Journalist Jonah Weiner on What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media

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Jonah Weiner.Photo: Russ Heller/© Russ Heller 2010

Since you started writing about famous people, have you observed any changes in the way celebrity access is handled and negotiated? Sometimes we hear that publicists and celebrities themselves are imposing tighter conditions these days, or they’re demanding more guarantees about the final product. Have you found that to be true?
A lot of the bad rap that celebrity profiles will get has often more to do with certain publications and what they want out of the celebrity encounter than it does with celebrity profiles in and of themselves. I think certain magazines are perfectly fine publishing a breezy, essentially slick encounter, over coffee, in a hotel lobby, that will last an hour, with someone who’s got a new movie coming out. And so that’s all they ask for when they’re setting it up with the publicist. For me, writing for the Times Magazine and Rolling Stone, they’ve got a more embedded, sustained encounter in mind when they conceive of the piece. So that’s part of the discussion right up top with the publicist: what we’re going to need to make this work.

The pushback that I seem to encounter more and more arises on a kind of conceptual level — which is to say it’s a publicist who’s only set up one kind of story and can’t quite conceive of what I’m asking for when I say, “I just want to spend a lot of time with this person. I want to watch them at work and I want to just be in their orbit. I want to be one place with them, then I want to get in their car and go another place. I want to see them interact with other people.” And publicists sometimes want me to quantify that. They’re like, “So we’re talking about three hours?” “Well, it’s not the kind of thing where I can put a hard out on.” The pieces I’m happiest writing, and I think the pieces that serve readers the most and often serve subjects the most, are just sort of dependent on having a lot of time. I just had a New Yorker story about a semi-famous person — not even a super-famous person, but a semi-famous one — go belly up, because the publicist, among other things, just never made us confident that they understood what we needed, accesswise. They kept talking about, “Okay, so we’re talking about three days?” “Three hangs?” “Three chunks?” And I understand, in a way you need to bring this to your client, as a publicist, and make it legible to them exactly what they are committing themselves to. But I feel like I’ve encountered that more and more.

What about your job keeps you up at night?
One of the things that I will feel least good about, the most often, doing a lot of the pieces that I do, is the knowledge that some irreducible part of my job, as it often plays out, is to help rich people, who have partnered with rich companies, sell shit — and feel really good about themselves, for being in the business of selling the shit that they’re selling. And when I write about the dancers and the fine-art photographers, that’s less so. But when I’m writing about Chris Pine, and we’re going to mini-golf or some other contrivance that exists only for the purpose of these six pages, the reason we’re doing that is because there’s a new Star Trek movie coming out. And that can be a bummer to think about, and sometimes that’s all that a piece is going to be, for whatever reason.

But the flip side is that if you’re lucky, and you’re astute, and you keep that bigger context in mind, as a writer, you can treat that promotional function as the kind of precondition. It’s the foot in the door for good, surprising, revealing writing that adds up to more than just a marketing transaction. But often the opening terms are, “I’ve got to sell this thing.” And that’s often why you’ll get a certain recalcitrance from publicists: because they’ve got a book, and they’re thinking about your interview as part of a kind of marketing puzzle or something. And you can understand — they’ve got to be efficient with it. They have junket days, where the celebrity sits in a hotel suite for six hours for two consecutive days, and journalists from around the world are cycled in and out.

You need to demonstrate, as much as you can, as a writer, that that’s not sufficient for what you need to do. And once you’ve demonstrated that, the resulting piece can actually make the subject in question feel better about the piece that you ultimately produce, in a way that he or she didn’t expect, because they don’t like to think of themselves as salespeople either. I mean, they can’t do this with every interview they do, but they kind of want someone to say, “I’ve thought a lot about what you do.” Like, “What did you do with your hips in this movie? You had this weird walk. What was that?” They’re like, “Oh, shit, this is someone approaching me on a kind of flattering level — or at least taking seriously what I do.”

Do you have to work harder than you used to to transcend the format and turn the encounter into something meaningful?
I think, for the most part, the struggle happens before you’re ever actually in the room with the subject. And this is specifically about celebrities who have teams — who have publicists and camps. It’s those people’s job to not put their client in any position where they may say something that proves scandalous or unflattering. And so they’re all about preemptive damage control. And I find often the struggle up top just comes with getting through that apparatus of obstruction. And once I find myself with the person, things usually go pretty well: because by that point, they’re on board with a certain kind of piece.

What form do the skirmishes take? How do they try to make sure you won’t reveal something that could turn out to be scandalous?
In essence, it’s almost a simple question of math. The publicist is often trying to just limit the surface area that you’re exposed to. The less time that you have with this person — “Okay, you can talk to subject X on the phone for ten minutes, and I’m going to be listening in.” That happens sometimes. It’s usually for secondaries or something. A publicist sets up a phone call, and they’ve connected the call, and they’re listening in. So the moment you say, “These allegations have surfaced recently—” “Okay, we’re out of time, Jonah! We’ve got to go.” So that is sort of a more ideal scenario for a diligent, dutiful publicist whose job it is to prevent certain narratives from taking hold. And you can extrapolate that to me saying, “Okay, I want to spend the better part of a week with this person.” Or, “This person is working on a new movie. I want to be on set, then I want to come into the editing room.”

So it usually comes down to, literally, as simple as this: They’re saying less, and we’re saying more. And that’s really, in terms of technique, oftentimes there are preconditions. “Don’t ask about X. There are these rumors about this and that. Don’t ask about them; they’re going to walk out.” And my standard answer there is that I’m taking the person that I’m writing about seriously enough that I want to have an open, unmanaged conversation, and I want any subject that feels germane to be able to come up. And once I’ve mentioned it, the person I’m sitting across from has the right to say they want to talk about it or not, and I’ll accept that. But I don’t accept preconditions off the top, because I want to be able to have any idea be able to arise and be discussed, in the context of an open-ended, engaged conversation with the person.

It’s not just publicists. Subjects, too, bring their own mentality to this.

The Transcripts: A Master Class in What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media by Those In the Know