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The Investigative Reporters' Handbook

02 Sep 2011
Posted by Shannon

Poison PenmanshipPoison PenmanshipIf I could have only one journalism book on my shelf it would be Jessica Mitford’s Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Muckraking.

Witty, acerbic Mitford was a British investigative reporter working in the U.S. through the 1960s and ‘70s and because she’s such fun to read it’s easy to forget how significant her work was.  Her breezy magazine articles and books took down corrupt companies and whole industries while making everyone laugh.

In Poison Penmanship --  which should be subtitled the best journalism education anyone can get -- she tells us how she did it in an essay following each piece. She spills it all:  how she did the digging, how she set up the interview questions to progress “from kind to cruel” and (the best part) what she learned from what she did wrong.

This roster of articles includes the forerunners of what became The American Way of Death, a remarkably funny investigation into the corrupt funeral trade that made her career. The 1963 book exposed how cynical undertakers exploited the grieving public and spurred changes in legislation all over North America as well as sparking a boom in memorial societies.

The book also includes my favourite investigative piece -- “Let us now consider Famous Writers” – a 1970 article in which she takes on celebrity writers who lent their names (and their mugs) to advertise one of those overpriced correspondence schools. Ads for the Famous Writers School were a staple in most magazines of that era and their travelling salesmen were bilking money out of little old ladies who might (charitably) be described as functionally illiterate.

The piece itself is a delight, detailing the publicly traded corporation’s greed in glorious, mind-boggling detail. But it’s the backstory about how wealth and power kept the article lingering in limbo for months that is the real eye-opener.

Today’s journos often point to the ‘60s and ‘70s as a golden age in which hacks were well paid and editors were committed to journalism that informed the citizen. That’s half true. As Mitford tells the tale, it becomes clear that the only thing that drives publishers is knowing which side their bread is buttered on.

Originally, Atlantic magazine commissions a short version of the story. The editor spikes it after the publisher points out the venerable mag has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from what Mitford is calling the Famous Frauds. So McCalls bites and commissions 6,000 words and puts her on an expense account to do a bang-up research job (oh those were the days…). 

She files the article, triumphantly, only to have it killed by an editor who tells her the piece “isn’t very good” – but (suspiciously) pays her a full fee instead of the usual kill fee. So she calls Life, which promptly buys it and dispatches a photog to the school’s campus. He meets the PR people who remind him they spent half a million bucks on advertising at Life; the piece is killed again. (Alas, she doesn’t report the amount she earned in kill fees.)

By now the wily Jessica has been circulating the story among colleagues and cronies and it is becoming notorious as the most brilliant piece never to be published. So the editor at Harpers sends her a note asking to run this legend. And then something miraculous happens: the Atlantic editor asks if he can have the piece back. And his magazine decides to cancel the ad contract with the Famous Writers School.

It turned out the most famous of the Famous Writers, Bennett Cerff -- co-founder of Random House and a TV game show personality as well as part of the "Guiding Faculty" -- used his considerable clout to have the piece blackballed. He would have succeeded too, if it weren’t obvious from the growing underground audience that it was just a matter of time before somebody ran it and got the glory – and the subscribers. 

The impact of this piece is impossible to imagine in today’s fractured media climate. Atlantic saw record-breaking newsstand sales, got more than 300 letters from readers, and was reprinted endlessly in outlets like the Washington Post. Mitford was the toast of the late night talk shows, where she advised people who were suckered into contracts to just stop paying the outrageous bills and blame her. They did. By 1971 Famous Writers share prices had tanked and the corporation declared bankruptcy.

That was also the year Bennett Cerf departed for the Guiding Faculty in the sky, which may have been a coincidence. But at the time, more than one-ink-stained wretch wondered (with barely concealed glee) if journalism did it.