Roles of the Journalist, Part 2: The Surrogate Fan

Last time I wrote about the journalist as a detective, sniffing out corruption and dysfunction to better help the American people. Now, I’m moving onto something that covers a fluffier topic but comes with just as many rules and responsibilities.

The Surrogate Fan

Writing about celebrities is actually tougher than one might expect. It’s not as taxing as data-mining death records or pushing past gatekeepers to get to unaccessible sources, but there is still an expectation that the reporter keep his or her biases away from the work. For example, no one wants to watch an interview conducted like those on SNL’s The Chris Farley Show (unless Chris Farley is the actual interviewer):

As funny as Farley is in these sketches (skip to 3:30 for the classic Paul McCartney exchange), his mistakes are very realistic. If anyone were to sit down with Scorsese or McCartney, he or she would be tempted to gush about their achievements, hyperventilate and sweat profusely. As seen in The Chris Farley Show, over-emotional questions lead to blah answers. Blah answers don’t serve the readers. And what do we know of journalists? Their function is to serve readers.

That’s why pop culture journalists (note: not celebrity gossip columnists, paparazzi or TMZ writers, but true write-an-article-on-Wes-Anderson’s-directorial-methods-in-his-new-picture journalists) have the task of acting as a surrogate fan; we have to be interested and informed on the subject, but have the self-control to ask solid questions and concoct an enlightening story out of the answers. Sometimes this job is even harder because the environment contains crowds of other answer-seeking fan-alists (see the press conference scene in A Hard Day’s Night), which limits how much can be gleaned from a two-second interview. But the job requires us to weave great writing out of short exchanges and mountains of observation. So, in essence, journalists are surrogates fans getting the public one article closer to their idols.

My own experiences interviewing celebrities is pretty weak. I saw Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s hitRECord presentation and wrote about it for the Missourian, and I saw Marlee Matlin speak (OK, sign) and got my story retweeted by her the next day.

Yes, I'm still bragging about this almost two years to the day later.
Yes, I’m still bragging about this almost two years to the day later.

But I wasn’t able to talk to either of them in person, and so my job was pretty easy: give context to who they were, recap what they said with an overview of the presentation’s theme and add a little panache with quotes and audience feedback to make the reader feel like he or she was there. It’s not as cool as actually getting an interview with the speaker, but it’s an important job nonetheless.

I have seen friends and colleagues interview famous people, however, and they’ve shared some great tips on how to get past the “Oh my god, I’m your biggest fan” attitude. My Vox co-editor (and fellow zombie killer) Andrea Braxton hit the jackpot when she was assigned an interview with Maya Angelou the day before she spoke at MU. Any of us lit-heads would have thought we had died and gone to poetry heaven, but Braxton was able to have a great interview that added extra oomph to her preview of the event. “I think it helped that it was a phone interview,” she texted me when I asked her how she did it. “But mainly I just tried to focus on the fact that I needed to get the story done, and the interview would be terrible if I allowed myself to get starstruck.”

Danielle Carter, who actually got to interview our beloved Gordon-Levitt, had these more colloquial (but just as useful) words of wisdom regarding how she got through an interview with a guy who’s cute, funny and cool enough to pose with an “iWatch MUTV” sign: “Basically, I stayed very still, plastered a smile on my face, and tried not to pee/pass out from not breathing correctly.”

That's the lucky girl right there.
That’s Danielle, trying not to pee or pass out, standing next to the actor/director. Note: holding that sign means that JGL is probably the only person other than an MU journalism major who watches MUTV.

As an editor at Vox, I watched many of our reporters talk to musical celebrities, such as the drummer for Boys Like Girls and Weird Al (OK, not my caliber of music celebrity, but talking to the guy who wrote “White and Nerdy” could be a major life event for some). While we as editors made sure the pieces we published were unbiased and less promotional, we also accepted that somewhat-bridled enthusiasm is a key ingredient to a good interview.

To many journalists, it goes further than using interest to steer reporting. Tyler McConnell, one of our Vox music juggernauts in fall 2012, says: “I was always starstruck. I like to fancy myself as the Bill Simmons of music journalism. Well, maybe not starstruck, but I see no reason to hide that you’re a fan. None of my heroes did. [Hunter S.] Thompson had a huge crush on the lead singer of Jefferson Airplane. [Chuck] Klosterman made his whole career by screaming his love for ’80s hair metal from the rooftops. Paul Nelson built his whole career on riding Bob Dylan’s you-know-what.”

And yet, Thompson and Klosterman are some of the most revered writers in the canon of pop culture journalism because their fanaticism over the subjects they covered led to fantastic writing. They had something else, however; they had the control needed to ask questions, get answers and construct them in an interesting and informative way that served other fans. Their work went beyond promoting musicians in that they cared enough about the topic to take a deeper, sometimes less flattering, look. As another prolific Vox writer, Emily Adams, wrote about her less-than-successful interview with Boys Like Girls:

“We believe what we want to about people until they prove us otherwise, and band propaganda works on every single fan. So, I kind of learned to have a realistic, maybe sometimes pessimistic view, on musicians. I don’t have any preconceived notions about a musician until I talk to them, even if I like their music. Liking their music doesn’t mean I’ll like them as people, it doesn’t mean they won’t feed me a bunch of PR, and it definitely doesn’t mean I can’t be a fan. I think I really separate the part of me that is a fan from the part of me that is a journalist and what I expect in an interview.”

That separation is key to doing what we do well, and it’s something that makes being a surrogate fan a much bigger responsibility than most would expect.

Thanks to Andrea, Danielle, Tyler and Emily for their input. Stay tuned for the next installment, where I’ll look at journalists as storytellers.

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