BOB GARFIELD: Reporter Steve Fishman’s profile of Bernard Madoff in New York Magazine garnered quite a bit of media attention this week. Madoff, of course, is one of the most infamous criminals in history, the perpetrator of a more than 50-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme who’s currently serving a 150-year prison sentence. When we read Fishman’s piece, we wondered about the background negotiations that resulted in the profile. How did he reach Madoff? Why did Madoff, who presumably is being courted by many journalists, agree to an interview with Fishman? So we asked Fishman to tell us the story behind the story. It turns out he'd been trying to reach Madoff for months, years, actually, sending him letters, books, all of which were returned by prison officials. None of his persistence was working, until one day he heard from a guy named Robert Rosso, one of Madoff’s fellow convicts, who became a sort of de facto fixer. Fishman tells the story.
STEVE FISHMAN: I got ahold of a list of everybody who was in prison with him. I wrote to everybody who, who was still in prison, at that point, and got several responses, including from Robert Rosso. Rosso and I started communicating. And one day I said to him, can you do me a favor? I have this letter. I think I understand Madoff and his position. I just can't communicate it to him. Could you give him this letter? And he agreed to do that.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Robert Rosso - tell me something about this guy. He doesn't exactly have the resume of a New York Magazine intern.
STEVE FISHMAN: He has served really hard time in penitentiaries, where he rose to the top of the prison hierarchy, organizing gambling games, running the drug trade from inside prison, all the while sustaining a pretty healthy heroin and alcohol addiction.
BOB GARFIELD: And yet, he played a, a pivotal role in you landing the Madoff interview because it turns out there is another side to Robert Rosso.
STEVE FISHMAN: He is a writer of some talent, and, and he found in Bernie Madoff a subject that he knew would garner wide attention. So he’s been writing missives from prison, where he walked the track with Bernie Madoff, became a friend of Bernie Madoff. And he had asked Madoff for months for an interview, actually, as he said, for the first interview. And then Madoff’s son Mark committed suicide and, as Rosso told me, he didn't have the - the heart to press the point. Then one day, Rosso was informed that he was being moved out of Madoff’s prison, and he decided he had to jump at that moment. In the yard he gives Madoff a list of 12 or 13 questions, and Madoff, within a couple of days, gives him written answers.
BOB GARFIELD: I'm looking at the interview between Robert Rosso and Bernie Madoff on Robert Rosso’s website [LAUGHS], and he asked about Madoff’s typical day in prison he asks him what kind of books Madoff reads. Here’s another one: “Do you have any suggestions about how to get the economy back on track?”
STEVE FISHMAN: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: Answer: “No.” Question: “What is your take on the recommendations of the Hamilton and Volcker Committee?” [LAUGHING] Madoff answers: “It is obvious that Volcker was unhappy with the government reforms. His suggestions were correct, but as usual, Wall Street won the day. It is absolutely astounding that nobody in the investment banks face criminal charges.” I'm just astonished that Robert Rosso went in this direction. What did you think of his brand of journalism?
STEVE FISHMAN: I think it’s a fascinating [LAUGHS] artifact. He enjoys speaking to Bernie Madoff because the conversations are not like every other conversation he has, which is obsessed with prison politics, as he told me, who’s getting thrown in the hole, who’s got a certain hustle. And now he can sit with a Bernie Madoff and, as Rosso told me, speak about credit default swaps and the [BOB LAUGHS], the financial reform regulation. The interesting advantage [LAUGHS] that Rosso has as a journalist is that, you know, he’s not a guy who is going to insist on remorse. It’s not a setting where you need to demand that Madoff justify himself. You know, there is a fascination with Madoff in prison. People are interested in the fact that he’s the greatest financial [LAUGHS] criminal in history in their midst. And they're particularly interested in that aspect of his accomplishment, you know, the way he, he succeeded in their field.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, so that was his interview. How precisely did that lead to your interview?
STEVE FISHMAN: He then felt that not being a journalist – and he said, you know, I'm not Oprah or Larry King – he, he felt that there was a, a value to having me talk to Madoff, as well. Frankly, I think it tickled him to be the PR person for, for Bernie Madoff.
BOB GARFIELD: Hm.
STEVE FISHMAN: He actually was in communication with lots of journalists – The New York Times, the New York Post, you know, Vanity Fair. So he is somebody [LAUGHS] who is sophisticated about the media, to a certain extent, and reached out. And, for whatever reason he and I kind of developed this, this simpatico that let us take it further.
BOB GARFIELD: So tell me about the moment you actually heard from Madoff. The phone rings one day, and -
STEVE FISHMAN: I actually missed the first phone call because you have to push all these buttons. You have to listen to this message and push buttons if you accept and push buttons if you deny or want to block the call. And the first time [LAUGHS] I heard the message, I pushed the wrong button, which had me paralyzed, having made a career misstep of enormous proportions. But then he fortunately called back.
COMPUTER VOICE: You have a collect call from:
BERNIE MADOFF: Bernard Madoff.
COMPUTER VOICE: An inmate at a federal prison. To hear the cost of this call, press 8 now. [BEEP]
STEVE FISHMAN: And then, you know, there was this voice.
STEVE FISHMAN [ON PHONE]: Bernie?
BERNIE MADOFF [ON PHONE]: Yeah, Steve.
STEVE FISHMAN: Hi.
BERNIE MADOFF: Okay, listen, before I forget [CLEARS THROAT], I - I don't think it’s a good idea…
[PHONE CONVERSATION TRAILS OFF]
STEVE FISHMAN: This voice, you know, this kind of Queens outer borough guy on the end of the line, and somebody that – I'd been writing about him for so long that at, at some point I felt like I could kind of channel his thoughts, which I, I know sounds weird, but there - you know, there is a, a moment at which you kind of get into a subject, where you feel like you understand him or her.
BERNIE MADOFF [ON PHONE]: I tried to return [CLEARS THROAT] the funds to my friends; I tried to return monies to, to the smaller clients, and so on. They wouldn't take it back. I mean, the abuse I got from people, how could you put someone through this, you know -
STEVE FISHMAN: He’s not a guy who ducks behind lawyers. He would go anywhere - talk about his son’s suicide, talk about his scheme, how he got into it, so where the - there was this kind of extraordinary exchange that I certainly couldn't have predicted or expected, but that I was really delighted to engage in.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Steve, thank you very much.
STEVE FISHMAN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Steve Fishman’s profile of Bernard Madoff appeared in New York Magazine. We'll link to Fishman’s piece and to Rosso’s profile from our site, Onthemedia.org.