Dead on Arrival

Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot to Print, David Wallis, Nation Books.

Killed Bookcover

In 1994, journalist Jon Entine and Vanity Fair were set to publish a scathing exposé detailing the seedy marketing practices and dismal product quality control at the Body Shop, a British-owned beauty products company. But at the last minute Vanity Fair chickened out and pulled the story. Why? Under English libel laws (where the burden of proof is on the publishing defendant even if all printed facts check out) Vanity Fair’s British edition was vulnerable to a costly legal battle. Of all the articles in the compilation “Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot to Print,” Entine’s post-mortem comes closest to the nightmare scenario of public service journalism snuffed out for all the wrong reasons. Vanity Fair simply could not afford the lawsuit the Body Shop threatened to foist upon them. 

Along with Entine’s piece, editor David Wallis has resurrected 23 other articles (written between 1942 and 2003) that never made it to press for various political, economic or aesthetic reasons. Brief introductions dissecting each story’s DOA status offer fascinating glimpses into the publishing industry: The editors of The New York Times Magazine, trying to balance pro and con drug pieces, decide Julian Rubinstein’s latest is too pro; Erik Hedegaard’s article capturing John Cougar’s devastating testament to the addiction of smoking is roundly praised yet cannot find a home in Details or any other magazine beholden to tobacco advertising dollars; Gerald Hannon’s male hustler piece, commissioned by Saturday Night, was canned when its liberal editor-in-chief was replaced by a conservative. There is also evidence that publishers “dumb down” content, as Rolling Stone killed Mark Schone’s profile of a political con-man’s suicide after deeming it, “too long and too depressing.” 

In one case, the author’s introduction is more harrowing than the actual article, as when Jan Pottker describes harassment at the hands of circus henchmen who retaliated for her story about Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus’ child-labor violations. By comparison, the book’s oldest pieces hardly seem controversial at all. Consider the 1958 Betty Friedan article produced for McCall's that implores female students to take college seriously or risk losing educational opportunity—evidence of how much our culture has changed. 

While “Killed” occasionally fails to live up to the promise of its title, Wallis should be commended for unearthing articulate, cogent pieces of journalism that the mainstream media would rather keep buried.