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A challenge I often face in my work is how to write vividly, intimately, and truthfully about people I have never met. Sometimes the people I write about are dead; often they are alive and well, but would prefer that I not write about them, and therefore refuse to talk to me. People have many reasons not to talk, many of which are understandable, and I never blame anyone for refusing an interview. But if it’s their prerogative to boycott the process, it’s my prerogative to write about them anyway.
In magazine journalism, there’s an editorial tendency, when a story doesn’t give you the time of day, to just move on: if they’re not playing, then we won’t write about them. But over the years, I’ve come to believe that one of journalism’s most overrated aspirations is access. This is especially true in any story involving people who are wealthy or powerful, and who have experience dealing with the press. They know that journalists and editors (and, to a lesser extent, readers) value access above all else, and so they use it as a form of barter.
You can always tell savvy gamers who repeat: when you ask for an interview, they don’t demand “quote approval” because they know it would offend you, indicating that you might be willing to cede editorial control, which which of course you would never do. do, because you have too much journalistic integrity. Instead, they say – and it’s almost always a version of that exact phrase – “Why aren’t we talking confidentially right now, and if there’s anything you want to use, you can come back to me.”
It’s the fig leaf that allows a subject to demand approval for a quote, and a reporter to leave it to them, without anyone feeling that their integrity has been compromised. Such behind-the-scenes arrangements may seem unpleasant, but they are a reality (and, often, a necessity) in many stories about sensitive issues or resourceful people. I had to use them myself several times.
But it lends a huge amount of power to the subject of the interview, especially when it’s the center of the room. In politics, this means we are often exposed to ‘beat the sweetener’ stories in which, to take a frequent and infuriating example, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump and their anonymous ‘someone close’ proxies can spread whitewashing. selfish of their own behavior which is in total contradiction with reality. In celebrity coverage, the degree of control the singer, actor or athlete has over a story – access, acceptable lines of inquiry, photography, artistic direction – has reached a point where journalism becomes fundamentally indistinguishable from public relations. The interviews that produce such stories are frequently conducted with real PR representatives present, ready to jump the moment someone strays from the message. Often there is also a lawyer (or lawyers) around the table.
Having to sidestep a reluctant topic forces you to report more than you otherwise would.
So what is the alternative? I’m a big proponent of what’s sometimes called ‘around writing’, in which a reporter doesn’t have access to the central story, but writes around that void, talking to people who know the story and collecting materials: previous publication and unpublished interviews, oral histories, letters, memoirs, emails, court testimony, etc. The challenge in these situations is: can you do enough reporting to create a detailed and vivid portrait?
After publishing an article about the Sackler family in 2017, I initially decided not to write a book about the family and its connection to the opioid crisis because they wouldn’t talk to me and I was afraid you might feel, reading such a book, as if you were looking at the family from afar, through a telescope. Then, little by little, I accumulated enough good sources who knew the family – and enough private family correspondence – for me to conclude would have possible to write about them with the kind of romantic intimacy I was looking for.
In my new collection, Thieves: True Stories of Scammers, Killers, Rebels and Swindlers, half of the stories are about people I’ve never met, from Chapo Guzman to financier Steve Cohen to death penalty lawyer Judy Clarke. But if I did it right, you can read each article and really feel that you understand the person – maybe even understand them better than you would have if I had made editorial compromises in the interest of access and that I had obtained a stilted interview. in which the subject approved the quotes.
Having to sidestep a reluctant topic also forces you to do more reporting than you otherwise would. Most access-oriented profiles involve one or two interviews with the central figure, then a few secondary interviews, which are often facilitated by the topic of the story (“Here’s a list of people who will tell you wonderful things about me . I told them to wait for your call.”)
When you don’t have that central interview or subject’s blessing, you have no choice but to seek out others who might not offer such reliable ratings and create a notebook full of sources so that you can come across – check the second-hand anecdotes and test your own hypotheses. When you put in that extra work, it tends to manifest in a deeper, richer story, not compromised by the editorial hand of the interview subject or her masters, but which, paradoxically, brings the reader closer to her. than you might have done. if you had the opportunity to look her in the eye.
Thieves: True Stories of Scammers, Killers, Rebels and Swindlers by Patrick Radden Keefe is available through Doubleday Books.