The Enemy Within
By John Schulian
What a nightmare the Post’s copy desk was, its few capable pros outnumbered by drunks, burnouts, incompetents, and one hostile ex-marine. The worst of all, which is really saying something, was the slot man, who had covered University of Utah basketball for the Salt Lake Tribune during the Billy (the Hill) McGill era. I’d read every word he’d written when I was a kid and I thought he’d be an ally, maybe even a friend. Instead, he spent his time combing his vanishing pompadour and looking down his nose at writers. I don’t know that I ever met a bigger horse’s ass in the business.
One Sunday, after covering a Bullets game I swung by the office just in time to see page proofs. The slot man had rewritten the top of my story. Okay, you don’t like what I write? Fine. I don’t like a lot of what I write, either. But give me a chance to rewrite it in my own words. That’s why I called the office when I finished the piece, to see if there were any problems with it. The slot man hadn’t said a word then, and I wouldn’t have found out until I opened the paper the next morning if I hadn’t got lucky. The first thing I did was make the slot man take my byline off the story. That was my right, according to the Newspaper Guild. Then I sat down and wrote a new top for the story, and I wouldn’t leave until the slot man had signed off on it. Now he was pissed off. But I can tell you for a fact that I was more pissed off.
Things with the copy desk finally got so bad that when I wrote a piece that was supposed to be special in some way, I’d stay at the office until the first edition came up so I could check it. Nuts, huh? But maybe you’ll understand why I did it if I tell you about a long feature I wrote about spending the day of a fight with a heavyweight named Larry Middleton. Went to his pre-fight meal with him, hung around his overheated hotel room with him, watched him warm up in his dressing room, then go out and lose to Duane Bobick in Madison Square Garden. Last scene of the story: he’s out on the street hunting for a pay phone so he can call his wife in Baltimore and tell her what happened. When I dictated the story the next day–it was still the typewriter era at the Post–the girl getting it all down told me it sounded just like a short story. Made my day. But when I came home a couple of days later–-no short road trips when you worked for George Solomon–I discovered that there was an entire section missing from my story. The section about the fight. Call me foolish, but I thought it was critical, seeing as how the fight was the reason for the story’s existence. Maybe it got sacrificed for reasons of page make-up. (Not an acceptable excuse.) Maybe it was incompetence. Maybe it was sabotage. There wasn’t anything I could have done to prevent because I was on the road. But I promised myself that when I was in town, I was going to do some serious lurking in that goddamned office.
George Solomon finally told me I couldn’t talk to the copy editors the way I did. I told him I was going to keep talking to them the way I did as long as they kept screwing things up. Poor George. You have to remember that he was still getting used to being sports editor, and I was one of the first real tests of his patience and managerial skills. I know he liked my writing and I think he liked me as a person-–we still trade e-mails occasionally all these years later-–but I also think I made him uneasy. I was the first writer he ever had who fought back loudly and passionately. You’d think it would have been different on what was considered a writers’ paper. But the Post was also a serious newspaper, a newspaper of record, and when you’re dealing with an animal like that, editors ultimately carry more weight than writers.
My salvation was a copy editor named Angus Phillips, who later turned to writing and did beautiful, even poetic work covering the outdoors. Maybe he was worried that violence would erupt or maybe he actually liked to read what I wrote. Whatever, when a story of mine came in, Angus would raise his hand and ask to handle it. If he had questions about the piece, he’d ask me. If he made changes in my copy, I trusted him enough not to argue. I believe this is known as mutual respect. You’d think someone at the Post would have thought of it before.