Strauss-Kahn case vs. skeptical editing

By · Monday, June 6th, 2011

We have written before about skeptical editing, which is — in the words of journalist Reid MacCluggage — to put a story on the witness stand. The strategy is to ask, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, two important and often revealing questions:

The purpose is not to put the writer of the story on the defensive. In fact, the story — not the writer — is on the witness stand. The purpose is to uncover any information in the story that is not supported or substantiated.

According to MacCluggage:

If stories hold up on the witness stand, under the rigorous cross-examination of tough editors, they will hold up under any assault.

What brings skeptical editing to mind today are two sentences from a New York Times story about the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former managing director of the International Monetary Fund, accused by a hotel housekeeper of sexual assault. His defense team includes Benjamin Brafman, who is described in the story as having “lectured on the art of cross-examination.”

According to Brafman:

“More often than not, what you have to do is badger a witness in a way that doesn’t necessarily make them break, but makes them either not credible or less credible or puts in doubt something that they have said.” He added, “That’s a really good cross-examination.”

Key words are “puts in doubt.” As MacCluggage describes it,

Law students are taught how to cross-examine a witness. Editors should be trained in a comparable skill. Put the story on the witness stand and cross-examine it. Tear it apart. Expose its weaknesses. Raise all the unanswered questions. Cast doubt on it. All major stories should go through a process similar to a rigorous cross-examination. Stories don’t need advocates. They have plenty of advocates by the time publication nears. What stories need are adversaries.

You can train yourself to be a skeptical editor. In our book, MacCluggage lists and explains 19 ways to develop a healthy skeptical habit, including: Challenge conventional wisdom; distrust unanimity; ask, don’t tell; watch out for stories based on a lone critic; look for what’s not in the story; question the herd instinct in the editing process.

You can find the full list in our book in Strategy 18: Skeptical Editing.

And, you can follow the Strauss-Kahn case, on target to go to trial. It would be enlightening to see how Brafman does his job.


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