Is It Betraying Those You’re Writing About? Or Just Being Honest With the Reader.

By Jack Limpert


Was Truman Capote’s betrayal of his subject what journalism is about?

Last week, my wife Jean hosted her book club and the book she picked to read and discuss was Swans of Fifth Avenue, by Melanie Benjamin. Here’s the start of the Washington Post review of it:

For those of us who are women of a certain age and have subscriptions to Vanity Fair, the star-crossed friendship between Truman Capote and socialite Babe Paley was the stuff of tabloid legend. They met cute in the mid-’50s when he hitched a ride on the Paleys’ private plane. When her husband, CBS titan Bill Paley, heard that “Truman” was coming, he was expecting the former president, not the flamboyant boy author.

Capote soon became Babe’s favorite lunch date and weekend guest, who could be counted on for gossip, flattery and a sympathetic ear. Over the next 20 years, he became “her analyst, her pillow, her sleeping pill at night, her coffee in the morning.” She entrusted him, unwisely, with the most shameful secrets of her sexless marriage.

Like many great loves, theirs ended in a tragic betrayal. In 1975, Capote published “La Cote Basque, 1965,” an excerpt from his unfinished novel, Answered Prayers. Over a long, drunken lunch at the famous restaurant, Lady Ina Coolbirth shares some of the most lurid tales of her high-society friends. One is about a multimedia tycoon, Sydney Dillon, who has a squalid one-night stand and desperately tries to wash the stained bedsheet before his wife gets home. Babe, who was dying of lung cancer at the time, recognized the similarity to her husband. Capote had, literally and literarily, aired her dirty laundry; she refused to speak to him ever again.

Before the book club meeting, Jean asked what my experience as an editor had been with writers who betrayed the people they wrote about. Here’s the note I sent her:

A case can be made that you never should trust a writer. Writers live to write and be published and be talked about and some of them will push aside all kinds of relationships to write good stories.

The most extreme view of the writer-subject relationship was the first sentence of a Janet Malcolm piece in the New Yorker that became a book, The Journalist and the Murderer. The opening sentence: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.”

Sometimes the morally indefensible betrayal, or change in point of view, is calculated.

A woman writer I worked with specialized in candid profiles of powerful men. She was good at getting them to talk. She liked to say, “I marry them in the interviews and divorce them at the keyboard.” She meant that once the interviewing was over, she was no longer her subject’s best friend. At the keyboard she was going to be straight with the reader and write what would get the most readers.

In the early days of the Washington Post’s Style section, one of its high-profile writers specialized in stinging profiles of socially ambitious people. Her technique was to charm the subject, spend lots of time with the subject, and confess all kinds of personal things she’d done and encourage her subject to do the same. What some subjects tended to forget was that the writer would publish all the embarrassing stories her subject told her but not her own embarrassing stories. The writer did that for about five years but then had trouble finding subjects dumb enough to fall for that let’s-tell-each-other-our-secrets approach.

In journalism, the job of the reporter-writer is to be honest and direct with readers and not try to please the people he or she is writing about. As a magazine editor, I never had many Janet Malcolm types who were out to get people. More of a problem were writers who worried too much about being too honest with the reader and hurting the feelings of the subject.

One of the things I did as an editor was talk with the writer after a story was written and try to explore how the writer felt about the story and the people he or she wrote about. Sometimes the writer would tell me interesting things and I’d ask, “Is that in the story?” A surprising number of times it was not; it was interesting enough to talk about but still not in the story. Sometimes the writer would allow that it wasn’t in the story because the writer didn’t want to hurt the feelings of the subject. So the job of the editor was to persuade the writer to include everything. Not a betrayal, just being honest with the reader.

Some of journalism is what’s called beat reporting. The reporter’s job is to cover, say, the police department, so you spend most your time talking to cops to keep up with what’s going on. Sometimes the writer has to write something that will displease the cops he deals with every day.

When I was at a weekly paper early in my career, I covered the mayor and council of the city. I developed good working relationships but then had a story I knew was going to make the mayor angry and make it hard for me to continue to get him to talk openly with me. I talked with an old retired editor about it and he said I should let someone else on the paper write the negative story so I could say I had nothing to do with it. I went ahead and wrote the story and the mayor tried to get me fired and never again talked openly with me. It’s called burning your sources and sometimes a journalist feels you have to do it.

Without reading the book, I don’t know why Truman Capote burned Babe Paley. In journalism, it’s what writers are paid to do—your first loyalty is to the reader.

I asked another writer-editor for his take:

“Never trust a writer” strikes me as way too strong. Writers live to write, sure, just as surgeons live to do surgery etc., but there are a hell of a lot things you can write about without throwing friends and family under the bus, and without misrepresenting yourself or your motives to the people you are interviewing. Put another way, Truman Capote and the Style writer you describe don’t represent the moral compass of an entire profession.

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