Oriana Fallaci: The Journalist, the Agitator, the Legend
US: Oct 2017
The name Oriana Fallaci may not be familiar to younger readers. But for decades it was a household word around the globe; a name that evoked fear and respect among the world’s most powerful leaders, and frequent controversy in her home country.
The first official biography of this pioneering Italian woman journalist (who was also a successful novelist) is about to emerge in English translation. Its author, Cristina de Stefano, says Fallaci still has a lot to teach us about journalism today.
“I became a journalist because of Oriana,” recalls de Stefano. She read Fallaci’s collection of political interviews—Interview With History as a teenager, and it inspired her to pursue journalism.
When she died in 2007, de Stefano recalls wondering who would write the journalist’s biography.
“I said to myself, Not you! It’s impossible because you are not in touch with the family and the friends so forget it, there will be another person already working on it.”
But it wasn’t impossible. Two years after her death, de Stefano was contacted by Fallaci’s nephew Eduardo, her designated heir. Eduardo had read de Stefano’s work and been impressed by her style. She was the journalist he felt most capable of giving Fallaci’s biography the effort it deserved.
All in all, the project took about four years. De Stefano’s first task was to review and catalogue all of Fallaci’s papers, to which she had full access—notes, manuscripts, even love letters. She hired research assistants, and collectively they contacted Fallaci’s many friends and colleagues, traveling throughout Europe and the US to interview them, racing to find them before they too died. Fact-checking all the information they compiled also took time.
“To be honest, I was worried because Oriana was very open to exaggerating things,” recalls de Stefano, laughing. “So I was expecting to find some untrue facts in her life, but in fact, it was not the case. Sometimes she exaggerated a little bit—she tended to be very epic in her personal narration—but in the end, I was surprised to find that everything she had told was true to real life. It was just put in an epic way.”
Fallaci’s career was as diverse as it was precipitous. Best known for her reportage and complex, in-depth interviews with public figures, her early reporting days saw her covering arts, culture and entertainment beats, first in Italy and then Hollywood. Tiring of this, she set her sights on the space program, becoming a fixture at NASA and close friends with many of the American astronauts (one of whom even smuggled a photo of her to the moon, at her behest).
Then her career took an unexpected turn—she leveraged her fame as an arts and entertainment reporter to demand to be sent abroad to cover the Vietnam War, and thus began a career as one of the world’s preeminent war correspondents. Whether hitching a ride on a US fighter jet in Vietnam or traveling with Palestinian guerrillas in the Middle East, her war reporting provided a conduit for her to enact the personal courage and bravery which she considered to be the most important quality in a person.
The Art of the Political Interview
She was perhaps most well known for her political interviews. She pursued interviews with key public figures from around the world and across the political spectrum: from Princess Soraya of Iran (wife of the Shah), to Chinese communist leader Deng Xiaoping, to Polish rebel and trade union activist Lech Walesa. Her interview with Henry Kissinger is widely considered to have been a key factor in his political demise; she succeeded in drawing out his conceited arrogance in a manner no American journalist had managed.
A key component of her interviews, says de Stefano, was her tendency to treat them as theatre, with herself playing a leading role.
“She did an interview as a writer. She saw an interview like a piece of theatre… she was part of the interview. She was not just asking questions to a person, but this person was interacting with Oriana Fallaci as a character. And she had a good sense of timing.”
When she interviewed Iranian Islamic leader (and future dictator) Ayatollah Khomeini, she had been told to wear a chador (headscarf), which she did. During the interview, however, she confronted Khomeini on the matter of women’s rights and tore off the chador to make a point. Khomeini, incensed, stormed out of the interview. Fallaci refused to leave, insisting she’d been promised an interview and that she would stay until he returned. After a standoff of several hours, Khomeini’s son conceded her point, and the next day the future Iranian Supreme Leader obediently returned to complete the interview. Rather than be diplomatic, Fallaci continued the interview on the very same contentious point they had left it at the previous day (forcing the notoriously stern-faced imam to crack a rare grin).
In preparing for an interview, Fallaci did a tremendous amount of background research. She developed extensive files on all of her subjects, with elaborate lists of questions. The interviews themselves were sometimes full-day affairs, lasting at least several hours. Her goal was not just to ask a few questions, but to develop a more personal understanding of her subject. After hours of interviewing a subject, she would often request a follow-up interview, sometimes the next day. The follow-ups allowed her to test or confirm hypotheses she developed about the interview subject and their behaviour.
“Then she sat in front of all this big material from the interview, and that’s the moment when she was [like] a novelist,” explained de Stefano. “Or a theatre writer. She created a piece of theatre. Sometimes she was extreme. I don’t deny it. For example, sometimes she went to an interview and she wanted the person to say something. And the person didn’t say it. So she suggested it, with the body language, with the observations. She had a kind of idea in her mind when she was creating an interview.”
“She’s a writer. She’s not just a journalist. She put a certain degree of creativity in. She doesn’t invent, but she’s very creative in the way she put all the pieces together. We [fact-]checked a lot of the interviews and she never invented a word or statement. But the way that you put the words of a person together, and the way you put the description of the person, [lets] you change the reality, in effect.”
“There are people who like her as an interviewer and people who don’t like her at all. You like it or you don’t like it… she liked to knead the person, to try to find the weak point. It was a real confrontation between her and the person… She always felt in the position to ask the questions, because she said ‘I am a journalist, I am here representing the reader, so I can ask you this question. It’s your problem, if you don’t want to answer.’”
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The interviews she didn’t manage to do were almost as interesting as the ones she did. De Stefano’s work enabled her to gain access to Fallaci’s extensive preparatory interview notes, including files on people she never succeeded in interviewing. The vast majority of subjects she approached succumbed to the lure of being featured in a Fallaci interview; among those with the strength of will to resist the temptation were Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Pope John Paul II. It’s a pity Fallaci never managed to interview the Pope; her questions would have been revealing, de Stefano says.
“She was going to ask him questions about his sexual life, about the fact that he was a very handsome man, and big, you know—she was asking questions that you would never think of asking a Pope! She was also preparing to ask the Pope very hard political questions; Why are you fighting against South American priests who do politics, while you are helping the Polish priests who do politics against the Russians? Which was a good political question to ask the Pope. He was a very political Pope, but he had his own agenda, which was to fight the USSR, and not to fight in South America.”
Toward a More Creative Journalism
Journalism has changed considerably since Fallaci’s heyday, but de Stefano says the Italian journalist’s work offers important lessons for journalists today.
“I think that the most interesting thing in Oriana as a journalist was her way of dealing with power. Political power. I think that this is still very important. She was against power. She was a kind of anarchist, she couldn’t stand power—the power of politicians but also the power of the stage, the actors.”
“When you go to interview a politician, you have to be careful. Because today we live in a society that is based on image and politicians are showmen. Because of their image, because of their speech, they tend to charm people in a sense, to draw people to them. Oriana was always repeating that you have to try to see behind all this screen of fame. That’s something that I think is still important today, when you are informed of a person who has power—not to forget this is just a person. The way she wrote about big names, she was always trying to show the reader that they were a normal person, [who happened to be] just at the right place at the right moment. So I think this is good [advice] still now, and maybe more even now than before.”
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