Washington Life Magazine
Washington Life Magazine


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 doesn't matter.

CJ: Last week we were the center of the tabloid nation with Maury [Povich] and Connie [Chung] here. Have you followed that story?
I get the New York Post every day.

CJ: Do you think it's a story?
: 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?
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?
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.

Carol Joynt, Maureen Orth


CJ: You were in the Peace Corps; it doesn't feel like it has that same draw today.
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 political appointees.

CJ: Why don't you do it?
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 into journalism?
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 a week.

CJ: Of course.
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.
: 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
"Seven Beauties."

CJ: How did that happen?
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?
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?
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.
I'm just saying it's much easier to damn the parent than to damn the celebrity.

CJ: But Jackson knows that.
Absolutely, and he's paid off so many people.

CJ: He's picked his victims wisely?
Pedophiles go where the family bonds are weak. Pedophiles go where they know they can insert themselves. It's the classic behavior pattern.

Dorothy McGhee and Van Schley


CJ: Do you think his career is over?
Yes, but that's because he's a drug addict.

CJ: So this talk right now of him getting a new CD and all that, that's just posturing?
He's just incapable of dealing with
any kind of a schedule or project.

CJ: Who raises the children?
This very strong woman, who's a Muslim and a nanny.

CJ: What does it mean that you discovered Kinky Friedman?
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?
No. I have a Tim Russert bobble head.

CJ: Will you tell us where you keep it?
In the box.

CJ: How do you choose your stories?
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. For more information on the Q&A Café at Nathans or to view previous interviews, visit www.nathansgeorgetown.com.


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