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Op-Ed

News Gone Wild

Pop quiz for the journalism students in the audience: What’s an editor to do when her reporter is assaulted and the attacker, whom the reporter strikes back, turns out to be the story’s subject?

There is no question that Joe Francis, the creator of the “Girls Gone Wild” videos, is a vile man. That’s clear simply from the premise of the series, in which roving camera crews convince young women, usually drunk, to engage in all sorts of activities their mothers—or even their sober selves—would never approve of.

Francis’s same perversity is rammed home in a recent, lengthy Los Angeles Times “West” Magazine article by staff reporter Claire Hoffman. The piece is part-profile, part-gonzo-journalism adventure in which Hoffman follows Francis on a trip to Chicago, where one of his crews is filming a “Girls Gone Wild” night at a local club. While relaying that night’s events, Hoffman discourses on the nature of exhibitionism in our media-saturated society, the superficiality of celebrity, and the reasons why college-age women would strip in front of a camera.

Hoffman also lays out the various complaints brought against Francis over the years, mostly by women accusing him of harassment and assault (all dropped or settled out of court). One of the most chilling parts of the article comes when Hoffman relates the story of Jannel Szyszka, an 18-year-old whom Hoffman and Francis met at the Chicago event. Szyszka told Hoffman that Francis brought her back to the “Girls Gone Wild” bus that evening and recorded her stripping and masturbating; next, she relates, Francis told the cameraman to leave and then raped her (though, for obvious legal reasons, Hoffman doesn’t actually use the word). Francis at first denied they had sex at all, then claimed it was consensual. At this point, Szyszka hasn’t pressed charges.

All of this—the videos, the lawsuits, the possible rape—amounts to such a devastating profile that most editors, including Hoffman’s, should have felt obliged to make the piece as fair and objective as possible. Which is why, from a journalistic point of view, it’s so disturbing that the piece opens with an explicit description of Francis assaulting his very own Boswell:

Joe Francis, the founder of the “Girls Gone Wild” empire, is humiliating me. He has my face pressed against the hood of a car, my arms twisted hard behind my back. He’s pushing himself against me, shouting: “This is what they did to me in Panama City!”

It’s after 3 a.m. and we’re in a parking lot on the outskirts of Chicago. Electronic music is buzzing from the nightclub across the street, mixing easily with the laughter of the guys who are watching this, this me-pinned-and-helpless thing.

He has turned on me, and I don’t know why. He’s going on and on about Panama City Beach, the spring break spot in northern Florida where Bay County sheriff’s deputies arrested him three years ago on charges of racketeering, drug trafficking and promoting the sexual performance of a child. As he yells, I wonder if this is a flashback, or if he’s punishing me for being the only blond in sight who’s not wearing a thong. This much is certain: He’s got at least 80 pounds on me and I’m thinking he’s about to break my left arm. My eyes start to stream tears.

I wriggle free and punch him in the face, closed-fist but not too hard.

This is extreme journalism, and it makes for riveting reading, especially given Hoffman’s flair for description and confident reporting style. But it also raises some tough questions. Aren’t reporters supposed to be objective? How can someone who has been abused by her subject continue to write objectively, particularly when so much of the material also deals with abuse? Or, in fact, is there a greater duty in these extraordinary circumstances, when a reporter has been beaten up by her subject, to reveal as clearly, if not as luridly and convincingly—with obvious judgment and wisdom from experience—her attacker’s violence? In that case, should objectivity come second?

The real problem with the piece is not that Hoffman can’t have been objective in any of her reporting; it’s that she uses the cloak of objectivity provided by the reported-profile form to lend credence to her side of what could easily be a major lawsuit. As readers, we assume that because she works as a reporter, and because the piece ran in the Los Angeles Times as a reported piece by a staff journalist, and above all because the newspaper traffics in so many conventions of objective journalism, that it deserves all the benefits of the doubt that we would give any other article. We do not ask, every morning reading about yesterday’s robberies, whether the reporter has anything to gain. Without facts presented by disinterested observers, how could anyone trust the news? Editors are, therefore, careful to guard their paper’s objectivity—reporters who have been mugged are typically not put on stories involving their mugger. So why did Hoffman’s editor decide differently?

Tossing the story means suppressing the details of a possible rape, yet running the story without the facts about Hoffman and Francis would be disingenuous.

The blog chatter surrounding Hoffman’s piece is almost uniformly horrified with Francis, as it should be. But that just shows how complex this particular question is: How can anyone doubt the reporter’s story, given Francis’s prior behavior? How dare we question her objectivity? But imagine it the other way around: What if, using his millions, Francis bought a newspaper, assigned himself as a reporter and wrote a scathing profile of Claire Hoffman, one that began with his own version of that night’s events? Of course we would accuse him of abusing the media for his own ends. But setting aside Francis’s ranking on the scum scale, how can we not wonder—if only to pose the question—if Hoffman is doing the same thing?

None of this is meant to defend Francis; nor is it necessarily to call into question anything Hoffman wrote. There is, of course, a place for new journalism. Blurring the line between objectivity and subjectivity can open the door to important and compelling insights. But it can also dangerously undermine a reporter’s ability to tell the whole story—this is not Hunter S. Thompson boozing his way through a law enforcement conference.

Which is a nice way to wrap up a journalism ethics class; the stickier question is what, given this conundrum, is a poor editor to do? A reporter has dug up some important facts about a well-known businessman, but in the course of doing so has deeply implicated herself in her own story. Tossing the story means suppressing the details of a possible rape, yet running the story without the facts about Hoffman and Francis would be disingenuous.

Fortunately, this is a reason why newspapers have multiple reporters. Hoffman’s editor should have scratched her article, on the grounds that she was too compromised to give Francis an objective treatment. Then, her editor could have assigned another reporter to present Hoffman’s story as well as Francis’s. This new piece could have even re-reported the events surrounding Francis’s possible assault of Szyszka. It’s an awkward solution, and it dilutes much of the force from the Hoffman’s moving piece. But it satisfies the ethical obligations of journalism, which is ultimately what matters.

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Clay Risen’s first attempt to build a website fell apart after he learned that risen.com had been bought by a hardcore Christian rock band. Clay is a senior staff editor at the New York Times and the author, most recently, of The Bill of the Century: The Epic Battle for the Civil Rights Act. He lives in Brooklyn. More by Clay Risen