Mosi Secret is the new "sin and vice" reporter at The New York Times. Brooke speaks with Mosi about how his new beat came to be, and the challenges of reporting stories about people on the fringe.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone.
[NAKED CITY CLIP]:
NARRATOR: There are eight million stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The New York Times has just inaugurated its Sin and Vice beat in its Metro section. City Editor Dean Chang told the New York Observer that he didn’t come up with the beat as an excuse to run titillating stories in the New York Times. The idea was to cover things and places that wouldn’t naturally have a voice in the Metro section. But what if the people doing things in those places prefer to be voiceless? That's the challenge facing newly minted Sin and Vice Reporter Mosi Secret, an award-winning investigative reporter who’s been covering the courts and social services for the paper for the last few years. Mosi, mostly welcome to On the Media, and how’d you get that name?
MOSI SECRET: Thank you. Secret’s just been a family name for a long time. I just got lucky in the surname lottery.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] So, why did the “Grey Lady” go with sin? Is she just throwing her hat into the click-baiting ring?
MOSI SECRET: People would like to think that the newspaper conceived this beat as a way to attract more readers, but it really was more organic than that. It will be a chance to get into places and find characters, in the end, even if this is behavior that people find undesirable; there will be a human element in there that people can connect with. We should kind of know what other people are like, and we want there to be some greater idea about what this says about New York.
New York is a lot more expensive than it used to be, so the people who were kind of driving the scenes, doing weird and illicit stuff, they can't really afford to live here anymore. So the first story, what we saw is that the people who were doing this stuff are actually very affluent. And I suspect I will see more of that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So then let’s talk about your first story which just came out a few weeks ago. It's basically about a brothel called The Bliss Bistro.
MOSI SECRET: I was introduced to the place by a lawyer who I know who represents the guy who runs the brothel. My first visit there I was in and out of the place. I didn’t want like a woman to approach me and ask me if I wanted to do anything. I just wanted to kind of like see the place and get out of there. I saw women in barely any clothes and men kind of happy in that kind of drunk way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They were mingling at a bar.
MOSI SECRET: Yeah. It had kind of, like, a griminess to it. The furniture was very old, the place was dingy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And yet, the clientele seemed pretty well- heeled to you.
MOSI SECRET: Right, these businessmen, professional men, for the most part, are in this pretty grimy place, which you would expect them not to be. The challenge was what do you say to these people? “I’m a reporter with the Times and I want you to tell me why you’re here and what you’re doing?”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Have you started to work out a strategy?
MOSI SECRET: I'm still figuring it out. I can’t say that I have been less successful since that story. Right now, I’m just trying to develop trust, let them know that I'm going to protect them, that they don’t have to worry about getting in trouble because of anything that I've done, and just convince them that the things that they are doing and the life that they are living is something that readers would be intrigued by, and see if that appeals to them at all. That’s what appealed to Tony, the first person who I wrote about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tony, the owner of Bliss Bistro, a young man who worked his way up from what he said was selling large quantities of heroin, something you noted but said in pure Times speech: “It couldn’t be independently verified.” Surely, you and your editors know you’re going to be told a lot of things that aren't going to be independently verified.
MOSI SECRET: Right. Well, in this case, that’s not what the story was about. The story was about this place that I saw. The meat of the story is something that we were able to verify.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Various fine points of people's biographies are not crucial.
MOSI SECRET: If I’m doing a profile, then I think it is crucial. But people who live life in such a way that there are no documents, other things like that, then we kind of have to take it at their word and have those disclaimers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think one thinks of the Times as a very hidebound institution. I mean, calling Meat Loaf, “Mr. Loaf” the ultimate example of that.
MOSI SECRET: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: A very positive reaction to the brothel piece?
MOSI SECRET: There were certainly people who wrote in to the public editor saying that it was beneath Times standards, but they were not the majority of people who responded. Most people enjoyed the story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It did go through the standards editor though.
MOSI SECRET: Yes, yes.
The standard editor is actually the person who suggested that we include that little disclaimer about Tony's biography.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm, so one down, the brothel piece. How is the beat going? Are you finding other things to write about?
MOSI SECRET: I have a list of ideas but I have had some trouble bringing the ideas to fruition. One reason is that people are much more hesitant than Tony was to tell their stories. They want to trade information in their stories, either for money or some type of access or these kinds of things, which, obviously, as a reporter for the Times I cannot do.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Could you give an example?
MOSI SECRET: Yeah. I, I wanted to get into illegal poker rooms in the city and I met someone who is a gambler and who also operates some of these rooms. And he said, yeah, I can help you get in there, you just have to pay me. You know, obviously, I cannot pay him but he didn’t get it. He thought that I was almost playing hard to get. So we just didn’t, we didn’t get anywhere.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I have to talk about you the name of your beat, Sin. Merriam-Webster calls it, “an offense against religious or moral law.” Then I looked in the Urban Dictionary, and it defines sin as, “Good, dirty fun.”
So it’s hard to define the beat, if you don’t define “sin.”
MOSI SECRET: Even though we are not using “sin” as a religious term, we have loosely used the “Seven Deadly Sins” as a guide to things that we should look into.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Like extreme plastic surgery?
MOSI SECRET: Yeah, that –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Is that vanity?
MOSI SECRET: That is on my list.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Hot dog-eating contests, gluttony?
MOSI SECRET: Yeah. We considered that, but it’s just been written about so much.
But, but yes, that can fall within my area of coverage.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And greed, one might argue, fuels one of the principal sources of income in the city of New York.
MOSI SECRET: That’s right. That one I probably will write about less, only because there's been so much coverage of Wall Street guys who are greedy.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sloth isn’t very headline grabbing, is it?
MOSI SECRET: No, that’s actually a hard one. I don’t know how I’m gonna do anything on that. [LAUGHS]
A lot of people have said, you know, I'm so envious of you. This sounds like an amazing assignment. And it is. But it’s also pretty hard.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think the Times may have created this beat, say, 40 years too late? [LAUGHS] Would it have been better in the ‘70s?
MOSI SECRET: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mosi, thank you very much.
MOSI SECRET: You’re welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mosi Secret covers sin and vice for the New York Times.