The pitfalls of puff pieces


Democracy requires good reporters who can resist presidential spin; digest complicated legislation like ObamaCare and raise the caution flag when necessary; relentlessly dig until they reach the truth about events like the murder of our ambassador in Benghazi; and, of course, cut through the fog of fallen politicians looking for a comeback — politicians like Anthony Weiner.

American journalism isn’t dead. But it needs to kick it up a notch. Or two.

Good reporting requires a special kind of curiosity and skepticism that go beyond whatever built-in biases the reporter or editor may have (and all have them). When that skepticism goes missing, bad things happen.

Just ask Jonathan Van Meter, who wrote a long piece on Weiner in The New York Times Magazine in April. He spent hours with Weiner and his wife, Huma Abedin, to write the piece on Weiner’s post-congressional life.

How long was the piece? Well, his lead had 212 words:

“One day in early February, I met Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin for breakfast at the Gramercy Park Hotel, one of their regular joints, just a few blocks from their apartment on Park Avenue South. The first thing Weiner said when I sat down was that their 13-month-old son, Jordan, had just moments ago taken his first step. They were both giddy, kvelling with baby-pride, especially Weiner, who, with all his free time, has become his son’s primary caretaker. This is what life is like now for the man whose name is invariably followed in print by some version of ‘the disgraced former congressman who sent out a lewd picture of himself via Twitter.’ He seems to spend much of his time within a five-block radius of his apartment: going to the park with Jordan; picking up his wife’s dry cleaning and doing the grocery shopping; eating at his brother Jason’s two restaurants in the neighborhood. This is what happens after a scandal: Ranks are closed and the world shrinks to a tiny dot. It is a life in retreat. And for a man who was known, pre-scandal, for his overweening ambition, his constant presence on cable news, his hard-charging schedule that verged on lunacy, well, it has been quite a change.”

Well-written, but still, whew.

When it was published, The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple noted that other writers in competitive media swooned and marveled at the piece. Editors at the website Politico said Van Meter’s piece on Weiner was exactly the kind of in-depth stuff they coveted and would be looking for in their new political magazine.

But we soon would find out that The New York Times freelance writer committed an unforced journalistic error: giving up his skepticism in order to gain access. He sat at Anthony and Huma’s breakfast table basking in his exclusive alone time with the couple. And he failed to ask the most basic, albeit awkward, of questions: “Exactly when, Mr. Weiner, did you stop ‘sexting’ pictures of your private parts to women?”

“(It) never even occurred to me to ask,” Van Meter told Wemple last week. “I just assumed it had stopped when he got caught, lost his job and started therapy to save his marriage.”

After living the old admonition of what happens when you assume, Van Meter now hopes to get a chance to write a follow-up story for the Times. I hope he gets it. Because this time, I know he’ll begin without any assumptions and a healthy bit of skepticism.

This is a good story for all American journalists to tell, live and learn.

You needed an expert?

On a secondary note regarding journalism and the Weiner scandal, you have to ask yourself what we would do without experts and the journalists who write stories about them. This gem of a lead came from The Washington Post last week:

“The lewd behavior that New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner engaged in suggests he is struggling with more than bad behavior and could be dealing with a variety of issues driving his problematic sexual behavior, experts said.”

More than bad behavior? Ya think?

Sherman Frederick, former publisher of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and a member of the Nevada Newspaper Hall of Fame, writes a column for Stephens Media. Read his blog at www.reviewjournal.com/columns-blogs/sherman-frederick.