Magazines, bring back the write-around!

Scrutinizing culture.
Oct. 4 2007 10:54 AM

Magazines, Bring Back the Write-Around!

Regain your dignity with this secret weapon.

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For one thing, it won't be just an isolated incident. It will send a signal to politicians that magazine editors are whores for access who can be rolled at will. And then there's the intangible cost: the cost of such behavior to whatever respect is left for the magazine industry from a public that increasingly thinks the mainstream media are in the pocket of the powerful.

It's time for magazine editors to fight this censorship-by-access. Because it's really self-censorship: the false belief that one can't run a probing story just because one is denied the anodyne "exclusive" quotes and the super-special "exclusive" photo of the powerful subject reclining on his or her patio.

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And I believe there is at least one rarely used, rusty weapon at magazine editors' command: the unjustly disdained "write-around."

The write-around: It's a term of art in the mag trade, mostly used derisively, and it refers to a story done about a person without that person's cooperation, and thus, in contemporary terms, without the usual perks one gets in exchange for the fawning profile.

It's a little sad and unfair the way the write-around is spoken of so disdainfully. I'm not talking about the celeb-rag write-around, where quotes from unnamed "insiders" purport to tell us the truth about Brad and Angelina's marriage. (Although—let's face it—are these quotes any less reliable than the self-serving quotes that Angelina Jolie herself gave to an Esquire reporter for its cover story on her? The ones that portrayed her as a suffering saint, crucified on the cross of fame to save humanity?)

No, I'm talking about stories that involve serious subjects, profiles of people with public and private power. There is a general—and erroneous—sense that with such a subject, a write-around is a cop-out; a kind of head-fake by a reporter who doesn't have sufficient talent or clout to land the crucial interview. But I'd argue that a write-around can be more revealing and truthful than a piece written with the cooperation of the subject.

For one thing, it's hard to underestimate how media-savvy people in power have become, how unlikely it is, even if you do get access, that you'll get anything that's not pre-scripted and self-serving. You rarely see an unguarded moment, and seldom is heard an unrehearsed word.

For another, there's this thing that used to be called "investigative reporting." A practice that the cult of access has undermined and marginalized, at least among the glossy magazines. It's journalism that trades the in-home tour for a rigorous scrutiny of the balance sheet and the SEC filings.

Even the celebrity profile can be transformed with write-around investigative reporting. Consider that the story some call the greatest magazine story ever written, Gay Talese's classic "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," was a write-around. Talese painted a portrait of Sinatra from the outside, spending long, tedious hours with his flunkies and hangers-on, capturing the ripples and crosscurrents of influence and ego among the nine circles of sycophants who surrounded him that cumulatively told a story of raw power.

Access itself is not all it's cracked up to be. There's the journalistic equivalent of Stockholm syndrome. I know, I've suffered from it. I find it hard to be as cutting, or even as critical, as I really feel about people who allow me to enter their zone of privacy. I blame my parents for teaching me manners—the best investigative journalists don't have the best manners. The best investigative reporters might be called "sociopaths for truth." I think you know the type I'm talking about. And the very best of these are often good at faking empathy and then coldly eviscerating the empathized-with one.

Some writers are built this way, happy to sacrifice the person for the story. But not enough anymore! Janet Malcolm famously wrote (in the opening of The Journalist and the Murderer) about the way writers gain the trust of their subjects and end up "betraying them without remorse." It may have been true when she published the book, in 1990, but is it now? It sounds cold, but not enough reporters and writers are willing to betray or even alienate their subjects. If they do, they risk being denied access to other subjects. They're no longer part of the club.

I'm not saying the measure of a story is how much it offends the subject. I've occasionally taught writing classes on long-form nonfiction, with smart kids at Columbia, NYU, Chicago—and sensitive, too. They often raise questions about the ethical issues, the emotional impact of writing critically about subjects.

And I suggest that there might be different rules for subjects who are and aren't media-savvy and/or powerful. You almost want to protect the media-naive from themselves because it almost feels like stealing when they say something damning that you know will make a great pull quote.

But with the media-savvy and the powerful, one can't be paralyzed by worry about hurt feelings. They rarely are. And anyway, with such subjects the interview is often a phony game, both parties parrying to elicit or avoid or shape the pull quote while giving the sense that confidences are being exchanged. (One of the few exceptions is the extended Paris Review-type interview, which is done with the cooperation of writers and artists, but they don't have quite the same kind of power or world-shaking secrets as presidential candidates or CEOs.)   

One solution might be for magazines to divide up reporting on powerful profile subjects between sociopathic investigators who are not permitted contact with the subject and empathetic interviewers who weasel out some thing dubiously "personal." If the profile subjects knew there were serious investigators out there at large, on their trail, building a potential write-around, they might be more willing to talk—and be forthcoming—in person.

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