Gay Talese on What’s Wrong (and Right) With the Media

Photo: Robin Marchant/Getty Images

I was a reporter on the Times from 1956 to ’65. And I always was influenced by old-time reporters that I met when I first got a job. And one of the guys, he was a former Pulitzer Prize guy, said, “Young man, stay away from the telephone. Get off your ass. Go to where the story is. Talk to the person who is the subject of the story. Look ’em in the eye. Watch how they express what they say — their gestures. Pay attention. But you have to show up.”

What I do not do is want to quote from a tape recorder, because the tape recorder, in a strange way, doesn’t fully tell the truth. What people say is not what people think. But more to the point, when you talk to a person and you have your tape recorder on, you’re getting from them the first response to your question — the first idea they have of what the answer is. It’s particularly guarded because the tape recorder’s going. But more, for me, … I’m not getting their best thought. I’m getting what they’re answering, and perhaps what they’re answering to the question is perfectly legitimate — it’s certainly verifiable, it’s on plastic tape. And the lawyer, or the reporter, or the source, can play it back and say, “That’s what I said.” And that is what you were told. It’s the answer to the question. But it’s not the best answer.

Let’s talk about your recent experience with Twitter.
Oh, God. Boy, that really tells it all. That story is totally a lie. A total lie. Total lie. When I was onstage, after I’d answered a few questions, this question comes up. And I thought the question was, “What women influenced you when you wanted to be a journalist?,” or when you — whatever. “What women influenced you?” “Women reporters?” Because the whole conference was about reporting. I couldn’t think of anybody. And that whole quote was tape-recorded. I don’t deny anything that I said, but I didn’t have any women reporters in my head when I was a young guy wanting to be a reporter.

So I said it. I didn’t know I’d said anything stupid at all. And then after we left the stage, there was a little private luncheon for the principals. The deans of the colleges and some of the people on the program, including the young African-American woman who told me she was a reporter for the Times Magazine. I didn’t know her, but I happened to sit across from her at this dining table in this private room after we’d left the stage. I’m having a jovial conversation. “How did you get to work for the New York Times?” You know. “How do you like it?” and blah-blah. And I thought I’d made a new best friend. I like to talk to young reporters. In fact, I know a lot of young reporters who are on the paper today, who are like 27 years old. I know a lot of those people.

So then I have a good time. And then she said, “Do you mind if — would you take a selfie with me?” So I said, “Sure.” I got up from the table. There were other people in this room now, maybe 25 people having lunch. And I had my arm around this young lady. She asked to take a picture with me. So then we take a picture, and it’s all over. Next day, I get on the train back to New York, from Boston. And this Red Cap guy said, “Hey, you got yourself in some trouble.” And I didn’t even know what he was talking about. I said, “I don’t know anything about that.” And then I went home, and my wife said the same thing: “You’re all over Twitter.” And I don’t even know what Twitter is. I don’t even look at the goddamn stuff. I’m existing in the mid-1950s…

Your wife’s not on Twitter?
No, but somebody called her … When I come in the house, I get out of a taxicab, “Oh, you’re all over Twitter!” And I don’t know what the hell she’s talking about. I have a computer here that I have to have, because when I started writing for The New Yorker, they said, “You can’t mail anything, you have to email it.” So I learned how to email something. That’s about all I know, how to email something. I type stories up and send them to the editor I write for. That’s all, or else I wouldn’t have this goddamn email. I hate it. Advertising and all that crap I get on there.

So did you get on there and look at what was being said about you?
No! People were calling me up. I got a call from the Associated Press. Once — look, I don’t have Twitter. Then I had all these phone calls, including from the New York Times’ “Style” editor. Or not him, but the guy who wrote the piece. The guy comes over, the reporter who wrote the piece comes over here. And I told him basically the story you’re hearing. And then it got in the paper. I do think it was accurate, because I had a chance to explain myself. Of course it didn’t reach everybody. There are still references to me on the internet, to this very day. I saw it yesterday. “This guy hates women.” This is crazy! I mean, it’s just crazy! And not only are they not responsible, but the range of Twitter. It goes all over the world! Amazing!

So I get back to New York, and this woman, I heard, she wrote these terrible things, and not only did she — it’s all over the goddamn internet. All over. And not only in America but overseas. “What the hell is going on here? I was being nice to that person, courteous to that person. Now, she’s a black person, an African-American person, and she takes what I’m saying as an insult. I had nothing — further in my mind — an insult — ‘How did you get to the New York Times?’”

I was stunned. You know, I still — I called this person, but she never returned my call. I didn’t know how to tell the truth. The truth was that no woman, when I was an aspiring journalist — meaning when I was out of high school and going to college as a freshman — what the hell woman influenced me? Now when I’m 75, I’m 84, or 73, or 70, of course no one’s gonna influence me. But that whole thing.

Did you feel like the straight news coverage — the newspaper coverage — distorted what happened?
It totally distorted what happened! It didn’t tell what I believed to be the answer. Fiction writers have influenced me. Carson McCullers influenced me. I once wrote a story for the New York Times as a sports reporter. I practically stole a story she wrote called “The Jockey.” And Mary McCarthy was my favorite novelist.

Do you feel like, when you were starting out at the Times, the story would have been covered in a different way?
It wouldn’t have been covered at all! But here’s how I work … I would have said, “What do you mean, ‘You’ve never been influenced by a woman journalist’?” No, I mean, I wanted to be a sportswriter. What — give me the name of a woman sports writer in the 1940s — but no one gave me — see, when I interview people … In 65 years of publishing, I’ve never had someone come back to me and say, “You misquoted me.” I’ve never had somebody come back to me and say, “You lazy son of a bitch, you misquoted me.” This guy I saw yesterday, I’m making him watch me with my pen and cardboard clipped around. I’m letting him watch me write down what he says. But I’m saying, “Really, this is not the best we could do. Let’s try it again.” So I scratch it out. “Let’s try again, let’s try again.” Why? Because I’m showing their quotes to these people. I’m actually making them a kind of partner.

But there were lazy reporters in the 1950s, too.
Oh, yeah, and they got their names in the corrections. I was never in the damn corrections.

So maybe the Times wouldn’t have reported on this back then, but something similar could have happened with a politician, right?
You know what I wish had happened? We’re talking about this woman from the Times Magazine? I wish I could have produced that photograph of me with my arm around her. And how could this woman have let me have my arm around her when she was so insulted by what I said?

Okay, but what I’m trying to get at is whether or not this reflects a change in the way journalism is done now.
Well, I think it does, because I’ve been a journalist for more than a half-century, because this is not the way I was born and reared, I’ll tell you that. This is not the way that I would ever believe serious journalists should behave.

This personal journalism is gone. Emails are dominating. People look at their laptops. The laptop is the world for them. They sit down in their bathrobe or in their blue jeans, and they’re using a laptop, and they’re reporting — you know — everything’s so impersonal — even the drones! These military guys, they’re in Cleveland, in their bathrobe, and they’re killing somebody in Afghanistan. I mean, that’s typical. It’s like drone reporting. This stuff is so removed from the reality that you see. In the reality, at least you can see people getting killed. At least you know what you’re doing. It’s terrible, but it’s what you’re doing. And now people are writing stories, they don’t even know — and this woman, who’s a reporter for The New York Times Magazine, if she was so loathsome toward me, disrespected me so much, why did she let me put my arm around her? I’ll never know the answer to that. I wish I could reach her and say, “Why did you do this?”

Do you think it was a matter of looking for sensationalism? If there’s a particular impulse now — maybe more than there was in the ’50s, maybe not — to get splashy headlines…
That’s true, but you know, the man who spoke for journalism in my young career was the late Adolph Ochs. He once said, “We should be more than courteous with those with whom we sincerely disagree.” I thought, “That’s what I’m going to be.” And I have always been that. And this young lady from The New York Times Magazine, this African-American woman, who I think did me a lot of harm, should have at least been courteous. She didn’t agree with me, but at least made sure that she quoted me right! As the husband of 57 years of a working wife, my two daughters, my relationship with editors, with writers — I mean, a lot of women writers and I are close friends. Me and people close to my age — if it was someone I had to be influenced by, that woman would be 112, because I was 18 when I was thinking, “How am I going to do this? How am I going to become a good journalist?” But I still don’t remember women journalists when I was a kid.

Do you have any sense of how being on Twitter and Facebook, and all the other internet stuff, affects the job of young journalists?
Well, you must emphasize that I don’t even know what you’re talking about. I mean, you have to remember what I said earlier. I am not involved in this kind of reporting, and I don’t want to be. I don’t even want email. I never had a cell phone. You think I’d walk around with a cell phone? Never in my life. Why, do you think I want to have the phone ring when I’m walking around in the street, and I’m trying to talk to somebody, and the bus noise, and the chatter of the sidewalk — if people call me on a cell phone, I say, “Listen, do you have a landline?” “No.” “Well, are you going to get off the street?” Because people are multitasking with these phones. They’re talking to me, and they’re filing their nails, or they’re walking their dog, or I don’t know what they’re doing. But I don’t want to talk — I don’t want a phone to ring in my pocket.

Get off your ass. You must show up. You must show up. I believe today, in 2016, that it’s just as important as it ever was. Even as we have such communication comforts as we have now. You can sit in your living room and communicate with somebody in Afghanistan. And also, through no fault of young journalists, there’s a sort of depersonalization.

If you’ve got a picture of yourself making a gesture, maybe it could be interpreted as you giving the finger to somebody. And maybe you didn’t mean it. I don’t have examples to back it up, but I mean, the capacity to invade people’s private moments, or to belittle them, or to misrepresent them, the temptations are so much in the hands of reporters. You know, in journalism schools, not many people acknowledge this, but a reporter with an agenda, and almost all of us have an agenda … if you really have an ill feeling about a person, you can find information — legitimate, factual information — to turn that person into anything you want. It’s the selectivity of the information. The selectivity of the evidence. You can go into a country under a dictatorship, and you can go into the same country and say, “Flowering freedom is emerging here.” It’s what you’re looking for, who you talk to. You choose people to be reflective, and to be in concert, with what you think. And you can get any kind of story, you can ruin anybody’s career … Once it’s done, it’s done. Like, I can never correct my horrible experience with that woman from the Times Magazine. There’s no way I can correct it. I don’t know how to correct it. People believe the first time they read something, and it makes an impression on them, and you can’t alter it; no matter how much pleading you do to get it right, you’re lost.

It’s funny that you two had such different perceptions of the tone of the conversation.
Yeah, we did, but we could have corrected that by talking a little more. She could have asked me a question: “Did you really mean that you don’t have any woman, any women? Are you a misogynist?” But I didn’t get that chance. So that’s probably my fault. Maybe it’s her fault, I don’t know. But it’s not true. That was false reporting, fake reporting, bad reporting.

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

Gay Talese on the Media