January 25, 2014

NYT: "When ‘Long-Form’ Is Bad Form"

On January 25, 2002, J. Clifford Baxter, the former chief strategy officer of Enron, shot himself in the head. This was widely viewed not as condemning but as confirming the journalists, such as Bethany McLean of Fortune, who had broken the Enron story. 

Today, if the Enron executive had been wearing women's clothes when he killed himself, there would be a full-fledged agonizing reappraisal of the journalistic inquiry into Enron. How dare anyone report that Enron was run by "conmen" when the appropriate noun is "conwomen!" Why is the press worrying about details of accounting when proper pronoun usage is all that really matters?

From the New York Times:
LAST week, the sports and pop culture website Grantland published a story called “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” — a piece of “long-form,” as we now call multi-thousand-word, narrative-driven reported articles — about a woman named Essay Anne Vanderbilt, who claimed to have invented a golf putter of unsurpassed excellence. 
Over the course of 7,000-plus words, the writer, Caleb Hannan, devoted a lot of space to the contentious relationship he had developed with his subject. Ms. Vanderbilt, who was transgender but in the closet — and also probably a con artist — didn’t like Mr. Hannan’s digging into the details of her personal and professional life. In the final few paragraphs of the story, Mr. Hannan revealed some shocking news: Ms. Vanderbilt had killed herself. 
The piece was initially met with praise from across the Internet. (“Great read,” raved a typical Tweet. “Fascinating, bizarre,” read another.) Then the criticism started. Mr. Hannan was accused of everything from being grossly insensitive to Ms. Vanderbilt’s privacy to having played a role in her suicide. The controversy soon grew so intense that the editor of the site, Bill Simmons, felt compelled to address it in an apologetic, if defensive, 2,700-word post of his own. Mr. Simmons stressed that the decision to publish the piece had not been taken lightly and that somewhere between 13 and 15 people had read it before it was posted and had all been “blown away.” 
Well, institutions make mistakes. Even a group of smart people is capable of doing something dumb. The fact that Ms. Vanderbilt had killed herself — and that the writer may have been involved in her decision to do so — obviously could not be relegated to the status of a footnote. But to chalk up “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” simply to shoddy editing and bad judgment is to miss the bigger picture. Grantland’s decision to publish the piece, like the initial burst of enthusiasm that greeted it, is also a product of the journalistic environment we’re living in. Specifically, the power of the cult of long-form. 
It wasn’t so many years ago that people assumed the Internet would make long magazine-style stories obsolete. Paradoxically, it now seems to have revived this once threatened medium. Magazines may be disappearing, but that’s O.K.; we still have “long-form.” What started as a Twitter signifier (#longreads or #longform), a way to get the attention of people who might be looking for a substantive read, has morphed into its own genre. In the process, a long magazine story went from being one part of a steady diet of journalistic consumption to something artisanal, a treat for connoisseurs. 
Not only are there websites like Longreads and Longform devoted to curating the best “long-form” writing from around the Internet, but even high-metabolism sites like BuzzFeed and Politico are producing their own long-form content. The term confers respectability and connotes something special, something literary. ...
It’s a familiar phenomenon: When you fetishize — as opposed to value — something, you wind up celebrating the idea of the thing rather than the thing itself. How many of those people who initially praised “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” I wonder, even made it down to those final few paragraphs before taking to Twitter to associate themselves with this great journalistic achievement? 
When we fetishize “long-form,” we are fetishizing the form and losing sight of its function. That’s how a story with a troubled woman who commits suicide at its center gets told as a writer’s quixotic quest to learn everything he can about the maker of a golf club that he stumbled across during a late-night Internet search for tips for his short game. There’s a place for writers in their magazine stories, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with offering readers a glimpse into the reporting process. The trouble starts when the subject becomes secondary, and the writer becomes not just observer but participant, the hero of his story.

But the criticism of the reporter has been for his digging too deep into his subject. Sure, Dr. V. was lying about an MIT doctorate, the conventional wisdom says, but Hannan should never have reported that "she" had fathered two children when "she" was Stephen Krol.
What, then, is the function — the purpose — of “long-form”? To allow a writer to delve into the true complexities of a story, and also to bring readers closer to the experience of other people. Whether a long-form story is published in a magazine or on the web, its goal should be to understand and illuminate its subject, and maybe even use that subject to (subtly) explore some larger, more universal truths. Above all, that requires empathy, the real hallmark of great immersive journalism. 
In the end, it doesn’t matter if one is writing about a huckster or a fraud. The best work still enables readers to experience their subjects as human beings, not as mere objects of curiosity. 
Jonathan Mahler is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and a columnist at Bloomberg View.

In other words, wearing a miniskirt proves you deserve privileged treatment from the press. Long-form journalism is inherently dubious because it asks too many questions. All that matters in 2014 is: Who? Whom? 


Anonymous said...

Conmen/women is a noun.

Anonymous said...

To paraphase the author of this schizoid essay, one - perhaps the main - purpose of "long form" journalism is to portray situations and persons in their full complexity. But the author then implicitly excoriates Grantland and Caleb Hannan for doing exactly this since one of the important complexities of this story is clearly the confused sexuality of the conman at its center.

And I think this is the first time I've ever run across the notion that a prerequisite for investigative journalists is "empathy" for the targets of their exposes. How differently Watergate might have played out were this in fact the case!

Anonymous said...

No wonder Wall Street guys have been spared from real journalistic 'long form'investigation.

Who, whom.

It's just not right to look into those kind of people.

Anonymous said...

More lunacy.



DCThrowback said...

A friend who a bureau chief/reporter for a Top 3 US Paper criticism of Hannan's piece was, to summarize:

1.) Reporters are a-holes, they build trust, then write what they write; Hannan didn't have to write about the TS stuff but chose to anyways

2.) But the audience is also filled with a-holes, who are looking to be offended by who/whom, and they are pretty awful too. The powerlessness of smart people w/ no $$ leads to a chorus of self-righteous BS that is poison

3.) Hannan could've used this as an expository piece on journalistic ethics, (which would've pleased my friend) but not necessarily pleased the readership of Grantland (i.e., me).

Note: He's not a fan of long-form.

But I am, and found the piece to be an excellent read and found the resulting sh*t-storm entertaining. The bottom line for me was what you just wrote and the piece's accusers have no answer for: assuming Vanderbilt killed herself for being exposed as a TS isn't as likely as her killing herself for being found out to be a fraud, just like ADM Mike Boorda did back in '96 w/ the Navy Medals.

Piper said...

What, then, is the function — the purpose — of “long-form”? To allow a writer to delve into the true complexities of a story, and also to bring readers closer to the experience of other people.

Until those complexities and experiences involve mental illness manifesting as self-mutilation, cross-dressing, sexual perversion, compulsive mendacity, fraud, and finally suicide! When the story gets that complex and the experiences get that bizarre (and therefore interesting to readers-- "the proper study of Mankind is man"**) then that story must not be told! You may not bring readers closer to the experience of other people when that might help the reader understand what it's like to be deceived and disappointed by a mentally-ill con-man!

**Yeah, yeah, I know that isn't quite what the poet meant.

David said...

Excellent post as usual.

Anonymous said...

WWG against Russia is really a war on white America lest white Americans ask, like Buchanan, "Is Putin one of us?"

In the 90s, the oligarchs came close to taking over Russia and gaining control of most of the assets, buying up the politicians, and controlling the media.

Putin and nationalists took control and have been promoting Russian nationalism and tradition rooted in Christianity. Russian whites don't believe their lot is to serve the interest of NY globalists.

Well, what if the Putin bug spreads to white Americans?

So, the Liberal elite establishment and neocons in the GOP work overtime to fool white Americans that the 'gay rainbow' is the new red, white, and blue and that the fruitcake is the new American-as-apple-pie.

Alinskyism. Wrap the homo-globalist agenda pushed by the elites as the new patriotism.

It may work. After all, even white conservatives care more about Israel than their national/racial/cultural interests.

Anonymous said...

The gender neutral term is "con artist". Get it right.

Reg Cæsar said...

But this concerns sex, so isn't longer better?

matt said...

Lost in the shuffle is the fact that Caleb Hannan is not some hack, but an incredible longform journalist. His profiles of 49-year-old knuckleballer Jamie Moyer and Dish Network's hated CEO are must-reads for anyone who likes the genre. The editor who greenlights his next piece will have done something wonderful, both for free speech, and for his publication.

Anonymous said...

Would donning a frock have saved Nixon?

Dystopia Max said...

J. Edgar Hoover's only crime was being too far ahead of his time.

Anonymous said...

"Long-form journalism is inherently dubious because it asks too many questions. All that matters in 2014 is: Who? Whom?"

And no further explanation for Twitter is needed. All the righteous indignation and zero analysis crammed into 140 characters.

Anonymous said...

Am I the only one who think that Dr. V's choice of V is significant?

Maguro said...

One unfortunate aspect of this is that other suicidal/mentally ill people will see how effectively Dr V was able to get back at his enemies by offing himself. Same deal with the way they prosecuted the roommate of the gay kid at Rutgers. It all amounts to society incentiving suicide.

James Hedman said...

John McPhee has always been the undisputed master of the long form of journalism/non-fiction science writing and many of his New Yorker articles (some spanning multiple issues of the magazine) have been later published as shortish books.

Never one to relate a useless divergent factoid he always keeps tightly focused on the main subject matter and often simultaneously from more than one point of view.

He's still alive so it's not too late for the Nobel Committee to act.

Anonymous said...

What's also true is the the crimes of the Enron honchos (which WERE exposed by a woman write, and a woman whistleblower) were much more serious than the crimes of this confused creature, "Dr. V."

Does this figure into the equation?

Anonymous said...


Glossy said...

All that matters in 2014 is: Who? Whom?

I don't think the world is much who-whomier now than it was 50, 100, or 500 years ago. People have always used general principles as fig leaves for specific likes and dislikes. Most do it subconsciously. Steve must be more cynical now than he was 10, 20 or 30 years ago though, so of course the world would seem who-whomier to him now than it did then.

Anonymous said...

Someone was a charlatan and a transexual. I don't have life to spare on millions of words on this.

Too bad. Shouldn't have been a charlatan. Being a transexual must be rough. The end.

countenance said...

Anonymous at 1/25/14 5:49 AM

What matters here really isn't whether LBJ did or did not have JFK rubbed out. What matters is that the political class, including Richard Nixon, thinks that very well could have been the case. This is why Presidential nominee running mates ever since then have been people who really haven't had serious Presidential ambitions themselves, or at leas they didn't before they were chosen as a running mate.

But for JFK, LBJ probably would have been the Democrat nominee in 1960.

Reg Cæsar said...

Someone was a charlatan and a transexual.

Those of us Steve's age and older can remember when "transsexuals" were still considered the victims of charlatans.

Dr Reuben called them "castrated, mutilated female impersonators". What kind of "doctor" would put someone in that state? Not Hippocrates!

Anonymous said...

Vanderbilt killed herself for being exposed as a TS isn't as likely as her killing herself for being found out to be a fraud

Uhh, isn't "TS" the ultimate in fraudulence?

Fairway Frank said...

The original piece was pretty well done, and it is a shame Simmons felt the need to apologize. Although, he did try to explain and defend as much as apologize when compared to fellow SWPL-literary type.

I thought the identity of Vanderbilt was intrinsically linked to the overall story of this mysterious putter and the even more mysterious inventor.

I wish more people would take a Master's/Hootie Johnson-type stand to being bullied by these fringe groups. Remember that Augusta eventually admitted women, they just didn't feel like doing it at the point of a feminist bayonet, so they told all the advertisers to take a hike for a few years. It was the best televised sports that I have watched (and I'm not even a huge golf guy).