Is it fair for Olivia Nuzzi to portray Rudy Giuliani as a drooling moron?

Rudy Giuliani (John McCall/Sun Sentinel/TNS)

New York Magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi wrote a devastating article on her interview with Donald Trump’s lawyer and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, including writing about his fly being unzipped. Is writing negatively about a political figure’s appearance appropriate? I’m not sure.

Go read Nuzzi’s article, “A Conversation With Rudy Giuliani Over Bloody Marys at the Mark Hotel.” It’s fascinating and revealing. On top of quoting Giuliani on his own work in Ukraine defending President Trump and digging up dirt on Hunter Biden, it also includes a bunch of details about Giuliani’s personal and sartorial failings. Here are some samples of that:

Over a sweater, he wore a navy-blue suit, the fly of the pants unzipped. He accessorized with an American-flag lapel pin, American-flag woven wallet, a diamond-encrusted pinky ring, and a diamond-encrusted Yankees World Series ring . . .

In one hand, he clutched three phones of varying sizes. Two of the devices were unlocked, their screens revealing open tabs and a barrage of banner notifications as they knocked into each other and reacted to Giuliani’s grip. He accidentally activated Siri, who said she didn’t understand his command. “She never understands me,” he said. He sighed and poked at the device, attempting to quiet her. . . .

As he spoke, he fixed his gaze straight ahead, rarely turning to make eye contact. When his mouth closed, saliva leaked from the corner and crawled down his face through the valley of a wrinkle. He didn’t notice, and it fell onto his sweater.

His ex-wife had implied, in an interview with New York, that he was an alcoholic. [Then, later in the article:] “I’d like some sparkling water. And I know you have wonderful Bloody Marys,” Giuliani told the waiter. “Yes, sir,” the waiter said, “and I know you love them.” Giuliani laughed . . .

“They’re all — they’re all knee-jerk, now logically impaired anti-Trump people, including James Comey’s daughter, who works there. You don’t think she’s bitter? Do you know the things that I’ve called her husband? I hired her husband.”

He meant her father.

“Her father,” he said. “I consider her father a disgrace. I’m embarrassed that I hired him. Never seen anyone run the FBI like that.” . . .

The hostess led us through a hallway to the dining room. As Giuliani walked down the carpeted ramp, he fell over to his right and hit the wall. He kept on walking as if it hadn’t happened. . . .

“Do you have all three phones?,” his bodyguard said as Giuliani stepped out of the car. “Yeah, I got all three phones,” he said. . . . A few minutes later, as we made our way downtown, I saw from the corner of my eye the sun reflecting off of something. It was the screen of one of the phones, which he had left on the seat next to me.

Are personal qualities fair game?

Giuliani contacted Nuzzi after the article was published, and, as she described on Twitter, he was angry. But he was angry that she wrote that he contradicted himself: he said he had no business interests in Ukraine, then told her he had done business deals in Ukraine. As far as I’m concerned, that’s excellent reporting and the most substantive part of the article — it’s legit news.

But what about the unzipped fly and the drooling and the forgotten mobile phone?

Imagine for a moment that this was an article about Barack Obama. Do we really need to know that his fly was unzipped? Each of us has these moments of personal weakness. I’ve probably talked to reporters with my shirt untucked or a stain on my pants. I’m glad they didn’t notice or talk about it.

In an article on analyst forecasts, a reporter for The New York Times Magazine once described me in successive sentences as “heavy-set” and “whip smart.” I was pleased with the whip smart but no so much with the heavy-set — because why is that even relevant to my views on the future of television?

There is a counterargument, of course. Giuliani is supposed to be an expert on cybersecurity — his forgetting his phone or being unable to tame Siri are relevant in that context. If you watch him on television, he appears crazed and demented. It’s pretty easy to wonder if he’s senile. Nuzzi is cleverly feeding that question with data, from the unzipped fly to the drooling. The guy’s a mess.

I have no reason to believe any of Nuzzi’s details are inaccurate. I’m sure what she observed was real. And every reporter’s job is to determine what observations are relevant and worth including. These are the details she chose to include.

I am of two minds about this — I feel like I’m voting “present.” I really do want to know if Giuliani is as out to lunch as he appears. But I don’t want the politics of personal attacks to extend to personal lapses that anybody might have.

So I’m asking you what you think. Is this sort of reporting fair or unfair, appropriate and revealing or inappropriate and partisan?

If you have a comment, don’t just tell us what you think. Tell us as well whether you’re for or against the president, and whether that has affected your judgment. And would you support a similarly written article about Hillary Clinton?

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  1. I agree with you about the personal observations. If this had been a series of interviews and the same personal characteristics showed themselves again and again, then I think it’s worth reporting as a fair description of his behavior or, perhaps, his state of mind. In this case, the reporter’s personal observations, while likely accurate, have the effect of detracting from the relevant and newsworthy content in the article. Instead of providing insights into the news, it comes across as an attack. That’s a shame, because Giuliani is one of the few people with an open door to the Oval Office.

  2. I am a Trump hater. Let’s get that out of the way. But it hasn’t affected my judgement of the article. I think it’s a fair portrayal of someone who’s advising the nation’s commander in chief. And I would support it even if it were written about Clinton, Obama or George Washington. As for leaving out the fly and the drooling, it would be like photographing FDR and then Photoshopping out his wheelchair.

  3. This about this: “Would you want this kind of reporting to be done on you?” I am pretty sure that the author would not like a similar article written about them. I really want journalists to be focused on the issues that they are investigating, and to be as fair and impartial as they can be as human beings. This provides credibility during investigations. In my observations, we are sorely lacking this in most of our highest levels of news organizations who are more focused on supporting “their side” than getting to the facts. If the intention of this article is to show Guliani’s ability to “keep it together” as an adviser to the president, then some of these aspects might be valid observations. Common mistakes like leaving a fly open can happen to anyone, so to me that is included merely to show disrespect. I do wonder about the situation: if there is a reasonable belief that the person that is being interviewed might be an alcoholic, agreeing to meet over drinks sounds like a set up. Just my $.02

  4. Is it fair? I could have done without the zipper reference (TMI). She is giving us exactly what she sees, as though we are watching a movie through her eyes. This man is not elected, yet although he volunteers for one man, he represents and “works” for us. Would you hire him as a cyber security expert if he presented himself this way to you? In addition to being a loose cannon, he fits the description of a “hand grenade” given that he is working in a realm with some very sharp foreign adversaries. I didn’t vote for Trump, and this is one reason why— his “very best people” are wreaking havoc with our standing in the world and further destabilizing an already unstable world. Do I think this guy has the capability to even recognize, much less prevent, the onslaught of disinformation from China, Russia, and other foreign players and how it erodes our democracy? That’s why her observations are relevant. When you throw Hilary and the comment about your build into the mix, are you implying this article is ageism, comparing it with sexism and weight-shaming? I don’t think this article is an example of ageism.

  5. These sound like observable facts about the conduct of someone who appears at least as much influence with the president of the United States than does the secretary of state or the director of central intelligence. There’s a long history of stories about him losing phones, butt-dialing reporters, leaving 4-minute long voicemails with ambient chatter after the 10-second message he thought he was leaving. The drinking, drooling, stumbling, and shambolic and erratic behavior are now matters that bear on the conduct of U.S. foreign policy and the future of the presidency. Omitting them from this profile would have been journalistic malfeasance.

  6. I don’t want to be fair about this. The Trump Effect is to shame everything that stands against him. In that regard, shaming his lawyer in the context of an otherwise good bit of journalism seems fine. But you are right, I’d be pretty uptight if this were an article about Hillary or Barack (or any of the current Democratic hopefuls, for that matter). I can’t really claim to take the high road, as much as I would like to. Unfortunately, this kind of reporting may be indicative of how we, as Americans, are accustomed to consuming our news now.

  7. Interesting that we worry about fairness in reporting while these crooks rape, rob and pillage. Would this be fair for Hillary or Obama? Yes, except they wouldn’t be drooling, wouldn’t have the need to carry 3 phones (that sure looks above board) nor have their fly undone.

    It shows a remarkable lack of judgement that he even let a writer accompany him that evening. I guess he’s still at the “any news is good news” stage. That may soon change…

  8. I think parts were relevant and should be included, others not. To me, the fly, and the saliva, that’s just mean and rude, and unnecessary. And believe me, I hate Trump and therefore Rudy, but I don’t think you need to do a hit piece. But the non personal appearance stuff, like unlocked phones, ordering drinks with someone you should know is adverse to you, that goes to his judgment and is fair game.

  9. Since there is apparently no video of it how do we know a word of it is true?
    The author obviously will not get any further interviews with Giuliani (or anyone else who would be so foolish as to trust her).
    So… good game on kamikaze journalism? Except there is no way to prove this swan song hit piece (is her career now ruined?) really happened as described.

  10. In general, I think truthful observations are okay and part of professional reportage. Making value judgments or guessing about his mindset and motives would not have been. If the title of the piece had been “Giuliani: Portrait of a Drooling Idiot”, I would have taken exception to it. Did she leave out any exculpatory evidence that he’s not a parody of what he says he is? I don’t know. If not, then her reporting would seem “fair” in most respects.

    I’d prefer to read truthful observations about everyone, delivered with as much detail as seems warranted. I’d prefer that everyone be responsible and be held accountable for their ideas, words, and actions. I prefer candidates and representatives who hold themselves to their own (often higher) standards rather than going for a good roll in the mud if that’s where the opposition goes.

    I can’t say that I followed his “career” to any extent, but I’ve been aware of Trump in the headlines for decades. He has always been this walking/talking (well – arguably talking) parody of his self-image. If he’s stood for anything, he’s always stood for things I despise. I didn’t vote for him. I don’t support him. I think his Presidency has been catastrophic beyond my wildest imagination, and that’s saying a lot.

  11. Your posts are always thought-provoking, Josh. I happened to read the Olivia Nuzzi’s article last night, so it was fresh in my mind when I read this post. I looked at the article as more of a profile. Rudy Guiliani has been in the news lately, he is the president’s lawyer and he is doing a fair amount of “diplomatic” work. This puts him in the spotlight. He also courts that spotlight. He’s an attention hound. So I felt the article was fair, although I have to admit the detail about his fly was more than I needed to know. He chose to have drinks with her and, I’m assuming, knew she was writing an article about their encounter, since his only complaint was that she wrote he contradicted himself. As for comparisons to the way journalists covered Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, we saw a lot of these types of detailed stories as well. Stories about Hillary’s hair, clothing, marriage, usually cast in a negative light; Obama’s “mom jeans”, tan suit, and questions about whether he was an American or not. That was all considered fair game. I am not a fan of Donald Trump nor Guiliani — I believe these two are a couple of grifters who are damaging the country. But I’m not sure my bias against them has much to do with my opinion of this article.

    1. I think it is fair. So – to get the trump part out of the way. I have detested this person for years (entire family) … but even in my worst dreams didn’t see that he would be this bad or this low. Obama was attacked for a tan suit, Michelle for bare shoulders, and so on. Same for many women who are attacked for what they wear or what they look like … is the hair right? is the skirt too short? is she “too sexy”? The observations that the author included present us with the picture of a man who is yelling on TV about his dirty deeds. He didn’t decry her observations on his appearance. And honestly, we can see with our own eyes how his ugly character is showing on the outside.

  12. Wait, Giuliani’s not a politician, he’s a private lawyer employed by the President (as, as far as I know) on the President’s personal payroll. As a lawyer, his appearance demeanor are part of his tools. If he’s not maintaining those tools (or has become incapable of doing so, through age or just cussedness), that appears to be something it’s fair to comment on. It may not be KIND, but it’s certainly FAIR game for comment.