Reynolds Journalism Institute
March 16, 2015
In October of 2014, Los Angeles published the story A Mobster, a Murder, and a Moll With a Secret, presenting a new lead in the cold case of gangster Bugsy Siegel’s murder. But long before the story ever made it to print, editor-at-large Amy Wallace had to sell the pitch—the never-before-heard theory of a 71-year-old realtor whose mother had ties to Siegel and the mob—to editor-in-chief Mary Melton. And then there was the long and arduous reporting process with hurdles of its own, including Wallace’s key source passing away in the middle of her investigation.
Wallace and Melton traveled to the University of Missouri for the school’s Writers and Editors: The Most Dynamic Relationship in Journalism conference, where they dissected the writer/editor relationship and broke down exactly how much work is required to pull off a feature story of A Mobster, a Murder, and a Moll With a Secret’s magnitude.
November 27, 2013
Amy Wallace is an editor-at-large for Los Angeles and a correspondent for GQ.
"I've written about the anti-vaccine movement. I love true crime. I've written a lot of murder stories. The thing that unites all of them—whether it's a celebrity profile or a biologist who murdered a bunch of people or Justin Timberlake—it's almost trite to say, but there's a humanity to each of these people. And figuring out what's making them tick in the moment, or in general, is interesting to me. In a way, that's my sweet spot."
May 21, 2013
When Amy Wallace profiled then-Variety editor Peter Bart for Los Angeles magazine, she took on issues of access, personality, misdirection, industry politics, journalism and retaliation. To write about a guy who’s been called “the most hated man in Hollywood” demands guts and patience. To pull it off as she did requires a certain tact and grace. Wallace, an expert on the psychology of Hollywood,lifts the veil for us here in this installment of “Annotation Tuesday!” by taking us line by line through "Hollywood's Information Man," which is as much about how journalists cover the filmmaking industry as it’s about how Bart operated about town.
February 5, 2013
Reading Amy Wallace’s profiles is like sitting around your favorite bar with your favorite super-witty friend and talking about people over cocktails: You come for the companionship and vibe, you stay for the juicy details. It’s hard enough to profile the famous because public figures don’t reeeeeeally want to be known anymore, but Wallace, a GQ correspondent and Los Angeles magazine editor-at-large, gets in there every time and brings back something revealing. Is it her Yale brain that code-cracks walled personalities? (Yes.) Is it her tact? (Yes.) Her background as a reporter and business editor at the Los Angeles Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution? (That, too.) She writes all kinds of magazine stories – about vaccinations and autism for Wired, about a karma-centric prep school for Vanity Fair, about the killer Betty Broderick for Los Angeles, about the wah-wah guitar pedal for a former New York Times column on creativity and innovation, but today we’re focusing on profiles, specifically her GQ piece on the comedian Garry Shandling.
November 29, 2012: The Daily Swarm interviews me about D’Angelo & Frank Ocean
BY ERIC DUCKER
A Rational Conversation is a column by editor and writer Eric Ducker. Every week he gets on iChat or Gchat or Skype or whatever with a special guest to examine a subject that’s been on his mind.
Two of the most important music stories of 2012 proved the return of D’Angelo and the rise of Frank Ocean, who put out the great Channel Orange album days after revealing on his Tumblr that his first love had been a man. Writer Amy Wallace wrote extensive pieces on both the artists for GQ, where she currently serves as a correspondent; she’s also an editor-at-large for Los Angeles Magazine, and over her career has contributed to prestigious publications spanning The Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and Wired.
For her D’Angelo feature – one of the year’s most insightful, illuminating, in-depth pieces of music journalism, if not this decade’s – Wallace enjoyed unprecedented access, spending considerable time with the enigmatic soul legend and even travelling to Europe with him on his first tour in over ten years. In her recently published Frank Ocean story, she spent a day with the headline-grabbing singer in New York and spoke to him about his momentous year, creating a revealing portrait that proved far more dimensional than any mere celebrity profile. Ducker and Wallace discussed the similarities between D’Angelo and Frank Ocean, and issues of masculinity in R&B (sort of, more on that soon).
Eric Ducker: Do you listen to a lot of R&B?
Amy Wallace: I do – old and new. I grew up in a small town in Ohio that was kind of the cradle of R&B of that time. The Ohio Players, Earth, Wind & Fire, The O’Jays, the Isley Brothers – the list of musicians who formed me could go on and on. Plus, I have a 15-year-old son who is hip-hop-obsessed: Miguel is on in the car a lot.
ED: Not a bad car soundtrack.
AW: Indeed. You said at the outset that you wanted to discuss masculinity in R&B. I have a caveat to that, if you will permit me. I feel I should say that the two male R&B singers I’ve had the good fortune to interview lately, D’Angelo and Frank Ocean, aren’t comfortable with the label of R&B. Neither one of them is particularly fond of labels in general, but this one in particular rankles. D’Angelo, who’s long been labeled the King of Neo-Soul as well, said he didn’t want to be put in the R&B or the neo-soul box. He told me, “I hate the term R&B, because that acronym robs us” – by “us,” he meant black musicians – “of our proprietorship of rock & roll. Because that’s our shit.” For his part, Frank Ocean spent a fair bit of time with me refusing to be labeled, either musically or in terms of sexual orientation. But of R&B specifically, he said, “It’s really racially charged and kind of archaic.” “Demeaning?” I asked. “I don’t know about ‘demeaning.’ I think ‘inaccurate,’” he said. “So what do you call your music?” I asked. “Music,” he responded. “I call it post-modern, and people look at me like I’m being an asshole.” I say all this not to derail your interview, but because I think the issues are related. Part of what is going on in black popular music – in its forms and in the topics it continues to tackle – is a resistance to being labeled one thing or another.
March 2, 2011
What makes a smart, well-educated mother of four go on a killing spree? That’s the question writer Amy Wallace set out to answer in her story “The Fury,” which appears in the March issue of Wired.
The piece digs into the story of University of Alabama scientist Amy Bishop, who stands accused of shooting six of her colleagues last year. The tragic event, which left three professors dead, got lots of attention in the press, but Wallace wanted to take advantage of the magazine format to go deeper, to get inside Bishop’s mind. Wallace never got to interview Bishop, but she did manage to get her hands on three unpublished novels the scientist had written — more than 900 pages in all.
In this episode of the Storyboard podcast, Wallace explains to Wired senior editor Nancy Miller how the novels gave her a glimpse into Bishop’s thoughts. She also delivers a master class on how to convince tricky sources to talk. Listen for the inside scoop on this chilling tale of murder and madness.
Around 8 p.m. on the evening of Dec. 23, 2009, my 12-year-old son and I were puttering around the house when there was a sudden, loud banging at the front door.
"I have legal papers for Amy Wallace," a brusque woman's voice said from the other side of the door when I asked who was there. I was startled. The voice sounded unpleasant. It was dark out. It was the night before Christmas Eve. I didn't feel like welcoming the voice in. Can you leave the papers outside, I asked? "Are you Amy Wallace?" barked the voice. "Uh," I said, hesitating, my head muddy. Who was sending me legal papers?
"I'm going to take that as a yes!" the voice said, and not in a friendly way. "I saw you through the window. Consider yourself served!"
A little more than two months before, the November issue of Wired magazine had hit newsstands. The cover story was "An Epidemic of Fear: One Man's Battle Against the Anti-vaccine Movement," and I had written it. In part, the story was a profile of Dr. Paul Offit, the co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine and a leading proponent of vaccines for children. But the story also painted a portrait of a passionate movement led by people who believe vaccines injure and kill children. And on Dec. 23, one of those people sued me, Dr. Offit and Conde Nast, the company that publishes Wired, for one million dollars.
We'll get to the allegations of the suit in a second. But since I'm writing this for journalists, let me say this: getting sued for libel is just as big a bummer as you've always feared.
I've been a journalist for more than half my life. I have written for newspapers and magazines, I have been a reporter, an editor, a staff writer, an editor-at-large. Never before have I been a defendant. I am careful. I am meticulous. Above all, I work hard to be not just factual, but fair - to put bits of information in their proper context.
But here's the simple truth: If someone wants to sue you, they can. Easily, too. And Barbara Loe Fisher, the cofounder and president of the National Vaccine Information Center in Vienna, Virginia, the largest, oldest, and most influential of the watchdog groups that oppose universal vaccination, wanted to sue me. So she did.
Challenge your assumptions
I've been asked to offer advice in this essay to those thinking of writing about vaccines. My basic advice is the same as I'd offer to people interested in covering public schools or Congress or the environment. Learn everything you can about the topic. (The resource guide posted on USC's ReportingonHealth.org website is excellent in this regard). Challenge your own assumptions and be open to all points of view. Talk to lots of people and be willing to ask dumb questions. Then, take care to get every detail - big or small - right in print. And when I say right, I mean it in both the micro and macro sense. Context is everything.
But even as I ask you to bring the same rigor to every topic you choose, it must be acknowledged that writing about an emotionally charged issue like vaccines brings with it special challenges and is something to think carefully about. Like writing about abortion or animal rights, writing about vaccines inevitably raises the ire of certain readers. It is not for the timid. I'm not saying you have to be a fiery advocate. On the contrary. But you should go into the job with eyes open.
Autism's False Prophets, Dr. Offit's 2008 book, opened my eyes to the risks of reporting on vaccines. Before I began working on my Wired story I read it, focusing at first on his straightforward description of what being a vaccine advocate had cost him. He'd been vilified on the Internet as a profiteer, a prostitute who serviced Big Pharma, and worse. He'd been physically accosted. His life had been threatened. Once, an anonymous caller had even implied they might go after Offit's two children.
Shooting the messenger
What I experienced in the wake of my Wired story was similar in tone (although my child was spared). Like Offit, the vast majority of the feedback I received was positive, but the negative stuff would make your hair stand on end. As I blogged at the time, "Here are some of the questions I've been asked: ‘Do you believe in anything?' ‘Do you have children?' ‘You went to Yale?'
I've been called stupid, greedy, a whore. (You can read reader comments here.) I've been called the author of "heinous tripe." J.B. Handley, the founder of Generation Rescue, the anti-vaccine group that actress Jenny McCarthy helps promote, sent me an essay titled, "Paul Offit Rapes (intellectually) Amy Wallace and Wired Magazine." In it, he implied that Offit had slipped me a date rape drug. Later, he sent me a revised version that omitted rape and replaced it with the image of me drinking Offit's Kool-Aid. That one was later posted at the anti-vaccine blog Age of Autism.
On Thanksgiving of last year, as the furor seemed to be dying down a bit, the website Age of Autism - the same site that published Handley's "Kool-Aid" screed - posted a Photo-shopped portrait of me, Dr. Offit and several others who have written or reported on the vaccine issue (and not blamed vaccines for autism or numerous other maladies) sitting around a table, about to dig in to a holiday feast. The greeting on the card said, "Happy Thanksgiving from The Hotel California." Instead of a turkey, the main course we were about to dine on was a baby.
Still, until Dec. 23, I had this to be thankful for: no one had sued me. Then came the rapping at the door. Here is what Barbara Loe Fisher, who I'd described in my story as "the brain" of the anti-vaccine movement and as "a skilled debater who often faces down articulate, well-informed scientists on live TV," alleged in her suit: That a two-word quotation (Dr. Offit says of Fisher, "She lies.") constituted a false statement of fact about her that would cause people to conclude that she is not a person of honesty or integrity. In this way, she alleged, I (along with Dr. Offit, and Conde Nast) had defamed her and caused her to appear "odious, infamous and ridiculous."
Here was the context within which the quote she objected to was placed:
Paul Offit has a slightly nasal voice and a forceful delivery that conspire to make him sound remarkably like Hawkeye Pierce, the cantankerous doctor played by Alan Alda on the TV series M*A*S*H. As a young man, Offit was a big fan of the show (though he felt then, and does now, that Hawkeye was "much cooler than me"). Offit is quick-witted, funny, and - despite a generally mild-mannered mien - sometimes so assertive as to seem brash. "Scientists, bound only by reason, are society's true anarchists," he has written - and he clearly sees himself as one. "Kaflooey theories" make him crazy, especially if they catch on. Fisher, who has long been the media's go-to interview for what some in the autism arena call "parents' rights," makes him particularly nuts, as in "You just want to scream." The reason? "She lies," he says flatly.
"Barbara Loe Fisher inflames people against me. And wrongly. I'm in this for the same reason she is. I care about kids. Does she think Merck is paying me to speak about vaccines? Is that the logic?" he asks, exasperated. (Merck is doing no such thing). But when it comes to mandating vaccinations, Offit says, Fisher is right about him: He is an adamant supporter.
On March 10, 2010, Fisher's lawsuit was dismissed on its merits. United States District Judge Claude M. Hilton issued a Memorandum Opinion that is better reading material than anything I will type here. Basically, he concluded that Dr. Offit's quote about Fisher was illustrative of the rough-and-tumble nature of the controversy over vaccines – and therefore worthy of mention in an article about that controversy.
So, we won. But not before thousands of hours (and countless dollars) were spent proving how fair the story was. This is the nature of the beast. And the beast doesn't tire, it seems, of taking whacks at those who dare to describe it.
A few weeks ago, Age of Autism caught wind of the fact that my Wired article is going to be included in the next edition of the annual compilation Best American Science Writing. The site promptly published a post. "Remember Amy Wallace? I sure wish I didn't," the writer began, adding: "For those lucky enough not to, I apologize for ruining your day."
The post then asserted that the inclusion of my Wired piece in the book was simply payback from the pharmaceutical industry. How, you may wonder, did they make that leap? Well, this year's collection is being edited by Dr. Jerome Groopman, the Harvard professor, scientist and writer. And according to Age of Autism, "Drug companies Immunex and Hoffman-La Roche have funded Groopman's research. He has authored a chapter on viral infection in a symposia published by Novartis, and has served on the speaker's bureau of Ortho Biotech, a subsidiary of Johnson and Johnson..."
They keep going in their list of supposed conflicts, but you get the idea. The point is this: When you enter the vaccine-thicket, one thing you can rely upon is that experts will be vilified. To the extent you attempt, with thorough reporting, independent research and cogent analysis, to become something of an expert yourself, you likely will be labeled a villain, too.
Do I regret my trip into the thicket? On the contrary. My Wired piece was a chance to contribute in a meaningful way to a discussion that must be had. The other day, a friend told me she'd heard about a mumps outbreak at a Los Angeles high school. Then, the morning that I finished writing this, the Los Angeles Times had a story about health officials' worries that an East Coast mumps outbreak was spreading to L.A.
Need I say any more?