Of Editors… and their whims

As the 70s loom ahead of me, many decisions have to be taken. The most important one is that after 40 years I have decided to stop writing except once a month for this journal. And I cannot describe how blissful it is to wake up and not have to wonder what to write on. It’s been a wonderful four decades, of being able to hold forth on every subject under the sun even without knowing much about it. Freedom of speech clearly has its uses, not the least of which is it allows otherwise useless chaps like me to earn a living, and a handsome one at that.

The urge to write started when I was in my teens. My father had told me that I needed to improve my English because most of my schooling had been conducted in Hindi or Hindi medium, as it is called. So while reading the editorial pages of newspapers, I used to often wish that I too could be an editorial writer. My wish came true in 1980, on July 15, to be precise, six months after I switched from five years in publishing to journalism. I joined an economic weekly. It has been dead for 38 years now.

From time to time,  the editor would ask me to write an editorial, of about 800 words. And except on one or two occasions, when he let them through unmolested, he would always re-write them. That was my first lesson in the business: the ­editorial was the personal view of the editor, although the fiction was that it was the view of the newspaper or the journal. Editorial writers therefore gauge their worth by how much and how often their efforts get re-written.

When the editor asks you, “What are we going to say on this,” what he is really asking is, “What are you going to say on this with which I agree?”

The morning editorial meetings used to be a solemn affair but depending on the editor, there was also a snappy gossip session. Then you got down to business. You soon realised, though, that when the editor asked you, “What are we going to say on this,” what he was really asking was, “What are you going to say on this with which I agree?”

The editor may respect the facts you provide — and sometimes even that can’t be taken for granted — but the interpretation has to be his, even if it is wrong, biased, or just plain daft. Well, you tell yourself, it is his funeral. So sometimes a bad piece of prose can get published and sometimes a perfectly good piece can be reduced to mediocrity. But even this is tolerable compared to when he doesn’t care what you have written. We once had an editor who would barely glance at the editorial before okaying it. Believe me, that really hurts.

The problem is this: people outside journalism don’t know that editors have absolute power, as absolute as absolute can be. There are no fetters, except self-imposed ones, on their ability to do exactly as they please. And many do. I can tell so many stories about this phenomenon, but will not bore you. It is all about bias and preconceived notions. Fortunately, of the nine editors I have worked with only two were like that. One couldn’t care less. The other was so biased that I had to resign eventually.

I stopped writing editorials in 2002 except if there was an emergency, and this because of sheer boredom. I had written so many by then — sometimes I ended up writing all three or both editorials published the next day — that I could churn one out in just 20 minutes. But, lest you get the wrong impression, I am happy to say that editors usually turned to me for the really important editorials. As one editor told me once, “you are better than even me at camouflaging your shallowness”.

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