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.

(Continued from Page 2)

Another solution may be to reconsider the artificiality and overpopularity of the profile form itself. Profiles can often be fraudulent constructs that attempt to turn several encounters between strangers into a narrative about the famous one's life, usually forcing it into an artificial dramatic arc.

My favorite magazine stories these days are rarely profiles. Indeed, my favorite magazine piece in recent memory is David Foster Wallace's saga of his trip on a cruise ship: "Shipping Out." (First published in Harper's; retitled in book form as "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.") He took what seemed to be a mundane subject and by spending an extended period of time with nonfamous people "having fun" managed to raise provocative philosophical questions about American life, about the meaning of life, in a hilarious, utterly idiosyncratic, and memorable way.

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And it's not as if magazines have completely given up on investigative reporting; let me mention—to be fair to a magazine whose cover profile I've ridiculed—a great recent nonprofile: Esquire's impressive investigative piece about NBC Dateline's To Catch a Predator series (by Luke Dittrich) that is deeply disturbing and important on a number of levels. *

But given the cover appeal of the famous and the powerful, magazines will continue to assign profiles. The problem is that the spread of Hollywood access rules has blurred the line and blunted the journalism when it comes to profiles of people in power in politics and government, or people with private corporate power. In such cases, the willingness to do an investigative write-around can become not an evasion but a powerful weapon of deterrence.

I'm not saying that write-arounds are never done—but they are rare and they get talked about for their rarity. Consider the recent New York magazine profile of Matt Drudge by Philip Weiss. It was, I thought, a revealing—not unsympathetic—portrait of a lonely guy with great power that was done without any access to Drudge himself.

I've read a lot about Drudge, but I felt this write-around captured something about who he is and what he does and how they're linked in a way I hadn't seen before. In some online discussions I heard this piece derisively referred to as "a write-around," but to me it was an encouraging straw in the wind. It was smart and it wasn't lazy. Weiss did a lot of legwork, talked to people with surprising takes (Camille Paglia), and filled in the space surrounding Drudge so well that one had a portrait of him in the silhouette drawn around him.

I highlight the Weiss/Drudge piece because this was a clear statement by a major magazine. It's true that the better magazines are often not satisfied with the perfunctory sit-down and will pair such an interview with considerable reporting. And some, like New York, will attempt a pure write-around like this one. But more should follow suit. If more magazines and magazine editors were unafraid to do a write-around, the balance of power might shift a bit.

Powerful figures who now think they can avoid thoroughgoing scrutiny by journalists just by withholding their participation might become a little concerned that magazines might then decide to hire more energetic and investigative-minded reporters (the sociopaths of doom) to look more deeply into their record than those who lazily settle for unexamined explanations and equivocations in person. And a write-around would of course inform the reader that the subject is afraid of facing a nonsycophantic reporter, may indeed have something to hide, questions he or she doesn't want raised.

I'm not saying journalism is war, but it's often a struggle between those with power who want to avoid or control scrutiny and those who feel scrutiny of the powerful is a public service.

And you editors out there. Don't be so attached to having a big shiny famous head on your cover. Don't be afraid to use stock photos: A well-chosen black-and-white stock photo can give a cover subject a something-to-hide, caught-in-the-act look that can be far more dramatic and revealing (and often truthful) than the big shiny exclusive photo head.

Or bring back the caricature. If you want your big head, use an illustration. For instance, the threat of a caricature by Drew Friedman, the Thomas Nast of our time, should be enough to bring these vain creatures to heel.

For a long time now, journalists and their editors have had no defenses against the blackmail of access. The threat of an investigative write-around may provide a long-overdue way of restoring the dignity and value of magazine profiles.

Correction, Oct. 5, 2007: This piece originally stated that To Catch a Predator aired on ABC. It aired on NBC. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

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