Who deserves a hatchet job?

February 27, 2014

The New York Times dinged the New York Observer today in an absolute fair and responsible fashion, documenting the weekly’s great efforts to pillory Eric T. Schneiderman, the attorney general of New York, the results of which the Observer published on Tuesday (“The Politics and Power of A.G. Schneiderman: Will Righteous Eric bag big prey? Or Will Reckless Eric come undone?”).

Both the Times piece and a BuzzFeed article, published earlier in the week, build the circumstantial case that the Observer story was a hatchet job designed to retaliate against Schneiderman. Why should the Observer want to hurt the attorney general? Well, he filed a $40 million lawsuit against Donald J. Trump last year. Trump is the father-in-law of Jared Kushner, who owns the Observer, and Kushner bosses the paper’s editor, Ken Kurson. Kurson originally assigned the Schneiderman story to an inexperienced writer and allegedly encouraged him with comments (Schneiderman is a “bad guy” and a “phony”) as well as plying him with negative articles about Schneiderman. How hard did Kurson push? The young writer bailed because he believed Kurson was prodding him into writing a “smear piece,” and a new writer was enlisted.

Obviously, the Trump-Kushner-Kurson axis has motives to scuttle Schneiderman with a newspaper article. But neither the Times nor BuzzFeed cite any inaccuracies in the Observer piece. The Times calls it a “searing, 7,000-word indictment of Mr. Schneiderman, portraying him as vindictive and politically opportunistic” and as a “robust defense” of Trump. In an editorial note, the Observer offers some transparency about its conflicts of interest, and presents a genesis of the article.

The unstated subtext of the Times and BuzzFeed pieces seems to be that there is something wrong about commissioning a hatchet job. But don’t editors do that all the time? If an editor can’t commission a hatchet job, or at the very least encourage a reporter to take a preferred direction, what’s the point of being an editor?

Excessive fairness provides only one path to truth, and one man’s smear is often another man’s exuberant truth-telling. The fact that an inexperienced writer did not grasp Kurson’s concept for the piece, and thought he was being directed to “smear” the subject doesn’t mean Kurson was shopping for a smear. It could be that the writer, being inexperienced and new to the Schneiderman topic, and Kurson, being certain of the story he was chasing, miscommunicated at a basic level that the writer perceived as an attempt to smear. Whatever the case, the motives and skullduggery behind a story usually matter less to me than does the story’s substance. In the case of the Observer story, I’ll sit tight until somebody knocks it down as inaccurate, a piece I’ve yet to see.

Any effort to marginalize the Observer piece because of Kushner’s “conflicts of interest” should be ignored. On the New York City battlefield, everybody knows everybody. Everybody holds a grudge against everybody else. Everybody is conflicted. But when everybody is conflicted, nobody is, and nobody should be indemnified from criticism just because it comes from a conflicted space. In my experience, protests over conflicts of interest usually ensue when the news subject thinks he can tie up in a clinch the journalists assigned to write critically about him. My ringside advice to colleagues: Oil your hair and your jacket, slip out of the subject’s grasp, and then jab, jab, jab.

Those who oppose hatchet jobs might as well give up on journalism altogether. There is scarcely a publication, big or small, prestigious or low-rent, that doesn’t assign hatchet jobs now and again. Many of the classic works were composed with a sharp, heavy blade swung in wide arcs. There’s Mark Twain on Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science, for example; H.L. Mencken on the newly dead William Jennings Bryan; Wolcott Gibbs on Henry Luce, and Dwight Macdonald on Henry Wallace. Skipping ahead to the contemporary era, we witness the blowtorch of Renata Adler on Pauline Kael; the scalpel of Aaron Latham on Sally Quinn, and the smarty-pants bob-and-weave of Nicholas Lemann on David Halberstam. Michael Kelly‘s deft bludgeon shattered Edward Kennedy; Marjorie Williams‘ wickedness crippled Barbara Bush; Mark Leibovich‘s practiced deadpan killed Chris Matthews, and Ariel Levy‘s wit reduced Naomi Wolf to a laughing stock. And if you’ve never read Steve Chapman on James Reston, click here now. All of these pieces are “unfair,” and all of them brilliant testimonies of the truth. Graydon Carter, when serving as Spy magazine co-editor, once berated one of his writers for turning in a piece that was “too even-handed … too lapidary.” The rewrite gained Carter’s approval. “This is now a fine piece of hatchetry,” he said.

Not every article should be a hatchet job, for the same reason every meal shouldn’t be a flask of scotch. The hatchet job is the spice, the frosting, the sauce of journalism and goes down best when used sparingly. But the need for hatchetry has never been greater: Sometimes journalists need big guns to bag their quarry: They must turn prosecutorial and busy themselves with accuracy instead of “fairness.” This is especially true when covering people who lord immense governmental or corporate power over the rest of us. When writing about such potentates as Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman, journalists should always proceed under the presumption that the subject is up to no good. (Journalists, who wield inordinate power, should be fair game for the hatcheteers, too. As my list above indicates, they are.)

To review: There is no shame in assigning, reporting, or publishing a well-done hatchet job. The only shame is in ordering puff pieces.

Every public figure deserves a hatchet job once in a while. Is Jared Kushner due for his?


Please remember the young Jack Shafer on Charlie Peters in your prayers, which are accepted at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. Send also links to your favorite hatchet jobs, or blast them at my Twitter handle. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: Ivanka Trump arrives with husband, Jared Kushner, at the Vanity Fair party to begin the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival in New York, April 17, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson 


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Don’t editors commission hatchet jobs all the time? Sometimes true if you’re the editor of a fringe publication like the New York Observer or the Washington City Paper. Those papers are aimed at a small part of a city’s population and survive by running controversial and sometimes outrageous stories—anything to be talked about. Not true if you’re editing the New York Times, Washington Post, or any publication where readers pay good money to get fairness and good reporting. We’re talking stories—if you write a column and it’s just your opinion, then being controversial and talked about is a big part of the game.

Posted by pencileditor | Report as abusive

Is this a defense of dereliction of duty? For heaven’s sake, be responsible. Get your jollies on your own time.

Posted by DwDunphy | Report as abusive