Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


March 31, 2009

The Insider

Seth Mnookin gains access to some of the most closely guarded American institutions.

Michael Gluckstadt

There is a phrase that always seems to crop up in descriptions of Seth Mnookin's reporting: "unprecedented access." Somehow, the 36-year-old Brooklyn-based writer gets inside tightly guarded institutions—the New York Times, the Boston Red Sox, Stephen Colbert—and shares his findings in books and magazines. His reporting on the Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times in the book Hard News helped establish Mnookin as an investigative media reporter, a role he has continued to fill as a contributing editor to Vanity Fair.

Mnookin's insider accounts are detailed and unflinching. So why do people and organizations keep opening their doors to him? "That's a good question," Mnookin says in a tone that suggests he's often asked himself the very same thing. "Sometimes they feel their story is not being told in all the complexity and subtlety that it deserves."

Mnookin in Iraq, where he was reporting a story for Vanity Fair on the embedded journalists of the New York Times.
"The press probably lost its voice of authority, but I don't know that its a bad thing."

Mnookin in Iraq, where he was reporting a story for Vanity Fair on the embedded journalists of the New York Times.

In the interview below, which was conducted over the phone and edited for length and clarity, Gelf tries to get inside the head of the consummate insider. He tells us about his Kindle, the challenge of identifying with his subjects, and the proper way to pronounce his no-it's-not-a-typo last name. You can hear Mnookin, along with fellow media reporters Hamilton Nolan and Jeff Bercovici, speak at Gelf's inaugural Media Circus event at JLA Studios in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn on April 7th. (Mnookin previously appeared at Gelf's Varsity Letters sports reading series.)

Gelf Magazine: You always seem to be busy. What are you working on now?

Seth Mnookin: I'm always trying to come up with new story ideas. When I'm not writing something, I'm reading or researching. I just started work on a new book about science, the internet, and the media.

Gelf Magazine: Sounds pretty broad. What aspects of those subjects are you writing about?

Seth Mnookin: It's about the ways scientific knowledge gets communicated and valued—how the press mediates and interprets news in science and technology. Often the press will try an even-handed approach, showing both sides to a situation. But in science, unlike say, politics, there is often just one correct view. There's no need to show the "Earth is flat" view.

Gelf Magazine: Are there any Vanity Fair articles coming up?

Seth Mnookin: Just some ideas that my editor and I are tossing around, but nothing is set yet.

Gelf Magazine: Who comes up with the ideas for the Vanity Fair pieces, like the recent Bloomberg and New York Times pieces?

Seth Mnookin: It varies, but usually my editor or I will come up with an idea and we try to find what part is most interesting to us. Then at some point we sit down with Graydon [Carter] and see what his views are. Usually the final assignment will be some combination of everyone's input.

Gelf Magazine: Your articles tend to go very in-depth into the subject matter. How much time goes into reporting them?

Seth Mnookin: It depends on how quickly they want the turnaround, how much I know about the material—a lot of things. When I did a story on Judy Miller a couple of years ago, I had a good amount of background information because of my work on the Times, so I was able to turn it around very quickly. I started working on the Bloomberg story months before it was printed, and ended up going to Baghdad while I was working on it to report another story. One thing I happen to be good at is getting involved with a topic in a very intense way. I like to dive in very deeply.

Gelf Magazine: One common link in much of your work is being granted access to major organizations, be it the New York Times, Bloomberg, or the Boston Red Sox. Why do these companies let you in?

Seth Mnookin: That's a good question. I just saw a movie about the designer Valentino, in which the filmmaker moved in with him and his partner for two years. And I thought, "Why would anyone do this?" There could be a number of reasons. One thing I've seen is that people who are in the public eye on a regular basis often share a common frustration: They feel their story is not being told in all the complexity and subtlety that it deserves. Not everyone I've written about has been happy with the end result, but even people who disagreed with me generally thought it was fair and accurate.

Gelf Magazine: Are there challenges from being that close to the sources?

Seth Mnookin: Sure. I find myself being incredibly empathetic; it's very easy for me to see the world from someone's perspective. I find myself bending over backwards in my head to see their side. I don't think I've ever covered anyone I fundamentally thought was a bad person. When I spend a lot of time with someone I generally build up a relationship, and it is a challenge to report past that.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think the type of long-form investigative journalism you often practice is being squeezed out of magazines because of its high cost?

Seth Mnookin: Not just in magazines—it's being squeezed out more in newspapers. People are still looking for that type of reporting in magazines like Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, or the New York Times Magazine, and they're accustomed to seeing it. For a newspaper, that type of reporting is enormously expensive and can result in months and months of dead ends. Generally, the less sexy investigative work ends up in newspapers—reports about train safety or the Army Corps of Engineers. But we won't realize how important that work is until it's gone.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think that type of reporting will end up on the internet?

Seth Mnookin: There's room for it, so long as people figure out how to pay for it. That reporting is expensive. Also, I'm a big tech junkie who spends all day in front of a computer. But to read a 10,000-word, in-depth report is a challenge. Right now, I download a lot of stuff to my Kindle. Maybe that will catch on and people will read stories like that on their phone or whatever the technology is. The "old school" media has a been a little bit myopic and haughty in its insistence that certain types of reporting can only be done in a particular format. That's silly, and we don't have the luxury to say that anymore. It's self-defeating.

Gelf Magazine: In Hard News, you make the case that the Jayson Blair scandal changed the face of the Times and American journalism. Do you feel that issues like that scandal may have obscured the other major challenges the Times and other newspapers were ignoring at the time, which brought about the situation they face now?

Seth Mnookin: Not really. The media world was unprepared for the changes that were going to happen with new delivery methods and moving away from print. But I don't think that was because they were distracted by other scandals. It was because they weren't creative or aggressive about being forward-looking. I do think that the scandal contributed to an environment that devalued the media and made them untrustworthy in the public eye.

Gelf Magazine: In their rush to try and get back on top of technology, the media are trying some unconventional and silly methods. I recently saw a word cloud on CNN, and the New York Times twitters every single article. Is the press losing its voice of authority?

Seth Mnookin: They've probably lost their voice of authority, but I don't know that it's a bad thing. There were times in the past when the mainstream press ran with stories that were bullshit but got away with it because no one could challenge them. I'm not worried about the mainstream press debasing itself with Twitter, though. So long as the press corps is still doing the rest of its job.

Gelf Magazine: You mentioned that you own a Kindle. Has it changed the way you consume news?

Seth Mnookin: I'm not sure that it's changed the way I consume news, though it's definitely changed the amount of money I spend—late at night, buying a book at 3:00 AM because I can't sleep. And if there is any large amount of text I need to read and edit, I'll send it to my Kindle.

Gelf Magazine: Have you been seeing a lot of Kindle sales of your books?

Seth Mnookin: No. Though I would get the same cut if they did take off. My books have been out for a long enough time that I wouldn't expect to see a big boost in Kindle sales. What we have seen, though, is that people are willing to spend money on content online, which people have often said wasn't the case.

Gelf Magazine: Changing gears, you've written about the issues you've had with drugs. Do you participate in any programs or speak to young people about your experiences to steer them away from that path?

Seth Mnookin: I've always been willing to speak to any group who is interested in having me. I've spoken to school groups and individual classes, and while I don't do anything on a regular basis, I'm happy to take the time and talk to anyone if I can be of help.

Gelf Magazine: Last question: What is the proper way to pronounce your last name?

Seth Mnookin: Say it like there's a vowel between the M and the N, "Menookin." It's a Russian-Jewish name that was scrunched on Ellis Island.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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