Research chat: Ron Suskind on investigative reporting, interviewing and documents
Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Ron Suskind is author of a number of best-selling books that examine the inner workings of the American government. From the Bush administration to the Obama administration, his work has been at the center of public debate and understanding of decisions and events. His books include The Price of Loyalty, The One Percent Doctrine, The Way of the World and Confidence Men.
In spring 2012, Suskind was the A.M. Rosenthal Writer-in-Residence at the Shorenstein Center. (See videos of his series of lectures.) Journalist’s Resource caught up with him to ask him for some parting thoughts on his work and methods, particularly relating to interviewing and the use of documents. The following is an edited transcript:
Journalist’s Resource: You write long journalistic narratives. Why?
Ron Suskind: I have a tendency to bite off more than I can chew quickly. I go at big things and write narratives that are, by their nature, as complex as the times we live in, but also ones that are utterly discernible. We’re up to the complexity. Now I know lots of folks, like my friends in public relations, who say, “No, no, no. People can’t handle complexity. They need to be grabbed by the lapels as they walk by.” And I’m with them there — there’s something to that point of view. I certainly incorporate that idea into my stories sometimes. I’ll first offer the reader the most stunning example of something, and then once I have them with that hook, I drag them into the lake. And then they end up swimming after a while. The reader ends up walking in the shoes of characters with whom he or she may have nothing in common. While doing that, the goal is to define the choice and consequences we make as individuals, as Americans, or as important public actors whose decisions affect the lives, in many cases, of millions of people. It’s all about those choices — what flows into those choices. The goal is to learn what we can learn in this short life.
JR: You often examine the interplay between policy and personality. What lessons have you learned about the policy and research side of government?
Ron Suskind: Nowadays, you have policy shops cranking out so much paper, killing forests. What I’ve found having visited the policy shops for almost 30 years — within the government or near the government, the little policy pods that have grown up and the institutes — is that there are fewer honest brokers than there were. Just like there are fewer people defining public service the way they were in the post-World War II era, when you weren’t paid that much, and the distinctions in pay were not that great between the public and the private. Many of the best and the brightest people — those who were first in their class, with the greatest leadership skills — they were going into the public sector back then and they were not looking to leave. They would say, “This is what I do.” They weren’t checking their watch; they weren’t saying, “Now, after these good works that I’ve attempted, when will someone pay me 10 times that to help me unwind them at company X or lobbying firm Y or law firm Z.” They were not thinking that way, and that’s important. Nothing has changed in the human character for thousands of years. We are driven by incentives, and we are driven by our good-enough reasons that underlie action.
Back in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, there came about places like the RAND Corporation, which were just interested in the data, in demonstrably clear facts. Both political sides are responsible for a move away from this. But I think to be fair, though, the political right has been more of the pioneer of this. They understood tactics with a little more clarity than the left, which is why they won so many more victories.
What does this mean now? When you have fewer honest brokers in government, you have interested institutes and policy shops outside of government that are essentially flowing into government. And then you have the policy shops within government that are being fed by the Brookings Institution on one side, or the Heritage Foundation on the other. What it leaves is a moment where now people are sitting in government with crafted information and still trying to get to the soundest, take-it-to-the-bank information that can guide best decisions. It’s almost like a lot of people are living inside of The Truman Show, and they don’t realize they are living in a bubble. They are mere actors in an ideological drama.
JR: How do you approach interviewing?
Ron Suskind: I’ve worked a long time to get the latitude I need to do the thing I think I do best, and what I think is a better model for creating long-form narrative that actually sticks, that is rooted in the terrain and won’t budge or move when the political winds start blowing. You build relationships. That’s the key. They are built on shared honesty. I will say to subjects, “You can know anything about me you want. I will answer any question you have. Because I know everything about you.” They end up knowing everything about my life, and I end up knowing everything about their life. I know what drives them. If there’s something in their life that’s coming up, for their wife or husband, maybe their brother or sister, I send them a note. Sure, what’s important to them is important to me. It may not fit with the existing notion of what the story ought to be. But if it drives them, it’s important, period.
When I explain my interviewing technique to young reporters, I emphasize two things: Be honest; and always say, “Please explain this to me in words so I can understand it.” People live inside a lexicon. Lexicons often carry with them judgments. We’re very tribal, as E.O. Wilson says. Tribes develop language, and I am always wary of that. When I say, “Explain that to me in terms I can understand,” then sources start to get more fundamental and elemental. Don’t be afraid to ask a stupid question. Explaining terms gets you to the underlying fabric, beneath things that people say often thoughtlessly.
JR: What’s your pacing in terms of trying to press your sources to go on the record?
Ron Suskind: Once they begin this process of “educating” me — which is what it is — I begin to ask questions that are original questions. After a while, everyone is in — many sources have been interviewed at this point — and they’ve all told me how they see the world. At that point, a reporter still can’t be too product-oriented. But it still doesn’t happen too quickly.
Remember that people are inclined to stick to message, and they are inclined to be, and ordered to, in this era. You need to give them more comfort. I say that this will continue to be between you and me for a while. Literally, if I see you on the street, you look away, or I will. If somebody introduces us and asks me, “Do you know so-and-so?” we will be introduced as if we don’t know one another. I respect the fact that people need to stay in the shadows, and I would do anything, including go to jail, to protect them. I will do everything to protect my sources, and that gives them comfort.
But I do say, “At the end of the day now, we are going to have to have something that appears somewhere. I will go through all of that with you.” In many cases, with the way I can write the books now, we have crowded rooms with people moving in and out of hallways, or conference rooms, and there’s not a clear map to the sourcing for the reader. And that works well. What I do is that, for the crowded rooms, I talk to everyone who was there, because almost everyone will talk on this kind of model, with this kind of journalistic foundation. And then what’s in the book is what everyone agrees about, basically. Now, they all may run and duck when the book comes out. Even if there’s a lot of non-denial denial and duck-and-run when it comes out, eventually the versions in the books gets accepted. Sometimes it takes five years. With The Price of Loyalty, One Percent Doctrine, The Way of the World, and now with Confidence Men, it’s always a few years.
JR: One line of criticism of what you and Bob Woodward do in your books relates to these grand reconstructed scenes, with characters speaking in dialogue, even though you weren’t there originally. Do you defend this technique with the theory that the public will learn more this way about the system?
Ron Suskind: Yes, that’s exactly right. As you come to the end of reporting, you start to come to the last parts of the conversation, and you start to press sources on the tougher issues of choice and consequence. Now at that point, you are muscled up, because you’ve talked to everyone. You understand what the evidence was and what the personalities were, which is often quite defining in outcome. That synthesis is what you press them on. You are trying to bring about the fullest rendering possible even if you can’t let people know who the exact sources are.
What happens is that over the time of the interviewing, the sources often find themselves doing something that is inappropriate in this tendentious political environment: trusting in truth. People consider that dangerous out there. I understand that. It’s a circus. It’s a mud fight. And they are wary, and so am I, how a few words can be taken and carved into a club, and people can be beaten senseless with it. That’s just how the game now is. The heartening thing is that though there’s often a big kaboom when the books come out — and there is a lot of hubbub — the books are 400 to 500 pages, and they take a while to get through. So two weeks later, after the initial kaboom, people actually pick up the book and start reading it.
My goal is for all of the actors to be rendered in their fullest context. That’s all we can hope for in this life: to be known in context — in human context, and in the context of our professional lives. In fact, when people actually read the books, they say the actors are more difficult to swiftly judge than they were before they picked the book up. I hear things like, “I’ve never understood a health industry lobbyist until I read this book.”
JR: So if one source tells you something off the record or on background, and then others put it in on the record, what do you do? And how do you address big disclosures about sources that are going to come out?
Ron Suskind: You have to be careful, because you have to treat each subject and set of interviews on their own. When you get to the final stages, everyone is in their separate rooms, and you start confronting them with things like, “Well, this is what I understand you said in that meeting. Why did you say that?” At some point, it becomes very difficult for them to say, “I didn’t say what everyone else heard me say.” Then they usually start to explain why they said it.
Once you have a big disclosure, though, this is what I used to tell reporters at the Wall Street Journal. They would say, “I’ve got the quote and I’m ready to publish.” And I would tell them, “That’s a bit of a gotcha there. You’re going to call the person back and tell them that this quote is going to run in the Journal next to their name.” We’d delay the story for two days. Sometimes the reporters would scream — the pain of this for them is great. But I thought it would make it better. This is the source’s life, after all. You as the reporter move on next week to the next story. This is their rendering in public, and it doesn’t go away, particularly in the Internet era. At first, sources might say, “Oh God! That’s going in the paper.” But then they might offer some explanation as to what they meant. Readers can then judge that explanation. Sometimes it’s hollow, so hollow in fact that it makes the original quote even stronger.
That’s the key, though, you go around and around the loop again. You say, “Look, here’s the way it was at the start. We were going to be in background, but you knew that of every 20 things I collect, there’s going to be one where I need to go into sunlight with this. I’ll tell you how it’s going to appear and in what context. You can offer explanation if you see fit.”
In many cases there aren’t any of those kinds of quotes that end up in the story. But if there is, we have a tough discussion, and in most cases — almost every case — they will accept this truth that is carried in the quote. Why? Because in so many instances, what is carried in that quote is the most fundamental and defining truth that they carry with them every day of their professional lives. There is a moment of both fear for them, but also liberation. People think, “Goddamn it. I’m finally going to say it. I’ve been walking around with a lump in my throat and a tightness in my chest. I’m a grown-up, and I worked hard. When things have worked out in my life, I’ve trusted truth.” In almost every case, the source will take ownership of the quote, or if they don’t, they will throw out what are transparently non-denial denials. Most readers get that: the “Washington walk-back,” they call it. And it happens in corporate America, too.
JR: Some of your reporting involves a lot of government documents. How do you use them, and how integral is this for journalists?
Ron Suskind: Documents are very, very important. They tend to be a distillate. I say this to young journalists, too: Talk is cheap, but the written word is less so. It compels precision. Of course, policymakers are not writing Isaac Bashevis Singer short stories in internal government documents. But the compulsion is still there. The documents are often as close as they can muster to a shared ground at the start of the debate.
Now, the documents often change as the discussions and the debates flow in the conference rooms. But the document is often a starting point to that day’s meeting. For journalists, though, it’s important to remember that the document you may get may not be the final document on that meeting. I learned that through years of trial and error. The morning documents that they have as they walk into the meeting are often updated after the meeting. You want to get the second one. In fact, get the first and the second if you can. You want to see how it’s been altered because of the meeting.
JR: So how do you get documents?
Ron Suskind: I ask for them. I just say to people, “I need that document.” As a reporter, your needs are boundless. I say sometimes, “Look, I’m going to get it anyway. It will be good for everybody. You must believe that there is evidence on which your decisions rest. I want to see what the best estimate of that was for you walking in the door.”
JR: What’s your success rate when you ask for materials that officials are trying to keep out of public view?
Ron Suskind: Very high. But you have to be careful. Sometimes I need to know the trail of the document. It can be tricky. It might have a stamp at the top that means only four people got that one. And the other three people might get together and say, “We’re not in the group of Suskind sources.” It’s sometimes hard for them to figure it out, but it’s possible that they can track certain kinds of documents back to the source. Sometimes I’ll hold off and ask to get back to sources when I know it’s safe for them to give me the document. I think about that on their behalf. That’s part of building relationships. I don’t want them to feel the heat on their skin, or get them in trouble, if I can avoid it. Now, my goal is to get what I need to get done, but I think of them, too.
In many cases, I will tell people, “I don’t want that document. But I wouldn’t mind if you read it to me. So I’m going to turn on the tape and you’re going to read it, just these key sections on page 4, article B.” Often I’ve had the document described to me in advance. Most of the legal statutes and related issues — the fault lines in terms of the legal issues — are document-handling statutes. So, as a reporter I want to be careful with that, on behalf of all involved. Now having said that, I have a practice in my final go-back to all the actors who are going to be in the book of asking about all the things that are “non-public,” and they have a chance of making a case to me of whether this will create a real problem for the well-being of our people, the nation and our national security. And when they make a case for that, we’re in a complex discussion.
I don’t want to put anything in a book that will get somebody killed, and I will work furiously to make sure that never happens. There are ways to do it. You look at what is the essence of this disclosure that provides context in this era in terms of the big issues. I think that’s one area where, between Bob Woodward’s books and mine, sometimes there is some differentiation between us as authors. I tend to focus a lot on how the disclosures are not of value just because they are non-public, or for their own sake. They are valuable because they flow into a wider context that helps us understand choices and consequences. That’s what I look at. There are many things I know that don’t end up in the books. They’re interesting, and they might roil a news cycle for a day. But they don’t flow into the larger narrative of the book as to what we ought to be thinking about.
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