In 2001, Slate.com deputy editor David Plotz set out to tell the tale of a millionaire businessman turned modern eugenicist, who wanted to impregnate young women with the sperm of Nobel prize-winning men. But Plotz himself became part of the narrative when he brought together family members, helping to propel the very story he was reporting. He talks to Bob about his jump from journalist to middleman.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. Journalists, or so the ideal goes, are neutral observers, disinterested chroniclers of the events of their time. Good reporters take notes without taking sides. They cover stories. They don't contrive them. In 2001, Slate magazine reporter David Plotz set out to tell the bizarre tale of a millionaire businessman turned modern eugenicist whose idea it was to impregnate young brilliant women with the sperm of Nobel Prize winning men. That may sound like science fiction, but it actually happened, and Plotz himself became part of the narrative when he brought together family members and, in a very un-journalistic way, helped propel the very story he was reporting. David Plotz joins me now. David, welcome to the show.
DAVID PLOTZ: Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, your book begins with businessman Robert Graham. Tell me about his idea, the repository for germinal choice.
DAVID PLOTZ: Well, my book, The Genius Factory, is the story of how Robert Graham, who was a millionaire inventor of shatterproof plastic eyeglasses decided to start a sperm bank for Nobel Prize winners in 1980, and he collected some sperm from a few Nobelists and was distributing it to women who belonged to the high I.Q. society Mensa, with the idea that he would breed a kind of cadre of future scientists and leaders and politicians who would reverse what he saw as the genetic degradation occurring all around him. And over 20 years, he had this sperm bank, and it fathered more than 200 children, and in 2001, I set out to try to find out what had happened to those kids.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. Well, that seems straightforward enough. So you just started reporting and ran a story about Graham and the children who were born from this project.
DAVID PLOTZ: Well, I was faced with kind of a, an exceptional problem. Robert Graham, the founder of the bank, was dead. The records of the sperm bank were sealed. There was no way to find out who the donors had been and who the children were. So what I decided to do was to post an article on Slate.com saying if you were involved with this bank as a, an employee or a donor or a child or a mother who went there, please contact me, and you can be anonymous, and we'll see what we can discover of this history.
BOB GARFIELD: So, now the dynamics of this story have changed, because you are literally in the middle of it.
DAVID PLOTZ: Exactly. Well, what happened was not at all what I expected, because I set out to do a project about genius. I set out to find out did this experiment to breed super-children work. But what happened to me was that the people who were contacting me were mothers or children or donors, not because they particularly wanted to tell their story. They were contacting me because they were searching for family members, and I had suddenly become the one person in the entire world who was in a position to connect donors to their children or children to their half-siblings. And it was a very bizarre situation for me as a journalist to find myself in.
BOB GARFIELD: Now there's something called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle which in physics says that it's very difficult to track a subatomic particle, because any means you use to track it actually changes the path of that particle, and in journalism we call it the Observer's Paradox - that the very process of reporting on a story can change the outcome of that story. It would seem that you are the poster child for the Observer's Paradox. How did you get around that problem?
DAVID PLOTZ: Well, we didn't get around it. [LAUGHS] You know? We were all Heisenberg, all the time. The editor of Slate, Michael Kinsley - the then-editor of Slate, Michael Kinsley - and his deputy Jack Schaefer and I talked about what we were going to do. We certainly recognized that this was a different kind of journalistic project, because basically we were turning our readers into our sources in the series, and what Mike insisted on, very early on, was that we be totally transparent with readers about what we were doing. The problem with situations where journalists cause the story, as I certainly did cause the story, are when it's not clear to readers what's going on and I think what we made very sure of was that readers were in a very strong position to judge how we had affected the story and whether, therefore, they should, should read these stories in a different way than they might read other stories.
BOB GARFIELD: At this stage, knowing the impact that you've had on people's lives, are you happy, satisfied that you have undertaken this project?
DAVID PLOTZ: I'm very happy I undertook it. One point I want to make is that as I was doing this, I was behaving not really like or not exclusively like a journalist; I was behaving like a human being. I could, you know, accept that I was creating a story, and accept the emotional consequences of it, and that's what I chose to do. And I think it made it, you know, not typical journalism of the kind you find in the pages of the Washington Post every day. But it made it a strange and interesting and really kind of emotionally wrenching kind of journalism, and one that I think is much richer for it.
BOB GARFIELD: You've met the children who were the product of Robert Graham's shall we say seminal inspiration. Are these kids collectively going to save humanity?
DAVID PLOTZ: They're not going to collectively save humanity. They are above average as a group. Some are quite extraordinary. But I don't think it is a tribute to the genius sperm that they got. I think it is largely a tribute to the kind of mothers they have. You ask yourself, what kind of mother goes to a Nobel Prize sperm bank? It's the kind of mother who is bound and determined to have an accomplished child. In most cases, they would have raised remarkable children had they gone to the Nobel Prize sperm bank or had they gone to Joe's Discount Sperm Warehouse.
BOB GARFIELD: David, thank you very much.
DAVID PLOTZ: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Slate.com's David Plotz is author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank.