The NY Times kind of missed an art opportunity here. This story, headlined “Why Our Monsters Talk to Michael Wolff,” seemed like a great chance for an illustration that involved Franken Berry and Godzilla sitting down with the glossy-domed scribe, but instead we just get a photo of Wolff doing a Mr. Burns impression.
But scroll past that to the meat of media columnist Ben Smith’s piece, and your jaw will drop: its first three grafs raised my residual hackles.
It’s early 2019, a few months before Jeffrey Epstein will be arrested on sex charges, and he is sitting in the vast study of his New York mansion with a camera pointed at him as he practices for a big “60 Minutes” interview that would never take place.
The media trainer is a familiar figure: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s campaign guru and onetime White House adviser. Mr. Bannon is both conducting the interview and coaching Mr. Epstein on the little things, telling him he will come across as stupid if he doesn’t look directly into the camera now and then, and advising him not to share his racist theories on how Black people learn. Mainly, Mr. Bannon tells Mr. Epstein, he should stick to his message, which is that he is not a pedophile. By the end, Mr. Bannon seems impressed.
“You’re engaging, you’re not threatening, you’re natural, you’re friendly, you don’t look at all creepy, you’re a sympathetic figure,” he says.
I mean, no one here thinks Steve Bannon is a great dude, I assume, but this still shocks. Per Smith, this anecdote is “tucked away at the end” of Wolff’s new book, which is called Too Famous and per its publisher page “dissects more of the major monsters, media whores, and vainglorious figures of our time.”
Bannon confirmed to Smith that he “encouraged Mr. Epstein to speak to 60 Minutes and said that he had recorded more than 15 hours of interviews with him,” but said that said that he “never media-trained anyone” and that the recordings were for a “a previously unannounced eight- to 10-hour documentary meant to illustrate how Mr. Epstein’s ‘perversions and depravity toward young women were part of a life that was systematically supported, encouraged and rewarded by a global establishment that dined off his money and his influence.’”
So, two bits of news in Smith’s piece that was ostensibly intended to discuss how Wolff gains access to people: 1) that Bannon admits to a deep Epstein connection and 2) that he’s a documentarian! Hmm.
Don’t worry, I didn’t just give away the best bits of the piece, which spends most of its time on the most inside of media baseball topics: how interviewers, writers, and reporters, especially folks who talk to people with things to hide, get folks to loosen up and chat. (Even further inside baseball: Smith, the former editor of Buzzfeed, makes no effort to hide his envy at how often Wolff has “beaten” him to stories. It takes a big person to non-cattily admit that!)
Interrogating how and why people reveal what they do isn’t as sexy and fun as consuming the final product (podcast, doc, printed interview), but it’s an important part of the sausage-making process. As we often mention, Best Evidence is about how true crime is told and sold — and this piece explains how Wolff, one of the present days’ most influential chroniclers of misdeeds, gets people to give him the information he tells (and sells: per Smith, Wolff’s “second home” is “a bright, airy place that he was able to buy, for $3 million” thanks to the sales of his last book). It’s worth a considered read when you have the time and patience. — EB
A Sports Illustrated piece convinced me to check out Untold: Crime and Penalties. Netflix’s “Untold Collection” (this is what they call it, don’t blame me) is presented as a series of sports-focused shows, with the platform saying via press release that “these stories aren't the ones you've heard before, even if you think you have.” I sort of blew it off as a 30 for 30 doppelgänger, and moved on.
But Crime and Penalties looks quite relevant to my interests: it’s about Connecticut’s Danbury Trashers, a now-defunct minor league hockey team with an angry trash can as a mascot. (Not even kidding; here’s Drake in a jersey.) Per SI, “Jimmy Galante, a ‘real-life Tony Soprano’ as he's described in the film, purchased an expansion hockey team for $500,000 and put his son in control.” And YES the son in question is (also) named A.J., fueling rumors that The Sopranos was actually based on this family. (My assessment: this is very very unlikely.)
Galante (a waste management guy with alleged ties to the Genovese crime family) is featured quite prominently in the film, and let’s just say that directors Chapman Way and Maclain Way (Wild Wild Country) did not have to use Michael Wolff-level interview techniques to get him to spill on the ahem financial mismanagement that brought down the team.
Former players also talk on the record, not just about the alleged money laundering scheme that inflated their paychecks, but their penchant for on-ice violence, which was intense even by hockey standards. By the end of the tight 86 minutes, I was actively pissed that this yarn has yet to be adapted into a dramatic feature. I think you will be, too. — EB
What is it about famous crime parole stories that is so fascinating? You’ve got a guaranteed click from me any time you report on a parole hearing for a Manson Family member, for example, even though I already know that Gavin Newsom (still CA governor as of this writing, but stay tuned!) will deny their release even if the board approves it.
Newsom has yet to indicate what he’ll decide regarding Sirhan Sirhan, who killed Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. The state parole board recommended his release a few weeks ago, CNN reported at the time, the 16th bid for release from the 77-year-old, who has spent the last 53 years in jail. Now it’s in the hands of Newsom (or whoever replaces him, should he lose today’s recall election) to determine his fate.
This story from the LA Times is perhaps the best reporting I’ve seen on the shock waves caused by the parole board’s decision. People who live in the Pasadena neighborhood where Sirhan will settle if released (he’d be staying with his only surviving brother, who lives in the same home the family bought in 1963) have reportedly been freaking out on Nextdoor, both pro and anti his release.
The Kennedy family is similarly divided, with six of Kennedy’s kids saying they’re outraged that he might be released. Two others are in support:
Douglas Kennedy told the panel that he’d lived in fear of Sirhan but now saw him “as a human being worthy of compassion and love.” Robert Kennedy Jr., who has echoed claims that a second gunman killed the senator, told the Los Angeles Times he was “happy that the justice system showed some humanity.”
Yes, Robert Kennedy Jr. is the notorious anti-vaxxer/husband to Curb Your Enthusiasm’s Cheryl Hines, but before his COVID-era conspiracies, he pushed longstanding claims of a second shooter, and said that someone other than Sirhan killed his pop, even going to see the convicted killer in prison. Speaking to the Washington Post in 2018, Kennedy Jr. said, “The people that were closest to [Sirhan], the people that disarmed him all said he never got near my father.”
While Kennedy’s attitudes on vaccination are indefensible, his concerns regarding his dad’s death are shared by many who dispute the number of shots fired at the scene. But that theory isn’t why the parole board agreed that Sirhan should be released: according to Commissioner Robert Barton, “Sirhan had no criminal history before the killing and had not committed any serious violations for several decades … denying parole requires evidence of dangerousness and an unreasonable risk to public safety.”
Given the loaded nature of the case — and the fact that, even after the recall election, Newsom faces another election season in 2022 — Sirhan’s chances for release aren’t looking great. But his brother Munir is holding out hope, saying in 2018 that “I’d just like to see him reading a book on that chair like he used to when we were kids, and just walk around the block with him. I’d be happy.” — EB
It’s time for another round of true-crime podcast news, because we are not already buried in shows that we’ll never get around to listening to. Here’s the latest:
The Great James Bond Car Robbery
The car from Goldfinger was stolen in 1997, and the $100K reward for its recovery remains unclaimed to this day. Host Elizabeth Hurley (who is still rocking a variation on that infamous Versace dress, not that a podcast lends itself to that news) details what we know of the heist, which includes interviews with “rock stars, designers, thieves and art detectives.” You had me at car, kept me at James Bond, and got me for life with Hurley’s plummy tones.
WBUR Announces New Slate Of Podcasts
Boston's NPR station has always boasted a solid selection of podcasts, and its list of new and returning shows intrigues: Art heist pod Last Seen returns in January “as an anthology, featuring diverse voices telling stories about everything from astronomers searching for ghost planets to the disappearance of an unassuming fish;” and a new podcast called The Gun Show (on “how gun manufacturing in the Northeast has had a lasting impact on our technology, our history of manufacturing, our legislation and our politics”) arrives some time next year.
Kyra Breslin, Granddaughter Of Jimmy Breslin, Launches True-Crime Podcast About Disappearance Of Student Lauren Spierer [Deadline]
The senior journo won the Pulitzer, the junior graduated from Indiana University in 2014 and runs her own PR firm. Spierer was a student at IU who disappeared in 2011 and “was a defining factor in my college experience and something I have continued to think about … I certainly do not have all the answers. In fact, there is so much more I wish I knew. But what I do have is a story and memory of what it was like to attend Indiana University at this time with rumors and theories constantly being discussed.” The trailer is not especially promising, nor is Breslin’s stated reason for this five-episode podcast, but I’ll probably listen anyway because I lived/partied at many of the same places Spierer did (albeit 16 years before her disappearance) and I’m curious to see what Breslin says about the place. Finding Lauren makes its debut on September 20.
James Ellroy Adapting His ‘American Tabloid’ Novel Into Scripted Podcast Series With Audio Up [Deadline]
The book “tells the fictional story of JFK’s murder from the point of view of those who killed him,” so it’s as arguably true-crimey as, say, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Given how the delta variant is snarling production schedules, the show might end up with a pretty stellar cast (TV/movie’s loss is solitary audio recording’s gain) playing folks like Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover, and the various other white guys who so interest Ellroy.
Wednesday on Best Evidence: Love After Lockup in book form, and more…only for paid subscribers!