This is the second part of my interview with Jason Leopold, author of News Junkie. The first part was published last week.
Before we resume the interview, I just wanted to say that it was a bit surreal reading this book and not just because I’m a journalist. No, we crossed paths and had connections I did not expect. For example, he wrote about Enron during the energy crisis. At that time I was covering the city of Hagerstown, Md., which had been approached by a company – Enron – about providing services to the city. Fortunately the city turned them down.
I grew up in Riverside, CA and my dream job was to work for the Los Angeles Times. The closest I ever got was applying for some of the reporter positions at the crappy inserts which he, briefly, worked for. So that was another connection.While I didn’t work for the Times, I worked for weekly newspapers around Riverside County and have written my share of the type of filler crap you had to write for the Our Times experiment of the Los Angeles Times.
While going to college at Cal Poly Pomona I worked nights as a security guard (which meant call the cops if anything unusual happened) at the San Gabriel Tribune. And that was one of the newspapers that caved to a libel threat while he was working there.
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As I finished the first part of the interview I was comparing his actions and controversy to Jason Blair and he had told me how the two cases were quite different.
Scott: The book also brings to mind James Frey. What did you make of the controversy over his memoir, which must have occurred around the time your book was coming out? Have there been any accusations about any inaccuracies in your book? Do you think that is going to be true of any memoir?
Jason: The James Frey situation is disturbing. The fallout over his memoir occurred at the same time my memoir was published. When the news broke that his memoir had been fabricated I did not believe it. I could not comprehend how someone would write a memoir and make themselves out to be worse than truly were.
When I was writing my memoir, I never thought to myself, “Gee, I would like people to believe I am even a bigger son of a bitch than I really am. I think I’ll make up a couple of things that make me look like a badass.” When I was writing my memoir, I kept saying to myself, “God. I can’t believe how horrible of a human being I was. You really hurt a lot of people, Jason.”
The James Frey situation just didn’t make sense to me. Because his memoir sold millions of copies and was proven to be fiction, it put the memoir genre under scrutiny — and rightfully so. I had to dig up all of my old files — my criminal record, copies of documents that confirmed my stay in rehab — and we posted it on my publisher’s Web site and sent it out to reviewers as a way of proving that I really was a son of a bitch in my previous life. How crazy does that sound?
But I wanted to write a brutally honest memoir, and I never once thought about taking any liberties with my book. The thing about the truth, the thing that people like James Frey or Augusten Burroughs fail to understand is that sometimes the truth is just plain ugly and there is no way you can gloss these things over.
There was no way I could make myself look good in my eyes. I did terrible things and I was brutally honest about it and I hope I come across as sympathetic to some people and worthy of redemption.
Scott: I’m going to ask a question I ask all memoirists, whether it’s Toby Young or AJ Jacobs or you: Did you share the book’s contents with family members? Did you change anything at their request? Your descriptions of your parents is pretty damn raw so if they read it that must have been a tough experience.
Jason: There have been zero accusations of inaccuracies in my memoir. I did not change a single thing. Not one name is changed. Everything I wrote can be traced back through documents and journals. It’s like a road map. In certain cases, I use first names and don’t provide last names.
My parents did read my book prior to publication, and it was very difficult for them to take in, as you can probably imagine. It was hard for them to read how much ill will I harbored toward them for so many years. We didn’t speak for several weeks. I wasn’t sure if we would ever speak again. But they knew everything I had written was true.
In fact, my parents signed a waiver, a legal document, stating that everything I wrote was true, and that they wouldn’t sue me. That was a real difficult thing for me to do, asking them to sign a waiver, but they did it. And I love them for doing so. We have become so much closer because of my book.
Scott: You are a supporter of indie media. Why do you prefer indie media to “mainstream media?"
Jason: Independent media is organized and operated by individuals who are passionate about reporting the truth whereas, in my opinion, mainstream media is about money and access. I would not have the opportunity in this day and age, in this political climate, to do the same type of reporting at a mainstream outlet because there is a fear of pissing off people in power. We saw it with The New York Times decision to sit on the NSA spying story for more than a year to cite one example.
Scott: Maybe it’s the former journalist in me but I had a strong reaction when you admitted to “inventing details” in order to get interviews. It reminds me of police officers misleading people in order to get confessions. Do you think that is ethical?
Jason: Investigative reporting sometimes requires doing things, such as telling a source or the subject of an investigation that you know something that you really don’t know. Reporters sometimes go undercover, believe it or not, to obtain information without revealing to the people that they are receiving the information from that they are actually a journalist. Recall that in All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein said many things to potential sources that were not true at the time in order to pull information from their sources or others involved in the Watergate investigation.
Scott: At one point you talk about “stupid errors” and I’m going to excerpt that paragraph.
Urgency trumped caution in my career those days. I have the ability to be a great reporter, but then there are those stupid errors – proper names I should have double-checked, words I should have spell-checked. Or I got a word in a quote wrong because I was didn’t check my notes. It’s been my Achilles’ heel. I always wanted to be the first one out of the gate to report a story, and sometimes my errors gave other journalists the opening they need to tear me apart.
I felt sympathetic because I had the same problem – getting good stories but sometimes making errors on proper names. When you say in “those days” are you implying things have changed about that?
But later when you mention the plagiarism you did you refer to it at one point as one of those stupid mistakes I mentioned. Do you agree there is a huge difference between typos and getting quotes off by one word and plagiarizing four paragraphs from the Financial Times?
Jason: First off, I must say again, as I did in my book, that the “plagiarism” allegation by Salon was weak because I had credited the Financial Times THREE times in the story that came into question, and that is apparent if you or anyone cares to look at the story which is still available on the Internet. As I said in my book, why would I credit a story three times only to try and pass off elements of the same story as my own work? It’s ridiculous and was an unfair allegation by Salon who felt threatened by the White House at the time.
However, to answer your original question I do things a lot differently these days, and one of the biggest changes is doing things slowly. I check names, and spellings three, four times. I go over stories I write carefully to make sure we have all the facts in order, make sure the quotes are correct and where appropriate make sure that citations are in order. I work very closely with my editors to make sure my stories are as clean as can possibly be.
In the “old” days, when I worked at the wire service, it was all about speed and beating the competition. While there is an element of that in my blood to this day, I know that the stories I work on now are not the same stories that The New York Times will be covering so there is no need to treat every story I write with a sense of urgency.
Scott: Your book seems to switch gears in the last 10 pages from the tough-talking writer to one who is softer, more caring about what others think. Was that intentional or more a reflection of a change in your attitude, i.e. a kinder, more gentle Jason.
Jason: The characterization of being a kinder person toward the end of my book was written that way because that is the person I had started to become and I had an opportunity to reflect on my past and finally felt capable to take responsibility. It was unintentional in terms of writing it that way, and it represents my state of mind at that particular point in time.
I felt that the work I had started to do on myself personally resulted in a change of attitude. I did not see myself as a victim anymore, and that is probably was the most important change in my life.
Scott: Switching topics completely, I was surprised by something which may have been out of your hands. You come off in the book as an aggressive reporter who would do anything to get a story and would probably scoff at press releases at publicists trying to guide you toward a puff piece. So I was surprised that along with the requested copy of the book there were “suggested interview questions.” I threw those away. Tell me if you were doing this interview would you want to read someone else’s suggested questions for this book or come up with your own?
Jason: As far as the “prepared questions” you received that is just a standard thing my publisher sends out because, you may be surprised to know, the larger media outlets do not take the time to read my book—or other books—and when they agree to interviews they actually ask if the publisher can prepare questions for them. So it was not crafted for you in particular. But it confirms everything I wrote in my book about my colleagues in the media: they are incredibly lazy.
Scott: What are you working on now?
Jason: I am working on the follow-up to News Junkie, the second volume in my reporting/memoir trilogy, and I continue to report on the energy industry as well as the scandals that seem to be emanating on a daily basis from the White House.
I gravitate toward stories and issues that are controversial, and I try to find an angle to an issue that other reporters don’t pay attention to or haven’t thought of in order to provide readers, my readers, a different perspective on the news.