Editor's Note: Upon the publication of "Kids Who Would Be King" on Nov. 12, 2008, a major source in the article claimed that the author of the piece had made an agreement with him that was henceforth broken. Consequently, editors at The Crimson determined that it would be appropriate to alert readers' attention to the following addendum written by the author, explaining in finer detail the circumstances of the agreement she had made with her source at the time of the article's reporting.
About a year ago, I e-mailed one of my classmates for an article about Harvard students with political ambitions. He wasn’t sure he wanted to be interviewed, so we talked about the article on the phone. He told me it was stupid for college kids to speculate about their political careers.
That’s fine, I said. You don’t have to talk about your future plans.
I just don’t want to look like a tool, he told me. You won’t, I promised.
What Caleb L. Weatherl ’10 wouldn't find out until much later—until I was sitting across from him in a D.C. restaurant, and we had already spent a whole day together—was that my article wasn't just about Harvard kids who like politics. It was about Harvard kids who want to be President of the United States of America. And the central question of my article was: does Caleb Weatherl want to be President? Or, as his Harvard classmates would read it, Is Caleb Weatherl a tool?
By then, it was too late for Caleb to back out of the story. He was stuck. I had planned it that way.
THE FIRST CALL
When I started working on an article about Harvard kids with presidential ambitions, I knew that getting interviews would be tricky. I wanted to talk to Harvard’s savviest young politicos—men and women with enough chutzpah to dream about the Oval Office and enough talent that they actually might succeed. But the students who were most serious about the presidency would, I assumed, be the quickest to deny their ambition. If I called them up and asked, "So, I've heard you want to be president," they would say, “No, that’s crazy,” and hang up the phone.
No interviews, no article. And no chance to get a closer look at what students this ambitious were actually like.
My editors and I decided I would have to be careful about the way I described the story. When I called campus politicos for an interview, I would talk about generic political ambition rather than Oval Office dreams. I would say I wanted to interview “prominent students on campus interested in politics” rather than “presidential wannabes.”
For journalists, this is standard procedure. You’re not obligated to tell the people you interview about the specific angle of your story. If you think it might alienate them, you often don’t tell, at least not at the beginning of the interview. If concealing information from a source means getting more or better information to the public, then journalists will do it—within certain bounds, of course. I could be vague; I wasn’t allowed to lie.
I had never met him, but I pitched the story about wannabe presidents with Caleb already in mind. Twice, in passing, I had heard him referred to as “that guy who wants to be president.” He was a former head of the Harvard Republican Club, and I found out he was taking a semester off to work for Karl Rove in D.C. I assumed he wouldn’t admit to any presidential ambitions, but that was part of the draw. Some students who were serious about the presidency would be too savvy to admit it in print. I hoped Caleb would fall into that camp.
The first time I talked to Caleb on the phone, I had my editor sit next to me to monitor the call. We had already decided that I wasn’t going to tell Caleb about the presidential angle of my story. My editor was there to make sure that I struck the right balance and told just enough of the truth.
I hadn’t played this kind of journalistic hardball before, not with one of my own classmates. But a guy who was working for Karl Rove? He was probably fair game.
On the phone, Caleb was polite but wary. I told him that I was writing about the dynamics of political ambition on campus, and about the arc of political ambition from freshman year to the final years of college. (I would also be interviewing the inevitable Harvard freshmen who publicized their presidential goals.) I said he was a well-known figure in campus politics and that I wanted to fly down to D.C. and profile him in-depth. He asked about the other people I would be interviewing. Finally, he agreed to the interview.
I hung up the phone and turned to my editor. He nodded. Fair enough, he said. I was good to go.
That should have been enough—I had the interview—but Caleb had said one thing, something about the future, that I hadn't understood. I could have let it go, but it was clear just from Caleb’s attitude that he wouldn’t have agreed to an interview about presidential ambitions. If I was going to be sneaky, I should at least give him a chance to push back—to ask a question I couldn’t talk around.
So I called him and left a voice message. By the time he called back, I had left The Crimson’s newsroom and was walking along a dark street towards Winthrop House.
I asked him to clarify what he had said before. He told me that he wasn’t going to say that he was planning to reach a certain political office in a certain number of years. He said he had no definite plans for post graduation, and he thought it was stupid for college students to make grand predictions about their political futures. It made them look like tools, he said. He didn't want to come off as a tool.
When I heard this, I was relieved. I had assumed Caleb wouldn’t admit to any political ambitions, and now he was fulfilling my expectations.
That’s fine, I told him. You don't have to talk about the future. I'm interested in what happens here, at Harvard—in the dynamics of political ambition among the student body, and about the ways those ambitions are perceived.
I felt this was actually a more honest description of my article than anything I had said before. I didn’t expect Caleb to confess to Oval Office dreams. I sort of hoped he wouldn’t. What I wanted to know was how he would respond to the fact that, despite his denials, his fellow students perceived him as wanting to be president.
I hung up the phone feeling better. I had given Caleb his chance, and we hadn't agreed to put any of the questions I cared about off-limits. When I told him he wouldn’t end up looking like a tool, I believed it. He seemed smart and grounded, not someone prone to making toolish pronouncements. I thought he would come out looking okay.
What I didn’t know was that Caleb had interpreted what I said in a very different way. He thought I meant my interview with him wouldn’t be about future political ambitions at all—that this topic was off the table.
When I first met Caleb for our interview, I was more nervous than he was. The Crimson had paid to fly me down to D.C. to interview him. If I got there and he backed out on me, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.
So the first day I spent interviewing Caleb, I did everything I could to put him at ease. I laughed and joked and tried to be unintimidating. As we had lunch and walked around Georgetown, I asked him about his background and how he snagged a job with Karl Rove. We chatted about his semester abroad in Italy and his Texan upbringing. Easy question after easy question, nothing to scare him off.
Not until late that evening did I finally get to the point. That was when I told Caleb that I had heard his classmates refer to him as that guy who wants to be president. This would be a central moment of my article, so I watched his reaction carefully and took notes. After a few minutes, I backed away from the question and talked about other things.
The next day, as we did a photo shoot on the Washington Mall, I kept pressing him: why was he the one his classmates singled out as a presidential hopeful? He kept repeating he had no plans about the presidency either way, and I kept saying, all right. Then why do so many people think you do?
He refused to let me take a photograph of him in front of the White House. So I shot him in front of the Washington monument and the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial.
By this point, the real angle of my article was clear, and Caleb was frustrated. He told me, calmly, that I had not been honest with him when I set up the interview. Why had I told him the article was about Harvard, not the future, when I was actually focused on his supposed presidential goals?
It is about Harvard, I said. It’s about how presidential ambition is perceived on campus. I don’t care whether you say you want to be president or not, but I do care how you explain why your classmates think you do.
He didn’t buy it.
It’s understandable that you're upset, I told him, choosing my words carefully. But this is what journalists can do.
I could have gone back to Boston without making it clear to Caleb what the angle of my story was going to be. But I wanted to make sure he had a full chance to respond to the questions I would be raising in my article.
Of course, allowing Caleb to respond to the angle of the story didn't mean that I was going to change my take, no matter how much he protested against it.
There wasn't much Caleb could do, in fact, except register his objections, and then, when the article came out, call me on the phone to tell me that he thought I had done exactly what he thought would be most unfair: portray him in the pages of Fifteen Minutes as some toolish junior with delusions of presidential grandeur.
In my photograph of Caleb, The Crimson's designers had photoshopped a campaign button on his chest emblazoned with his name.
FAIR IS FAIR?
There’s a longstanding debate among journalists about what kind of honesty reporters owe their sources—about what they are obligated to tell and what they can conceal.
"Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows what he does is morally indefensible," New Yorker reporter Janet Malcolm famously wrote. "He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse."
In her book, The Journalist and the Murderer, Malcolm describes the real case of journalist Joe McGinniss, who spent years interviewing and buttering up a convicted murderer—only to publish a biography of the man arguing that he was a psychopathic killer. The convict sued him for fraud; he had thought the journalist was his friend. The case ended in a hung jury, but the jurors had tended to favor the murderer.
For Malcolm, this case is a metaphor for what all journalists do, especially in the context of profiles and feature stories. Reporters seduce their sources with their attention, their willingness to listen, all the while imagining a story in their heads that has nothing to do with how the people they interview see themselves.
No journalist is fair to his or her subjects, Malcolm argues. There’s always a kind of deception; the game is inherently unfair.
It’s worth noting that Malcolm herself was unsuccessfully sued for libel by the main subject of one of her nonfiction books. But other writers also make arguments like Malcolm’s. “My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests,” Joan Didion wrote. “And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.”
Plenty of journalists think this is nonsense. They say they’re always up front with sources. They don’t play any games. They tackle tough questions right away, and they don’t conceal their angles, even if this means that sources may be hostile or unwilling to talk. NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, who teaches a course on press ethics, includes “You have not relied on deception, lying or trickery to obtain the information in your account” in his list of “how to know if you are behaving ethically as a journalist.” If journalism is about freedom of information, many journalists argue, that needs to apply as equally to reporting process as to the publishing of stories.
No matter where we are or who we're talking to, I heard a Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative reporter say, "We have to act as if the daylight is always around us."
I had read The Journalist and the Murderer the month before I started working on the students who plan to be president story. I didn’t want to agree with Malcolm. I thought it would be possible to write an arch saga of Harvard ambition without selling anyone out. I imagined my conversations with Caleb as a level playing field—a wannabe journalist and a wannabe politician playing the interview game across the streets of Georgetown. Caleb had experience dealing with the press. He had been hand-picked by Karl Rove to serve as his assistant. I wasn't putting him in a situation that he couldn't handle.
In many ways, of course, that was true. I never forced Caleb to say anything he didn't want to say. He could respond to me in any way he chose. He might not be able to control the angle of my article, but he had full control over himself.
What I hadn't realized, though, was how different it would be for Caleb to experience what it was like to have a journalist writing a full profile about him. It wasn't just a phone call for a few quotes. I spent the better part of two days with him. I went inside his apartment to take notes on the magnets on his refrigerator and the peanut-butter-covered spoons in his sink. And then, after all that, I wrote an article about him based on a premise I had come up with before I met him and which he thought was fundamentally unfair.
I’m still proud of the article I wrote. It engaged the questions I had set out to answer, and I was careful to write in the first person and distinguish what Caleb and others said from my own speculations. I was confident enough in what I had written to submit the article to a journalism contest, where it won first place in a regional round.
Yet the article did no favors to anyone who I interviewed—not Caleb, not the Undergraduate Council hopeful who watched her musings about ambition published just as she was beginning her UC presidential campaign, not the freshmen Oval Office hopefuls whose quotes may have rebounded on them in painful and upsetting ways.
Shortly after the article was published, I told Caleb I was working on a short reflective follow-up—not a correction, but something of a personal apology. This wasn’t something Caleb or any of my other sources had requested; but I felt ambiguous enough about the reporting process that I thought a follow-up might be appropriate. I told my editors about it, but then I stalled. I tried to write, but couldn't get down anything that satisfied me. I wasn't sure what it was that I was trying to apologize for.
What I had done to Caleb in being deceptive about the angle of my story certainly wasn't nice. It wasn't nice either to write a story about Caleb—or about any of the others—that I had good reason to think would make them upset. By the standards of personal ethics, it wasn’t particularly virtuous to publicize my classmates’ ambitions in order to further my own.
As a journalist, though, I had no ethical responsibility to be nice. My responsibilities were to the truth, as best as I could understand it, and to my readers. It was my job to pose interesting questions and find out the answers. As a reporter, making people unhappy or uncomfortable is often a sign that you're onto something that's actually worth writing about. Of course, there’s a calculation to be made about the value of information to the public versus the distress it may cause to individuals—a calculation that’s more difficult when the main public benefit is entertainment.
I dithered over these questions for months, procrastinating on a follow-up I wasn't sure it was appropriate to make.
Finally, last April, Caleb approached The Crimson’s editors about the follow-up. He also raised concerns about what I had said to him during the reporting process. He suggested that by telling him, in that initial phone call, that he didn't have to talk about the future, I had straight-out lied to him. That would be a breach of journalistic ethics that could invalidate parts of my article.
For me, the distinction I had made to Caleb in our second phone call had been a real one. I assumed he would be vague about his political future. I wanted him to talk about what his ambition—real or perceived—meant at Harvard.
Of course, I understand his perspective. In the context of my larger, purposeful deception of him, that moment may have put him unfairly at his ease.
The Crimson’s masthead had changed over since the fall, so I was called in to explain my reporting process to a new set of editors. I talked them through what I had done, telling them, in rough form, what I’ve written here. They agreed with me that what I had done did not merit a retraction or an apology. But they decided to add a clarification to the online photograph of Caleb to emphasize that the campaign button on his chest had been added with Photoshop. The whole situation, they said, was a little dubious. I said I was still willing to write a personal reflection on reporting the article, and they agreed that readers would benefit from the added context.
Maybe you put a toe over the line, a professional journalist told me. But every journalist has done what you did. And some keep doing it over and over again.