Saturday, October 25, 2008

Uncomfortable Discoveries and the Dignity of the Accused

I wrote on Thursday about a Fast Company article that exposes the unflatteringly human side of Bill McDonough, and, as I flip through it again this morning, I'm reminded that beneath the story it tells lies what might be a stranger and even more fascinating narrative: the genesis of the article itself.

The article feels to me like a confession, a negative characterization that came out not because it wanted to but because it had to, given a certain set of discoveries.

I can't imagine McDonough would have agreed to the article had he not expected it to further solidify his heroic public face, and I can't imagine the journalist, Danielle Sacks, would have been so duplicitous as to approach the assignment, from the beginning, intending to expose McDonough's shortcomings.

But, clearly, after speaking to McDonough's old colleagues and clients, Sacks realized she couldn't, in good conscience, write the story McDonough was feeding her. It wasn't real. His memory was glaringly, and likely intentionally, selective. She had to reveal. She had to criticize. Her career, her integrity, her commitment to truth was on the line.

So she wrote the story. And, as I said on Thursday, I think it's great that she did.

But I wonder when she had her epiphany about McDonough. I wonder the order in which she conducted her interviews. I wonder which bits of investigation happened when.

For I wonder the extent to which her interactions with McDonough became deceptive. I wonder when McDonough found out that he wouldn't be getting the positive publicity he envisioned, when he realized that his conversations with Sacks were fueling an effort to drag him from his great green pedestal.

And I wonder what a journalist should do when her modest profile assignment turns into big, revelatory news. Should she gamble, explain herself to the subject of her investigation, ask him for his perspective on the accusations, and hope he turns curious and introspective? Or should she play it safe, allow him to maintain his false security, gather all the material she can, and let him read the story with the rest of the world?

I hope Sacks handled things delicately. I hope she talked to him before the article printed. I hope she apologised in advance for the backlash. I hope she explained why she had to write what she wrote. And I hope she told him that she was rooting for him and ready, the moment he was poised to take his next big worldchanging breakthrough public, to write his resurrection story.

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