Jan Wong has some great tips on how to kill your journalistic career. “Try to come across as sympathetic, nice and non-threatening,” she says to aspiring journalists. Wong apparently reads through hundreds of articles, looking for contradictions. That kind of preparatory work is fine. But Wong isn’t applying her bum rush approach to sacred cows. Instead of going after potential contradictions within the story of a breast cancer survivor performing self-biopsies in Antarctica, Wong asked her subject about her troubled marital woes. And when a Beijing University student approached Wong for help in fleeing to the West, Wong turned the student over to the Communist Party.
And that’s not all. After putting away her tape recorder and paper, Royal Bank CEO John Cleghorn confessed to Wong off the record that his wife had, at one point, left him. Wong used the quote anyway.
It’s one thing to be a muckraker, asking the tough questions and exposing the hypocrisies within a subject. Rattling the chains is what good honest journalism is all about. But when trust means nothing, when one cannot distinguish between the interview environment and the off-the-record comments that subjects confess sotto voce (I’ve heard more than a few in my on-again, off-again work and, no, I ain’t fessin’), then what’s the point of journalism? In the long run, as more subjects catch whiff of Jan Wong’s style, they’ll be less likely to reveal anything or even present themselves for an interview.
This is exactly what happened to Rex Reed. Reed made a name for himself in the 1960s with frank, confessional pieces (if you can find it, the now out-of-print Do You Sleep in the Nude? includes some of these career-building interviews), even earning Tom Wolfe’s seal of approval, before he humiliated Warren Beatty in Esquire. The Beatty interview (in name only) involved Reed writing a lengthy profile about trying to interview Beatty, using hearsay and unsubstantiated facts in an effort to sabotage him as a has-been, just as Bonnie & Clyde was to be released to the American public. It didn’t work. Predictably, Reed’s career drifted away from profiles, towards uneducated and flamboyant film reviews (case in point: read the end of this Roger Ebert Jurassic Park 3 review) — all best avoided, unless you think the vapidity of People Magazine is sui generis. The Reed-Beatty “interview” is now regarded as a textbook example of dishonest journalism.
Of course, Wong’s hypocrisy has had a few side effects. The article also notes that Wong can be found cowering from Margaret Atwood and Allan Fotheringham at Toronto writer functions. My guess is that in ten years’ time, we’ll find Wong replacing some major critic on a Canadian movie reviews program, before writing a column that nobody reads in a major Toronto newspaper.