When I started writing profiles of people in newspapers and magazines, I pretended that I didn't care if my subjects liked what I wrote about them. Now I've come to admit that I do care: Ballerinas, politicians, hairpiece makers, canoeists, bureaucrats, artists or football players of either gender, I want them to like what they read.
And I usually get what I want, because I usually write about sane, well-made people. That's kind of my specialty. And such people, I have found, don't want to be airbrushed into preening portraits. They merely want to be seen clearly, and have their point of view represented.
One of the things I still allow myself to be proud of is that I can see other people and represent their views. So most of my subjects like my word paintings, which makes me feel good about me, and about them.
I can count the exceptions on three fingers:
A suburban mayor I wrote about hated my article so much he had his assistants go around to every bookstore in the town and buy up and destroy every copy of the magazine.
A drunken performer whose hands I had to pry off a young photographer's ass in a motel room, later complained that my article, which didn't mention the drunkenness or the ass-grabbing, was still too gritty for use in his promotional materials.
And more recently, a profile subject I admire very much took four days to respond after the publication. I found myself really anxious about her reaction. "I forget what an insulating environment I am in," she finally wrote. "Beyond these walls I sometimes seem like a monster. I did cringe a couple of times … but I can't say it wasn't accurate."
I was sorry to make her cringe, but I was glad I made her see herself as other people see her, and my admiration of her remains.
In a much more consequential story:
“I extend my sincerest apology for this profile,” he said in a statement, on his way back to Washington to face the people he's sworn to serve and yet has been caught publicly motherfucking, in print. “It was a mistake reflecting poor judgment and should never have happened. Throughout my career, I have lived by the principles of personal honor and professional integrity. What is reflected in this article falls far short of that standard.”
It shows integrity that he didn't claim the article took him out of context. (Usually what that means is, "It took me out of the context of the bogus little myth I've built around myself.")
But he needs to figure out why an accurate portrayal of his views behind-the-scenes looks so bad in public. And he needs to decide which guy he is, at bottom:
The contemptuous, sneering military guy, contemptuous of know-nothing civilian bosses (a time-honored role: See Patton, George S. and MacArthur, Douglas).
Or is he a man of both broader mind and more modest ego, who serves the civilian leadership honorably unless and until the orders he is receiving are reckless, pointless or both?
He's about to decide. And we're about to find out. And the outcome of the decision could spark a new and necessary conversation about ending the war in Afghanistan. And a magazine article forced the issue.
Who says journalism is dead?