By Emma Krupp
Earlier this month, I received an unexpected call from a number with a Washington, D.C. area code while wrapping up the final hour of a work shift. Bending beneath my desk surreptitiously, I listened to the voicemail: It was Maureen Orth, famed reporter and Vanity Fair correspondent, and she wanted to talk now.
“I’m going to be traveling tomorrow,” she said. “Sometimes in this industry you have to be ready for the thing when it happens.”
Orth, whose 50-year career has taken her from Newsweek to Vogue and more, knows a thing or two about working on the fly. Her career in journalism began in the late ‘60s after she grew bored in a master’s program for Latin American studies — following a stint in Colombia for the Peace Corps, school seemed dry and dull. Instead, she happened upon a program in documentary and journalism studies at the University of California – Los Angeles (“In the course catalog, right near ‘L’ for Latin America was ‘J’ for journalism,” she said) and enrolled on a whim. Soon after, she scored her first major article with the San Francisco Chronicle-Observer, a piece on the “dope lawyers of San Francisco.”
“I really was convinced that I didn’t know how to write,” Orth said. “I said, ‘You want a story about the dope lawyers of San Francisco?’ And they go, ‘Yeah, can you write?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, I can write,’ never knowing if I could or not. And so that’s how it started.”
Since then, Orth has amassed a jaw-dropping list of interview credits — Vladimir Putin, Madonna, Mohamad Al Fayed — and with that, endless anecdotal curios. There was the time, for instance, when she got her first editing lesson as a young reporter from “Roots” author Alex Haley. Or when Karl Lagerfeld, surrounded by the opulence of his large apartment, broke down about the death of his longtime partner. Or even when Margaret Thatcher, in her first interview after being voted out of office, told her that her life had been “shattered.”
“All I could think in my head was headline, headline, headline,” Orth said.
In her reporting process, Orth adheres to a formula she calls “Energy, Enthusiasm, Empathy, Polite, Prepared, Persistent” (EEEPPP, like a scared-sounding exclamation, for short). Being a reporter means doing your research, and listening, and being honest when you don’t understand and — especially now — engaging with sources on an interpersonal, nondigital level.
“You need to get on the telephone, you need to do the shoe leather work,” she said. “You need to get on the phone and go talk to them as human beings in person, or you have to develop a rapport over the telephone and hear their voices.”
Orth frequently writes about fraught subject matter and makes no obfuscations about where she stands, offering candid assessment about the sex abuse scandals of Michael Jackson (“I happen to think he’s a pedophile”) and Woody Allen (“I believed Dylan [Farrow] from the beginning”). But personal opinions, she added, shouldn’t affect a reporter’s empathy or the shrewdness with which they approach each source.
“Even if you’re dealing with people that you’re not on the same side that they’re on, you have an obligation to listen to what they have to say,” Orth said. “And then you can go back and forth with them, but you’re not being deceptive. If you think someone is not telling the truth, you can say, ‘Wait a second. Are you trying to tell me this and this and this? Come on.’”
In addition to writing for Vanity Fair, Orth runs a charity in Colombia — that’s where she was heading when we first exchanged emails a few weeks before our interview. Later, she offered a halfway apology for calling me out of the blue, then stopped herself. As an aspiring journalist, I should learn to expect the unexpected, she said. It’s a lesson that’s served her well throughout her career.
“It’s partially luck,” she said. “But when opportunity comes knocking, you [have to be] capable of responding.”