Do political 'tell-alls' go too far?

A book recently stirred controversy because the author did not interview its subjects, Barack and Michelle Obama.

Story highlights

  • Mary Gabriel: New Journalism remains controversial 50 years after Talese's Esquire article
  • She says accounts of what subjects were likely thinking are based on extensive research
  • Latest example is Jodi Kantor's book about Obama presidency: controversial but valid, she says
  • Gabriel: These books are portraits, not biography, and offer historical perspective
It is a tribute to New Journalism that it remains controversial, 50 years after an Esquire article by Gay Talese awakened writers to the possibility that reporters' copy was not limited to a dull recitation of the facts, that those facts could be employed to create literature.
This bold new approach jettisoned the editorial rule book and replaced it with a box that included all the tools at the novelist's disposal. The only rule that remained absolute was that the stories had to be true.
That fragile concept -- truth -- has been at the heart of the debate ever since: Is interpretive, often subjective journalism actually journalism at all, or is it fiction masquerading as fact? Does it sacrifice veracity for artistry? In short, can it be trusted?
Jodi Kantor's recent book, "The Obamas," is the latest publication to trigger a fresh round in this dialogue -- one that is welcome and necessary, and shows that New Journalism continues to grab readers' attention, no easy task in our cacophonous world.
Mary Gabriel
The value of New Journalism today is that it is an antidote to all that confusing commotion. It cannot and should not replace traditional journalism, but it is a powerful supplement that can help readers understand a subject by burrowing deep until it finds the spot where true understanding lies.
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Soledad O'Brien challenges Jodi Kantor
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Author explains controversial Obama book
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In Talese's 1962 breakthrough piece on the fighter Joe Louis, for example, he used extensive dialogue instead of the journalist's usual one- or two-sentence quotes. He indulged in scenes as long and rich and nuanced as those in any novel. And, most shocking of all, he seemingly climbed inside Louis' mind to describe how he felt, thereby giving readers insight into the inner life of a complex character.
The result: Joe Louis was no longer merely a headline or a boxing statistic, he was a man the readers felt they knew and, more significantly, understood quite well. They came away from the article as if from a terrific meal, satisfied and delighted.
Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, David Halberstam and, more recently, Washington-focused writers like Bob Woodward, Joe Klein, and John Heilemann and Mark Halperin -- authors of "Game Change," the 2010 best-seller about the 2008 election -- took Talese's method and expanded it into books. Their works became barometers of their times by fully capturing moments in history that a news story could only recount.
This was possible in part because these writers stripped their work of two artifices that had become standard procedure for journalists.
The first was posing as an omniscient observer. In traditional reporting, the writer stands coolly outside the story. The new journalists became part of the story to bring the reader closer to the scene. The writer wanted readers to imagine they were in the room where a crucial meeting was under way so they could feel the tension, experience the weight of a decision, and meet the conflicted men and women in the cross hairs of history.
The second journalistic tactic to be discarded and replaced stirs as much controversy today as it did half a century ago.
It relied on outside observers to illuminate and explain the subject's thoughts and emotions. New journalists eliminated the third-party quote. Instead they learned or deduced what the subject was feeling or thinking in a particular situation, and wove that impression into the narrative.
Some critics deride this practice as pure invention. They ask how journalists could possibly know what their subjects are thinking. To which the writers answer: "Because I know them."
It is this knowledge -- the result of extensive, exhaustive reporting -- that is the key to successful New Journalism. It is also the answer to the nagging questions, can it be trusted? Is it real?
Talese and Wolfe and the early writers who perfected the genre insisted that New Journalism be real. They were not willing to cross over into fiction. And neither are the serious writers who succeeded them.
In Kantor's case, while working on the book, she was not granted interviews with the two people at the heart of her narrative -- Barack and Michelle Obama. She found another way to tell their story, by mining some 200 interviews with the people who knew them best.
This approach stirred a hornet's nest of controversy in the White House. But it was not only valid, it will also help build a broader historical record.
The president and first lady will surely write their own memoirs. But they will probably not include the very important impressions of those around them. Their books, when read in combination with works by Kantor and Woodward and other authors documenting the Obama presidency, will provide a richer, more complete chronicle of a remarkable period.
Of course there are journalists who are less than fastidious, or who have a political agenda that distorts their story, or who are downright dishonest. But there are ways to detect such flaws.
Most of these works begin with an author's note, which describes the editorial decisions that went into writing and reporting the book: how quotes are used, scenes set, how many people were interviewed over how long a period. And it is up to the readers -- who should not be passive participants in this process -- to try to assess, based in part on the author's record, if they are in the hands of a serious journalist.
Books like Kantor's "The Obamas" are not biography. They are portraits of people or events at a particular time. Because they are written while history unfolds, theirs is a work in motion. They do not enjoy the perspective of biography; they cannot calmly assess a life or an act completed. But the long-term value of such books is without dispute.
When I was researching Karl Marx and his family for my book, "Love and Capital, Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution," 19th-century equivalents of Kantor's book helped me make my work come alive.
Contemporary accounts of Marx told a detailed, unvarnished, often controversial side of his story. They included testimony from his friends and enemies alike -- some of which made him furious -- written in the language of his times and steeped in the concerns of that era. I was able to collect such material and, by combining and cross-referencing with primary documents, create a portrait of Marx and his family -- to the best of my knowledge.
A century from now, a biographer trying to make sense of the tumultuous times in which we live and the historic Obama presidency will do the same, and he or she will no doubt turn to the New Journalists for depth and guidance. With their help, and through their intimate knowledge of the story, distant readers might come away with a piquant taste of what it was like to be alive today.
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