A Profile is a Dangerous Weapon

Ugly People of the Journalism School

Trying to draw someone with words is depraved. The proof is that if you know someone too well, you can’t profile them. I could profile my friend Garrett, but I’d never be wholly satisfied. No matter what I say, I’d know there’s more. Always more. I got the chance to talk to my favorite living profiler, Stephen Rodrick, who compared profiling to making a documentary, choosing 4 or 5 scenes to represent someone’s entire life. That’s impossible, and anyone who thinks they can do it deserves the twisted punishment of being written about themselves.

Lately I started profiling acquaintances + friends around my j school. We’re all accustomed here to writing about strangers. In profile writing, we publish people’s lives and move on. But none of us drink our own shitty poison that we call journalism. There’s no creature that doesn’t deserve its own fangs. I thought this’d be a good way to relax my profile-writing style and to shake shit up, but more importantly it was an interesting social experiment. I wrote in different styles, and different people had different reactions—people loved it, hated it, were irritated by me, or they loved it and their friends hated it, or they hated it and their friends loved it, or they were generally confused (“what are you, uh…trying to do here, Rob?”). And it brought up some surprising philosophical questions I don’t have the balls to answer.

Artistic representation of people's reaction when they're being written about

Artistic representation of people’s reaction when they’re being written about

Such as: does anybody really want to be known? Beaucoup profiles we want to read, e.g., Frank Sinatra, are people who don’t want themselves written. But even those who want to be immortalized often have a very calculated image of themselves that they want spread. Despite Facebook, despite the data miners, despite the Patriot Act, we still value our privacy a lot, even from ourselves. We’re all shitty people, and we all use filters in self-reflection that highlight our positives and kind of, you know, skim over the negs. In other words, no one thinks their evil heart is evil. If a Perfect and True profile were written about each of us, we’d all be pissed. You’re all bad people, I among you. People don’t want honest profiles of them any more than corporations want investigative journalists leading their ad campaigns. There is a tendency for people to be excited about being written about—until they read it.

Second, when you write a profile, what are you doing to someone? The keyboard is a sharp tool and profile writing is a delicate surgery. One reason I haven’t read a music review since freshman year is that they’re a predetermination of how you’re going to hear that music. If I read a Pitchfork review of an Airborne Toxic Event record before I listen, I’m never going to hear it really—I’m going to hear “half-assed disco beats” and “limpdicked cuckolds.” What that writer says is in my head, and as a result my interpretation of the record has already taken shape beforehand, and their judgment will almost certainly be my judgment. The parallel to profiling is clear. You have a tremendous responsibility to not fuck up.

Which is the third question: What is your responsibility? Are you required to capture somebody’s entire essence in 500 words? because I thought we already agreed that was impossible. Or can you take one aspect of someone and nail it home, really drive the fuck out of one attribute until we all get it that Frank Sinatra has megalomaniacal tendencies? I don’t know. If you take the second approach, you’re not really profiling that person; you’re profiling an attribute of a person. By definition you’re misrepresenting someone. I did that with a few pieces, and those were some of the best written and most complained about.

Artistic representation of many people after they're written about

Artistic representation of many people after they’re written about

Now for the last question. Who knows you better: You? Or me? This is such a broad question that it seems like a joke, but you have to be able to define “identity” to write any profile. My identity to me is my thoughts, my internal emotions, and my let’s call it a heart. My identity to other people is my actions, my external emotions and my anatomic heart. Those are very different beings, and although we tell everyone to be who you are inside, both are equally legitimate. Everyone has two persons—the one that belongs to them, and the one that belongs to the world. Which one are you writing?

What I was doing wasn’t exactly journalism. I reported entirely from memory, except for fact checks for Sally and quote checks for Tyler. But it resembled journalism, and I got to see people’s reactions directly affect my relationships with them, sometimes for the better. Nate Anton is a good dude who studies what he calls “human journalism,” something he partially defines as journalism that truly connects with people on an intimate level. In other words, we serve people before anyone else, so we need to be in touch with them. There’s nothing wrong with being distant from a story’s emotions, but we gotta be aware they exist. What you can learn from personal journalism can be applied to real journalism. I.e., if you’re going to slam someone, you have to know exactly what you’re doing to them before you decide if it’s worth it. Usually it is. Generally people can take it, and if they can’t, they deserve it.

Anyway, that’s about it. A lot of great questions, no great answers. That’s good enough as far as revelations go. I wish I could’ve clawed apart every single person I know in the j school, and I truly believe I could have. If I didn’t write about you, I’m sorry and you’re welcome. Those who I did write about (as well as an innumerable amount of people whom I didn’t) are some of my peers and my very biggest heroes who teach me innumerable things, and, to speak openly for a moment, I wanted people to see some of the same qualities in them that I saw.

One thought on “A Profile is a Dangerous Weapon

  1. Pingback: Ugly People of the Journalism School: Free-Form Rob | Day Eight

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