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When Editors Attack

A look at the different flavors of editorial sin.

12:00 AM, Sep 25, 2003 • By HUGH HEWITT
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THERE ARE EDITORS and there are editors.

After a quarter century of punditry, I have come to appreciate the best of editors and to refuse to work with the second team. The second team seems intent on substituting their ideas for yours and dulling the sharpest points. The first team polishes and will rarely, if ever, steer away from controversy. Though they may sound cautionary notes, they never spike the good stuff.

Which is why the Sacramento Bee made such a terrible move this week with the announcement that political reporter and columnist Daniel Weintraub would henceforth have his blog entries at California Insider subjected to editorial veto. Weintraub's blog was launched as a genuinely innovative feature--instant reports from the recall campaign trail from one of the most connected scribblers in the state. Weintraub used his forum to tweak all candidates and to break big headlines. His audience grew and grew.

But he tweaked Cruz Bustamante and the Sacramento legislature's Latino Caucus a little too hard. The suddenly stingless Bee announced in the Sunday Ombudsman column that Weintraub's postings would henceforth be subject to pre-clearance. The message from editor Rick Rodriguez to his staff was clear: Don't upset the Latino Caucus.

Outrage in the blogosphere has been loud and prolonged. Mickey Kaus has led the mob of bloggers, but the P.C. Bee (Kaus's term) won't budge even though its move to change Weintraub from a free-range blogger to a captive blogger has earned it a reputation for editorial cravenness in the face of special interest pressure. This is an example of private sector censorship that gives editors a bad name.

CONTRAST THIS INTRUSION of an unnecessary editor with the disappearance of such one where he might have served a great and good purpose.

I refer to the much-ridiculed Jonathan Chait piece in the current New Republic: Mad About You: The Case for Bush Hatred. I have tried to keep up with the rebuttals to Chait posted at various places on the web, including the thoughtful treatments at Powerline and ShotintheDark. Carol Liebau, writing at posed an interesting question: "Correct me if I'm wrong, but did any reputable center-right magazine ever publish such a fact-free, hate-filled rant about President Clinton?"

Of course, THE WEEKLY STANDARD and other magazines were hard on Clinton, but they kept their critiques closely aligned with objective fact. Chait felt no such obligation. The worst example of his approach was in his assertion that "Bush aides" had "impugned the patriotism of any Democrats" who opposed the creation of the Homeland Security Department. This sweeping and damning charge is backed up by one alleged bit of evidence--the now famous ad that ran against then Georgia Senator Max Cleland that did not challenge the senator's patriotism, but did attack his judgment. That's it--one ad produced and run in Georgia--that does not mention patriotism--is all Chait can muster for the assertion that Bush hatred is justified by the president's embrace of a new McCarthyism.

This is the sort of thing that makes editors necessary. Where were Peter Beinart and the other editors at the New Republic? Turns out that Peter, who is a regular guest on my radio show, is quite pleased with the article. It isn't that they missed the obvious defects in the piece; they were cheering the writer on.

The problem evident in the Weintraub-Chait stories is not the role of editors, but rather their selectivity of focus. At the Sacramento Bee editors are rushed into service to prevent criticism of the left. At the New Republic they are blind to defects in criticism from the left.

The problem is not with the traditional function of editors. It is rather that, as in so many other instances, ideology has poisoned their purpose.

Hugh Hewitt is the host of The Hugh Hewitt Show, a nationally syndicated radio talkshow, and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard. His new book, In, But Not Of, has just been published by Thomas Nelson.