MIDDLEBURY — For a guy who wasn’t initially sure he wanted to be a journalist, Gabriel Sherman has had an illustrious career in the 13 years since he graduated from Middlebury College.
Sherman, now a contributing editor for New York Magazine, has penned stories for national publications — New York Magazine, The New Republic, GQ and Slate to name a few — and this year published his first book, an unauthorized biography of Fox News president Roger Ailes that has cracked The New York Times’ Bestseller List.
On a sunny afternoon last week, Sherman, 34, was on the campus of his alma mater to share his journalism experiences with students. He wore a tweed blazer, a staple of many journalists’ wardrobe, and a neatly pressed white shirt.
Sherman has a broad smile, but his most dominant feature is his piercing blue eyes, set upon a face covered with a scruffy beard that’s a shade redder than his hair. In an interview with the Independent, Sherman talked about his career, his new book, and the complex, ever-changing world of journalism that he covers.
LANDING IN VERMONT
Sherman grew up in Westport, Conn., and like many New Englanders, came to Vermont every winter to ski.
Sherman said this exposure to the state was one of the reasons he chose to attend Middlebury College, where he majored in political science and geography. Sherman said he wasn’t set on his chosen profession as an undergraduate.
“I thought about maybe a career in government or going to get a master’s degree in public policy in some way,” Sherman said. “I always knew generally that’s what sort of career I wanted to have.”
On a whim, Sherman during his senior year applied for an internship with the organizing committee for the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. Weeks later, he was surprised to hear he’d gotten the gig.
“You never think these things are going to work out, but I was sitting in my dorm room and they called and said, ‘Yeah, we’d love to have you come out,’” Sherman recalled.
Sherman worked in the publications department for the Olympic Committee and discovered he had a knack for writing.
“I spent the month out there and noticed I had a real aptitude for that kind of work,” Sherman said. “After graduation they wanted me back full time, so I was hired as a staff writer.”
His interest in journalism piqued, Sherman returned East after the Games and searched for media jobs in New York City, landing a job as a fact checker for a magazine. Later, he reported for the New York Observer, a weekly newspaper famous for its ribald caricatures and salmon-colored pages. There, Sherman worked under the tutelage of legendary news editor Peter Kaplan, who trained countless reporters and editors during his 15 years at the Observer.
It was there that Sherman honed his skills as an in-the-trenches beat reporter, first covering real estate before moving to the media beat.
“I had to fill a column every week that, if I remember correctly, was between 1,500 and 2,000 words,” Sherman said. “It was that discipline and rigor that really trained me to be a sort of hard news reporter.”
Sherman spoke fondly of his four years under Kaplan at the Observer, but found himself wanting more time to delve into stories that deserved more in-depth coverage.
“I wanted to try doing that same kind of reporting to a longer narrative, to apply that same style of rigorous reporting, but tell longer stories,” Sherman said. “That’s how I ended up pursuing jobs in magazine writing.”
Long-form journalism, Sherman explained, affords journalists the opportunity to give complex stories and intriguing subjects the space they need to be told.
“Sometimes in daily journalism you lose, by the nature of the form, some of the nuance that you can really get into a longer story,” Sherman said. “I love having the space to develop a story and narrative and get at the complexity and nuance.”
As a magazine reporter, Sherman has largely focused on the media. His credits include a 2010 exposé in The New Republic on the internal strife of the Washington Post and a series of articles focusing on The New York Times’ flawed coverage leading up to the Iraq War, which Sherman said was among the most important work he has done to date.
The pieces focused on the work of Times reporter Judith Miller, much of which was later discredited by her editors and led to her resignation from the paper in 2005.
“I wrote a whole series of articles explaining how she got away with writing those stories and how The New York Times tried to deal with misleading its readers on such a serious matter,” Sherman said. “That war happened, in large part, because the American people believed what they read in the media, that (Saddam Hussein) was a threat, and it turned out not to be true.”
Sherman said he chose the media beat because the future of journalism, as news organizations find their way in an increasingly digital age (or die trying), is a hugely important story.
“Whenever you’re a reporter, you want to go to where the most heat is,” Sherman said. “The other aspect that I love about the beat is that it’s filled with amazing personalities and egos and it’s a business where the human stories that come out are really compelling.”
Reporting on your own profession is an inherently tricky business, Sherman conceded.
“The strange thing about being a media reporter is essentially reporting on people who could potentially be your future bosses,” Sherman said.
Reporting on other reporters, Sherman said, is simultaneously easy and challenging.
“You don’t have to spend enough time explaining how journalism works; they get it,” Sherman said. “But at the same time they know how to try and manipulate you.”
Sherman interviewed hundreds of media insiders for his new book, titled “The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News — and Divided a Country.”
Sherman, who spent three years writing the book, said it was the culmination of the media reporting he has done in recent years for New York Magazine, including a cover story on Rupert Murdoch and profile of Sarah Palin. While Sherman said he was proud of these stories, he wanted to dive deeper.
“I just felt there was so much more to say, and I thought that a book was the way to do that,” Sherman said.
He initially pitched the book to publishers as a tale about Fox News, but quickly discovered the story of the network was really the story of Ailes.
“I felt Roger Ailes was a character that transcended the world of cable news and media,” Sherman posited. “His life fits into the sweep of American history over the last 60 years, where conservatives wanted to have a counter media establishment of their own.”
Writing any book is difficult. Writing a book about someone who doesn’t want a book written about them, as was the case with Ailes, brings an additional set of challenges. However, Sherman said this distance was a blessing in disguise.
“The benefit of having a subject that doesn’t want to cooperate is that it is incredibly liberating,” Sherman said. “I did not owe Roger Ailes anything, other than to try to be objective and fair. I had ultimate liberty to go out and tell the best and most vivid story I could.”
The book, which came out this year, has generated both robust sales and publicity. At some point “The Loudest Voice in the Room” ended up on the desk of Stephen Colbert, who invited Sherman onto “The Colbert Report” in January.
In the interview, Colbert (in his faux-conservative pundit character) called the book a “hatchet job” and demanded that Sherman say something nice about Roger Ailes.
THE RELUCTANT SAGE
Sherman credits his success by sticking to the basics of reporting — getting out on the street, talking to scores of subjects and approaching stories with an open mind.
While his pieces often run thousands of words long and are strung together by a strong narrative voice, Sherman doesn’t let nuance and imagery overshadow the facts.
“The way I approach journalism is reporting first — the reporting drives the story,” Sherman said. “When you end up with really clear writing, it’s often a result of having a lot of reporting behind it.”
No matter the publication, the subjects or the story, Sherman said his approach to journalism remains the same.
“The number one thing I always strive for, in any of my reporting, is fairness and humility,” Sherman said. “I don’t have all the answers, that’s why I rely on sources to really help me get it right.”
Sherman’s modesty extends as far as refusing to consider himself a sage of the media industry, despite his decade on the beat.
Others may label him a media expert — after all, he has appeared on NPR and ABC’s Nightline to discuss the industry. But Sherman is hesitant to agree to the title, and refuses to speculate on the future of journalism.
“I’m very skeptical whenever I interview someone who tells me that they know what the news business will look like in the next five to 10 years, because I think the one thing that’s certain is uncertainty, that we don’t know,” Sherman said.
Although what’s next for journalism may be impossible to predict, the one thing Sherman does put his chips on is the value of good storytelling.
“As long as there has been communication and human beings, we have always wanted stories,” Sherman said. “If you look at some of the most emailed stories at The New York Times or New York Magazine or the New Yorker, the most popular stories with readers are the longest, most ambitious long-form stories.”
Presently, Sherman is, at least for now, content where he is, chasing the next big story.
“I love my job now,” Sherman said. “New York Magazine is an incredible home for anyone who wants to do serious reporting.”
However the journalism universe shifts in the next decade, Sherman said he is confident in one thing — that long-form journalism will survive.
“Someone will figure out a way so that kind of storytelling endures,” Sherman said. “There are people who are out there who want to try to keep this style of journalism going.”
Reporter Zach Despart can be reached at [email protected].