This Washington Post profile, written in 1991 by a reporter who went on to produce a superb, humane Iraq War book, illustrates a point I’ve been trying to make lately about the right way to do journalism. I’ve been putting it like this: “Have the guts to stab a guy in the chest.” This is all tied up in my abiding revulsion over the shoddiness of Michael Hastings’ Rolling Stone piece that brought down General McChrystal. It’s eating away at me to see people I respect cheering a guy who spent four weeks around McChrystal without ever giving the general a chance to confirm, deny, contextualize, or go memorably and ruinously apeshit over the most radioactive stuff that would ultimately appear — courtesy, in some cases, of unnamed sources — in the published article. Thus, my icky mantra of late: Have the guts to stab a guy in the chest.
In this 1991 profile, David Finkel stabbed Larry King in the chest. Finkel discovered that King invented a crowd-pleasing story about driving to another state to settle a bet with future baseball legend Sandy Koufax, King’s (as it turns out, imaginary) childhood buddy. Finkel confronted King. The result is an example of what I’ve meant by saying that confronting a source isn’t just about fairness and precision; it can be about getting your readers a vastly better story.
Here is how Finkel’s story closed. (Note: Larry Zeiger — a name mentioned in this excerpt — was King’s name before he changed it as an adult.)
Once, long ago, two boys lived in Brooklyn. One was popular, the other wasn’t. One was athletic, the other was overweight. One was smart, the other barely graduated from high school. One says the two never really knew each other, certainly never went to New Haven together in a car, and the other, told of this, is now trying to explain why he has spent most of his life saying they did. But he can’t.
"I don’t know," King says.
He becomes indignant. “I would not regard it as significant,” he says of a story that he has been telling for more than 30 years. “I don’t think it has anything to do with my credibility.”
He gets defensive. “What makes Sandy’s memory perfect?”
He turns humble. “I’m embarrassed.”
It is nighttime when he says this. He has just finished his TV show. In a few minutes he will begin his radio show, and then he will go home to an apartment with walls of plaques and an empty bed, and when he wakes up he will get his hair done and go to Duke Zeibert’s for matzo and Le Slim Cow. His friends wonder sometimes if King is happy or sad, but here in the studio, where the phone lines have already begun to blink with listeners trying to get through, he says he has never been happier in his life. And, as proof, smiles.
"Who are you?" he is asked.
"That’s a good question," he says. "I am a successful broadcaster. I am a very good interviewer. I’m a funny storyteller. I’m a raconteur. I’m instinctive. I’m impatient. I’m impulsive. The things that work for me on the air sometimes don’t work for me off the air. Now, that answers what I am. Who I am? It’s a question I’ve never asked."
"Then how about Larry Zeiger? Who was he?"
"He was an acne-faced, overweight, Jewish kid whose father died, who was on welfare, whose mother spoiled him. And then, in the course of his life, in his mid-twenties, he became Larry King."
"And who is Larry King?"
"All the things that Larry Zeiger never was."
"So who was telling that story at the temple? Larry Zeiger or Larry King?"
"Probably Larry Zeiger," he says. "Larry King wouldn’t have to exaggerate anything."
Right now, in some parallel universe, there’s a Rolling Stone profile of McChrystal that ends something like Finkel’s King profile. In that parallel universe, Obama probably still fires McChrystal, but I am finishing up my sixth straight post about the superb journalism of Rolling Stone and that gutsy, thorough, scrupulous Michael Hastings.