The Gandhi of journalism

She had never taken journalism classes. She fell into journalism by chance. It was free fall, more than freelance, until she somehow latched on to a parachute. She had her own brand of interviewing techniques. She would spend time with the interviewee, watch the person interact with others, get a feel for them and their politics. She might ask them to act out how they felt, but generally did not question them. She relied on intuition, proximity, chemistry and good old observation. After spending as much time as possible with her subject, she would then proceed to write stunningly accurate portraits of them. She had decided early on that words were misleading, that people lied or hid behind words. Everybody was afraid of being misquoted. Based on that, and fearless in her approach, she had decided that body language was a more adequate interview technique than anything she had run across.

What first attracted the attention of the New Yorker editors was a piece she did for a minor competitor. Of course, scouts were forever reading competing journals, in an attempt to poach the good writers before they even knew their value. They got them cheap and kept their salaries low as long as they could muster it. She had done a vivid portrait of a rap artist, without ever quoting him, except that the rhythm of the piece mimicked his sound so well that you felt you were inside his skull. She had asked if she could be part of his entourage for a day, and just hang out. She had done her research, studying his lyrics but not polluting her mind with articles on his success or shows. She strove to be a blank slate, wanting to feel the imprint of the person she was doing a piece on. He had reacted to her – as a woman, a journalist and a possible fan. She had not tried to dispel any of his preconceptions, letting the scenario play itself out.

He had soon forgotten about her. She took no notes, did not ask questions, nor request time alone with him. He could feel her gaze upon him but that did not faze him. He wore glitzy clothes when he went out in public, was generous with his time. She felt him to be a lonely person putting on a show, eager to please yet full of integrity. It matched the tortured voice that resonated so well with his young audience. She presented him the piece before sending it for publication. He was shocked at how well she had perceived his contradictions and rendered them without qualifying him and, against his handler’s advice, had given his okay without requesting any changes. He was not above controversy and thought she showed the real him, which was a rare present. He was rarely conscious of himself anymore so seeing that benevolent version of himself renewed his faith in himself. He bought one hundred copies for himself and close friends, but ended up keeping a few in the end. His friends were disappointed because they did not appear in the piece, had not been asked for their opinion.

This early success had led to others as the rapper was well-connected and eager to promote the journalist. She did not lack for work and actually had a waiting list. She did not seek fortune. She wanted genuine contact and had to prepare herself mentally and emotionally for the task. She only “interviewed” on her own terms and became sought after. Rolling Stones offered her a lucrative contract, which gave her free rein for the following year, provided they could impose five subjects. For the most part, it worked out fine. Artists were clamouring for attention. She was the darling of the day as far as journalists went. As much as some artists wanted to be photographed by someone in particular, everybody wanted to see their true self on paper.

She did not disappoint. She had a way of finding the hidden gem, the redeeming quality. Her employer did not try and trip her, nor saddle her with impossible candidates. If she felt like pursuing someone who appeared nasty, they let her do it. Often, the nastiness had resulted from bad chemistry between the interviewer and the interviewee. She did not have favourite subjects. She would be reading and come across someone she was curious to know better. She would notify her boss and set up an appointment then get to work erasing herself, become an absorbing agent that would blot anything pouring out of her subject. She had a good handshake, a bit long and uncomfortable, but that initial contact gave the tone of the interaction. She could feel the energy of her subject, either nervous or binding. It thrilled her to mix her vibrations with extraordinary men, women and children. She travelled around the world, visiting remote villages and ordinary suburbs. She was at ease everywhere since she took on her surroundings with the same technique she applied to people.

Nevertheless, her work took its toll on her. She was quickly exhausting her reserves, so enthusiastic was she to apply her craft.  She eventually had to mostly give up her career, touring the speaker circuit for a while. She was surprised at how few people genuinely understood what she did. Real followers were few. The test was for them to spend time with her and write a piece on her. The select few who handed back a blank piece of paper were part of her inner circle. However, journalism attracted another type of person which meant her brand of journalism did not catch on much. She was an oddity in her chosen profession. The ones she vetted did very well, but their careers were short-lived because it took so much out of them if they chose to put themselves in the line of fire.

Truth was handled with care and though the journalists got paid, the pieces did not always get published. Indeed, the Secret Police recruited among her followers and soon they were put to work for the State. Others tried to fake their way and “do the blotter” but their pieces rang false and they were denounced by those in the know. Still, many were exposed to this approach and benefitted from it to some extent in their personal lives. She was the object of books and a movie was made about her. With no degree and no credentials, she managed to break into this stronghold. She was the Gandhi of journalism.