Tuesday, February 3, 2009

bad journalism

I dodged a journalistic bullet.

A fellow reporter last night sent me a link to Gawker, along with a note: "You were smart to stay away from that story."

I'll say.

The Gawker item details the fallout over an article titled New York's Diaper Rush that ran last weekend in Page Six magazine, a fashion-and-style magazine from the New York Post. The Page Six story was one of those acid, catty, blatantly misogynistic pieces about mothers that so many magazines love to print. "Everybody knows twins and triplets (or more) are a risk with in vitro fertilization," it said. "But now multitasking NYC power mommies are actually trying for multiples to avoid extra pregnancies—and gain a trendy status symbol."

If the entire premise sounds like a trumped-up load of hooey to you, you're not alone. According to Gawker, not everyone was happy with the article—including the writer, Wendy Straker Hauser, who, in an unprecedented move, sent a note of apology to her sources: "The story I wrote and handed in was nothing like this. The tone was different as was the overall focus. In addition certain quotes were edited to seem more harsh and others were taken out of context."

I can't say I'm surprised. I was the writer originally assigned to the piece.

I've never worked for Page Six magazine (and suspect, after this, never will). So last summer, I was pleased when an editor there, whom I'd never met, e-mailed me out of the blue with an assignment.

"The idea is that having multiples is getting competitive," she wrote. "Everyone from Angelina Jolie to Lisa Marie Presley is having twins, and they're becoming a sort of status symbol. [i.e.], you can afford to have them (because expensive IVF is responsible for the skyrocketing multiple rates). Then, we'll look at how competitive NYC moms of multiples are with each other." She even had a working title for it: Momzilla Multiples.

I needed the money—it was a slow summer—and thought it would be fun to write for Page Six, so I took the assignment. I'd never heard of such a thing happening, so to kick off my research, I asked the editor who had provided the tip. I figured I'd begin my reporting by interviewing the original source.

Oh, the editor said. There was no tip. The editors had come up with the idea on their own.

Oh, no.

The made-up premise is the bane of the feature-writer's existence, or at least of mine. There's nothing I hate more than being told to twist research to fit some editor's preconceived "trend." Some reporters are proud of their ability to do this; there is even a term for it, the "conceptual scoop," which I believe is journalismese for "a trumped-up load of hooey." Now that I'm a freelancer I am lucky enough to be able to choose which stories I write, and I refuse to contort stories to fit made-up premises. Call me old-fashioned, but I believe in reporting first, thesis second.

But I had already accepted the assignment and was now obligated to at least try to get the story. I sent a morose e-mail to my husband—Subject line: Freelance Writer Sells Soul to Satan—and set out to find one mother who'd had twins because she wanted to be like Lisa Marie Presley.

Several weeks and a bunch of interviews with non-competitive non-Momzillas later, I called the editor back and said the story just wasn't panning out. I suggested other options—less sexy, sure, but factually accurate. Nothing appealed. I told her if I wrote the story as she'd assigned it I'd essentially be writing fiction. We agreed, amicably, to go our separate ways.

I didn't give her my notes, and she didn't offer to pay me for my several weeks' worth of interviews (generally, an editor will at least toss you a few hundred dollars if you've done the work in good faith). She told me, incidentally, that the magazine usually assigned more stories than it ran, and had I written the story and they'd decided not to run it, for whatever reason, I wouldn't have gotten paid at all.

At the time, my only outrage was that I had just spent three weeks acting as a de facto New York Post staff writer—for free. But at least I wouldn't be responsible for yet another story that put women, especially mothers, in a bad light.

I had no idea they'd get another reporter and do the article anyway. But, like I said, I'm not surprised. The idea of a subculture of crazy, trend-obsessed statusmongers undergoing in-vitro fertilization treatments to have triplet fashion accessories is a story too good to pass up.

Even if it's a trumped-up load of hooey.


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