In a recent interview about their book The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation, New York Times reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly alleged that the Supreme Court justice agreed to sit for an interview if they would assert in their book that he had not spoken with him. They declined.
I make no judgments about the book—which I have not read–the reporters, or Justice Kavanaugh. But I bring up the conundrum the reporters faced partly because it has come up repeatedly in my 40 years as a journalist, and partly because a similar dilemma provides a key plot twist in my forthcoming book, PURGATORY BAY.
Dealing with anonymous sources is a perilous business, one best avoided where one can. One of the tricks I saw employed by reporters—including me, I’m chagrined to admit, in my early years—was to interview a key source at length, use what she said in a story, and include a line saying she “declined to comment.” Which, of course, is bullshit, or to put a finer point on it, a lie to the readers. At The Wall Street Journal, if ethics czar Barney Calame caught you doing it, you were in big trouble. Still, reporters got away with it, rationalizing that what the source provided to readers was worth the minor dissembling of saying they didn’t “comment,” since, in fact, they had not commented publicly. Also bullshit.
In PURGATORY BAY, this sort of rationalization comes back to haunt former Detroit Times reporter Michaela “Mikey” Deming in a much more dangerous way than Barney Calame ever would have threatened. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say that the lure of a byline on a story that might win prizes, coupled with a bullying editor who also covets those prizes, leads Mikey astray. An award-winning novelist and journalist who read the book assessed Mikey’s situation this way in an email: “We’ve all been there, when you or the desk spins a story a certain way and you think, uh, correct but not true, or something of the sort. And then the agony, which you learn to ignore, about the effect your copy might have on people within, and how ignoring that makes you feel just a little less human.” My character, Mikey, stands to pay an actual physical and emotional price for her own such deal with the devil.