How to Break a Scandal

Everyone knows this moment.  Something dishy, something trashy, some god fallen, principles tested, and the street full of speculation.

If you, the writer, find yourself involved in this kind of story, something messy and dangerous, awkward and sad, how will you handle it?

Ask yourself:

Do you need to tell this story? Are you sure? Is there something worth knowing here? Who will benefit?

How much collateral damage are you looking at? Who is hurt? What kind of hurt? Is that fair? How much territory is likely to fall under your mushroom cloud? Can you limit civilian casualties?

Who is ruined? How big is big, this story of yours? And must it be that big?

Recognizing that you possess in this moment the preponderance of power, how will you break the story? What’s your timing? Is a warning appropriate?

As we learned from the IMF scandal, they don’t use “a perp walk” in France—that is, the accused, ushered by his lawyer through a flank of reporters, head bent, just make for the car, his instruction. How loud will you be? Is your publisher, for example, stocking three times the usual volume around town?   Will you tweet without end?

Words are both powerful and limited. As if a club in the fist of a giant, we know the power of them very well, but have you factored in the constraints? Have you considered how—try as you might, good as you are—everything you write is different than you had in mind, a bit adulterated, a bit off? Still want to swing that club?

What is this story to you, anyway?

And if the shoe were on the other foot, would you say the writer did right?

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: shame, female – Royal Constantine; shame, male – Bruckerrlb

What a Writer can learn from Eliot Spitzer

1.

I’ve been following Eliot Spitzer’s career since his New York State attorney general days, followed by his tenure as the 54th governor of New York, and then, straight through a noisy scandal, involving a woman, of course, which caused him to step down citing “private failings.” He dropped from the public eye for a while, scant mention of him in any of my news feeds, and then, voila, up he pops again, looking fit and well-dressed, and with his own round table talk show on CNN.

The highs, the lows, the redemptions! How can you not love the can-do, do-tell of a certain kind of New Yorker who falls from grace and emerges the better for it, even dapper?

But Kathleen Parker and Eliot Spitzer made an ungainly couple. It seemed that Eliot (if I may presume that familiarity), though reborn a newsman, was still a lawyer, still a prosecutor, still a panting, salivating wolf on the hunt. And not soon enough, as she certainly suffered, the co-host Kathleen Parker disappeared, never mind her Pulitzer, and come 8:00 p.m., EDT,  In the Arena appeared as noiselessly as a page turned. The new show, especially compared to the old format, is taut, lean, hard-hitting, and informative.

That’s the first lesson from Eliot Spitzer: a good idea evolves. If something’s not working, figure out what’s clunky and make it better. First, Eliot himself is reborn, and next, the format of the show. It’s his show now. And we carry on.  

2.

As a lawyer, I never had a case with him, which I regret, as I certainly would have learned. But what made him good in that profession (as reputation has it), is what makes him good in his new incarnation: his urgent, uncompromising need to know. Eliot Spitzer has a very healthy, wholly irrepressible curiosity. He wants answers. He wants facts and has a nose for the odd one. He leans in, interrupts, probes, and parses words to get at a more precise meaning. Let’s drill down he says, a statement, not a question.

That’s the second lesson from Eliot Spitzer: drill down. Shine a light in the darkest corners, and your story sharpens.

3.

Meanwhile, time passes, not much, and the show shifts again. This time Eliot shares the table, off and on, with two junior associates, one male, one female, both perky, and picked no doubt to counterbalance his wolfish, incisors-bared intensity. Will they last, these little chickens, still damp behind the ears? What will come next? We’ll see.

That’s the third lesson from Eliot: you’re never done. There’s always more you can do to sharpen something. Test and learn. And move on with the sure knowledge that you’re getting better and better, closer and closer to what you hope to achieve.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits: Eliot Spitzer, thumbs up – dealbreaker.com; Eliot Spitzer, portrait – progressivevalues.blogspot.com.