Gene Weingarten on journalistic ethics: two case studies from his career
The final session of last month’s Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference offered The Washington Post’s Gene Weingarten in conversation with Brian Sweany, deputy editor of Texas Monthly. Weingarten, who does a weekly humor column for the Post, has won two Pulitzer Prizes: one in 2008 for his experiment putting a world-class violinist outside a subway stop at rush hour, and another in 2010 for his story of children who died after being left by their parents in a car.
Weingarten presented the audience with two ethical case studies from his career. The articles under discussion gained accolades when they were published, but in both cases, Weingarten had broken reporting rules to get the stories. The session ended up being the most-discussed event from the conference, kicking around in Texas and turning into a poll on WashingtonPost.com. For people who weren’t there, we wanted to provide a record of what was said. What follows is a transcript that begins after the introductions and continues up to the question-and-answer session that preceded the closing statements. It has not been edited for clarity.
Weingarten: Thank you.
Sweany: I’ll say very quickly as we jump into this – you know, part of being able to moderate is that you meet the person ahead of time and you swap ideas about how you’re going to do this thing, and you pay attention to the time allotted.
So George (Getschow) introduced Gene and I. I sent him a note about what we may or may not do, and the response that came back, I think, was along the lines of “Let’s wing it.” Right?
Sweany: So I said, “OK, well, let’s wing it. That sounds fine.” And then Gene tells me he has something that he wants to start with that may or may not take up the entire time, but “We’ll see.” And so I said, “That sounds pretty good, too.”
By the way, I mentioned this to George yesterday, and George says, “Yeah, he told me, and I have no idea what it is either.” So I think we’re just going to start. I’ll let you jump into it and see how this shakes out.
Weingarten: Good. First of all, let me explain the “Let’s wing it.” I am a notoriously terrible public speaker. So my initial idea was to make this entirely a Q-and-A. I’m also a notoriously bad answerer of questions. But at least with a Q-and-A you have a shared illusion of shared blame.
But then I realized that there is actually something that I want to talk about. I want to talk about the events of a single second and a half in my career as a journalist. It was a moment at which the entire withered soul of long-form journalism lay naked and trembling before me. Questions were answered and resolved about the ethics of journalism that it took Janet Malcolm a whole book to address and then fail to answer.
What I want to do is to talk about a second and a half in my life. And then I want to ask for your judgments. I’m going to ask for a show of hands.
This is also good because it involves an anecdote of women in their underpants having a pillow fight. So, in general, this will be good – I hope.
This started in the year 2004 as the presidential elections were approaching. We all remember that the presidential elections of 2000 didn’t go all that well. We were looking at what promised to be more of the same. This was supposed to be a very close election.
What I couldn’t get out of my mind was that fully half of the people in this country who are eligible to vote don’t. They’re nonvoters. Somewhere between 49 and 51 percent of the people are nonvoters. This led me to simply wonder, “Who are these knuckleheads?”
Theoretically, theoretically, the Nonvoters Party would be the largest single voting bloc in the country. They could control everything, theoretically. So I proposed doing a cover story for the Post Magazine on the nonvoter. They of course came back with plans for surveys, but I am always drawn toward microcosm. So I told them I wanted to do a profile of one person, one nonvoter. They argued, reasonably, that if half the people in the United States were nonvoters, trying to find a typical nonvoter would be like trying to find a typical woman. That didn’t seem to make any sense.
What I recommended was that we use this, this problem, to our advantage, that we make an even more random search than that. So the story itself would make clear that we’re not claiming that this is a typical anything. So what the methodology was, was that the Post has, does polls, especially during presidential election years. And the very first question they ask of the people they call is “Are you a registered voter, and do you expect to vote?” If the answer is “no,” that’s immediately pitched, and they go on to the next one.
So I went to our polling people and said, “I want the people who answered ‘no’ on that first question.” And so they gave me a list of names, and the very first thing I did was cull out anyone who didn’t live in a battleground state, because we wanted nonvoters whose nonvotes would resonate somehow – would be important nonvotes.
I wound up with a list, and what our decision was, was that we would go and interview the very first person who agreed. We’d just start calling, and the first person who agreed, he would become our story – he or she. The very first guy on the list was Ted Prus, who was a concrete layer from Muskegon, Mich. I called Ted, and this conversation lasted less than two minutes.
I said, “Are you registered to vote?”
“Do you intend to vote?”
“Would you be interested in my writing a profile of you for The Washington Post Magazine? It would make you famous.”
He said, “You mean a famous idiot?”
I said, “No way of knowing for sure.”
And he said, “What the hell.”
That was the extent of my reporting so far. So I went to see Ted, and I liked Ted. Ted was not stupid. He was not very sophisticated. He liked to fish. He didn’t trust government, didn’t like politicians, was kind of sullenly cynical. Not a knucklehead at all, very gracious, and loved his wife and kids.
I had laid out three days in which to see Ted and report this story. By day two I was not happy. I wasn’t happy because I wasn’t getting – Ted was not really opening up. And he was not opening up for a very good reason. He sensed that this story could humiliate him.
There was a tremendous gulf in sophistication between reporter and subject. We had completely different backgrounds. And I think – none of this was articulated – but he didn’t trust that I would not be condescending to him.
Condescending is a great big word that means talking down to someone.
I think he was afraid of that.
By day three, I had a B-minus story. It was not what I wanted. I do not like B-minus stories, but there seemed to be no way that I could establish myself as someone who he could consider a friend, as someone he could trust, someone who did not – who he didn’t feel felt aloof or condescending toward him.
On the third day with only a few hours to go, we went to a backyard barbecue at his house. All the women were inside, and all the men were in the backyard, and we were playing horseshoes. And suddenly Ted pulls out a pipe, and he stuffs it full of something. And you know, the men are all gathered around and want to know, “What is it?” “Opiated hash.”
This is the 1 1/2 seconds that I want to talk about.
Now … frankly, I’ve never discussed this in any public forum or written about it, for an obvious reason.
There were four things that went through my mind in that 1 1/2 seconds, and I want to try to recapitulate what they were.
The first was that I was not unfamiliar with the pharmaceutical effects of marijuana. And I was not at that point in my life taking drugs but had in the past – no more so than your average touring funk reggae band. And so to make a simple point even simpler, I wasn’t morally or ethically opposed to taking that pipe, and I also knew that I could hold my pot, that I could do my job after that moment.
The second thing I knew with great clarity was that I was representing The Washington Post. And The Washington Post has a very clear rule. The rule is you do not do anything illegal in pursuit of a story, period. There’s no waffle room in this. I knew this rule very clearly because I had been an editor for a number of years, and I had told writers that, you know, “If you’re not sure, don’t do it. This is a fireable offense. There’s no question that it’s a fireable offense.”
The third thing that I knew was that if I turned that pipe down, the story was over. There was no way that I was going to be trusted by anybody there, and then I would be limited to my B-minus story. The evening would continue, but I would have really established myself as thinking I would be above them. I knew – I understood that.
The fourth thing was a little complicated, and it kind of relates back to our previous speaker, who had amazing stories to tell. I understood that on some level that if you do something like this with a source, you put yourself at the source’s mercy. To one level or another, maybe a subtle one, they know that you’ve done something that you don’t want your employer to know that you’ve done. And I could just imagine the phone call if Ted didn’t like this story – or a letter to the Post saying, “He got it all wrong. He was stoned.”
So those are the four things. And still – the pipe is still out there. I’m looking at it, and a second and a half has elapsed.
OK, we’re going to take a vote now. Knowing what I know and putting yourself in my place: Do you take the pipe? Hands up if you do.
[Hands go up in the audience.]
Sweany: Forty percent.
Weingarten: Yeah, maybe 40 percent. I’m surprised. I thought it would be a little higher. OK, well, the majority of you are definitely on the side of the executive editor of The Washington Post, who I talked to about this just a couple weeks ago. And we’ll get to what he said later.
Yeah. So I took the pipe. What you need to know is that the entire story morphed into an A from a B-minus in the ensuing couple of hours. It happened because suddenly I was a pal. It happened also partially because suddenly everybody was stoned.
Up until that point, I had a certain problem. I had a sense what this story was really about, what the big issue was. It was that Ted, by deliberately withdrawing from public debate into this kind of sullen mistrust of everything official – that was his cynical explanation for what he was doing, why he was not voting, why all politics was garbage and dirty, etc. But doing this, I felt, was a childish form of intellectual cowardice. But I couldn’t make that – I had nothing to hang that on. It was a general feeling I had about Ted. What happened after everybody got stoned was that people were sitting around making fun of Ted, and one of them said to him, “Why don’t tell the guy about how you’re afraid of the dark?”
He was afraid of the dark. He wouldn’t go into a darkened room. He would sleep with the lights on if his wife wasn’t with him. It just occurred to me – this was one example of something. It occurred to me that I had the perfect metaphor for this story. Other things happened in that conversation. I learned, for example, that Ted had no health insurance. And he admitted that when he had a bad tooth, he just reached into his tackle box, pulled out pliers, and pulled his own tooth.
The thing is, the whole story became vastly better. Then I went home and had to write the story, and there’s the second question that I want to ask everyone: Do I tell my editor?
OK, we’re going to take another vote. Do I tell my editor when I hand in the story that I broke this rule and what happened as a result of it?
Do I? Yes?
[Hands go up in the audience.]
Sweany: Ninety – 80 percent, I’d say.
Weingarten: Here’s where things get tricky. I did not tell my editor.
And I didn’t tell my editor for some complicated reasons.
The first was that I felt that I had done nothing dishonest. There’s a big difference between breaking an institutional rule and doing something dishonest. There was no essential dishonesty here. I was simply doing something that I was not supposed to do. But I did it because I felt that there were conflicting obligations. One was to represent my newspaper the way they want to be represented by their people, the other was my obligation to my story. They’re both parts of being a journalist.
So what you’re left with now is your story. It got a lot better as a result of the pot. And I was risking that story by telling it to my editor. He might have said, “We can’t run this story now.” He might have said, “We can’t run anything that you got after the pot was smoked.” And I didn’t want to take that risk.
There’s a law that I just now named when I’m looking out at all of you. It’s the Law of Diminishing Investment. This is something that applies whenever you disclose something potentially bad to an editor. Here’s what happens: At every level that that decision is then kicked upstairs because nobody wants to take responsibility for it, the person making the decision is less invested in your story.
My editor, Tom Shroder, my best friend, wanted that story to be great. It was his magazine. He really would have cared if it was a B-minus instead of an A. But he didn’t care as much as I did. And there was a problem here. He probably would have kicked it upstairs, and it would have gone at every level to someone who was less involved in the quality of the story and more invested in the integrity of the institution and the rules.
I made a decision that I just didn’t want to take that risk for the story.
There was a second reason. I didn’t want to expose my editor to my deception and make him take the risk for it. What if I told Tom, and he said, “Let’s not tell anyone”? Then he’s assuming my risk, and I didn’t think it was right to make him do that.
So I didn’t tell my editor. And the story came out, and everybody liked it. It got national attention. Ted became famous, and he liked it, etc. I called Leonard Downie two weeks ago. He was the executive editor of The Washington Post at the time, maybe the best editor of his generation, and a real stickler. I asked him – I told him the whole story and asked him what he would have done. He didn’t want to talk hypothetically because it really depends on the specifics at the time, but he basically said it was a serious breach, but it was far more serious that I did not tell my editor.
I might have been fired, the story might have been killed, or the story might have been altered to reflect nothing that happened after the pot. That was the official ultimate reaction.
I have another moment from my life that I would like to discuss. It will be much shorter. And we’re also going to take some audience reactions.
I was 23 years old in my first newspaper job. I was in Albany, N.Y., covering the Albany city government. The state legislature at the time was investigating corruption in the city government. They were holding hearings that I was covering. And on the second day of the hearings, they produced on a screen a little black book that they had found in the offices of a construction company that had the names of all the city officials – the mayor, the police chief, the fire chief. And after each name was a hieroglyphic.
They knew that this was money, that these were bribes that were sent to each of these people by the man who ran this company in return for various favors. This was a very corrupt city government. Everybody knew that this was happening. They knew they had that. They had subpoenaed the man whose little black book it was, and he was too sick. He was in – yeah – this is a very entrenched-political-machine-kind-of-thing to happen. He was sick. He was actually in the hospital, and a local Democratic judge had certified that he was sick and could not be interviewed by the state investigation commission.
So I’m sitting here listening to this. This is real possible evidence against the mayor, and I’m thinking, “OK, there’s a legal writ out there saying that the state investigation commission can’t interview this man. But it doesn’t say that a journalist can’t interview this man.” And we know where he is; he’s in the hospital.
So I decided to leave the hearing and go interview him in the hospital.
Now, first question: Is this OK?
Does anyone think it’s not OK?
[No hands go up in the audience.]
OK. I agree, it’s OK.
This gets much trickier.
So I go to the hospital and find his room. Nobody tries to stop me. There’s a chair, an empty chair, outside his room. I go into his room, and what immediately becomes clear is that he’s really sick. He’s the color of mustard. There are tubes coming from every orifice going into all sorts of machines, and he’s kind of moaning.
The second question is: Is it OK to go up to him and start asking questions?
Who says yes, that it’s OK?
[Hands go up in the audience.]
What is that, maybe 20 percent?
Sweany: A little more, but definitely less than half.
Weingarten: I think it’s OK. It’s a big public issue. He had information, and I could always stop if I thought something really bad was going to happen.
So, I walked up to him, and it was clear that he was only partly lucid, going in and out of lucidity. I told him who I was. And I decided that I only had one shot at this, and that the best way to deal with this was to bait him a little bit.
I said, “You know they’re talking about you over at City Hall, and they’re saying you’re this big important guy who had relationships with the mayor and the police chief, etc., but I just think those are scribbles.”
And he said, “They wasn’t scribbles. They’re numbers.”
And I said, “I think you’re lying.”
Now, is this attitude OK? Is it OK to deal with him like this?
[Hands go up in the audience.]
We’re really dwindling the numbers here.
So he said, “Gimme – I’ll show you.” And he reached for my pad and my paper. And as he reached forward, all those tubes were … [leans forward in his seat], and I remember thinking, “Please don’t die right now!”
Now, was that thought OK?
And in fact, Mr. Graulty wrote out the same hieroglyphics, and recognizable for what they were showing on the screen, and he showed every number and what each one meant. What it was, was that he’d been a retailer back in the teens or the ’20s, and what they would do is put the price on the item, and on the back in these hieroglyphics, what they paid for it, so they would know how far they could come down. They could just flip it over, and they would know what they paid for the item. It was apparently a very old retailer’s code that nobody knew.
So I had it in my book. I went back and wrote the story. It was my first giant Page One story. It appeared the next day and said, “Graulty gives code key for little black book,” and it had the numbers in it. There was suddenly evidence that these were actual bribes.
Now, I have only one more question to ask of you. We have to go back to when I first walked into that room. The first thing he said to me was, “Doctor.”
I knew that I could not say I was a doctor. I was 23 years old. I was callow, but I was not that callow. I knew that I could not say that I was a doctor. And in fact, I did tell him who I was shortly thereafter. But here’s the thing, when I went over to him, instead of shaking his hand, I took his pulse.
Was that OK?
[A few hands go up.]
NO! That was not OK. That was and remains the most unethical thing that I ever did.
Sweany: I’m beginning to think there’s a long list of examples.
George, you had titled this “A magical mystery tour into Gene Weingarten’s noggin.” Are we getting there? I think we’re getting there.
Weingarten: That’s actually all that I intended to say in the address. So I would love to take questions about absolutely anything from anyone.
[A question-and-answer session followed, in which Weingarten clarified that he repeatedly told the hospitalized subject that he was a reporter, but that the man took him for a doctor more than once. Some questioners criticized, and others defended, the choices he had made in one or both case studies.]
Sweany: Gene, at the beginning of this, you suggested that there would be some mention of panty-clad women and pillows. I’m feeling a little cheated. So I’m wondering if you could end by delivering on your promise. That’s an editor making sure you follow up on a promise.
Weingarten: You know what? I knew you would be the guy to ask, and here is my answer: My answer is that when the husbands and boyfriends were out smoking dope and doing horseshoes, I presume that’s what the ladies were doing inside.
Sweany: I’d like to thank you for being here, and I’d like to thank you for a very challenging discussion. I think that this probably went beyond what we had thought of in terms of issues that writers deal with. Let me say sincerely that if Skip Hollandsworth or John Spong were on a story, and they smoked pot with a subject, I would really hope they’d tell me about it.