When a Reporter Becomes Part of the Story
Claire Hoffman, who covers Hollywood and the adult entertainment industry for the Los Angeles Times, faced an unusual dilemma while working on a profile of "Girls Gone Wild" creator Joe Francis. Hoffman shadowed Francis and his film crew on location at a Chicago nightclub, and by the end of the trip, she didn't know whether to write her story or press charges. Ultimately, she wrote the story as a first-person account for West, the L.A. Times' Sunday magazine. The piece begins in the parking lot when Francis suddenly turns on her: He "has my face pressed against the hood of a car, my arms twisted hard behind my back." The traumatic event ended, she wrote, when she wriggled free and punched Francis in the face. Hoffman talked to AJR's Andrew H. Vanacore about the episode. An edited transcript follows.
How did the idea for a profile of Joe Francis come about?
We received a "Guys Gone Wild" video [another Francis product] in the business section. Someone sent it in, probably for promotional purposes. I looked it up in our archives, and we hadn't ever actually written about "Girls Gone Wild" or Joe as a business ..., which seemed like kind of an oversight. I ended up meeting Joe at a party, and I gave him my card and told him I wanted to write about his business. He called me a couple of months later, and we had lunch.
How did you convince him to let you tag along while he filmed?
That took time. I went for our first lunch, and I had a tape recorder and a notepad. I was ready to go, and he sort of put his foot down. He was very wary of being interviewed and wasn't sure if he wanted to do it, so we just had an off-the-record lunch talking about what I was interested in. It was a matter of kind of waiting it out, and it just kind of happened. After a couple of lunches, he said he was going to the Midwest to film "Girls." And I had said, "I want to see how this works," because I was totally fascinated by exploring what makes women do these things [expose them-selves on Francis' mail-order videos]. I didn't have any judgment about it. I just didn't understand it. And he ended up agreeing to let me do it.
There are critics who say you couldn't have written an objective story. How did you and your editors decide how to proceed after he pinned you?
I had already spent quite a lot of time with him and done quite a lot of reporting before the incident in the parking lot. I felt like I had a really good story. And then in the parking lot it was an absolute shock what happened, and punching him was not out of anger, it was out of protection. The next morning I called my editors and laid it all out for them and told them, "This is what happened, and I don't know what to do. I hate the idea of letting go of this story, but obviously this will be seen as me being biased. …