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Tom Junod Q&A

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Jones, May 23, 2007.

  1. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    Q: Have you heard from Zeke or learned anything more about him since the article came out?

    A: When I told my wife what I was doing with the story -- and told her that it scared me -- and told her that I felt terrible about exposing my family to the dangers of Zeke's craziness -- she said that she was a lot less afraid than I was. When I asked her why, she said, "You're afraid because you don't think you're leaving him an out. But he does have an out, and it's the same out he's always had. He's just going to keep lying. It's what he's always done, and it's what he's going to do." And she was exactly right. I had this fantasy that I was going to push Zeke into counseling, and this fear that I was going to force him to kill people -- namely me -- in order to prove himself. But shortly after the story was published, Zeke sent an amazing letter to all his "mercenary" buddies, in which he claimed that he knew he was lying to me all along, and that he was lying to punish the liberal media for its hostility to the nuclear power industry and for its coverage of the war in Iraq. And, to a small degree, his spin worked: a reporter from the Kalamazoo Gazette wrote two somewhat sympathetic stories about him that never called him on his latest fiction. Even when the reporter knew damned well -- had to know -- that Zeke's spin was, in the words of his own son, "the pathetic bullshitting of a desperate man."
  2. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    Q: Did Zeke call his new wife Baby Doll because that's what he called the Katrina volunteer?

    A: I think that "Baby Doll" was a lot like the Number Nine. It was part of his patterning. There was another woman he'd had an affair with, whom I couldn't contact. But apparently he met her on a plane, and when -- fairly deep into their relationship -- she found that he was a liar, she freaked. I imagine that he called her "Baby Doll" too.
  3. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    There's a start, and my thanks to Tom for his time.

    I think the idea of a liar "patterning" is useful for all of us as journalists -- a good thing for us to watch out for. I think the "number nine" thing is pretty crazy.

    I'm also curious if anyone in Michigan or in Kalmazoo, specifically, saw the two newspaper stories that Tom mentions, or knows the reporter in question. Maybe someone wouldn't mind digging them up and posting links for them, if such a thing exists.
  4. jgmacg

    jgmacg Guest

    Thanks for posting this, Mr. Jones - or whatever your real name is.
  5. Dave Kindred

    Dave Kindred Member

    I once spent months interviewing, traveling with, and sharing rooms with a man who told vivid stories of his days as a gambler in debt to and on the run from the Outfit in Chicago...he told me of contract killings he witnessed, of roadhouse gambling parties in which he lost hundreds of thousands of dollars....

    I'm a newspaper reporter by instinct and training....my first reaction to anything I'm told is, "Prove it"....like Tom, I wanted my con man's story to be true -- that's why I spent so much time with it, it was great if true.....but I came to it as a skeptic: prove it to me, prove any part of it to me....he was slick and smart, dropping names, places, even giving me facts on his own arrests that did hold up to investigation......but he could give me no way to confirm the major elements of his story.... throughout, he said, "Just put me on a polygraph"....finally I called his bluff and paid for the test myself -- he failed, and the last words I remember hearing from him were, "I guess that ends a career of asking for a polygraph".....

    I never wrote a word about him.
  6. Speedys Sweater

    Speedys Sweater New Member

    Palisades ex-official admits `wild tales'
    Sunday, May 20, 2007
    By Chris Killian
    Special to the Gazette
    COLOMA -- William E. Clark said he knew exactly what he was doing.

    The 53-year-old former head of security at Palisades Nuclear Power Plant in Covert, and the subject of an Esquire magazine article that portrays him as a compulsive liar who fabricated his credentials, said he is ``a simple, misunderstood man.''

    The tree-lined roads to Clark's home twist and turn past the Coloma Bible Church, the Paw Paw Area Wastewater Treatment Plant and several residential areas, eventually ending at his two-story Cape Cod-style house.

    The exterior is typical of a well-maintained home, with flowering bushes, trimmed evergreens and an American flag flapping in the breeze next to the front door.

    What's housed inside -- the stories, the memorabilia, even Clark himself -- is anything but typical.

    Clark, who also calls himself ``Zeke,'' met the magazine article's author, Tom Junod, at a disaster-relief conference in Houston last July.

    Clark said he wanted to have an article written about an elite task force that he had assembled at Palisades, a group he had called the Viper team.

    Junod, after hearing Clark say at the conference that he was a designated marksman for Blackwater USA, wasn't interested in Clark's Viper team, Clark said. Junod wanted to write an article about his work for Blackwater, a private contracting company that offers security services in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    And that's when Clark said he began to weave a web of fantastic stories.

    Most of the tales outlined in Junod's article -- from Clark's work as a paid assassin to his having high-level security clearances at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense to killing people in Vietnam -- were false, Clark said.

    ``I wanted talk about the Viper program, but he just kept wanting to talk about Blackwater and the Bush administration,'' Clark said. ``So I just played along. I knew everything that I was telling him was not true.

    ``Have I killed people? No. Hurt some people's feelings? Maybe.''

    In a letter to friends and colleagues, Clark outlined his strategy.

    ``At this time I decided to spin the wildest tales I could think of that would hopefully dissuade this individual of ever printing another story about someone ever again who did not want to be written about,'' Clark wrote.

    ``I became James Bond in the flesh, from Kosovo to New Orleans, daring acts of midnight encounters and complicated plots filled the conversation mister juno could not write fast enough. I was astounded that he could not see through the gaping holes in my stories and give up but he kept coming back for more.''

    Junod's article reports that Clark told many of the same stories to co-workers, acquaintances and family members over the years.

    ``Zeke's been lying his whole life,'' Junod said in a telephone interview. ``I can count on one hand the number of true things he told me.

    ``When I was interviewing him, I knew he was either a killer or a liar. I kind of hoped he would turn out to be a killer, but in the end he turned out to be a liar.''

    ``There are a lot of ways to kill someone,'' Clark said. ``And the press is one of them.

    ``If this raises the issue of nuclear security, then that's great. I'm not the story.``

    What has really been killed is Clark's days as a working man, he said. He resigned from his job at Palisades on May 9. Clark says it had nothing to do with the Esquire article, which was posted on the magazine's Web site on May 11. It is published in the magazine's June edition.

    ``I'll never work again,'' Clark said. ``My days being overseas are over. Maybe I'll be a greeter at Wal-Mart.''

    Life is tough for Clark these days, he said.

    He had a mild heart-attack two weeks ago, he said. His wife, Terri, is leaving him because ``of all the bad press.''

    He put his house up for sale and plans to move, likely out of Michigan.

    ``Hour by hour, everyday, I think about offing myself,'' he said. ``I think that maybe it would be better that way.''

    Clark sat cross-legged on a plump green leather couch in his living room, his long, lanky frame huddled in the corner of the sofa. Moving boxes were scattered around the room.

    On the wall behind him hang pictures that contain Clark's true stories, he said. Between their frames Clark is pictured with colleagues in what he said are several different countries -- Kosovo, Trinidad, New Orleans, Iraq and others.

    ``The proof is right here,'' he said, pointing to the pictures. ``But I can't talk about what I was doing in those places. I just can't do it.''

    The stories, if he could tell them, also would include tales of adventure in Ireland, Panama, the former Yugoslavia and Nigeria.

    Junod also reported that Clark had a ``small arsenal'' of guns and ammunition in his home.

    ``Do you want to see the guns?'' he asked. ``They're right upstairs.''

    Clark then walked to the bottom of the stairs and called up to his wife, Terri.

    ``Baby, could you close the bedroom door?'' he said.

    ``OK, let's go.''

    At the top of the stairs, in a small, spare bedroom, were his guns -- an over-under shotgun and a hunting rifle, both secured in a plastic case. On a window ledge were five boxes of bullets.

    ``Some arsenal, huh?'' he said.

    When asked why he asked his wife to close the bedroom door, Clark said, ``because it's a private area.''

    Later, Clark leafed through a thick notebook, containing pictures of himself wearing military fatigues in far-flung places, patches of military units and letters of commendation from commanders.

    The letters had no letterhead. The pictures had no descriptions. The patches looked to never have been fixed to a uniform.

    How does a man with so many contradictions become the head of security at a nuclear power plant on the shore of Lake Michigan?

    ``Because I had the security skills necessary to protect the facility,'' he said. ``Simple.''

    Is he a liar?

    ``Of course I am,'' he said. ``Isn't everyone?''
  7. Double Down

    Double Down Well-Known Member

    That's what I find most interesting about this, and Chris, if Tom is still willing to take questions, I wonder if he might address this one. Most reporters, like Dave said, would walk away once the lies saw the light of day. Most magazines would probably spike and 18,000 story and just be grateful that a word of it never made it into print. But Junod decided the story could be ABOUT the lies, about the loneliness of a con man, about the journey to expose him, kind of like what JR Moheringer did in "Resurecting the Champ."

    I wonder if at any point he, (or David Granger I guess), wanted to say the hell with it, let's kill this baby and find the next story, and what made them rethink it and decide the story could be about the play within the play, even though that would obviously put Junod's life in danger.

    Great stuff, from you too Dave. Further proof that this place truly does have its moments.
  8. OnTheRiver

    OnTheRiver Active Member

    Wow ... I've heard about people who are so full of shit that they squeak. This may be the most detailed experience I can say I've ever read so much about.

    Dude's a fruit loop, plain and simple.

    PS -- Jones: My only question for Junod would be, does it suck to draw things like this when Chiarella's getting two days with Halle Berry?
  9. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    A coupla more on Mercenary:

    Q: I wonder, Tom, if we've all occasionally allowed ourselves to be taken by an embellished story because it's so damn good. Or at least turned a deaf ear to potential embellishments, or been slow to come around to them. I know a guy in sports I wrote about a dozen years ago who sounds very similar -- every story more salacious and sensational than the last, but always maddeningly short of proof.

    So did you learn anything about safeguarding against that? I mean, this is a liar on a breathtaking scale, but we probably all deal with exaggerators and embellishers. Beyond old-fashioned fact checking, any other safeguards you think might be appropriate when working on the Too Good To Be True Story?

    A: Remember the Joe Gould story that Joseph Mitchell wrote? The story of the Greenwich Village "character" who claimed that he was writing an epic "Oral History of America" only to be found out as an epic liar after his death in an insane asylum? My friend JR Moehringer has a theory that every writer has his own Joe Gould waiting for him, somewhere out there. That is, a liar and a fake whom the writer makes real, because his lies represent the writer's own obsessions. Joseph Mitchell spent his whole life profiling colorful characters, indeed bringing that form of journalism to its apotheosis. He was helpless before Gould's fantasies, and became disillusioned with Gould only when he became disillusioned with journalism itself. He never published another word after "Joe Gould's Secret," and to be honest, I was afraid that the same thing was going to happen to me after I got taken by Zeke. Because, as a writer who has been overly concerned with "the dark side," I was not only giving Zeke a forum and a voice. I might as well have been creating him. Making him up, as he was making himself up. So it's hard to defend against this -- the only way you can do it is by keeping your reporting distinct from your ambitions for the story. It's not so much that I believed in Zeke; it's that I wanted to. And it's that desire that got me in trouble.
  10. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    Q: I would just repeat my original inquiries about the logistics of the story: How long did Tom have to research, and then write, the piece? And how many other projects was he juggling at the same time?

    A: I had a long time to research the piece because the guy was making extraordinarily large claims -- claims that, if true, would have been front-page news, and then some. So I was given a lot of latitude. I met him in July; it was only in December that I had gone as far with him as I could possibly go. And then, once I wrote the original draft of the story, it became absolutely imperative that I check what could be checked. And then once the "facts", as reported, didn't pan out -- well, then I had to adjust to the shock of being hoaxed, figure out what to do, and then, once I decided to go on and write my experience, start the whole process over again. So it took awhile. Then, in the middle of all this -- in September, after my second visit to Michigan -- my father died. Interestingly, I wrote a story right after that -- the Norman Mailer profile that appeared in the January issue of Esquire. But that story my editor assigned precisely because he wanted me to deal with my father's death in print. And I did, to the degree I could. It was the only story I worked in the latter part of 2006, other than Zeke.
  11. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    Regarding his semi-fictional Michael Stipe story...

    Q: Loved the Stipe story. What was the reasoning for that type of approach? What was the immediate reaction? Is the reaction the same even now?

    A: There was no reasoning behind the Stipe story. There was just a lot of time spent listening to vapid interviews and looking at the ribs of underfed notebooks -- the remnants of my experience with someone who denied me even the most basic human moments. So when I started writing, I just wrote the first sentence, and the second, and then they kept coming. The whole process took two or three days, and then I sent it to my editor. He called me right away. "I thought he didn't give you anything." "He didn't." "What do you mean -- this stuff is great." "What if I told you I made it all up?" And so I guess there's a little Zeke in me, after all.

    Most journalists hated the story. I was doing further damage to an already beleaguered profession -- all that jazz. All the self-appointed cops at Romenesko, humorlessly walking their lonely beats. Nobody, and I mean nobody, could bring themselves to say it was funny. To this day, I still see myself lumped in with Jayson Blair and the like on various blogs and websites: "Junod admits that he made up large portions of his profile of Michael Stipe...." Well, yeah, I admitted it: in the fucking subhead.
  12. Jones

    Jones Active Member

    And his John Walker Lindh story...

    Q: What was the toughest part of writing the story about John Walker Lindh (my personal favorite)? Did you fear backlash for making him the slightest bit sympathetic, that people would miss the point by focusing on that?

    A: The toughest part of the JWL profile was dealing with my fear of being too sympathetic to a cause I frankly despise -- radical Islam. I was reading the Koran while I was writing the story, and was shocked by what I found -- a book that is obsessively anti-Semitic, and comes damned close to being hate literature. But I felt that a serious wrong was done to an American citizen, and that the original wrong had just kept compounding itself, in our tragic recent history. So I wrote a story that set out to explore why radical Islam was succeeding -- and found the answer in the failure of Christianity. None of this is quite explicit in the story, but it's the foundation on which the story is built -- and my own justification for the approach I took. The story was intended as a profile but also as a provocation. I like to think it succeeds as both.
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