Magazines are dying by their own hand, says columnist Ron Rosenbaum, done in by the celebrity profile
and all that it entails. But despair not, glossy-paged salvation lies in a simple solution
– the write-around.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So investigative reporters still rake the mud, but less and less at the magazines that once welcomed them. Slate columnist Ron Rosenbaum says that's because the glossies increasingly sacrifice independence for access -- specifically, access to stars.
And to prove his point, Rosenbaum has made examples of two articles. One was a July profile in Esquire of Angelina Jolie in which she was virtually canonized by a writer Rosenbaum admires, Tom Junod. The other was a piece not published in GQ. GQ had commissioned political reporter Joshua Green to write about discord in Hillary Clinton's campaign, but then the editors killed it, claiming the piece had problems. Green charges that it was spiked because it would have jeopardized an upcoming profile of Bill Clinton.
Ron Rosenbaum is here to talk about the scourge of the celebrity profile. Welcome back, Ron. RON ROSENBAUM: Thanks for having me on, Brooke. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you've been on a one-man mission against the celebrity profile since June, when you wrote about the worst celebrity profile ever written. Can you explain what so distinguished that particular cover story in Esquire? RON ROSENBAUM: Well, to put it in a context, I think I'm not the only one who's noticed the way magazines have given up, basically, their covers to celebrity P.R. people who dictate photographers, they dictate what reporters are allowed to report. If the profile is not fawning, that reporter's out on his ear as far as reporting on any other celebrities.
And this particular profile of Angelina Jolie, which called her "the best woman in the world" -- BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] RON ROSENBAUM: -- sort of epitomized the low point of fawning for access, the pretension of it, with all sort of pseudo-deep-think about the nature of celebrity and how Angelina Jolie is really an underdog and she identifies with the underdog -- you know, all this bootlicking.
And what do they get for it? They get Angelina Jolie to pose naked with a sheet so they can put that on the cover. They get basically no information. The fraudulence of it, finally, I don't know - BROOKE GLADSTONE: Pushed you over the edge? RON ROSENBAUM: I -- pushed me over the edge. Yeah. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] RON ROSENBAUM: I mean, there's a kind of trap in access. There's a Stockholm syndrome where the reporter, you know, feels too close to the subject. And then, also, politicians, particularly, but most people with power have crafted their act so well that they will never really give away anything new or truthful. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you offer a solution -- the write-around. RON ROSENBAUM: Well, let's separate the two articles I did. I wrote a piece on the worst celebrity profile ever written, and the most recent piece I did for Slate was about Clinton pressuring GQ to kill a story. And what we saw there was these Hollywood rules of access being applied to politics.
GQ was willing to kill an investigative story so that they would have the illusion, or delusion, of an exclusive with Bill Clinton -- like Bill Clinton hardly talks to anyone. BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] RON ROSENBAUM: And they would be able to put Bill Clinton on the cover of their world-renowned GQ Man of the Year issue and have it -- BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] RON ROSENBAUM: -- their exclusive photo rather than a stock photograph. Like Clinton's going to look so different and the readership is going to be convinced that there's some special intimacy. One of the most photographed people in the history of humanity. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what is the write-around? RON ROSENBAUM: The write-around is a sort of term of art often used disdainfully. It means the subject or potential subject of a profile refuses access, refuses even the half-hour, carefully-monitored-by-P.R. interview.
What is done is to investigate the person from the outside. It's really, at its best, investigative journalism. BROOKE GLADSTONE: You say that is really about politics and less about celebrities. On the other hand, an example you cite of one of the great write-arounds of all time was by Gay Talese and was about Frank Sinatra. RON ROSENBAUM: It was, in a unique way, about Frank Sinatra's power, as reflected by the many layers of flunkies and lackeys who surrounded him, who were the only people that Talese was allowed to talk to. And at least he painted a picture of what raw power is. BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was called Frank Sinatra Has a Cold. RON ROSENBAUM: Yes, and the many repercussions for the many layers of flunkies and lackeys that this cold had. You can learn more from an investigative reporter who doesn't speak to the person. I've called investigative reporters "sociopaths for truth" -- BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] RON ROSENBAUM: -- because they're a different breed of cat. They're not afraid to hurt feelings if it means telling the truth about someone. BROOKE GLADSTONE: So if you were a magazine editor, how would you balance your desire for more investigative reporting with the market demand for Angelina Jolie wearing a sheet? RON ROSENBAUM: I suppose that's hard to compete with, but I think there's also respect for the reader. Magazines have turned themselves into slaves of the publicity-industrial complex. And I think the best magazine stories are the ones that you would not have imagined existed until you read them. They find a way to show you why they're important, rather than use some brand name to do so. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ron, thank you very much. RON ROSENBAUM: Thank you, Brooke. BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ron Rosenbaum is a columnist for Slate, and author of The Shakespeare Wars.