Orth: a journalist and philanthopist
MB: What interests you about studying these larger-than-life celebrities?
MO: For me the most exciting part of working for Vanity Fair is if you can go to a large, important country and try to tell the story of the country at the same time that you’re telling the story of the personality. For example, I’m hoping to go to Brazil later in the year and Brazil is so on the rise right now, so what you’re trying to give the reader is not just the portrait of the person who is in charge, but what is going on in the country that makes it so important for where they are….That’s the attraction of somebody like [Vladamir] Putin, or even somebody like gerry Adams in Ireland, who is so completely controversial. You want to know “why is this person so controversial? What is behind it?”….Then there are amazing celebrity phenomena, like Madonna for example, and then what you’re really observing is their drive, and chronicling…what it takes [to be famous].
MB: Whom do you find more difficult to interview, political figures or popular celebrities?
MO: Political figures are much more used to being interviewed all the time; it’s part of their job. Celebrities go in and out – when they have to sell something they get interviewed. I think that today it’s changed so much because there are so many handlers and so many people between the celebrity and the journalist…when I first started out at Newsweek, for example, I did the Bruce Springsteen cover, or Stevie Wonder; you could hang out with the person for a couple of weeks, go where they went, observe them.
MB: How is interviewing a celebrity different than interviewing a regular person?
MO: One of the things that is so important is to be prepared. One of the ways to get yourself established early on in the interview so that you understand whether they’re going to be able to talk to you or not is giving them clues so that they know that you know a lot going in…I prefer in big stories trying to do the principle figure last so by the time you get to that person everybody else has been interviewed and you have a really good idea of what’s going on….If you’re hearing something that is surprising to you or catches your interest when the person is answering, you take note of that and follow up on that. I always had the idea that if I was talking to my mother or if I was talking to my friends after I went to see somebody, what would be the first things that I would say?
MB: You have covered a wide variety of stories. What goes into the process of deciding what story you would like to cover?
MO: The basic elements of journalism for me never change; you have to have a lot of energy and you have to have a lot of curiosity….I talk about the EEEPPP rule: Energy, Enthusiasm, Empathy, Prepared, Polite, Persistent. I really think those are the basic elements going in [to any story]….There are always challenges; a lot of times I’ve gotten assignments where everybody else has blanketed the story…The challenge is that I am one person. People magazine sends 12 people out, or the T.V. stations have huge crews of people…so you have to figure out what is the angle that you can take? In the Craigslist murder [story that I covered] for example, I showed how the Internet perpetrated the crime and how the Internet solved the crime….The point is to pay very strict attention and decide “what is the phenomenon here?”
MB: How has your journalistic process changed or evolved since you started?
MO: Now probably you have to use Facebook to reach people; you have to use the phone a lot less….The media you use has changed; your ability to use Google to find information is more vast, but one of the things that I am very old school about that I think is really important and is not done enough is I don’t believe downloading is journalism, particularly in the kind of journalism that I do. If you’re going to try to get a portrait of somebody, or you’re trying to get and idea of who this person is, you really have to observe the person…you have to be able to talk to people; you have to be able to see people’s reactions in person. You have to judge the body language; you have to judge the expressions.
MB: What was the catalyst that made you want to return to Colombia?
MO: When I went back there just to visit it was because I was asked; the secretary of education asked me could I help them build a model school where kids could compete globally by knowing English and technology and I just said “yes” without any idea about how it was going to be done but I thought “wait a minute, I was here for two years before I was successful, I’m a successful journalist, I can figure this out.”….It’s really been the most satisfying thing; it’s really exciting and it’s really creative.
MB: How has your experience as a journalist affected your career as a philanthropist?
MO: It’s integral, because when you’re starting out and you’ve never done it before, you just apply all the things you go to when you’re doing investigative journalism. You go find stuff out, you interview people, you try to put things together. One of the things I wrote about in terms of the Peace Corps is being able to try to fit into any situation. But nothing in journalism prepares you to have to go ask people for money. I hate that [Laughs].