Ted Conover: Shape-Shifter, Meat Inspector, Journalist

Ted Conover speaks at a master's tea.
Ted Conover speaks at a master's tea. // Alexandra Schmeling

Seniors stressing out about postgraduation plans might consider Ted Conover as a potential guru. A celebrated participatory journalist with a Pulitzer nomination under his belt, Conover career hops for a living, dipping into other people’s experiences in order to write about their lives from a first-person point of view. Conover, who dropped by Yale last week for a Master’s Tea, seems to have lived more lives than a proverbial cat. He wrote about being a taxi driver in Aspen and a homeless person in the Southwest. Conover has gone undercover twice — first as a correctional officer for his acclaimed book, “Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing,” and more recently for Harper’s magazine, where he wrote the May cover story about his experience working as a meat inspector in Nebraska. Conover practices New Journalism, the long-form style pioneered in the ’60s by wild-eyed writers like Hunter S. Thompson, but his product offers not druggy joyrides but a controlled experiment in radical empathy.

Q. You discover lots of horrific information during your research. Do these discoveries influence your life after you’re done? Did covering meat inspection convince you to go vegetarian?

A. I’m not vegetarian, though the question came up at the Morse Master’s Tea. You remember, in the last scene of the article I confront a steak. Any immersive experience changes me, and in many ways these pieces are less investigations in the classic journalism sense than they are experiences in identity — seeing if I can live in a different way as a different kind of person. I think that’s what makes my work a little different from what you might expect when you hear “undercover reporting.”

My book about Sing Sing isn’t an exposé and the story about working as a USDA meat inspector isn’t really an exposé either. Cargill Meat Solutions is very unhappy that I spent so much time in that plant without asking permission, but I don’t describe rats being ground in with the regular meat or somebody losing their arm in a machine. I guess I would have written about it if I saw it. The worst thing I saw was pink slime, which has been known about for a long time. It’s less a breaking-news piece of expose writing than an ethnographic journey through a strange corner of American life. That’s what I expected in life starting out and that’s how it ended up.

 

Q. You’re saying the pieces are as much about the first-person singular as they are about the landscape and environment they describe?

A. Not as much. The story’s about being a meat inspector but I think the fact that I am the meat inspector makes it singular. The benefit of doing work like this is not just that you get to see things you wouldn’t ordinarily see, but that you get to see what it feels like to do a certain kind of thing for a long time. I try to be very honest about how my appetite for meat changes and how my body responds to the demands of work on an assembly line and what it’s like to be part of the everyday slaughter of thousands of animals. That is another thing I write about — predation writ large, which is what a slaughterhouse is. I try to look at it from all of the angles and hope the result is something that has some value as writing and not just as information.

 

Q. You wrote the meat-inspection piece for Harper’s, which is one of the best platforms for long-form journalism today. Do you find that people today have less patience for long-form?

A. I don’t think so. The piece has now appeared not only in Harper’s but also in Byliner and on Longform.org and from what I can tell it’s getting a zillion hits. I don’t think there’s less interest in reading long-form. I think there’s a missing model for how to make money at it. I think that’s the crisis in journalism as regards to longer pieces like that. There are lots of experiments underway to monetize something that’s shorter than a book and longer than an article, such as Kindle Singles or pieces by the Atavist. Some of these are going to start bearing fruit. It’s an exciting time and I don’t feel that I have fewer readers than I did in the past. It’s just that I’m being read in different ways.

 

Q. Once you’ve started researching or gone undercover, it would be a shame to hit a wall and realize there’s no real story or that your cover is blown. What preparation do you do before you start covering a story?

A. I wasn’t too doubtful that there’d be an interesting story about being a USDA meat inspector. That seemed to me a pretty sure thing. The uncertain part was over whether I could get the job. Once that was an in, I felt that the experience of working on the line, inside a slaughterhouse, to make sure food was wholesome, would carry the story, and would be interesting. There wasn’t a big downside in terms of having something to tell readers that they didn’t know. Most people have no idea how meat inspection works and most people have only a vague idea of how a slaughterhouse works. I wasn’t too concerned about that.

What’s more concerning to me is just that something will fall through at the eleventh hour. I waited more than two years from the time I had this idea to the time I could actually begin. And with my book “Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing” I think I waited almost four years, so the bigger fear is that after such a long time spent waiting, something will knock me out of consideration for a job. A Google search of my name that reveals I’m a writer, that’s what I worry about.

Freelance writing is like venture capitalism, in which your capital is your time and you only have so much of it. You want to make good use of it and some of these projects require a lot of it. The return is never certain. If there’s something I’m willing to wait this long for, it’s usually because I know there’s a good story there.

 

Q. So if you’re afraid of employers googling your name, does that mean that you don’t devise a new identity when going undercover?

A. I’ve only done two quote-unquote undercover projects: my prison book and this Harper’s article. I learned for the prison book that it’s important to be truthful when you apply for any job. So I applied with my legal name, which is not Ted. When asked for nicknames I put down Ted and a couple other things I’ve been called. So that reduces the chance somebody is going to Google Ted Conover but doesn’t eliminate it. And truly just that Google search would be the end of the line, in most cases.

 

Q. So why is it important to put down your real name?

A. For legal reasons. If you invent the name or invent the resume, as ABC News did in the famous food line/grocery store case, in which some producers made up resumes, you’re committing fraud. If you simply offer a selection of the truth, and don’t invent anything, you’re in much better shape legally. And then just as a matter of practice, I’m uncomfortable making anything up. I guess it’s my journalism background. Journalism is nonfiction and nonfiction is about what really happens. I go to great lengths not to tell lies, not to invent some backstory and deceive my co-workers with it.

It’s much easier just to be taciturn, to say you just prefer not to go into it. You might remember that in the Harper’s article I was asked where I went to college by my co-worker Stan, and I just told him I preferred not to talk about it, which felt to me like a big copout and I was sad to have to say it. He ended up giving me credit for not being the kind of person who would boast about his college. He says most of the people he knows who’ve gone to college want to tell you more about it than you’re interested in hearing, and I was the opposite. It felt a little unfortunate that I got credit for a dodge. But I do typically try to avoid fabrication.

 

Q. Doesn’t a journalist sometimes have to lie and deceive in order to get to the truth?

A. Some do. I’m just not sure I would ever do that in pursuit of a story. I think it’s very important not to make things up. There’s something inherently deceptive about any kind of undercover reporting. But I think there’s a real difference between simply lending a false impression, by turning up in Nebraska as a meat inspector when my regular employment is in New York City as a journalist, and concocting an elaborate story that will trick somebody into hiring me or inviting me to be around. I don’t do the latter. It wouldn’t feel good and it’s too complicated to make a big lie like that. I’ve been reading a great new book called “Undercover Reporting: The Truth About Deception” by Brooke Kroeger. It makes a persuasive case that there’s deception in all reporting. But early instances from the U.S. and Europe from early in the twentieth century and even before, people made up elaborate stories to deceive their subjects. They made up names for themselves and whole personal histories. That feels complicated and sleazy to me. I don’t think I would ever attempt that.

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