"Truth in Reporting"


Marie Brenner

Vanity Fair


Northwestern University "Literature of Fact" Lecture Series

February 19, 2001



I'm honored. I feel a bit like Jack Quinn going before the senate judiciary committee last week. (laughter) I want to start with a story. The year is 1977. I have gotten my first big-time assignment. I'm 27-years old. I'm living in London trying to keep body and soul together, working as a freelance correspondent. I have, by some amazing bit of luck, been assigned by the New York Times Magazine to interview Yitzhak Rabin, who has just lost an election in Israel to Menachem Begin. And I see myself in the car going out to Heathrow Airport and I am just so high on myself. I mean I am spouting opinions and I know the Middle East, just ask me, and I've got articles and I've got briefings on the car seat next to me and I am just a symphony of self-regard. Finally, my companion turns to me in the car and he says, "Marie, it is a lot better to have been the prime minister than to have written about him." (laughter)


So I am telling you this story for a reason, which is, if you are very lucky as you are starting your journalism careers and, oh, I envy you starting out. What a joyous journey you are all going to have. But if you are very lucky, you will get the ego and the cockiness and the self-regard knocked out of you in some way that will stay with you. It will help you to tell your story because you will not radiate arrogance to whoever's story you want to tell.


For me, interviewing is always a quest. I have to say that often when I do press forums, I really take issue with the current thinking about reporters, that we are exploitation artists, that we are thieves of the family secrets, that we are, as Janet Malcom says, the person who puts their eye to the keyhole. I take issue with this because for me reporting is often a way of showing a certain kind of understanding of a person's human qualities. I pose behind my questions. I'm an introvert posed as an extrovert. I have a difficult time, as many reporters do, with the word "I." We shy away from the word "I." We hide behind quotes. He said, she said -- that is our way of trying to be objective reporters.


I used to believe that this profession came to me accidentally, but the truth is there was nothing accidental about it. I have always been, as I'm sure you are, insatiably curious. I am an information freak. I have a second-class not a first-class mind, which makes me perfect for our profession. I've worked for Vanity Fair and the New Yorker on and off for the last 12 or 14 years. I think I have the best job in the world. I know I have the best job in the world. I want my job for you. I want you to try and steal my job from me. I envy you that passion where you're starting out and you want to, and I hope you want to, because that will make you wonderful at what you do. I want you to kill and die and want to maim to get a story told. That is the feeling of joy that I envy for you all starting out.


For me, my specialty, as David mentioned and which you probably know, is the long biographical piece. I will spend sometimes five or six months, sometimes a year ­ in the Kingdom of Big Sugar it took over a year to report. I spend a long time. I will talk to 40 or 50 people. I will interview everyone I possibly can. If I had to tell you a theme I am often attracted to in my writing, it is the man caught in the vice, the person caught up in extraordinary circumstances that they cannot prevent. There is Michael Milken, the financier, obviously Jeffrey Wigand, the tobacco whistleblower, Richard Jewell and, most recently, Edward Tuddenham, the lawyer at the basis of the Kingdom of Big Sugar. Now, what prepares you for this? This is a nutty profession. This is an oddity. Often people hang up on you. There is no guarantee you are ever going to get your subject to talk to you. There is a lot of resistance. It's an oddball profession. What prepares you for this?


My childhood was a perfect case study in becoming a reporter because my father was a south Texas civil libertarian. Other fathers played golf. Other fathers went to PTA meetings. My father exposed corruption for sport. He had a discount store in San Antonio and it was his joy. He should have been a newspaper publisher. He would put stuffers in the bags for all the hobbyhorses he would ride on -- you know, the mayor is corrupt, the gas rates in Texas are being manipulated. He would expose these things for sport and so at my dinner table, the conversation was never about our homework, a math assignment or what other people were doing. It was about the crooked politicians in Texas and, believe me, in the 1960s this gave him plenty of material. (laughter)


But daddy taught me a profound lesson, which I hope I can maybe just pass along to you today, which is, personalities are the keys to events. This is the barebones of narrative writing. If you understand the personality, you will understand the event. He would use as his model, in the Vietnam War days when I was in high school, the example of Clark Clifford, who was then the defense secretary. He would say in his marvelous Texas accent, "Well, if you want to know how we got into this goddamn war, all you have to know is how much Clark Clifford is profiteering with Lyndon B. Johnson in the White House on these defense contracts. And once you understand the nature of the relationship with Clark Clifford and Vietnam and LBJ, you'll understand this war and I don't care what they're teaching you in school." Of course I would look at this, I would listen to this, I would roll my eyeballs. And then he would always end it with: "Personality is the key to events." This was a perfect training ground for what I do because, of course, my father turned out to be right. Clark Clifford was in some kind of collusion with Lyndon B. Johnson. It would later turn out personalities were the key to that war and they became the key to my journalism as well.


I think in themes. I would like to just tell you in the beginning of every piece that I do, after I finish my reporting I write down 20 themes. They are always the keys to what I'm writing. When I interview my subject I will asterisk the themes in the notebook that I later will want to use. For me, going out and reporting is the question of looking for these themes. You all have read "In the Kingdom of Big Sugar." I had a difficult time writing that piece because I didn't have proper themes because it was a contract case. Something kept occurring to me in that reporting, which was the original way Edward Tuddenham became involved in his own life after Harvard law school. He was fighting for the rights of the cotton choppers of Texas. Do you remember how the piece opens where you see that scene and he was in Hereford, Texas? That idea occurred to me much later as I was looking in my notebook going through the methodology of the scene writing and I pulled that out and had an opening for my piece.


I had a similar experience in reporting "The Man Who Knew Too Much," the tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand. The opening scene of that piece where you see Wigand turn from anger to vulnerability to fear, this happened just after I met Wigand and I was able to get an interview with them. Walking out of the restaurant with him, I just happened to jot this down in a notebook. And then when I was stuck later on I went back, again I'm telling you this for a reason. It's a methodology that is so powerful if you think in scenes because it can illuminate your subject's behavior almost better than anything they will ever tell you.


I want to talk to you today a little bit about the importance of ideas. I teach at Columbia Journalism School. I teach narrative writing and I got very frustrated last year because we were in our class and we were doing the analysis of an idea. My graduate students presented their ideas last week. I teach this class with James Stewart. You may read his book, Follow the Story. And we're analyzing, now, ideas. An idea is so important to what we do in narrative writing -- to know whether something will sustain, will an idea illuminate our way into a piece. I had such an interesting experience last week. The students presented their ideas and they were small ideas. One person wanted to do ghost busting and houses. Another person wanted to do UFO landings. Another person wanted to do Robin Leach, what has happened to Robin Leach. (laughter)


You know I'm an adjunct professor and I was teasing with David last night, that as an adjunct you get annoyed. And I said, "But where are the big ideas? Where are the young Dorothy Thompsons? Where are your political ideas? Where are your passionate ideas?" I want you to strive for the big idea as journalists, to try to illuminate something larger, to go into a neighborhood as Alec Cotler once did, to find a moment that tells us something about a culture we live in. I realized that the scene writing technique often leads you into a big idea. So I wanted to illustrate a little bit about how you can find the big idea in anything that you go out to do.


How do you get an idea? Let's start with that. It's often the hardest thing you all will have to grapple with. Where do ideas come from? Often the best ideas come from a two-sentence paragraph that you will read in a newspaper. It will be a news story that no one has even heard of. For example, in the case of Jeffrey Wigand, once the "60 Minutes" thing blew up no one even knew who Jeffrey Wigand was. He was a name in a newspaper. He was an anonymous whistleblower at the very beginning of the case. He was the hidden secret of that story of the "60 Minutes" brouhaha in the beginning.


Last week in the Wall Street Journal I found this tiny little item, which I typed up and I thought this is just perfect so let me read this to you. This is just to illustrate that ideas are everywhere for you. "A tiny piece of plutonium was found in a park near (inaudible) Greece. The amount was far less than needed for a bomb but it bolsters suspicion that the deadly material was being smuggled from the old Soviet Bloc." Now look at this. This is a perfect beginning of a narrative idea. Look at the mystery that sets up. Who smuggled that plutonium? What was going on? How does it get to Greece? What goes on in this town? Who saw it? It opens up, again, what we all look for as journalists: a potentially larger world into the world of missing nuclear material. This is the very beginning of the potential of a big idea. And would you ever think that that two-sentence item could glean a 15,000-word piece? Well, there you are.


At the bottom of every idea I find is passion. We are so familiar with the passions of the writers that drove the 1930s engine, the Dorothy Thompsons, the Rebecca Wests and your passions do not have to be political. But it is my belief and it is my experience that you better bring passion to the table, something that you are passionate about doing or your idea is going to come out flat on the page. I hear in my class at Columbia, I hear my students saying things like, "Will this sell? How can we get a job? Can I get a book deal?" These are all very real queries because they're about the real world that we live in and we all need to live and work and make money. But those questions are not passion-driven. Those questions will not give you journalism that you will find rewarding and that your readers will find memorable because they are not driven by emotion and for me the best journalism has to be driven by emotion and something else, which is obsession.


Last week I was having dinner with a friend and we began discussing going through our files, notes we kept, diaries we kept when we were in college, when we were graduate students, when we were starting out as young writers. And my friend said to me, "You know, I've had such an interesting experience, I haven't looked in this box in 30 years and I found these papers from college and I was writing about America's place in the world. My drunken notes after fraternity parties were about how America could rethink itself. I was analyzing presidential speeches in drunken tirades." I looked at my friend and I said, "May I tell this story next week at Medill?" She said, "Sure." That friend is Peggy Noonan, who wound up being Ronald Reagan's speechwriter and who you probably see on television talking about politics.


So I went home and I looked at a file of a journal that I had kept in college. I had the exact same experience. My journals were, "Nixon is corrupt and this is so unfair and the people around him." They were these drunken outpourings of anger and rage and injustice against the world. That was a code because just as in Peggy Noonan"s journals, and in my journals, was our obsession and it remains our obsession. They became a kind of interesting preview of who we became as women writers out in the world. So look to your obsessions because your obsessions are a terrific guidepost of what will give you the most memorable journalism.


 For me, I was particularly inspired by Tom Wolfe, how he was able to penetrate a scene. I can remember, reading for the first time, a piece that I'm sure many of you have read. It was the radical sheik piece, and I was so swept away by how cheeky he was, how he could get into a living room where Leonard Bernstein and Felicia Bernstein were raising money for the Black Panthers and I thought I've just got to do this. For me, as I started going forward I was walking into walls all through my 20s because none of this is easy. Access is impossible. I never go into a piece today where I'm not in my heart the same 22­year-old I was starting out. I just want to tell the story so desperately. I'm always looking for the moment that will illuminate the larger scene.


For example, about 15 years ago I was in the south of France because I was trying to tell the story of the dictator Papa Doc Duvalier, who had just left Haiti, he had been thrown out of the country, they had stolen everything. I was driven by, again, always my obsession with outrage, the idea that this had happened in this small country. I had gone into the office of Kroll investigations and had found these cancelled checks that the investigators showed me of Michele Duvalier, the glamorous wife of Baby Doc Duvalier. There were cigarette boats, there were all kinds of things that she had written checks for and now I'm in the south of France trying to get in and I'm getting nowhere. There's no way to get in and I'm just hitting rubber walls. Finally, I sent a note. Someone said to me, "Well she's totally into fashion." So I thought, "Oh, well this is the way to go." So I sent a note saying that we had a famous photographer with us, Helmut Newton from Vanity Fair and he wanted to photograph her. Well, within five minutesŠ (laughter)Š she was on the telephone and here comes the scene. "Oh," she said, "I'll be right over." We were staying at this small little hotel and she walked in and I will never forget her orange nails curled back to her palms. She was wearing these incredibly tight blue jeans, four-inch high heels and she walked in. I had all these documents I was preparing. I was playing Oriana Fallachi at that point, wearing my leather outfit. I said, "Madam, would do you make of these documents?" She just waved me away and she said, "I have one ambition, which is to be a runway model." That scene, I thought the banality of evil, there she is. (laughter) What morality, what conscious, perfect, you know, perfect, that she couldn't care less. In Haiti, the entire country was devastated. The economy had become selling a sliver of soap on the street.


On that same trip, as it happened, I had a wonderful contrasting scene of the complete opposite personality. Down the road, ironically, from where the Duvaliers had taken camp was none other than the great novelist, Graham Greene, in his 70s. Through an amazing confluence of circumstances I was able to go meet him and interview him. The contrast in modesty of how he lived: small apartment in the port of (inaudible), the smell of diesel fumes everywhere, two-room apartment. He had just come back from Russia, which was still called the Soviet Union in those days, giving a conference. Imagine, he had just written a book called The Comedians, which really was a study of the Duvalier regime. Now ironically, the villains of his book The Comedians wind up just down the road. I asked him in this interview to show me where he wrote. I said, "My God, where do you write? Where do you write?" He said, "Well, there." And he points to a card table and on it is a tablecloth with daisies, you know like a very inexpensive print, and it's beyond modest. There is no grand, grand theme, like desks as you would imagine. There is no big walnut library. It's just this small little room with a card table and he must have seen my face because he said, "Well, what did you expect?" And I said, "I don't know, I expected, you know, walnut." And he said, "What else would I need? What else would I need?" So that scene was such an illumination into the extraordinary personality of the true man of letters.


With Michael Milken was another illumination, which I have thought about so often in the last few weeks, since he did not get a pardon. Michael Milken, the financier, the man who gave us the junk-bond scandal, I was lucky enough to get an interview with him after a long chase. He was late to the interview. I was in his rather attractive, but pretty modest, house considering he was a billionaire in Los Angeles. His sister was there. His sister was pacing. Again, look to the prosaic because the prosaic often brings you to something that will be of profound inside into the personality of the man. His sister was pasting a photo album. She had on those slippers, you know, that curled up at the toe. It was like the most incredible domestic scene for a man who has just been indicted. Just making conversation, because this is sometimes where you get your best reporting I said, "Tell me about your father." She said, "Oh, our father. Our father was really interesting. He was crippled and he became an accountant and walked with a brace and he was just a really inspiring person."


Cut to one hour later, we're at dinner. Very self-consciously, Milken had set me at his kitchen table with pyrex dishes to show me that he really wasn't a billionaire and to show that he was just a regular guy, although indicted for junk bonds. (laughter) I say, "So, your father, I mean what an interesting man, crippled and how he came to America." And he looked up startled and he said, "I have to tell you something. I had no idea my father was crippled until I was about 17-years-old." Now remember, I have heard "man with a brace." I said, "You had no idea your father was crippled. He said, "No. I was in high school one day and some boys came up to me and said, 'Hey Milken, your father is a gimp, he walks with braces. Your father is crippled.' I got so furious and said 'He's not crippled.' 'Yeah, he's crippled,' they said. 'No, he's not crippled.'" Milken went on and said, "I got so angry, I got into a fist fight with these guys in the hall. When I got home that night, I looked at my father and I noticed that he was crippled." Now, isn't that incredible. So, what does that story tell us? Often when you ready about Mike Milken, how he could have wound up indicted, what financial writers have written is that all of these criminals of that era would come into a room and would completely detach themselves as if they weren't criminals, as if they weren't doing insider trading. Milken was oblivious. He was absolutely oblivious. I've often thought what happened to him in childhood, how he was able to tunnel through a certain kind of extraordinarily painful reality, in the same way that he refused to see the reality that he would not be allowed to break the rules and he would have to go to prison for it. So that scene was my window into the larger character of how Mike Milken could have wound up being a criminal.


In journalism we have a fancy term, which I'm sure you all know, which is the objective correlative. The objective correlative being the scene which tells you something about the character of your subject and I had an experience with Henry Kissinger, which was a perfect objective correlative about his character. Kissinger had arrived back in New York. I was set to interview him for New York magazine. He was being very testy about it. I go with my tape recorder and he said -- and I love to do Kissinger accents, so please if I fracture it forgive me ­ "Miss Brenner, before we start to speak, we must have an agreement. Every quote I have to be able to change, I have to be able to change, edit and amend. And that is the agreement I have with the New York Times, James Reston and this Meg Greenfield of the Washington Post." Well, he had just managed to drop the two most important columnists of that time, James Reston and Meg Greenfield. So, I said to him stammering, because I didn¹t know what else to say, "Well, Dr. Kissinger, if they've made that agreement with you then I will to." I go back to my editors. I call Abe Rosenthal, who was then the editor of the New York Times and I called Ben Bradley from the Washington Post. I say, in my incredible naivete, "Henry Kissinger has just said this to. Is this true? Because I have made this agreement with him." They both just doubled over in laughter, you know, like I've made their day and they were going to take that out to dinner that night as the funniest thing they had ever heard. (laughter)


 So they said, "Marie, no. Miss Brenner, please, you didn't fall for that did you?" That for me was the objective correlative because that kind of utter craven manipulation -- flat out lying in the face of every single thing, anything so easy to check, just if it worked it could fly -- told me so much about the character of Henry Kissinger. Of course, reading the biographies of Henry Kissinger, and you can trace his entire career, it's kind of a masterpiece of manipulation like that. If it can be manipulated, you can get it. So again, it's a perfect scene. It's a scene that gives you a moment. It's a scene that gives you an objective correlative. When the piece came out, he called me very upset, screaming. And you know what he said? "How dare you call me a master manipulator?" (laughter)


I have a rule of reporting, which is pursue, pursue, pursue. I call it the three Ps -- actually it's the five Ps -- polite, persistence and pursue, pursue and pursue. It happened this way. November 1999, my editor wants me to write about the blow up at "60 Minutes." We don't know who Jeffrey Wigand is at that point. I say, "Fine." By happenstance that day I was at lunch with an old friend who is an anti-tobacco advocate. I say, "I'm going to do '60 Minutes.'" He said, "No, no, that's not the story. The story is the chemist, Wigand. The story is the little chemist, what he knows about Brown & Williamson, what is going on inside the tobacco company." And then he laughed and said, "But you'll never get that story published because not only does Graydon carter smoke two packs of cigarettes a day, but you take $2 million a year from Brown & Williamson tobacco company and Johnny Depp is on your cover smoking Marlboros. So forget it, ha, ha, ha, ha." (laughter)


I called Graydon Carter that afternoon. I said, "The story is not Mike Wallace fighting with Don Hewitt. The story is what this weird little whistleblower, whoever he is, knows about Brown & Williamson and it is about what has gone on in Brown & Williamson." Graydon Carter said, "You can't write that story. I hate those anti-tobacco activists. I smoke two packs of cigarettes a day, and we have $1.5 million in advertising with Williamson that we take every year so forget it." So I said, "Graydon, that is ridiculous. This is the story." He said, "No, it's not the story." One of the great things about my editor is that when he's arguing with you, he never argues. He'll just say, "Well, let me think about it," which always means no. And this time he said, "Well, let me think about it."


The next day he calls me and says, "Okay, I thought about it. I've checked it out and we only take half a million dollars in Brown & Williamson ads and we're being sued right now by Dodi Al Fayed's father because of some damn thing Maureen Orth wrote. But we've know found out Dodi Al Fayed's father has so many hidden things on his record that this case will never get to court. So we're not going to lose millions in a libel, so I can afford to lose the half million dollars. Go for it."


Six weeks later, I was nowhere, Jeffrey Wigand was slamming the phone down. Amazingly enough, your first reporting step should be to call local information. Jeffrey Wigand's number was listed in Louisville information. By that week, I had him on the phone. He was just saying, "No, I can't talk to you." You know the scenes in the "Insider" where Lowell Bergman is faxing and he's very paranoid? I had a parallel experience. Six weeks later I was reading in the Washington Post and I noticed this odd item that suggested to me that he was being smeared. It said: "Jeffrey Wigand is not the hero of the anti-tobacco movement that people think he is, said an unnamed source from the Brown & Williamson tobacco company. I just happened to see the Washington Post, it was like a Tuesday or a Wednesday paper.


That day I called Mike Wallace, who I barely knew, and I said, "Jeffrey Wigand is being smeared." And there was this perfect Mike Wallace dramatic pause on the telephone: "How do you know that?" (laughter) I said, "I'm looking at this thing in the Washington Post." He said, "And you know who is responsible for the smear?" At this point, Mike Wallace was in a catatonic depression, he couldn't get his piece on the air. I said, "No, I don¹t." He said, "John Scanlan." John Scanlan, being a notorious New York City public relations agent. He said, "Your friend." I said, "My friend? He represented you in the (inaudible) libel trial." He said, "No, he is responsible and he's got Don Hewitt's ear and my piece is over and I can't get this piece on the air."


One of the key strategies, which isn't a strategy it's just part of my personality, when someone is giving me sort of a sticky time on the telephone I try to engage them with humor just to keep their blade and my blade on the ice. So I say to him, "Mike, you've got to help me tell this story. I want to tell the story of the smear." He said, "Okay, I'll help you." Now, you're all thinking well of course she got the story, Mike Wallace helped her. Wrong. The next day he called: "I'm not helping you. I went right to Don Hewitt. I told him you wanted to write the story of the smear. We're now going to get our story on the air." Twenty years ago I would have gotten annoyed and I would have cut the call right there and gotten all testy you know, well, thanks Mike, and hung up. I laughed because, of course, what is more engaging is to see Mike Wallace in full color, spreading his peacock tail, being Mike Wallace. So although I am desperate and I want to tell the story, this is also pretty interesting. I said, "Mike, I'm really glad my little phone call to you prompted Edward R. Murrow's network to do the right thing. At which point, he laughed and I laughed and we're still on the telephone. Then I said, "Mike, no one can do what you can do (laughter) but I just want to write about his personality. So what do you know about his personality?"


Now remember we're talking about the derivation of an idea, how an idea changes shape. Six weeks into it, it has gone from the blowup at "60 Minutes," Hewitt and Wallace fighting, to the story of Jeffrey Wigand, tobacco whistleblower anti-tobacco. Now comes the real shift in the idea. He said, because I kept him on the phone, "The truth is I don't know Jeffrey Wigand. I met him one time. What a weird guy, oh, and that wife. The one who really knows him is my news producer Lowell Bergman who has brought him out over the last two years." I say, "Really, where is he?" He said, "Well, he lives in Berkeley but he happens to be in town for 24 hours, maybe he will see you."


I immediately call him. He was staying at the Essex house. I hear this incredibly depressed voice on the telephone. At this point in December, I would later learn, Jeffrey Wigand is locked in the closet with a rifle on the verge of suicide. Lowell Bergman is on the verge of losing his CBS job and the smear is just at the beginning of being orchestrated by Brown & Williamson through John Scanlan. The depressed voice: "I'm not going to see you. I have nothing to say."


Again, I always tell people who I am and I want them to know a little bit about me as I go in as a reporter and a lot of reporters say, "Oh, how tacky, that's embarrassing." But I immediately say to him, "Lowell, I don't know you. I'm desperate to tell this story. You have to know I am the daughter of a man who helped whistleblowers. I am passionate to tell it and so he hears the urgency and he knows that this is not casual for me as it is not casual for him. He agrees to meet me. The next morning we are at breakfast. I'm expecting this big news producer to come in, this Emmy-award winning hotshot from CBS. But what I meet is a depressed guy in a leather jacket who sits down and sags at the table and says, "I have to tell you that I'm playing out the string at CBS. They're going to fire me. I've lost my job. They've told me, don¹t come back." So I look at him and I said, "Well, what happened? Tell me what happened? Tell me."


He starts telling the story from the first moment when the documents come on the doorstep at Berkeley all the way through and that reporting moment, three hours later we were still at the breakfast table. That moment became the beginning of the beginning of how "The Man Who Knew Too Much" happened because I got up from the table and I knew that now I'm into this piece almost too much. The story is now the relationship between two people and it is the window into corporate mergers, into tobacco, into the difficulty of reporting at the end of the 20th century. It is the key to everything.


Shortly thereafter I went down to Louisville with no guarantee Wigand would ever see me. The day after I got there he had the final death threat. His wife freaked out, threw him out of the house. Had I not been there, I never would have gotten the story, but I was there and I was able to get a message to him, that we would put him up in hiding at the Hyatt, where I was staying. I put him in under an assumed name and we stayed at the Hyatt in hiding for about a week. And that is how the "Insider" happened. So all those scenes that you read in "The Man Who Knew Too Much" where you see him and he's looking out of windows. Later, Michael Mann and Eric Roth were able to use that to great effect in the movie. This all happened because of the five Ps: [polite persistence and] pursue, pursue, pursue.




Copyright 2001 Marie Brenner. All rights reserved.