On February 17, SB Nation, the founding site in the Vox Media empire, did something so inexplicable it amounts to an editorial mystery.
For about five hours the editors had up on their site a 12,000 word article weirdly sympathetic to Daniel Holtzclaw, the now-notorious Oklahoma City police officer convicted on 18 counts of rape and sexual assault, crimes he committed while on duty and against the people he was supposed to protect. This was a piece of writing so wrongheaded, noxious and ill-conceived that the editorial director of SB Nation, Spencer Hall, said later that day in a note to readers: “There is no qualification: it was a complete failure.”
A true statement. I cannot put it any better than Deadspin’s Greg Howard did:
The tone of the entire piece is fawning and forgiving; by the end, the terrifying, spectacular spree of rapes exists as little more than an unfortunate occurrence, and a 263-year sentence as an unjustly harsh burden Holtzclaw has to bear. Holtzclaw destroyed 13 women’s lives; “Who Is Daniel Holtzclaw?” told the story of how they destroyed his.
What I mean by a mystery is this: When the editors of a site receive complaints about a work they have published, and after reviewing it quickly find their decision to publish it indefensible, they are telling us, in effect, that they had temporarily lost their minds. They had quit being editors, but when alerted to the vacancy looked upon their AWOL selves with shock and horror. From the outside it’s hard to imagine how that switch happens. Continuing to defend the indefensible, as Newsweek has done with its bitcoin story (still online, unretracted) is a lot less admirable than what Vox did, but somehow easier to understand than “Hey, we temporarily lost our minds…”
In the case of “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” — quickly removed from the internet by SB Nation but still available in a cached version — an internal investigation is underway. It is being conducted by Vox Media’s editorial director, Lockhart Steele. According to Greg Howard’s report, he is being assisted by five women who work for Vox: Recode founder Kara Swisher, Eater executive editor Helen Rosner, Vox.com managing editor Lauren Williams, Katie Nimick of Vox Media human resources, and Miriam Nissly, who works in the company’s legal department.
“A major editorial miscalculation was made, and it’s on us that we figure out why and limit the chances of it happening again,” Steele told the New York Times. The meltdown happened in SB Nation’s “longform” division, which was launched in 2012. It publishes narrative non-fiction that takes months to report. That work has been suspended while the investigation unfolds.
“We’re reviewing all of our processes in light of this failure,” said Spencer Hall in his note to readers shortly after the piece was pulled. “There are a lot of them, and I promise to talk in detail about them publicly while we work through all of them.” Please underline that word “promise.” Greg Howard reports something different: “What the company finds may well remain unknown; we’re told the results of its inquest are unlikely to be made public.” That is not good.
I think this is a key moment for Vox Media and its internal culture, which has been a major strength. A weird thing about these meltdowns is that it’s entirely possible for Vox to come out of this a wiser and stronger company that’s even more attractive to editorial, technical and commercial talent. But that only happens if the investigation is thorough and the truthtelling is real and detailed— and made public.
In a memo to employees obtained by Deadspin, Vox’s vice president of editorial operations, Kevin Lockland, wrote: “You have every right to be angry and disappointed. We are committed to taking appropriate actions to earn back your trust, which we know will take time.” That’s a good sign. But of course it is the trust of readers that is equally a stake in this investigation. And the confidence of future employees, especially women and minority journalists, who may or may not want to join Vox. For as Greg Howard observes:
This story serves as an example of why diversity in the newsroom is so important. It isn’t because diversity is charity, or because giving opportunities to people other than white men is a Christlike thing to do, but because everyone has blind spots, and everyone fucks up.
Diversity = blind spot minimization. Real diversity is an improvement in editorial vision, such that things appear “in their corrected fullness.” (The phrase is Sheldon Wolin’s.) Howard’s reporting on how the meltdown happened reveals that Elena Bergeron, SB Nation’s senior editor — a very experienced journalist and “the only person of color and the only woman among SBNation.com’s top layer of editors” — had seen the disaster coming. She “explicitly and repeatedly drew attention to the story’s flaws in the days leading to its publication— and was, somehow, ignored.” Somehow ignored? That’s part of the mystery. But it has to be explained. If the explanation is kept within house, what does that tell minority journalists who will in the future be recruited by Vox?
I know a few people at Vox. I know how seriously they take minority recruitment. What happened to Elena Bergeron’s voice is now a public issue. It has to be addressed… publicly. This is too obvious to belabor any further.
Departing from what has been reported, I want to add a few thoughts and speculations of my own to the mystery of how “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” got published.
The writer and non-fiction master Gay Talese used to describe for anyone who asked how he would pin the typed pages of his articles to a wall, in order to step back and re-read the draft with binoculars. That’s right: binoculars! Why did he do this? Because it was the only way he could think of to examine his creation at the sentence level and as a completed whole: simultaneously. To perfect what he made, he needed distance from, and intimacy with. He felt he couldn’t sacrifice one for the other. If he planted a bomb on page 2, he wanted to see exactly how it went off on page 22, and assess whether that was the right story arc. I mention this because it is one answer to the mystery of how the Vox editors temporarily lost their minds. They didn’t have any equivalent to Gay Talese’s binoculars. They didn’t know what their creation added up to. They couldn’t see it whole.
There are other ways to get distance on a text you are too intimate with. One of them is so simple, so artless, so obvious that I’m convinced it is under-employed because editorial people — who think of themselves as sophisticated manipulators of text — are embarrassed to use something we might recommend to a sixth grader. Read the work aloud, preferably to an “average” or non-specialist listener. Just vocalizing a problematic text brings the problems with it much closer to the surface. There is no way “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” could have survived being read aloud to a husband, wife, girlfriend or boyfriend. No one who loves you would have let you publish it on the internet.
Which brings me to another point about putting such pieces online. In 2009 I called it “audience atomization overcome.” It means that the internet is extremely efficient at allowing people who draw the same conclusion to locate each other and realize their number. Whereas before the internet people who thought upon reading your piece “well, that’s odd,” or “this is appalling,” or “seriously, Rolling Stone?” had little recourse but to write a letter to the editor or complain to a friend, today if the sentiment is widely shared these readers quickly realize they are not alone, and that their collective disbelief is much stronger than the editors’ belief in what was just published. Audience atomization has been overcome.
The writer and software engineer Paul Ford had this in mind when in the wake of the SB Nation debacle he mused about adding a “Very Concerned!” button to content management systems. “Anyone—designer, intern, editor—could click that button. Once they click, an email goes straight up the chain (to the top of the company) flagging that someone, somewhere is concerned.” But why limit it to the people you employ?
What if you created a special reader’s program of, say, two hundred people who read your publication? Make sure they are as diverse as hell—race, gender identity, sports teams, location, age, education. Recruit them quietly. Pay them something small but meaningful: $100/month to read 10 or so stories each. They’d read them anyway; here, they get money for reading them early and carefully.
This is now your “reader’s council.” Give them unlimited access to drafts of articles and ask for feedback and notes, and give them the same “Very Concerned!” button you gave to your editors. Make it all totally anonymous—no way for the editors to reach them, or know who they are. Now instead of waiting for the Internet to take you to task, a group of strangers can take you to task, quietly, on a regular basis.
This is diversity, of the distributed kind.
Finally, a point about clichés. Here is something Poynter.org published not long ago: 15 political clichés journalists should avoid. Advice like this presents clichés as a glitch in one’s writing, a problem of attentiveness. You can avoid clichés by recognizing them early and steering around them.
I have read “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” four times. It is teeming with clichés. The “nice guy” who no one could believe is a rapist. The father who swears his son could never have done this. The dedicated athlete always found in the weight room, determined to make it to the NFL. (He doesn’t.) But the kinds of clichés that doom the piece are not glitches in the writing. They are way beyond the use of tired phrases that one could avoid. Rather, the author of this work thinks in clichés, superficialities that were fatal to the piece before he ever typed a word. This is not a matter of technique. It cannot be cured by better editing, or reminders from Poynter. It is not a lapse into cliché but a prior condition that should have disqualified him from ever taking on this subject.
I’m not going to even mention the author’s name because this is not about him. The editors are at fault. The writer they chose was completely over-matched by his subject. When it was proposed… a piece asking “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw, really?” …a proper answer would have been: is Joan Didion available?
After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links
UPDATE, March 9: Glen Stout, the editor of SB Nation longform, who commissioned the piece in question, is fighting back. His lawyer sent a letter to Deadspin demanding a correction, and included exhibits like emails sent and drafts amended. Erik Wemple of the Washington Post tries to sort it out: Ex-SB Nation editor seeks correction/retraction from Deadspin over Daniel Holtzclaw story. Here’s the lawyer’s letter with quite a lot of detail.
Erik Wemple (March 10): Internal review of SB Nation’s Holtzclaw story close to completion.
If you care at all about editorial integrity (or “longform,” narrative journalism) you really should read the doomed text, “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” There is no need for me to repeat the many on-point criticisms that have been made of this article. Instead I will link and highlight:
* L.V. Anderson at Slate, The Worst Parts of SB Nation’s Deleted Story Lionizing a Convicted Rapist. “You may be wondering how many times [the author] directly quotes Holtzclaw’s victims in his 12,000-word piece. The answer: exactly once.”
* Barry Petchesky at Deadspin (a Gawker site): “Basically, this is the local news interviewing the shocked neighbors — ‘He always seemed like such a nice kid’ — over and over again for 12,000 words.”
* Jessica Luther at Fansided (a Sports Illustrated site.)
[The author’s] starting point is as a man who watched Holotzclaw’s entire college career, who sees Holtzclaw as an athlete first, and who imagines Holtzclaw’s story as a tragic arc. The victimized women are simply an anomaly to be explained away in the otherwise successful life of a nice guy who happened to become a convicted rapist. Yet, for plenty of sexual assault survivors, the fact that everyone in their community and friend group believed that the man who raped them was a “good guy” who “would never do such a thing” kept them quiet, made them fearful of coming forward, made them doubt what happened to them, etc.
* A Deadspin commenter who is admirably concise:
Jeez, didn’t you read the story? He was a former football player who once played football but no longer played football, and was well liked by the people who liked him! And those rapes he committed but maybe he didn’t? You weren’t there so who knows?
Crazy as it sounds, that is a good summary of what SB Nation published and then un-published, once the editors came to their senses. That the author never should have been given the assignment you can tell by trying to read his concluding paragraph. It is almost insensible:
Pending an improbable successful appeal, everything he had worked for was now gone, likely never to be recovered, ever again. Recovery, if there is any, appears to be something deserved only by the victims of a man whose belief in his innocence will apparently be, like the way he once pursued his dream of playing in the NFL, unrelenting, despite all evidence to the contrary.
That the author should never have been given the assignment you can also tell from his apology note.
Maybe when the crash site investigation is concluded it will find that the problems began with the dubious proposition that because Holtzclaw’s football career had been under-covered, SB Nation — a sports site — had something vital to add to the story of his crimes and conviction. That the writer had covered Holtzclaw when he was in college may have given the editors a false sense that they were in possession of some kind of exclusive.
“The fact that he was a football player — and a pretty good one, who fell just short of the N.F.L. — seemed to have escaped all other coverage.” These are the words of Glenn Stout, editor of SB Nation’s longform division, in an email to a writer’s group that the New York Times obtained. “I think people will be talking about this one,” he wrote.
But there’s the mystery again. When you read “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” it’s almost impossible to believe that a competent editor read and signed off on it. It’s that bad. But Glenn Stout is a serious journalist, a respected editor. From the comments at Deadspin:
I’ve written five pieces for SB Nation Longform, and Glenn Stout has been my editor on all five pieces. In all five instances, the editing was exhaustive. Of course, I can only speak for my own experience, but every single story I’ve written for the site, has gone through round after round after round of edits and revisions. And it’s always resulted in the story getting better.
Spencer Hall, editorial director of SB Nation, told Deadspin: “Glenn has worked his last day at SBNation.com.”
I have written often about editorial meltdowns. They interest me:
* “I want it to be 25 years ago!” Newsweek’s blown cover story on bitcoin. (March 10, 2014)