When a Reporter Becomes Part of the Story
By Andrew H. Vanacore
C laire Hoffman, who covers Hollywood and the adult entertainment industry for the Los Angeles Times, faced an unusual dilemma while working on a profile of "Girls Gone Wild" creator Joe Francis. Hoffman shadowed Francis and his film crew on location at a Chicago nightclub, and by the end of the trip, she didn't know whether to write her story or press charges. Ultimately, she wrote the story as a first-person account for West, the L.A. Times' Sunday magazine. The piece begins in the parking lot when Francis suddenly turns on her: He "has my face pressed against the hood of a car, my arms twisted hard behind my back." The traumatic event ended, she wrote, when she wriggled free and punched Francis in the face. Hoffman talked to AJR's Andrew H. Vanacore about the episode. An edited transcript follows.
Vanacore is an AJR editorial assistant.
How did the idea for a profile of Joe Francis come about?
We received a "Guys Gone Wild" video [another Francis product] in the business section. Someone sent it in, probably for promotional purposes. I looked it up in our archives, and we hadn't ever actually written about "Girls Gone Wild" or Joe as a business.., which seemed like kind of an oversight. I ended up meeting Joe at a party, and I gave him my card and told him I wanted to write about his business. He called me a couple of months later, and we had lunch.
How did you convince him to let you tag along while he filmed?
That took time. I went for our first lunch, and I had a tape recorder and a notepad. I was ready to go, and he sort of put his foot down. He was very wary of being interviewed and wasn't sure if he wanted to do it, so we just had an off-the-record lunch talking about what I was interested in. It was a matter of kind of waiting it out, and it just kind of happened. After a couple of lunches, he said he was going to the Midwest to film "Girls." And I had said, "I want to see how this works," because I was totally fascinated by exploring what makes women do these things [expose themselves on Francis' mail-order videos]. I didn't have any judgment about it. I just didn't understand it. And he ended up agreeing to let me do it.
There are critics who say you couldn't have written an objective story. How did you and your editors decide how to proceed after he pinned you?
I had already spent quite a lot of time with him and done quite a lot of reporting before the incident in the parking lot. I felt like I had a really good story. And then in the parking lot it was an absolute shock what happened, and punching him was not out of anger, it was out of protection. The next morning I called my editors and laid it all out for them and told them, "This is what happened, and I don't know what to do. I hate the idea of letting go of this story, but obviously this will be seen as me being biased." Originally it was going to be something that would run in the business section. After we talked about it, we decided it would be first-person. It was not originally a magazine piece. We also decided to put it right at the beginning and say, this is what happened, put that card on the table and not wait until the end.
Do you think the piece will have an effect on the "Girls Gone Wild" industry?
Well, certainly for the public that reads it. In terms of impact, it's a business that's been very strong for nine years. One article isn't going to change that. I have gotten an enormous amount of letters and phone calls and e-mails from people saying that it's changed the way they think about it, that they thought it was harmless and now they feel they have to be actively involved in making sure people they know don't participate in it. But I didn't write this as an activist trying to stop "Girls Gone Wild." I just wrote about what I saw.
Why didn't you press charges?
I definitely thought about it. It wasn't a carefree decision. I was kind of a mess in the parking lot. There wasn't a playbook for that kind of thing, and my feeling was that I was there as a reporter and not a private citizen. So the idea of pressing charges didn't make any sense. I was there to be reporting on things and writing them down, not pressing charges on the person I'm interviewing. He sort of broke those boundaries first, but it didn't seem appropriate. [Hoffman also talked about allegations by Jannel Szyszka detailed in Hoffman's story that Francis had sex with an intoxicated Szyszka despite her protests.] People have been just vitriolic about Jannel not pressing charges. How do you encourage an 18-year-old to press charges against a millionaire who could very possibly just drag her through the mud? In a way she made a very informed decision by talking to me. She did what she could do. Last time I talked to her she was still thinking about pressing charges, but she immediately cited the woman who pressed charges against Kobe Bryant. I think people really underestimate how these girls get treated in the press and how it changes their lives. Any young woman who watches TV and sees that--it's not a very welcoming precedent.
Do you think this experience will change the way you approach reporting? ###
Yes, I do. The most shocking thing about that story was that someone I was interviewing and spending time with, he turned on me. I'm sure many reporters have been through that, and I just hadn't had that happen yet. I'm relatively new to reporting, and I haven't had someone do such a 180. It probably has made me a little more careful. I mean these are great stories, and I want to be able to cover them, but would I do that again where I was completely alone with someone absolutely in the middle of nowhere? I'm not sure.