Thursday, July 1, 2010

All-Area Access

The recent brouhaha about the Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings and his warts-and-all reporting that led to a general's resignation got me thinking about the cost of access.

One of the coolest things about being a journalist was getting invited to media-only events like Paul McCartney performing songs from a new album, buying house seats for otherwise sold--out Springsteen shows, visiting movie sets, or getting backstage at concerts. But with them always came the queasy feeling that you were going to be "nice." Or at least nicer.

[The rainbow array of passes above is from the Live Earth concert in 2007, back when Al Gore was known for his environmental work, on which I helped write material for the TV broadcast. You can see how many levels of VIP there are in today's world.]

Of course there's never an explicit deal made for these perks, but
if a journalist is going to have to return to the same source for anything else, he or she better be careful. When on the road for Rolling Stone tracking Gary Hart's attempt to return to the Presidential race after his sex scandal, I saw how pack journalism operated firsthand. I remember when Maureen Dowd found some obscure relative of Hart's who would talk to her, and other reporters literally followed her car to get the same story. And when I had the tenacity to write about Hart's awkwardness, Richard Ben Cramer, who was in the middle of hanging around with Hart forever to write the even-longer-view book about that election, What It Takes, told me my story was "stupid." I respected Richard, but he sounded like he was part of Hart's team.

Hastings' ability to find a story where nobody else saw one, to win over people he didn't usually cover, and then to tell the truth, are all  really hard in today's world,  Even harder if you're on a beat and have to keep going back to the same sources.

When I made the transition from journalist to screenwriter, I was amazed at how many doors opened up that would have been so hard to get inside as a reporter. One of my friends who was writing a movie about the Drug Enforcement Agency for a big-name producer got to ride around with agents. On The West Wing, we could just call up the White House (I still have Elana Kagan's email address from back then) and get information on how things "would work." (Of course, it didn't always go that smoothly. A woman from George W. Bush's White House came and spoke to us for two hours and tellingly wouldn't tell a single telling anecdote.)

I recently attended a seminar by the FBI for members of the Writer's Guild of America, trying to get us to write more TV shows and movies about them. The impetus, as far as I could tell, was that NCIS and CSI (and the half dozen CIA shows about to be unleashed) had upped the public profile of those agencies, and the poor FBI is not getting the respect it used to get when Elliot Ness was on every week (or in a Brian DePalma movie).

At first this sounds like insane vanity, but when you hear from the agents -- ours included specialists in cyber fraud and art theft -- you realize half their detective work involves getting tips from people. So they need citizens to think "I know, I'll call the FBI!"

Everybody wants to help you portray something accurately -- if it's fictional and will glamorize them. It's a lot harder to get at the truth. So every now and then, when a reporter gets a real scoop, it's so newsworthy that it catches everyone by surprise. We're so used to pablum -- the athlete's recap of a game just finished, an actor lavishing praise on a co-star, etc., that when something actually truthful explodes into the landscape -- like when my friend Rob Tannenbaum got John Mayer to talk about his sex life for Playboy -- there's a lifetime's worth of blogging and recantation and a war-room spin control.

The insiderism that breeds the lack of actual information is self-propagating, because once you're inside, you don't want to risk being ostracized. If you write too many "tough" pieces, publicists and subjects will shy away from you. (I remember a publicist trying to reject me as an interview for a women's magazine because she feared I was "too smart" for the actress involved. She turned out to be right. Okay, I'll tell you: Denise Richards.)

It's a tricky balance, because you need access to have value to your bosses. But if you go too far inside, you lose all perspective and your work loses its value. That's why we're continually rocked by so many scandals, which we only deconstruct after the fact (Hello, Bernie Madoff). People don't want to lose out on a good thing, until it's too late.


Jacob Slichter said...

Great post.

The relationships between political reporters and the people they cover have gotten way too cozy. Who would waste their time watching a show where all of the 'grilling' is done by such consummate beltway insiders as Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts?

David said...

Key insight: so used to pablum. We're like frogs in water slowly being brought to a boil. They never realize they're being cooked to death - and then it's too late.

Carl said...

"Grilling," "slowly being brought to a boil..."
I'm hungry.

David said...

good piece, Hands. It's a bit easier for me, because I'm not on a beat. I think also the longer your time-line is between reporting and publishing, the more durable a trust bond you can forge even while being honest.

but basically whenever you're dealing with people/fields where huge power and egos are concerned, it's a tricky balancing act.

James Watt said...

David: this was fun to read, not least because so many reporters make such a fuss about how they're so completely independent and then, when you finish the piece you find yourself wondering why it was so important to talk about what so and so ate --or didn't eat-- for lunch and where the lunch was served and yet you leave with almost no INFORMATION whatever about the actual legislation or project that drew you to the piece in the first place.