Pretty much anything Bono or Sean Penn write is a festival of crap that would never be tolerated from another contributor. Even James Franco sounds like a moron in today's Wall Street Journal. Here's why:
- Celebrities sell newspapers: which apparently makes it fine to abandon your journalistic standards and give them tacit copy approval to get their name on the cover. Here's what one copy editor, who wanted complete anonymity because everyone gets all angry where celebs are concerned, said of working on a rambling diatribe by a famous columnist for a British newspaper.
When it came in it was semi-literate. And by 'semi-literate' I mean 'illiterate'. I went to the editor and told him I could have a crack at it, but it probably needed a rewrite. He said to run it as is, and that any changes — commas, tiny things — had to be approved by the guy's fucking agent.
- Editors are starstruck: newspaper editors are, mostly, slightly shabbily dressed former reporters who think Bono is actually cool, rather than an aging midget who wears sunglasses indoors. They are therefore scared and obsequious when he personally calls. Which is maybe why he gets away with murdering the craft of journalism on both sides of the Atlantic (he writes and edits for the Independent in Britain and writes for the New York Times here). Sources at the former say it's not unusual to find that some often disengaged senior editor has decided to shepherd his articles through, lest peerless prose like this, from the worst article in history (Bono writing on Frank Sinatra in the Times) be subject to the usual standards:
Now I'm back in my own house in Dublin, uncorking some nice wine, ready for the vinegar it can turn to when families and friends overindulge, as I am about to. Right by the hole-in-the-wall cellar, I look up to see a vision in yellow: a painting Frank sent to me after I sang "I've Got You Under My Skin" with him on the 1993 "Duets" album. One from his own hand. A mad yellow canvas of violent concentric circles gyrating across a desert plain. Francis Albert Sinatra, painter, modernista.
- Access is conflated with knowledge: Sean Penn is a great actor and a terrible writer. Appalling. Meandering circles of shit. But if he wants to go to Iran, he gets a visa where other journalists might be denied. Doors are open to Spicoli that are closed to people who have never won Oscars. Which means we get pearls like this from Tehran:
But wait. The women. Look at the women. All is not well. I'm thinking about the women. This is Iran.
The same applies to profiles. Capturing someone in a few thousand words is an art, and there are back-room negotiations galore before a famous or eminent person allows a professional — Ian Parker, Lynn Barber — to begin the process. Naomi Campbell on the other hand is pretty and has been on the teevee and in magazines and can get a sit down with Hugo Chavez just by showing up in
BoliviaVenezuela [I need a copy editor too] and batting her eyelashes. So she gets to contribute interviews to British GQ, along with Elton John's partner David Furnish — a man who has never once asked a question anyone wanted answered.
- People with interesting insight are not always good writers: is it a nice idea to get Sarah Palin to outline her opinions in the Washington Post? Yes. Is she capable of doing so without sucking? Definitely not. Is it a nice idea to get James Franco to write about his appearance on General Hospital? Yes. Is he capable of doing so without sucking? Well maybe it's a little unfair to compare his writing, and that of the other celebs, with that of any other contributor. He was probably denied the benefits of strong editing that most civilian writers take for granted and even get annoyed about.
If you have any tales of working on dreadful (or even excellent) celebrity copy, email here or at the address below.