The Key to Great Narrative Journalism: “You Don’t Ask Just Once”

The June 11th Robert Caro post described his repeatedly asking people who were part of a story the question “What did you see?” That relentlessness is a key to great narrative journalism.

As an editor, I learned about that from John Pekkanen, a Washingtonian writer who won a National Magazine Award for his 1981 story, “The Saving of the President.” The opening of the story:

About 2:30 PM on Monday, March 30, President Ronald Reagan walked out of the VIP entrance of the Washington Hilton Hotel after speaking to a labor audience. As a reporter shouted, “Mr. President, Mr. President,” a series of shots, sounding like firecrackers, were fired. Secret Service agent Jerry Parr instinctively pushed the President into his waiting limousine, which sped away. As Parr recalled the moment: “I pushed [President Reagan] up to the right rear [of the car]. I ran my hands over his body looking for some kind of wound. He claimed that I had hurt his ribs in landing on top of him, so I told the driver to head to the White House, the safest place. Shortly after that, I would say in a space of 10 or 15 seconds, he started coughing up a little blood. It was bright red, and I knew from my training that this was oxygenated blood–this is blood coming out of the lung. This occurred just as the limousine was in the tunnel [on Connecticut Avenue] beneath Dupont Circle. As soon as I saw the blood, indicating a wound in the lung, I told the driver to head for George Washington. . . .”

We almost didn’t do the story. After the assassination attempt, the Washington Post and everyone else was all over it for the next few weeks. When Pekkanen called and said he wanted to do the saving of the president story for the Washingtonian, I told him I couldn’t see the magazine paying for a story that already had been so over-covered. He wouldn’t take a no and kept pressing until I reluctantly said yes.

After the story was published, with powerful scenes describing how the president’s life was saved, I asked Pekkanen how he did it. He said one of the things he had learned about narrative journalism was that you don’t talk just once to those involved in the story. You interview a key player, go over it and think about it, then interview that key player a second time, getting more of the what-did-you-see detail described by Caro. And then you may go back a third time to that person, again searching for words that described what that day was really like.

Tell me again, “What else did you see? How did it affect you? What were you thinking? What else did you hear?”

ABC adapted Pekkanen’s story for television, showing how the president’s life was saved after he was taken from the Washington Hilton Hotel, the scene of the shooting, to the George Washingtonian University Hospital.

“The Saving of the President” story was published in the August 1981 issue of the Washingtonian.





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