Article, Event, Speech

Medill/Northwestern University: “Reporting on People: The Biographical Imperative”

February 19, 2007

Northwestern University “Literature of Fact” Lecture Series

 “Reporting on People: The Biographical Imperative”  (under guests at

Brooke Kroeger, New York University

February 19, 2007

What follows is the result of some musing on journalism and biography through the vehicle of Les Payne, a columnist for one of the Tribune’s current sister publications, Newsday, of Long Island, New York. Payne has had a long and distinguished career at the paper, rising to the level of associate editor, a position from which he retired a year ago. He continues in his role a columnist. Six or seven years ago, he appeared on a panel in our department at NYU. The subject was race and class. Alex Kotlowitz also came, as I recall  – and students from my class did a webzine in conjunction with the event. Naturally, the webzine included biographical sketches of the panelists and the student who wrote Payne’s sketch, naturally, read through his columns to glean as much biographical data as she could before she sat down to compose her short piece.

From reading his columns, she pulled one in which Payne revealed that while abroad on assignment in 1972, following the trail of heroin from the poppy fields of Afyon, Turkey, through the French connection in Marseilles to the veins of New York’s junkies, he had missed the birth of a son. “There were a lot of bad guys out there,” she quoted Payne, explaining his actions, “and some reporters had to get their names.”

She placed the information long about paragraph 9 of a 12-paragraph sketch. Wire service training dies hard. I moved it directly into the lead. Around that image I crafted something to the effect that Les Payne had missed the birth of a son in 1972, chasing bad guys a continent away, and that thirty years later, he hadn’t given up the pursuit. It made a catchy enough segue to talk about a fearless reporter turned fearless social critic.

A bright young assistant of mine at the time, not an aspiring journalist, saw the sketch on my desk and was simply appalled. “You should take that bit about him missing the birth of his son out of the first paragraph. It really doesn’t belong there.”

I tried to explain to Ben the dynamics of a lead, especially in a very short piece of work. I elaborated on how much six such words in a lead  — “missed the birth of his son” — could telegraph about a subject for a writer with limited space and how it could grab readers attention in the process, encouraging them to move on to the next paragraph and perhaps the next.

Patiently, I explained how the image of a man who would miss the birth of his child for the sake of a story said reams about Les Payne as a journalist. I told him how it spoke to an ethos; how it made startlingly concrete in six words the way that the work of the journalist is a calling, not a craft, and how it sometimes both demands and exacts personal sacrifice, large and small.

Well, Ben looked at me as if I were speaking Turkish. “That is ridiculous,” he said. “It just makes him sound like some 1950s-style macho jerk. What kind of man would miss the birth of his son if he had any choice?”

I don’t know, nor does it matter, on which side of this little parable your sympathies lie. Both positions are valid enough. I have tried this story out on the members of my meditative council — feminists and journalists among them — and far more stand solidly with Ben than I would have guessed. One friend of mine, who more than twenty years ago was pumping breast milk between sessions in the ladies’ room off the press gallery in the U.S. Senate, was quick to point out that no woman, public-spirited reporter or Marshall Field’s salesclerk, has the option of missing her child’s birth. And what arrogance, what self-importance, it was for a father to absent himself from a moment of such primal significance in the creation of his family’s history — simply because he could.

I respect this viewpoint. And as an editor, I never demanded, nor would I have demanded, such a sacrifice of any reporter for the sake of a story, no matter the perceived urgency.

But I also have to confess, that when I read those six words, when I shoved them into the lead of that biographical sketch, I read valiance and sacrifice in the act of Les Payne. What I saw was his compulsion in that moment to submit to the imperative, to put the public before the personal, to stay with the story too long to make the plane that would get him home in time. He did go, by the way. He just arrived some hours too late for the actual birth and my student most assuredly should have noted that in her piece. But speaking to my point, a few weeks later, he was right back on the road.

Perhaps Payne’s motivation was vanity and ambition — the possibility of the Pulitzer Prize his Newsday team soon won for their work. But I doubt it. Payne certainly smelled glory — how he could not — but I think at bottom, the imperative grew out of the chance to catch some really bad guys. It was consistent with what I knew about Payne. The impulse to make a difference on a larger scale. I understand this response to the work, the action in the service of something greater than the self. I understand it because in whatever faulty way I might act it out, it was and is my own.

I say this with the authority of one who sent a husband off alone in August on our planned joint move to Brussels, but remained behind, many blocks south of Evanston on Sheridan Road — seven months pregnant – to have our baby by myself. My husband had to leave to take up his new position, and at that point, we knew for sure there would be no possibility of his making the trip back to Chicago for the birth. The fact is, I could have left with him for Brussels when he departed in August. But I stayed behind. The year was 1976 and there was no chance I was going to miss the last three months of my first big state and national election campaign. I had been covering both from Illinois since January and badly wanted to see the election through. The bureau was counting on me. I was having too much fun. It all seemed too important. I couldn’t let down the side. And what’s more, I didn’t want to.

Brett met her father at age three weeks and I don’t think she’s any the worse for it. I love that passport. Weight: 7 pounds. Height: 1 foot, six inches. Yet as it happened, Man plans; God laughs. I missed election night anyway. The nurse in the maternity ward called to tell my boss at 5 a.m. that I wouldn’t be showing up for work Oct. 27 and why. “Oh, shit,” he said. “Who’s going to handle Congress? I mean, that’s great. Tell her congratulations.”

The point is, the kind of personal sacrifice Les Payne (and by extension his family) made in 1972 to expose an international ring of heroin smugglers is the kind I have watched journalists make routinely over the years for the sake of the task. Ah, as I like to say to my students when exhaustion or frustration gets the best of them, when a potential source doesn’t call back after the tenth try or whenever they get a taste of one of the field’s exasperating little ironies. Ah, the ROJ — The Romance of  Journalism.

It is the romance that sucked me in. Ten years old and I’m reading a highly fictionalized juvenile biography of Nellie Bly and for me, that was it. It was the 1950s and what a way for a girl who didn’t want to be a nurse or an elementary school teacher to do something in the world that might possibly matter. That feeling is still very much with me.

Since 1990, I have produced three books, two full-scale biographies based exclusively on primary research and a contemporary book on the subject of Passing, also based on original research that examines the passing experiences of six distinct subjects. This may come as a surprise to many of you, but a work based on primary material with 100 pages of footnotes written fluidly and published in the space of about four years is breakneck speed in the biography business, where it is not uncommon for the work to take 10 or even 20 years. And as for the primary research, I only will work with primary research. I am still not comfortable, nor have I ever been, with anyone else’s reporting.

I come to biography straight out of my proud rat-tat-tat-tat journalistic tradition. I see myself now as a journalist with luxury of time. The idea of a journalist with the luxury of time is something of an oxymoron, for I think it is the imposition of immediate deadline is what makes journalism, well, journalism. It’s what creates the excuse, if you will, for the frailties of the product. A great journalist must know the difference between writing journalism and writing history though he or she may elect to do both. Or, to reduce the discussion to my own particular context, it is to know the difference between a 350-word biographical sketch, a 1,200-word, a 5,000-word profile and a work of full-scale biography and to understand the separate and equal validity of all of those forms. I may be writing long these days, but I have not snobbed out.

Though my full-scale biographies were well received, I have taken a few hits as a biographer for providing so little explicit psychological explanation of my subjects. Some reviewers seem to like having everything explained for them. I want to tell you that I deliberately withhold. As a reader, I hate “psychologized” biographies. I hate a biographer who tells me what I should think through his own skewed prism or ideological screen. I guess it’s that old wire service training. I still want every sentence attributed and for summation to flow logically from a body of facts, not from the author’s predisposition.

As a reader, with very light-handed guidance, I want to draw my own conclusions. I certainly want the author’s viewpoint — it can’t be otherwise — but I want it to come through the author’s choice of what data to include, what anecdotes to tell, through the tone he or she adopts and through the style of the work. It is my strong belief that when one is dealing with the long dead – and for the living, too, as I discovered in my last book — it is essential to exercise extreme caution, because there is always so much room for misinterpretation.

I think it fraught with inappropriate risk to wrap the data in some neat little package of pat conclusions that fit one’s own paradigm. This is especially true when the subject is someone one cannot ever meet in the flesh, and more significantly, someone who hails from a different time and a different place in time.

I am a great believer in the documentary trail. But beware when one’s only means of ferreting out character is that same trail of documents by or about the subject along with the observations and recollections of those who knew the subject when. Beware of the axes that might be grinding. Beware of the unreliable nature of memory, even when intentions are pure. No matter how comprehensive and prodigious the research, no matter how full the portrait, by definition, it is never going to be complete. In my view, it is an enormous disservice to the reader for the biographer to pretend to be delivering more than it is in a writer’s power to give.

On top of that, it is, in my view, a terrible mistake in biography to add the overlay of ideology or trendy psychological analysis and interpretation, so dependent on fashion, school of psychological thought, historical moment, and/or societal more. It only serves to date the work.

However, I do think that this kind of flashy, angled overlay has an absolutely valid place in writing for periodical publications, in profile writing — which, by definition, should speak to a particular moment. Journalism, even great journalism, exists in celebration of its status as ephemera. There’s nothing to apologize for. It is what it is. And what could be better for a biographer a century later than to happen upon a magazine profile of her subject in a 1937 issue of the Saturday Review, written and very specifically angled to a particular historical moment by, in one actual case, Zora Neale Hurston, reflecting on her friend and mentor, Fannie Hurst? For a biographer, this becomes the stuff of archeological treasure, a nugget to include and reflect upon in a book composed of many such nuggets, but, unlike the magazine sketch, built to stand for decades and decades.

So why bother with biography at all if it is beyond the scope of the genre to be comprehensive or complete? Because it is still possible, even within these limitations, to create a complex and layered portrait of a subject from that same trail of documents and tapes, recollections and observations. In my view, what validates the work is how it holds up in the face of the fresh documentary evidence that may well surfaces long after a biography is published. A biographer should be able to say of these new findings — welcome. That new data, as we used to say in cable-speak, should be the stuff of a “first lead,” — fresh information worthy of putting a new top on a story that is already on the wire. A sequel, if you will, to what is already out. The biographer’s hope should always be that such new information never necessitates the equivalent of the dreaded “first lead and correct.”

Why else? Because biographies about good subjects can plow a path through the social history and popular culture of an era. This is what I like best about the form and what my books attempt to do. The idea is to take the reader into the minds and thinking of a particular historical moment — not mine, but the subject’s. For me, more significantly, biographies matter, too, because a great life story, however flawed that individual might be or have been, holds within it the power to provoke and to inspire. It is another way of making a difference.

So the journalist shoved those six words about Les Payne into the lead of a short profile and then the biographer kicked in. I knew Les Payne. I had worked for him at Newsday. I knew what a cowboy he was and so the episode was thoroughly believable. Still, in order to use this little story, I knew I couldn’t do so without reviewing the primary material. Thanks to Lexis-Nexis, by entering a search under key words “Les Payne” and “bad guys,” I found the column in question in seconds. I knew I needed to determine in what context Payne had told such a highly personal story about the birth of his son.

It turns out that Payne wrote the column, for Newsday, in the spring of 1990 on the occasion of that same son’s high school graduation. My student had quoted him accurately. It was indeed Payne’s statement that he had missed Jamal’s birth in 1972 for the sake of that Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation. And it was a fact that Payne had written, in that same column, the exact words my student had quoted: “There were a lot of bad guys out there and some reporters had to get their names.”

But here is what else Payne said. He was sitting on the green as the third student in Jamal’s class got up to give a commencement speech. Someone tapped Payne on the shoulder. There was an emergency call from his office. Payne skipped out to a phone to learn that he was being invited that very afternoon — remember the year was 1990 — to attend a small, closed informal meeting with Nelson Mandela in Washington. His mind began processing quickly as it always had at such moments. He asked if he could bring Jamal. The organizers said by all means. He started prepping the story he would tell his wife and parents as he walked back to his seat on the green. What a moment this would be for Jamal, he thought.

And then it struck Payne hard. So many times since that missed birth he had closed the front door to catch another flight. It always seemed necessary, urgent. There were still so many bad guys out there to catch. And then he wrote these words:

“It thundered on me that I had my priorities all wrong. It was required of me this day to put aside the work of the world.

“Jamal graduated as scheduled. And with a sweet sorrow, bade farewell to his peers, dined with his family and partied with his friends.

“I couldn’t bring myself to tell him,” wrote Payne, “how close his father came to acting a fool.”

What is key in the work of a biographer is the completeness of the research, the acuity of the author and the ability to layer the story in a way that acknowledges all the complexities of human existence as well as the inadequacy of the method. We learn something significant about Les Payne from the snippet my student included in her little sketch. But we do not know him. We get a more nuanced idea of him from the whole column, to be sure. But still, we do not know him. Bear in mind that Payne made these confessions not sotto voce to his best friend, but in a composed narrative. And not just any composed narrative — not one that sprung full-blown from the mind of Zeus — or, then again despite the format in which it appeared, maybe it was. We can’t know without asking Payne directly and then maybe he will confide in us and maybe he will not.  But what we do know as fact is that Payne made the revelation under pressure of deadline in a newspaper column that he was under longstanding contractual obligation to produce, week after week after week.

However personal this confession seems to be, we have to filter it through several sieves: the artifice of Payne’s projection of a public self, for example. How many other personal columns has he written in his days as a columnist? Was this unusual? If and when he did elect to write about his family, what was the usual topic and tone?

What about further documentary evidence: Did Payne keep a diary at that time? Is it possible to determine if this was really a moment of self-examination? Is there any correspondence around that time with friends? Any recalled telephone conversations they could tell us about? What rebuke or respect did he receive for his actions, from family or friends or colleagues?

Go back to the French connection reporting in 1972. What do his colleagues in the field remember about that moment? What about his editors? What does his wife say about that day? His parents? 1972 — and a black reporter on a major newspaper? Did he feel a special pressure not to ask a personal favor of his employees? There must have been some management back-and-forth about it at Newsday. Anything in the files? What exactly was he doing that day in Marseilles or wherever he was at that moment that seemed compelling enough for him to cut his departure time so close. So many questions for the biographer to try to resolve. You get the picture.

Here’s another issue: If I were Payne’s biographer, writing this particular episode in his life, I would bear a further very case-specific responsibility. That is: the problem of detaching myself from the tendency to project, indeed to validate, my own experience by honoring Payne’s — and in biographer-speak, this indeed is known as the phenomenon as projection. The cross-gender parallels between the story of Payne’s missed childbirth and my own are just a bit eery, don’t you think? Perhaps they are the reason I found the image those six words communicated so powerful. I needed to check myself at the door, too.

Add to this the fact that in a biography of 400 or 500 pages, this anecdote, after all that ferreting out, all that research, would produce at most a paragraph or two or three of narrative text. At most.

In the end, like all journalism and like all biography should be, the work is about the pursuit of elusive truth from which we are never excused. It is about ideals and commitment to more than the self. It is about the individual’s right to know and learning how to be part of the process that protects that right. And for you, it is about preparing to engage in a life’s work that is rife with reward of the very, very best sort.


Copyright 2007 Brooke Kroeger. All rights reserved.