote themselves. The piece offers a devastating indictment of their business practices. Even the name of The Body Shop was ripped off from a Body Shop in Berkeley. It was killed because Vanity Fair, which has a British edition, feared publishing the piece in England because they were threatened by The Body Shop and by a team of lawyers.

Will there be a sequel to Killed?
I'm going to do killed cartoons next. It's being shopped right now.

What's your favorite story in the collection?
I'm a big fan of a piece called "Travels with Bassem," written by Mike Sager, killed by The Washington Post Magazine in 1988. Sager chronicled life in a squalid Palestinian refugee camp during the first intifada. I think he did a remarkable job. It's just great writing. It's sort of inexplicable why they would—actually, it's not really inexplicable. The Washington Post was very pro-Israeli at the time and the piece humanized stone-throwing Palestinians. It was controversial, and they buckled and didn't run it.

Could this book make you persona non grata with any editors in the industry?
I guess that's for editors to decide.

Chantal Gordon is a freelance writer who has covered art, fashion, and beauty for Venus magazine and Women's Wear Daily. Photo credit: Steffen Thalemann. You can buy Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot to Print at Amazon.com.



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