Reporters at Work: Does a Bit of Acting Make You a Con Man?

By Jack Limpert

Here’s how going to a Nationals-Phillies baseball game with a journalist can bring back the famous Janet Malcolm line about reporters: “He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and then betraying them without remorse.”

It was the last game of the regular season, a big DC crowd, and a 5-1 Nats win. We stayed to the end and almost all the crowd left at the same time. The journalist was driving and when we got to his car it was obvious we were in very bad traffic. But he’s been working in DC for 30 years, has done plenty of investigative stories in this part of DC, and I figured he’d know how to escape. He tried a couple of short cuts that seemed to make things worse and then saw an opening—but he’d have to drive a half block in the wrong lane of a two-way street to make a left turn. He didn’t hesitate and then we heard a siren. A cop walked up, asked for license and registration, and seemed ready to write a ticket. The tough guy journalist went into a “Gee, I’m sorry, I’ve never been in this part of town, I didn’t mean to break the law, we’re just trying to get home from the ball game” act. The cop let him off with a warning.

The Janet Malcolm line came from her 1990 book, The Journalist and the Murderer, in which she attacked the behavior of Joe McGinniss, author of the 1983 book, Fatal Vision, about former Special Forces Captain Jeffery MacDonald, who was tried and convicted of killing his wife and two daughters. Malcolm examined how McGinniss operated as a journalist, starting her book with “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

Okay, playing dumb with a cop is not morally indefensible but it did show a savvy reporter in action, able to play whatever role works best. I told my journalist pal as we continued to sit in traffic that his act with the cop brought to mind how Sally Quinn operated 30 years ago when she was writing scathing profiles in the Washington Post Style section. She was an actress of sorts, good at getting people to talk by posing as a confidant, telling stories about herself and getting her subjects to talk too much. It worked for a while but soon there weren’t many
Washingtonians who didn’t understand the dangers of talking to her.

Do good reporters tend to be con artists? My journalist pal is a savvy reporter who can play different roles but he does solid, fair, well-reported articles and books. McGinniss is undoubtedly also a good role-player: His first big book was The Selling of the President, a narrative of  how Richard Nixon was packaged in the 1968 presidential campaign. McGinniss hung out with the Nixon people during the campaign and you can bet he acted a lot more innocent and sympathetic than he actually was.

In my years at The Washingtonian, I saw some of the journalist as con artist but not to such an extreme that it seemed indefensible. Actually, the bigger problem was with two very good writers who were so empathetic with their subjects that they didn’t want to write anything that might hurt the subject’s feelings or cause any discomfort. I had to push them to not leave things out, telling them that when they sat down to write their loyalty was to the reader.

The two writers with too much empathy were women. But then there was the woman writer who did great stories for us and went on to big success in New York. She said this is how she did it:  “Fall in love and get married during the interview, then get divorced at the keyboard.”

P.S. Joe McGinniss wrote an interesting epilogue to Fatal Vision in 1989, replying at length to the Janet Malcolm two-part article in the New Yorker which was the basis for The Journalist and the Murderer. 


  1. Mike Feinsilber says

    In my 50 years or so as a wire service journalist (I always like the sound of that), my most frequent ploy was to play stupid. My purpose was to get the person I was interviewing to put his viewpoint into understandable and quotable and simple terms, free of Washington jargon. So I’d say, “I don’t understand. Could you go over that once again?” It often worked, although I could sense that the interviewee was wondering what sort of idiot he was dealing with.
    Another ploy I used in telephone interviews was to ask a question and then fall silent. Silence is the enemy of the telephone, so the person on the other end kept talking and talking and ultimately revealed more than he intended. I usually didn’t use a tape recorder in these interviews — listening again or transcribing took too much time — but I did learn how to prop the phone against my ear and type notes — and to do it as silently as possible so the interviewee was not conscious that his words were being taken down.
    Does this make me an ex-con artist?

Speak Your Mind