AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   July/August 1996

Circle of Friends   

By Stephen G. Bloom
Stephen G. Bloom teaches journalism at the University of Iowa.     

Is it that hard to score an interview these days?

Take a look at a couple of current hip magazines and you'll find that in article after article the writers intone that they've been (1) former lovers, (2) childhood friends or (3) satisfied customers of the subject about whom they're writing. In eras past this would be taboo, but these days it seems to be cause for celebration.

Most of these buttery articles seem harmless--puff pieces, not too different from advertorials. The problem is that they're being hyped as cutting-edge journalism.

In the June issue of GQ, for example, there's the piece on Janet Cooke written by her former lover, Mike Sager. It starts with a lead that borders on lascivious ("a teasing glimpse of lingerie, the slight swell of a milk-chocolate breast") and goes on: "We became friends soon after her arrival. By the end of February, we had begun a love affair."

In the same issue of GQ, Bucky McMahon writes a kiss-kiss valentine to end all valentines to his friend, Miami Herald columnist and novelist Carl Hiaasen. "Carl Hiaasen is everything everybody says he is: witty, charming, unassuming, unpretentious, unaffected by fame and success," McMahon writes, topping the fawning off by calling Hiaasen "a hero in his own right." It isn't until the jump that McMahon informs readers he and Hiaasen have known each other since they were 6.

Then, just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, the same issue of GQ features Alan Richman performing an even wetter job on chef-of-the-moment Drew Nieporent. Five paragraphs before concluding his slurpy piece, Richman allows that Nieporent happened to be the caterer at his wedding.

Even a journalism trade magazine seems willing to put aside objectivity and detachment for the sake of a chummy profile. In the June issue of Quill, the magazine of the Society of Professional Journalists, Billy Porterfield bestows upon Dan Rather the exalted title of "the mighty Melville of our trade," after calling him "the son of Murrow." All this unabashed adulation comes after Porterfield explains that he and Rather "covered the same stories..in the harbor of Houston and on the Texas coast of our youth."

But not all kiss-kiss interviews are so friendly. Sometimes the cool insider, confidante, bosom buddy to the star is actually poised with a butcher knife. In the June/July issue of the très-hip George, Robert Sam Anson lights into Bob Woodward and his alleged credibility problem with the subtlety of Barney pirouetting on the floor of the United States Senate. In the piece's 11-paragraph intro, Anson repeatedly refers to himself as "Woodward's visitor" before nonchalantly adding that he has known Woodward "a long while."

It used to be that first impressions were an essential tool of journalism. Reporters were to learn about their subjects, gauge their personalities through interviewing and research, and then weigh in. In today's trendy mags, the reverse seems to be the case: Weigh in first, write about style second, then write about substance last--if at all.

A few possible explanations for this behavior:

* Hip writers and hip profile subjects travel in tight circles. Naturally, they mix and match--same parties, same personal trainers, same shrinks. There's really no way savvy editors can get around the problem, so why not encourage it? The message to readers is that their magazine is hippest, since their writers actually get to play with the profile subjects before, during and after the magazine's pieces are written.

* Assigning a hip writer who is the former lover/ childhood friend/customer of the profile subject is the only way to get the subject to open up--or talk at all. Maybe it also ensures that the article won't be a hit-piece. It's nothing new that celebrities' agents demand certain writers as a contingency for doing the story. But today it is all too common for interviewees to follow the lead of Spike Lee, who once openly expressed a preference for being interviewed by black journalists. Now, though, it's Spike with a twist--I'll only talk to my friends.

* Employment opportunities for friends. It's a dog-eat-dog world of cutthroat journalism out there, so striking a deal for an exclusive is the least an old, successful friend can do. My complaint is that no one cares about my former lovers, childhood friends or the shmo who catered my wedding.

Today's new genre of kiss-kiss journalism isn't all bad. At least today's hip journalists/friends of the famous do us the favor of disclosing their coziness. Journalism ethics really have come a long way.