MAUREEN ORTH DISHES FOR Q&A CAFÉ AT NATHANS
Celebrity journalism, trading monitors for typewriters ... and Michael Jackson
In an almost two decade-long career with
Vanity Fair, Maureen Orth has written dozens
of articles on the powerful, the famous and the
notorious. She is the author of Vulgar Favors
and The Importance of Being Famous. A graduate
of Berkeley, Orth lives in Washingon with her husband,
Tim Russert, the Washington bureau chief
of NBC News and moderator of Meet the Press,
and their son, Luke. She was interviewed by Carol
Joynt in Georgetown.
Carol Joynt: When you hear the term "Power
Couple" what does it do to your nerve endings?
Maureen Orth: Nothing, because he [Tim
Russert] never wants to go out anywhere, so it
CJ: Last week we were the center of the tabloid nation
with Maury [Povich] and Connie [Chung] here. Have
you followed that story?
MO: I get the New York Post every day.
CJ: Do you think it's a story?
MO: Yes. Connie and Maury have their own
show together, where they make a big thing about
their marriage. It usually takes two to tango and
sometimes three and sometimes four.
CJ: I wonder if the celebrity journalism genre is as
intense as it was five years ago?
MO: I don't think it was nearly so intense five
years ago as it is today. What used to be confined
to the National Enquirer and the Star and the Globe
has become a really insatiable media beast that
needs to be fed. It's much easier to cover a missing
girl in Aruba than to try to cover what's going
on in Iraq. The only thing I see that's a little bit
different is that people are no longer famous for
achieving anything significant. One of the things
in lieu of talent that gets covered [is] lifestyle;
everything you wear, everything you do.
CJ: Everybody's a billboard.
CJ: Do you consider yourself a journalist, a profiler or
a magazine writer?
MO: I honestly consider myself more of an
investigative reporter. Right now, I'm just finishing
a very long piece on Conrad Black, who's under
indictment in Chicago. He was at one time the third
largest newspaper owner in the world and there's
$400 million dollars missing and he and several
others are under indictment for about $83 million.
I've done stories about priests, I've done stories
about soldiers who came back from Afghanistan
and murdered their wives. These are stories that are
very difficult to do, because you have to go through
layers and layers of people.. You're supposed to dig
stuff out, you're supposed to present it in such a way
that people remember it, but give them what they
haven't seen before and get back alive.
CJ: You were in the Peace Corps; it doesn't feel like it
has that same draw today.
MO: The idealism is there. In recent years the
Peace Corps has become a political appointee
thing. Carol Bellamy is the only former
Peace Corps volunteer who's ever headed the
agency, and there've been over 130,000 people
who've served. It's about time we get a former
volunteer to run it, instead of these knownothing
CJ: Why don't you do it?
MO: I don't know. It's a little late for me. I helped
build a school in Colombia, and it's been one of
the thrills of my life. The school is still up and
running… in Medellin.
CJ: So you got out of the Peace Corps and stepped
MO: No, what happened was I went to
graduate school in Latin American studies and
it was so unbelievably boring after the reality of
the Peace Corps that [in the course catalogue]
right next to "L" for Latin America was "J" for journalism. And then when I
got my Master's, the girls who were
really considered the top ones in
the class could become researchers
for $100 a week and the boys who
were the top ones in the class could
become associate producers for $200
CJ: Of course.
MO: I went to Sacramento and got hired to cover
the capital for the local CBS station. The man
called me the next day and said, "I'm very sorry
to tell you this but my station manager said we
could only have one woman per news show and
the other woman was a former Miss Texas…"
CJ: …and she had to be a blonde.
MO: Oh, there was no brunette in television
[then], except if you were black or Asian.
They asked me if I would try out for weekend
weather girl in San Francisco and I thought that
would be so insulting after being a Berkeley
graduate in political science and a Peace Corps
volunteer. So that's how I decided print might
be a better deal for me.
CJ: Along the way you were at were at Newsweek, and
you left Newsweek to be Lina Wertmuller's assistant on
CJ: How did that happen?
MO: At Newsweek I had done Francis Coppola
for Godfather II, and one day, Francis was in
town and he said "Oh I'm going to meet Lina
Wertmuller tonight. She's in town from Italy." I
said, "Can I meet her?" So when I met her- I'm half Italian - we just started talking and
getting along very well and she asked me if I
would be her assistant, and live in Rome. I got
a leave of absence and did that. It turned out
to be a very difficult shoot and she turned out
to be an absolutely impossible human being,
but it was a very interesting experience.
CJ: Genius is allowed to be, right?
MO: That's right. The monster genius, yes.
CJ: Did you keep in touch with her?
CJ: Can we talk about Michael Jackson for a moment;
your interest in that story, was it ever informed by the
fact that you're the mother of a son?
MO: Oh, absolutely. I remember I was in
Nantucket and Graydon Carter said that
Michael Jackson was involved in a scandal
and they wanted me to come back and do
the story. At the time my son was about
eight years-old. Thomas Mesereau, Jackson's
attorney, put the mother be on trial instead
of Michael Jackson.
CJ: But any defense would've done that.
MO: I'm just saying it's much easier to damn the
parent than to damn the celebrity.
CJ: But Jackson knows that.
MO: Absolutely, and he's paid off so many people.
CJ: He's picked his victims wisely?
MO: Pedophiles go where the family bonds are
weak. Pedophiles go where they know they can
insert themselves. It's the classic behavior pattern.
CJ: Do you think his career is over?
MO: Yes, but that's because he's a
CJ: So this talk right now of him
getting a new CD and all that, that's
MO: He's just incapable of dealing with
any kind of a schedule or project.
CJ: Who raises the children?
MO: This very strong woman, who's a Muslim
and a nanny.
CJ: What does it mean that you discovered
MO: The "Texas Jewboy"? That's how he bills
himself. Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys.
He's now running for governor of Texas. He was
a Peace Corps volunteer in Borneo and he always
says that he introduced the Frisbee to Boreno. But
he has hit songs such as "Put Your Biscuits in the
Oven and Your Buns in the Bed," and "They Don't
Make Jews like Jesus Anymore." Anyway, Kinky
was brought to me when I was first at Newsweek
as sort of an unknown, but of course we had the
Peace Corps thing in common, so I gave him a
nice little write up. It helped launch him.
CJ: Do you have a Kinky Friedman doll?
MO: No. I have a Tim Russert bobble head.
CJ: Will you tell us where you keep it?
MO: In the box.
CJ: How do you choose your stories?
MO: A lot of times, they're assigned to me, other
times, I'll choose them. Actually, I'm going to
change my contract right now, because I am
getting tired of low people in high places.
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