I was contacted by a reporter who said how she had been "enjoying" my pieces in xoJane and wanted to profile me. That's how it started. Her publication had already profiled me, I said, so I doubted they would want another one. She was aware of it, she said, but that was more about xoJane and this one would be about me.
Sure, I agreed. I Googled her and read a piece she wrote about how branded journalism was helping reporters displaced by layoffs. It was well-written and reported.
You overthink things, people tell me. You have trust issues, people tell me.
You kind of have to in this industry. The finished piece (which I am not linking to, because I don't want to give it traffic) is an example of why.
There are two ways to report things. There is the concealed-intentions-thesis-already-devised "The Journalist and the Murderer" way where you have your angle from the start and you think you are wildly clever in trying to get a subject to hang themselves by their own words. And then there is the way where you are up front with someone doing a story, and you give them a chance to respond to criticism rather than just toilet-papering their house and running away like a child.
When I worked in tabloid journalism, I hated this aspect of it, and I would try to level with people whom I was reporting on. "Listen, you're probably going to look stupid, and other people are going to say shitty things about you, and here are some of those shitty things, but a lot of people will find out about you, so that's what's happening. Let's start with you responding to a few of the shitty things people have said about you. Here, I'll read them to you."
Anyone can cheaply, and a lot of times falsely, hang someone with their own words. Record yourself talking sometime. You will probably pause a lot, you might even change directions. Let's look at this made-up quote that could be used in an imaginary profile, and two different ways of reporting it.
A woman who works in philanthropy might say, as she is talking to a reporter who is profiling her and being given access to her day-to-day life: "I like to help people. I mean, oh wait, I need to call my dry cleaner hold up." A reporter trying to hang that person might report it as:
"I like to help people," the woman says, with the naive do-gooder intentions of so many insufferable Manhattan strivers. And then, within the same breath, her real priorities emerge: "Oh wait, I need to call my dry cleaner," she says, and then frantically: "Hold up!"
Versus a reporter trying to be fair and empathic who might report it as:
"I like to help people," she says, after a long day of answering questions from people who have reached out, seeking guidance in the charitable industry and putting her own personal to-do list aside. "Oh wait, I need to call my dry cleaner!" she remembers. "Hold up." Her work life is creeping over into her personal, and she's fallen behind, again.
Two very different narratives. It's so easy to string people up, it's almost laughable. It's the model of a lot of tabloid reporting (just watch the documentary "Outfoxed"), and it bores me. It bores me the way cowards bore me.
Now let's look at the issue of unattributed quotes that shit on someone. Like a quote calling someone "bipolar," which is near-libelous in its irresponsibility, and which this reporter did to me as well as misquoting someone else, which is captured on audio I'll be releasing on a podcast later.
As someone who has several friends who are bipolar and who have told me never to reveal this condition because of fear of stigmatization, I'm horrified by this kind of quote. Not because anyone who I know who suffers from bipolar disorder should be ashamed of it -- these people are the smartest, funniest people I know -- but because of how disgustingly stigmatizing it was being used as a pejorative in her quote shitting on me, from a spineless anonymous source, no less.
I've quoted anonymous sources shitting on people before and despise doing so. In fact, an entire episode of "The Newsroom" was built around it, except flipping the moral dilemma I revealed about being forced to do this to Bethenny Frankel, which Aaron Sorkin used as a basis for a character where I was turned into a villain.
What is a "hit piece" exactly? I learned the term in journalism school at Northwestern. At The Post it was referred to as a "takedown," which Sorkin developed his storyline around, then did not make good on his agreement to use me as a consultant for his show.
(Which, in case it wasn't clear in the piece I wrote about that experience, this is the reason why I felt justified telling the incredibly curated story of the inside information and storyline I gave Sorkin. He then used this information as the backbone of an episode for HBO, without employing and compensating me, which is the very first thing I pitched when I met with him, and he said, "Absolutely.")
So let's be precise about it. A hit piece is where you are seeking to fuck someone, plain and simple.
I have no problem with criticism. I welcome it, always, but I have no use for criticism that is unattributed. Watch "The Wire." Do you know how easy it is to simply make up quotes? I've worked with tons of reporters who have done so. Decorated reporters. Reporters with a lot of "heat." It's easy as pie.
Yes, there are times when it is justified, when it is a high-profile celebrity where it is difficult to pin someone down in the industry because of the repercussions of doing so. But someone like me? Give me a break, dude. Go to any of the bloggers who've taken the piss out of me (often with my complicit cooperation, as when I used to email my dating columns to Gawker week after week -- because I really don't mind people having a go at me, when it is witty).
Reporting on me isn't a goddamn national security issue. It's not Watergate. Anyone who would talk about me but not have enough courage or integrity to put their name to it, is to me a worthless, fearful, sniping coward. I have about as much respect for that as someone who would throw a sack of shit on a doorstep and run away. How hard is that? How much dignity and moral superiority is there in that move?
"You have no filter!" I've heard people say about me. "No," I've said tersely in reply. "Actually, I do. Otherwise everyone would be in tears. But I do have the courage to talk about things that will result in the incredibly dullard response: 'You have no filter.'"
I can be incredibly cruel and eviscerating. I try very hard to spread light in the world rather than darkness, so I try to focus on these attributes in myself -- any of the incisive abilities that I have as a writer and a human being -- and use them for compassion and for good, or when it is a worthy target, to have a go in an intelligent, fair, critical way that is self-deprecating and self-aware enough as to engender trust in the reader.
Any bush-league reporter who thinks that I censor nothing or have no filter, I pity their naivete and the smallness of their world.
The best stories, the most compelling ones, I will never write for xoJane, but will disguise as roman a clef later on, as most people who live compelling lives but are not playing the short game of sabotaging relationship after relationship with cheap hit pieces often choose to do.
Last night, I had a lovely date with a social media startup CEO (I do not mostly date comics who are comfortable with my "body humor," which this reporter described me as doing, and which might just be the most simpleton, embarrassing, witless take on comedy I've ever read -- would love to read her review of Judd Apatow movies: "Another body humor movie!"). This gentleman and I were talking about some of the stories I've done for xoJane.
Do I enjoy writing about something that is humiliating that has happened to me? No, sometimes it is incredibly mortifying and difficult to examine. Like in sobriety, doing these inventories often provides permission for people to be free of the kind of paralyzing shame I grew up with most of my life, with secrets kept in darkness.
Here's a good "gross" story from me.
I wet the bed until I was 15, like Sarah Silverman who writes about this exquisitely horrifying experience in her book "The Bedwetter." Now tell me. Did she write this book to gross people out and because she has no filter?
Fuck no. She wrote it to provide a sense of healing to me and every other individual has experienced something that is so weighed down in personal shame as to be crippling throughout an entire lifetime. She is giving freedom to other women by telling them that they are not alone in what might be some of the darkest, hardest, most shameful days of their lives. There is nothing more soul-killing than waking up at a slumber party when you are a child, realizing you have wet the bed and wanting to disappear from the earth forever. Sarah Silverman is brilliant, hilarious and motherfucking courageous.
She is courageous because she knows that some ignorant people will miss the point of what she is doing entirely. It takes courage to put yourself out there and talk about experiences that have happened in your past that you would rather not acknowledge even exist.
Because I grew up with so much shame, I've always been fascinated by the power of deconstructing its power. How does one do that? By acknowledging it. By talking about experiences that we are supposed to fret and feel bad about and hide and feel less than about because something awful has occurred, and giving others who might be going through their own mortifying hell (whatever it might be) the realization that they're not alone.
"This happens so often, I can't even tell you," the compassionate doctor I saw said when I realized that a second tampon had lodged inside me -- a story which this reporter pointed to as my gross TMI style.
I didn't think I would write about that humiliating experience. I knew it would take courage (that I didn't know if I had) to admit that something like this had happened to me, and to know that the catty and the reductive would miss the point of writing about it entirely.
But I'm never writing for those people.
I'm writing for women like this one, who wrote me after that story came out this:
"I have been reading you a lot lately and wanted to say how proud I am of your courage to put it out there. I mean that in the deepest way. The smarts, sharpness, wit, sex -- that's all fun to read, of course. But the level of raw, honest pain and grief you share -- live from the front, because it is RIGHT THERE -- is something I deeply admire and am grateful for. I've written a lot from deep within that hole. It's hard and scary and I'm an old mom voice. You are so deeply entrenched in so much of the fantasy world and yet you are the real deal -- a super-smart woman writing from the front, on fire, reporting live from the scene of her own deaths/rebirths/you name it. Everybody writes this shit but so few women in your position, with your brain/voice/heart/talent/humor/reach/access write the raw truth of it the way you do.
"I want you out there so my daughter can get some freakin' comfort and wisdom in ways I will not be able to offer soon enough. Do not listen to the noise, Mandy. There are so many women in pain who need their story told to them so they know they are not alone; they are not crazy; they are not pathetic. You are using your powers well. I hope you can find some comfort for your own pain in knowing that. And I have to tell you that your stuck tampon piece was just about the best thing I've read maybe in my life. I sent it to every single one of my late 40s gal pals and honestly, they kept calling me laughing (till they peed, which is what happens when you're in your late 40s and you've had babies.) I cannot express to you the joy this post has given a bunch of still-kinda-hot midlife moms (who all happen to have badasskicking jobs, too). Seriously. Every single one of us has experienced that particular form of self torture. Your description defies description. You captured it stunningly. Thank you for the biggest peeing- laugh I've had in way too long. I wish you so much happiness, Mandy."
And I will always write for them.
Find Mandy long-form at http://tinyurl.com/stadtmiller.