BOB GARFIELD: In this month's Esquire Magazine writer Tom Junod offers a long, colorful profile of rock icon Michael Stipe. It's filled with astonishing anecdotes and utterances, some of which are utterly untrue. Readers are directed to Esquire's web site to separate the factual wheat from the fictional chaff. Joining us now to discuss this odd experiment is Esquire's editor, David Granger. David, welcome to OTM.
DAVID GRANGER: Hi. Thanks.
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Long piece in this month's issue about Michael Stipe, the lead singer of R.E.M. Only as the subhead declares, half of the story by Tom Junod is made up! Why?
DAVID GRANGER: First on the most basic level, that's what it required for Tom to be able to write it after he'd spent quite a bit of time with Michael, he decided that the story he could naturally write would be another sort of celebrity piece in which the writer kind of whines that he didn't get enough access or whines that he didn't like the person and the last thing Tom wanted to write was another process piece. And so he just started writing. As it happened, a lot of what he was writing --Mmmmm-- didn't actually happen.
BOB GARFIELD: There's a story in the story about a five hour schlep to the Hoover Dam in two limousines. [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
DAVID GRANGER: Yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: Was that true?
DAVID GRANGER: That part was not true.
BOB GARFIELD:There was this anecdote about Michael Stipe when he was 14 years old and a boy scout being lost in the woods and being so traumatized that he grew actually to heat trees. Is that one true?
DAVID GRANGER: That one is absolutely true.
BOB GARFIELD: This is not the first time that Esquire has played with the genre of celebrity profiles. A few years ago, magazine ran a Martha Sherrill [sp?] piece about the movie starlet Allegra Coleman [sp?] who made for a very colorful interview but who didn't actually exist.
DAVID GRANGER: I wasn't the editor of the magazine at that point, but I think that was a farce or a, a -you know - parody intended to make a point about celebrity, but this -- I don't even know if Tom was trying to re-define the personality profile. I, I think he truly wanted to write a compelling piece of magazine entertainment.
BOB GARFIELD:Does Esquire suspect that Michael Stipe cultivated his Michael Stipe-ness and needed to be exposed somehow as a hypocrite or a fraud?
DAVID GRANGER: That, that wasn't any part of our intention going into the story.
BOB GARFIELD: Well then why victimize him, of all people?! I mean he hasn't really danced the dance. [LAUGHTER] If he hasn't been a part of the falsity of the genre, why use him to flay the genre?
DAVID GRANGER: I'm not sure that we victimized Michael Stipe in any way. I mean we, we did reveal him through - in the parts of the piece that actually happened a--as Michael Stipe as he is, and probably elevated him in some ways in, in the fictional parts of the piece.
BOB GARFIELD: Esquire's a monthly. How often do you run a celebrity profile.
DAVID GRANGER: I would say we run one every month.
BOB GARFIELD: And at least twice now you have done pieces that in one way or another confront the falsity of the genre.
DAVID GRANGER: Right.
BOB GARFIELD:Could I possibly suggest that that might be a little hypocritical? Now you know you're sort of a serial peddler of celebrity fluff and now you're f-- all of a sudden appalled by celebrity fluff.
DAVID GRANGER: I think that is the kind of balancing act that one makes as a magazine editor. I'm reluctant to eschew entirely the celebrity profile, but every once in a while it yields a great nugget.
BOB GARFIELD: And if it doesn't yield a great nugget, why you simply invent a few.
DAVID GRANGER: Well not on a regular basis and probably never again.
BOB GARFIELD:Forgive me -- I'm about to get a little prosecutorial here, but you, you mentioned the tree story. Michael Stipe as a 14 year old lost in the woods.
DAVID GRANGER: Uh-huh.
BOB GARFIELD: You said it's true. How do we know it's true?
DAVID GRANGER: Because in addition to the story in the magazine, we did provide the service of running an annotated version of the story in which we made it absolutely clear, you know, which of the elements of the story were fiction and which were sourced.
BOB GARFIELD:But do you think as a - as a matter of journalistic principle you should be forcing the reader g-- to go on a scavenger hunt for the truth?
DAVID GRANGER: Hmmm. Yeah-- yeah! We probably should. I mean you know-- I think we did everything we could to explain that we were engaging in an experiment in magazine journalism. I think that's -- in a lot of ways that is exactly what a magazine should do if one wants to produce a lively magazine that continues to grow and change and interest people and thrill people.
BOB GARFIELD: David how did you fact-check this piece?
DAVID GRANGER:It's pretty simple. I mean you know Tom provided a, a draft of the story to us. He worked with our fact-checking department; told them, you know, what parts of the piece were factual and what - those that were fictional, and even in the fictional segments as we do with all our fiction, we checked any facts, all of the things that were asserted to be facts in the story [LAUGHTER] were--
BOB GARFIELD: Cause see the last thing you want is fact errors in your fabrications.
DAVID GRANGER: You know like I say, we fact-check our fiction as well.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, well listen thanks again for joining us.
DAVID GRANGER: Okay.
BOB GARFIELD: David Granger is the editor of Esquire Magazine.