I am Tom Junod, Writer at Large for Esquire. I wrote “The Falling Man,” about that photograph of a man falling from the World Trade Center on 9/11 that became taboo soon after it was published. Today, we've released a new podcast about the story hosted by David Brancaccio from public radio’s Marketplace and PBS’ NOW. It's been great talking about it, and other matters, including Donald Trump, here. Thanks for asking me anything and everything.

Esquire Classic Podcast: The Falling Man, Ep 1.http://classic.esquire.com/editors-notes/podcast/?tpcc=twitter

PROOF: https://twitter.com/TomJunod/status/651031498364186624

Comments: 77 • Responses: 25  • Date: 

arlusk9 karma

As a woman who enjoys Esquire magazine, I am often surprised by some of the uncomfortably outdated ways it portrays modern women. Considering Esquire's otherwise progressive positions (reexamining the role of fatherhood, mentorship, politics etc.) how might it adapt to reflect more progressive positions toward women and feminism?

tomjunod5 karma

I think we ought to write about women more, and write about them as we write about men. I mean, Esquire's a men's magazine, and so there are always going to be "appreciations" of female beauty. But we write about men, without thinking, Oh, this is a story about a man. We ought to do the same about women. Above all, I'd like to see us develop more female voices, and use more women as writers.

Mercurydriver7 karma

What inspired you to write "The Falling Man" in the first place?

tomjunod7 karma

I saw Richard Drew's photo of The Falling Man on page 7 of the New York Times on the morning of 9/12/01, and knew immediately that I was going to write the story. And I mean, immediately -- because it seemed a portrait not just of a man about to die, but also of a world about to be born. And so it was.

NoodleStroker5 karma

Do you think about the man?

tomjunod8 karma

Often. I'm called to speak "The Falling Man" fairly regularly, and each time I do there's a moment when I contemplate the reality of his situation -- the choice he had to make, and what he might have been thinking on the way down -- and it never fails to give me the chills. It never, ever, gets old.

scottmonty4 karma

Tom, I've long enjoyed your 1996 classic "My Father's Fashion Tips." GQ revisited it back in 2007, and it made me wonder: how is your father? He made quite an impact on me through your writing.

tomjunod2 karma

My father died in 2006, at the age of 87. He made quite an impact on me, as well -- indeed, on everybody he met -- and I believe I'll be writing about him again soon. And thanks, very much, for asking.

MotoMayhemR14 karma

From a Journalist's point of view, What do you think of Donald Trump running for President in 2016?

tomjunod3 karma

Well, he's been a treasure trove for journalists, hasn't he? But there's lesson here, because his campaign has been driven by the fact that he doesn't sound like anybody else. He doesn't sound like a politician, so he can get away with stuff people think that politicians shouldn't say. But a lot of journalists want to sound like journalists. A lot of journalists want to sound like everybody else. Trump speaks to the advantage of having your own voice.

MotoMayhemR11 karma

Thank you for your answer, I agree and that is why I think a lot of people really like him. But do you think it seems like he is making most of us feel dumb by the way he is talking to the press? Or do you think he is trying to appeal to more of the uneducated voters in America by making this run for President a Circus?

tomjunod4 karma

I've met Trump -- I wrote a story about him, oh, a long time ago. I don't think he's trying to make anybody feel dumb, or even that he's trying to turn the whole campaign into a circus. That's just the way he is. The interesting thing is that it makes people think he's authentic, think he's telling the truth, when he's flat out the most insincere person I've ever met. That he's ridiculously needy, and responds to everything situationally and by instinct, doesn't make him a truth teller.

1tudore3 karma

From On the Media's list of common sources of misinformation after a crisis (link), like mass shootings to Dave Cullen's recent follow-up expanding the list (link), it seems the media is aware they have predictable failures in their coverage.

How can journalistic institutions address and prevent these predictable failures?

What steps can be taken to educate the public on journalism's systemic susceptibility to common errors and help them defend themselves against those errors?

tomjunod2 karma

The Internet has educated the public on the inevitably of journalistic errors on an unprecedented scale. And I think journalistic institutions have followed suit, becoming more and more critical of stories that appear in other publications. Take the UVA story as an example.

OliFranklin3 karma

Esquire stories often break with form and convention in really powerful and unusual ways - using the second person, etc. Why is this? When you're writing a story how do you decide on what shape it should take?

tomjunod3 karma

Well, Esquire has a tradition of telling stories in unconventional ways, and of encouraging writers to do so. So when you write for the magazine you're aware that you not only have the freedom to play around with form, but also an obligation. So I've told stories in just about every way possible, including writing a story about a young rapper in 6000 words worth of rhymed couplets. (That story has not been available on the Internet, perhaps mercifully.) But I can tell you, from my own experience, that most of the time I don't go into a story planning to write it in some kind of unconventional way. Indeed, most of the time I write unconventional stories because I can't write conventional ones. Necessity being the mother of invention, and all that.

Glennishill2 karma

I was blown away by your story "The Rapist Says He's Sorry" when I read it in college. What was writing that story like? Did you take a lot of heat from people for writing a story from that perspective?

tomjunod2 karma

Reporting that story was pretty creepy, because I interviewed a LOT of sex offenders before deciding to write about Mitch Gaff. And then there was Mitch, himself -- who wanted me to like him, who wanted me to believe him, who wanted me to think that he'd slain the demon, and who, as a result, spoke like Jack Handy, in those old SNL routines. And then I had to write it, and it became the first story for which I had to do, like, four full drafts before getting it right.

Glennishill2 karma

Thanks for that response. When you write stories like that do you have to compartmentalize? How do you deal with the emotional weight of writing really heavy stories like "The Rapist Says He's Sorry" or "The Falling Man?"

tomjunod1 karma

You kind of give into it, really. I frequently hear journalists described as disinterested observers but I've never understood that. It's an emotional job if you're doing it right.

ylhollander2 karma

You and a field of really exceptional writers followed David Granger out of GQ and over to Esquire in 1997 and truly revitalized a brand that had really lost its mojo in the post-Eisenberg editorial era. How did that mass-exodus-cum-rehab project come together, and was Art Cooper (rest his soul) really that difficult to work for?

tomjunod2 karma

Well, David came to Art's magazine and sort of established a magazine within a magazine, staffed by his writers and the voices he wanted to encourage. It was inevitable that he was going to movie on, and it was inevitable that when he moved on his writers would be loyal to him -- in many cases, he had seen something in us that we couldn't quite see in ourselves. So, yeah. But Art wasn't that difficult to work for -- it was like working for Henry VIII. The greatest party in the world, until you got your head cut off.

skrimshandz2 karma

Any tips for putting together a sweet-ass pitch when you're trying to break into magazine writing?

PS I enjoy your stories.

tomjunod1 karma

Yeah, read the magazine you're pitching to. I'm amazed at how many people don't, and tell me they have great Esquire stories that could never appear in Esquire. And then -- argue your story, while your pitching it. Don't just argue for your story -- make the argument in the pitch that you're going to make in your story. It'll give it life, and depth. There are a lot of interesting stories out there -- every story's interesting. You have to make the story more than that, and that's often by force of argument.

feelslikemagic2 karma

Hi Tom. Thanks for taking the time to do this. I really enjoy your work, and I'm looking forward to reading lots more in the months and years to come. My question is simple: has success in journalism allowed you to work more freely in terms of subject and style, or has it made taking risks and experimenting with form and approach more difficult?

tomjunod3 karma

That's a really good question. I'll be honest -- I used to do some crazy shit, in terms of style and approach. Stipe, Tom Osborne, Li'l Bow Wow, even Mister Rogers, et al. I don't feel the need to do that so much anymore, because a lot of those things came about as the result of desperation, and I don't feel so desperate these days. But in the current issue of Esquire, I wrote a story in which I had no access to the subject and no cooperation from his company -- we're talking Zuckerberg and Facebook. So I wrote a profile based entirely on his Facebook page. The point being: innovation and experimentation are situational in nature. It's what I love about my job -- it matters very little what you've done in the past, and every story is a new start. Sometimes, you take risks because you have to.

feelslikemagic1 karma

I thought the Zuckerberg profile was fascinating, and I think it's a good example of what you're talking about. But if we use it as an example, how do you decide that writing a profile based on a CEO's Facebook page is a) feasible; and b) something other people will care about? Is there much internal wrestling, or does that come later? I imagine that maintaining a high standard is, consciously or unconsciously, increasingly important as your body of work expands.

tomjunod3 karma

If I don't worry about maintaining high standards, my editors will. As for Zuck -- the piece is driven by the question of whether we can know anyone these days, when a kind of curated self-exposure has become something of a human requirement. So that's what I tried to make people care about. I don't think I had enough material to make people care about Zuckerberg. But I could make them care about the question.

1tudore2 karma

Since you first covered it in '94, how have you seen the guerilla war on abortion evolve?

From the assassination of Dr. Tiller to the post-2010 acceleration in expansion of anti-abortion regulations, the war has certainly escalated, but what can be said about the finer contours of this struggle?

tomjunod3 karma

I'm going to go off point here, for a second. Last week, a young writer for Philadelphia Magazine wrote a story about being kidnapped in college, and having a gun held to his head. The guys who did it went to jail, and now that he's a journalist, he sought them out. I had something similar happen to me a long time ago, so I read the story with interest, and thought he did an excellent job. But I wound up getting into a debate on Twitter with a writer who thought that the story's first person emphasis was a mistake, and that the writer should have taken a "systemic" approach to the story. I disagreed. But you ask about bias, in a lot of your questions -- well, the real bias, in nearly all media, is just that: the preference for stories. The preference for drama, and conflict between heroes and villains. All of the best abortion stories I've read -- including two in Esquire, by Daniel Voll and John Richardson -- have been stories, with heroes and villains and interesting characters somewhere in between. But the abortion issue has evolved not through the force of stories but rather through the force of systems that are nearly invisible to readers and viewers. But THOSE kinds of stories are challenging to writer and reader alike.

1tudore2 karma

But you ask about bias, in a lot of your questions -- well, the real bias, in nearly all media, is just that: the preference for stories... But the abortion issue has evolved not through the force of stories but rather through the force of systems that are nearly invisible to readers and viewers.

Yes, and I see this as a huge problem with journalism and our culture.

There are clear, discernible narratives that reflect people's lived experiences of vital issues.

Those issues also often exist as broad, leaderless, systemic phenomena that are very difficult to explain because their causes and consequences are diffuse (and often hard to objectively discern.)

It seems like the storytelling bias - born of the profit-incentive and a passion for stories - causes journalists to misinform readers by focusing on the digestible narratives and not the systems that produce those narratives.

We know people are more likely to read stories with clear heroes and villains; we know people prefer shorter stories. But we also know an accurate understanding of many issues requires going beyond that.

It's a challenge, and I don't know that there's a solution, but I'd like to know how journalists are wrestling with it.

tomjunod3 karma

I don't know if the preference for stories is driven by the profit motive. I mean, you tell stories all day long, and then you close your eyes at night you STILL tell yourself stories, in the form of dreams. It's just who we are. The narrative animal. We just have to make the narratives better.

sTgSunfish2 karma

Hi Tom! A brief encomium, then some questions. I’ve been a fan of yours since 2005, when I read “Surviving High School” as a (high school) freshman; I have no doubt that it helped me, well, survive high school. That essay, along with your profile of Michael Stipe (I, too, am from Decatur), made me want to write creative nonfiction. As I’ve worked to find my own writerly voice, I’ve frequently revisited your writing for inspiration, especially for how it manages to have moral weight without being moralistic (to my ears, at least), and how the prose is both incisive yet consciously artistic. So thanks for that; you’ve made my reading and writing life so much more fulfilling.

A few writerly questions:

  1. How do you approach the final line of an article? “The Falling Man” and “American Dog” have fucking killer last sentences. Do these come to you at the beginning, middle, or end of the writing process? And how much do you work to “set up” the final line in the sentences that precede it?

  2. Lately, “Michael Stipe has Great Hair” is being cited in a some academic, lit-crit essays about literary truth (especially with all the recent DFW hubbub). Do you think it’s ever appropriate for a creative non-fiction writer to bend the truth if it makes a more “truthful” point? For you, is there a difference between literary truth and capital-T truth?

  3. When you’re writing, do you imagine your work as an argument? And if so, who is your audience, ideal, real, or imagined? Something I struggle with in writing is whether I should try to write arguments that convince me, or ones that I think will convince my audience. It feels cheap to write a piece that is both appealing to and targeted at left-liberal audience, which is why one of the things I admire most about your work is how it exposes and exploits the cracks in our “liberal” myths about, say, Obama, Jon Stewart, etc. Do you ever have this debate with yourself? And if so, how do you resolve it?

  4. So, I don’t think I’m saying anything too controversial when I say that Esquire runs a lot of trash content alongside excellent feature writing. Does it ever bother you that your writing might appear on the page after a pithy piece on an outfit that 90% of people can’t afford? Or is that kind of content just part of the bargain for publishing? Or am I just being a pretentious ass and need to learn to deal with the fact that people can enjoy both kinds of writing, even if they’re a page apart?

  5. Of all your writing, which work do you think is the most underrated?

EDIT; Ok maybe I asked more than my fair share of questions. But it's not often I get this excited about an AMA.

tomjunod3 karma

  1. The final line often comes out of the first line, so I try to think of a first line that has the seed of a final in it, if that makes any damned sense. 2. The fact-fiction equation is endlessly interesting, and I've certainly tried to mess with it, most recently in the profile I wrote about Mark Zuckerberg, which tries to convince the reader I actually spent time with the man, when really I spent time with his Facebook self, which is also a construction. But all the quotes are accurate, and the whole story is factual, and that's the most important thing: you can mess with style, you can mess with point of view, you can take virtually any liberty you want to in the storytelling, but if you're going to make up "the facts" you should alert the reader, as we did with the Stipe profile. 3. I definitely look at my work as an argument. I'm a frustrated lawyer. And the debate with myself comes in the form of the stories themselves. 4. I like Esquire, though I can't afford the clothes.

sTgSunfish1 karma

Thank you! I do understand what you're saying. And now I can start calling myself a "frustrated academic."

tomjunod3 karma

  1. I don't know if I'd call it underrated, but the story I want more people to read -- the story I'm kind of evangelical about -- is the story I wrote last year on mass shooters. For obvious reasons. With every mass shooting we feel more and helpless about stopping the next one -- but that's based on a misunderstanding of what drives these guys. I'd like to help clear that up.

NorbitGorbit2 karma

what are the best stories you've heard of that were rejected for publication for whatever reason?

tomjunod2 karma

I can't think of any, offhand. At least specifically. I can tell you that good stories, at least in my experience, are rarely rejected for political reasons. They're usually rejected because they don't fit preordained ideas -- i.e., the writer didn't find what the editor wanted him to -- or because they're too dark and depressing, or because people are squeamish about sexual content. None of this happens at Esquire, of course.

megtripp2 karma

The media often uses photography and footage to establish the "enemy" and the "other". For example, a video of a journalist being beheaded turns ISIS from something distant and abstract into something immediately menacing and anti-American.

Do you think this approach is more prevalent in the US, or in other cultures? Is "freedom of the press" in the US a guarantee of greater veracity in what we see, or does "shaping" the message (as above) happen regardless? Does market share for media organizations increase more when they disrupt the narrative, or evolve the narrative?

(Big, big fan, by the way. As a writer, you've been a definite influence.)

tomjunod3 karma

The U.S. has always been squeamish about running photos and footage of its own citizens and soldiers as victims of war and atrocity -- that's part of the initial reluctance to run Richard Drew's Falling Man photo. But you're right -- we've been eager to use certain images in order to stoke outrage, probably as far back as "Remember the Maine." And now we're in a completely new zone -- where groups such as ISIS are taking over the narrative process for their own ends. When you speak of the photos and video of James Foley's beheading, you have to realize that ISIS wanted us to be outraged, in order to draw us into a wider conflict. It's just another way the Internet is changing everything.

StarFoxWilhelmDiesel1 karma

What is your favorite movie?

tomjunod1 karma

I'm a Godfather guy, 1 and 2. But I also have a place in my heart for Point Break, Goodfellas, Dazed and Confused, Spinal Tap, and Pee Wee.

1tudore1 karma

How should journalists effectively report on controversial issues?

How can they systemically check the human impulse to treat sources that agree with them less critically, and those that disagree more?

Can journalism as a profession reject 'objectivity' as an epistemological impossibility, disclose their biases, and help readers wade through issues where the facts do not clearly support one particular theory?

tomjunod2 karma

Well, I agree with you that objectivity is an impossibility, and that fairness is a much better goal. But how do you stay fair, when you're not being objective? For me, the answer is admitting that you have a personal stake in the story, even to oneself. Journalism is a very human transaction, with fallible people on all sides, in every part of there process. We might as well make that clear up front.

1tudore1 karma

Media literacy often requires the reader have a solid grounding in history. Without a certain level of education, it becomes almost impossible to put recent events in the context they need to be understandable.

How can journalists address the various levels of historical ignorance in the public and make sure news is accessible and understandable to everyone?

Vox tries to address this with their issue cards, and the internet serves as a useful brain extension that mitigates this issue to an extent. But reliability of web resources is a constant issue and not everyone has ready access to digital media.

Do journalists resist providing historical context for fear of appearing biased or wading into controversial history?

tomjunod1 karma

Journalists often don't give historical context because of the pressures of the news cycle and the scarcity of space. I mean, every story has a a nearly limitless backdrop -- how can you possibly go as deeply into it as you need to, without giving the foreground short shrift? Maybe it's better to capture the foreground, with special attention to the way it throws historical shadows.

1tudore1 karma

Jack Flack has identified a series of pathologies of journalism in his article We've Found the 1 Thing Elon Musk Doesn't Understand: How News Works (link).

He argues there's an obsession with novel details, humanizing elements, (binary) conflict, and confirming readers biases that all cut against a rigorous close-reading of the facts.

Do you think his analysis is apt?

What pathologies do you see making journalism less effective in helping the reader understand the world?

tomjunod2 karma

You're asking a lot of excellent questions that are systemic in nature, and sort of outside the scope of this discussion. But yeah, all those things you write about -- humanizing elements, binary conflict -- are part of storytelling, and storytelling is the proverbial double-edged sword -- fundamental to both truth-telling and lying. I don't have time, right now, to check out the link you've attached. But I will. And I can tell you that I've written about Elon Musk, and he was completely taken aback that my narrative wasn't his narrative, and his narrative wasn't mine. I'm not sure if that shows he doesn't understand how news work, or does, at least for his own ends.

Frajer1 karma

do you think it's at all exploitative to publish a photo like the falling man ?

tomjunod2 karma

Well, I wrote a whole story arguing that it wasn't exploitative, so no. But, as I wrote in a previous answer, we're in a whole new place now, when it comes to exploitative photographs and transgressive images. The ISIS beheadings, the shootings at the Roanoke, VA, television station: these are atrocities that are meant to be seen, rather than hidden. They are exploitative by design. Are media being exploitative in publishing or broadcasting them, or merely acting as accessories?