Friday, June 07, 2013

Wy Rriters Need Eddiders


...
Mr. Greenwald’s experience as a journalist is unusual, not because of his clear opinions but because he has rarely had to report to an editor. He began his blog Unclaimed Territory in 2005 after the news of warrantless surveillance under the Bush administration. When his blog was picked up by Salon, said Kerry Lauerman, the magazine’s departing editor in chief, Salon agreed that Mr. Greenwald would have direct access to their computer system so that he could publish his blog posts himself without an editor seeing them first if he so chose.

“It basically is unheard of, but I never lost a moment of sleep over it,” Mr. Lauerman said. “He is incredibly scrupulous in the way a lawyer would be — really, really careful.”

The same independence has carried over at The Guardian, though Mr. Greenwald said that for an article like the one about the N.S.A. letter he agreed that the paper should be able to edit it. Because he has often argued in defense of Bradley Manning, the army private who was charged as the WikiLeaks source, he said he considered publishing the story on his own, and not for The Guardian, to assert that the protections owed a journalist should not require the imprimatur of an established publisher.
...
Today I am asking my readers to take the following temporarily on faith: that for a week or two now -- pausing frequently for work and basement flooding and last-week-of-school funtimes and various other etceteras -- I have been fiddling with an essay trying to work out the specific element in Mr. Greenwald's writing that  fundamentally irritates me.  It's not his prose style which is, understandably, lawyerly.  It's not his factual analysis and footnoting, which are usually thorough, although sometimes Mr. Greenwald has to go far, far into the weeds to find support for some of the points he is trying to make.

And then it came to me:  I'll bet Glenn doesn't have an editor!

Not a censor, but an editor.

I talked about my clever theory in some detail while my wife and I were recording our podcast (which my lovely wife is even now hard at work editing, which is why I am asking you to take this temporarily on faith) that if I had to guess, I'd guess that Mr. Greenwald does not have an editor and, in my subjective opinion, his writing suffers for lack of someone to suggest what to leave in and what to cut out.

In my writing life I have frequently been on both ends of the Red Pencil; I've watched hundreds of my lovely words discarded because the story I was actually trying to tell did not show up until page six or had been shunted off to a side-track while I rambled excitedly on about shit that Was. Not The. Story.; over the years I have also coached dozens of writers into collectively cutting thousands of pages by relentlessly pushing them to answer questions like "Who is your audience? What is your narrator's point-of-view? What effect are you trying to achieve?"

Ideally, being an editor means combing remorselessly through the piece over and over again looking for flaws. Insisting the writer defend every decision.  Every word has to pull its weight and then some..  Every sentence has to drive the plot or enrich the characters.  Every bit of dialogue has to reveal some important detail.  Are the interests of the story being served?

(This is part of the reason my own writing suffers sometimes -- when it comes to my own work I cannot swap my let-it-flow writing-brain for my grammar-cop/cut-it-to-the-bone editor's brain without a LOT of cooling-off time in-between.  This is a condition which, in my case, does not lend itself well to the fire-and-move-on pace of blogging.)

For future historians, this kind of tight editing is somewhat of an artifact of an age that is slowly vanishing: a pre-blogging/pre-Twitter era when ink-on-paper physical limits like column inches and word-count were real and mattered and when there was no practical way for the writer to supplement their work with multiple, real-time updates or to directly engage their readers and critics in parallel media like Twitter and Facebook. In those olden days, a piece of writing had to be as self-contained as possible because it stood or fell entirely on its own.

If I were an editor of Mr. Greenwald's work I would have no interest in challenging most of his theses: they are what make his writing interesting even when I disagree with it.  However as an editor I would push back strongly against Mr. Greenwald's penchant for bringing his narrative to a screeching halt and taking the reader completely out of the story he is trying to tell so he can heave bile-grenades at the theoretical future reactions of his  Usual Suspects:  DLC stooges at MSNBC... abstract, empathy-bereft "Liberals" who don't care deeply enough or in the right manner to suit Mr. Greenwald... and Obama-supporters (Obots!) who will certainly be too stupid (Cultists!) to see that Mr. Greenwald is 100% right and will probably show off their brainwashed imbecility by disputing the fact that Obama is worse than Nixon and Cheney combined.

To the non-fanboy, Mr. Greenwald's work is at its best when he lets his reporting speak for itself; it suffers tremendously when it comes across as something he pasted together primarily as an occasion to vent his spleen on Liberals.

14 comments:

ranchandsyrup.com said...

GG is almost at the Sully level head-up-his-own assedness (aka the sternum). Seeing those two fight is like watching people in those inflatable sumo suits bounce off each other, but sadder.

steeve said...

"Every word has to pull its weight and then some"

It should, but it certainly doesn't have to. It is extremely rare that I find a book - fiction or non fiction - where I'm not driven to skim paragraph after paragraph.

"I cannot swap my let-it-flow writing-brain for my grammar-cop/cut-it-to-the-bone editor's brain"

I still say that the simple expedient of reading the post once, straight through, from the top, shortly after you're fully ready to submit, would solve most of the grammar problems. It's so far beyond easy for me that I can't conceive of it being difficult for anyone else.

Anonymous said...

Kind of like you and Moby Dick. oops, I mean David Brooks.

(I kid, because I love you!)

Anonymous said...

Drift -
What say you on the twitter rumors that GG is the driving force behind the leak of the powerpoint outlining the US government's data mining phone companies??

mahakal said...

DG, I'm liking your thoughtful consideration of the issues with GG's writing. I've often mentioned I don't actually like reading him, even though I have a lot of respect for some of the things he writes about. You're a much better writer than he, especially without the editor, a much more entertaining and engaged stream of consciousness that might suffer from too much straightening. On the other hand, he writes and writes and writes until my eyes are tired, and not at all entertained. So there's that.

Anonymous said...

Random thoughts on this...

1) It shifts the "purity" problem to different terrain. Ideological purity--ascribed by some, not myself, to GG--is bad. Grammatical/formal purity of the sort achieved by having an editor is good. ("Every word has to pull its weight"? Are we talking here about Beckett?) There might be legitimate reasons to prefer the latter to the former, but the gripe against purity per se loses force.

2) GG is long-winded, and he often repeats his arguments both intra- and inter-post. That can be wearying for a regular reader, but one can understand why, given the size of his audience, he might feel obligated to hammer away at certain important themes. It's a means of communication, if a blunt one from the point of view of those of us who get his point the second or third time.

3) I genuinely have a hard time reading him as merely, rather than occasionally and incidentally, "vent[ing] his spleen on Liberals." Given the kind of dumb garbage spewed by Feinstein yesterday--metadata is not content? really?--I find his tone typically constrained, except when he appears in closing argument mode. But that is his lawyerly prose style.

Yastreblyansky said...

I'm going to disagree. It's true that GG needs an editor, but so does everybody out here in Blogistan, and it doesn't have the same effect. If you don't count Mr. Pearce (and I'm guessing he has some kind of editor--or at least a voluptuous Ukrainian nurse) and the incomparable Digby, nobody I read writes consistently well in the medium-to-long form, because it's impossible--but we can still appreciate the amount of work, and the intelligence and thoughtfulness, and it's amazing they're as good as they are. But GG communicates something unpleasant: to me, that he thinks I'm an idiot who should have been tossed out of the jury pool; he puts my back up.

Mego said...

'- I have been fiddling with an essay trying to work out the specific element in Mr. Greenwald's writing that fundamentally irritates me.' For ME, it's that he is essentially a sanctimonious prick. He may be correct in many issues but he will ALWAYS let you know that HE IS CORRECT, DAMMIT! and you are a loser if you don't agree. I hope he's happy in South America because today he jumped the shark. To publish the 'list' on the eve of the talks with China is irresponsible at best and unAmerican at worse.

Anonymous said...

Random thinker here. I have always thought I was over-sensitive to writers who, as Mego characterizes GG, "ALWAYS let you know that HE IS CORRECT." Classic examples: Dawkins and Hitchens. Right they may be, but jeezus, lower your voice. (I think of the Hitchens I love reading, too, the venomous mauler of Kissinger. He certainly seems no less self-righteously CORRECT at those times, but that stance somehow fits the target.) GG never strikes me as full of swagger like that. Righteously angry, sure, but not self-righteously so.

Yastreblyansky's comment is telling. A lawyer never wants a juror out of the pool because he thinks the candidate is an idiot. He wants him out because he fears the candidate's insight and sophistication. But the sense that GG is lecturing the juror is just about exactly right. He's making his arguments with the facts, hammering the points home, and leading the reader to come to a certain conclusion. A difference, however, is that GG knows he's not in court. His job, finally, is not zealous advocacy, yet it is adversarial inasmuch as he believes journalists should challenge those in power. That challenge extends not only to government officials, but to the informed citizens aligned with them. Yeah, that's unpleasant.

Unsalted Sinner said...

I would say that Greenwald is an advocate first, journalist second. And there's nothing wrong with that! But it does colour his writing. Not in the sense that he is clearly dishonest -- I can't recall any example of him knowingly spreading false information -- but in the sense that he works with facts the way a lawyer does in a courtroom: He has a story he is trying to tell, and he uses facts based mainly on whether they fit that storyline or not. He is selective, has a very narrow focus which often makes him blind to the trade-offs actual policy makers face, and he can often get carried away to the point where he draws conclusions his facts can't support. He is at his best when he does what he has done in the case of the NSA surveillance program, where he uses his genuine knowledge of that area of US law to interpret the leaked documents for us. Unfortunately, he isn't always on such solid ground.

I happened to follow one Twitter dispute which concerned the case against Assange in Sweden, and from my perspective as a Norwegian with access to Swedish media, it was obvious that Greenwald was grossly misinforming his readers about some points of Swedish extradition law. Yet even when the Swedish legal scholar he was quoting warned him that he had misinterpreted the statement, he fought on, almost trying to bully the man into agreeing with him. He appended a rather grudging update to his article in the end, but he clearly found it very difficult to admit that he was wrong in the first place. He acted like a defense lawyer cross-examining a hostile witness, not as a reporter trying to understand the facts.

In short: Glenn Greenwald has an agenda. It's an agenda I think is right, to a very large degree, but it also makes me a bit wary of his journalism. It's not that I think he would lie outright, but that I fear his passion for the cause can lead him to deceive himself on occasion.

kfreed said...

"something he pasted together primarily as an occasion to vent his spleen on Liberals."

When does he not do? Rarely. It is his entire reason for being.

And it is the reason that Greenwald is allowed to flourish in the unusual condition of editorial freedom.

"Glenn Greenwald Of The Libertarian Cato Institute Posts His Defense Of Joshua Foust…The Exiled Responds To Greenwald"

Once you get past the Foust spat, there is some interesting reading there.

http://exiledonline.com/glenn-greenwald-of-the-libertarian-cato-institute-posts-his-defense-of-joshua-foust-the-exiled-responds-to-greenwald/

Per your previous post in regard to how history will treat the fact that we collectively allowed one of our major parties to go completely insane and take over the political process in spite of it...

The how of it is wrapped up in the person and tactics of Glenn Greenwald and libertarians like him.

Not to mention, there will undoubtedly be a chapter on how the "professionl left" (meant in the general sense, not as in the title of your podcast) got taken in by these right-wing rhetorical shit flingers and allowed it to happen.

However, as, we know, history is not written by the victors. It is a distcint possiblity that the history of the "End of Consevatism" will read more like "The End of Liberalism"

Anonymous said...

Sorry, couldn't resist (grin)

Here's the edited version:


"something he pasted together primarily as an occasion to vent his spleen on Liberals."

When does he not do this? Rarely. It is his entire reason for being.

And it is the reason that Greenwald is allowed to flourish in the unusual condition of editorial freedom.

"Glenn Greenwald Of The Libertarian Cato Institute Posts His Defense Of Joshua Foust…The Exiled Responds To Greenwald"

Once you get past the Foust spat, there is some interesting reading there.

http://exiledonline.com/glenn-greenwald-of-the-libertarian-cato-institute-posts-his-defense-of-joshua-foust-the-exiled-responds-to-greenwald/

Per your previous post in regard to how history will treat the fact that we collectively allowed one of our major parties to go completely insane and take over the political process in spite of it...

The how of it is wrapped up in the person and tactics of Glenn Greenwald and libertarians like him.

Not to mention, there will undoubtedly be a chapter on how the "professional left" (meant in the general sense, not as in the title of your podcast) got taken in by these right-wing rhetorical shit flingers and allowed it to happen.

However, as, we know, history is not written by the victors. It is a distinct possibility that the history of the "End of Conservatism" will read more like "The End of Liberalism"

kfreed - Artist for the Ethical Treatment of People @kfreed2

Anonymous said...

"It is his entire reason for being." Source, please? A citation, perhaps a study, or leaked documents from his psychotherapist's records?

Slowly, incrementally, we are being treated to evidence--not strong inferences, not puffed up opinions--about the routine misdeeds of these United States of America. None of this has anything to do with "sides," hence there is no point in bitching about mistaken accusations against "both sides."

Let's watch the pieces fall into place. Each of us is able to observe the picture clarifying, coming into focus. The "complete insanity" of one party is part of that picture, but there's more.

David said...

I think that this is a very astute post about Mr Greenwald. He's someone I largely agree with - say, 80% of the time (although his libertarianness will sometimes come out - e.g., "Citizens United was a good decision" - but I'm happy to make common cause with someone who I agree with on matters that are important to me) - but reading him can be a total chore sometimes. And I think it is because he is always writing like he is a lawyer giving his closing statements. He is always prosecuting, and his prosecution is:

1) Civil liberties. (Amen brother)
2) The Democrats have fallen into civil liberties traps under Obama. (I largely agree, but this hobby horse does get old.)
3) The Democrats are just as bad. (Wha-huh?)

And on #3, when pushed into a corner, you will see him admit: Oh no, they aren't nearly as bad. I recall him saying a Mitt Romney presidency would obviously have been worse than Obama. But he has to get into a corner before he'll admit that there's a "bad" and "less bad." And I say that as someone who thinks Diane Feinstein and Harry Reid are just awful, and there are DINOs and bad things in the Democratic party; I'm much less committed to them than some folks here. I just happen to realize that my other option is racist rich assheads.

A strong editor could help Glenn realize that he's not in a courtroom when he's blogging, and tone down some of those things. And between that and having read George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire books lately, I've come to appreciate the good work that editors can do.