It’s a few weeks after Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court, and Jane Mayer, one of the most prominent investigative reporters in the country, has just finished a stunning professional run. She and her New Yorker colleague Ronan Farrow broke the Christine Blasey Ford accusations, then followed that with the account of Deborah Ramirez, who said Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at Yale. These pieces helped trigger the political spectacle—a “partisan inferno,” as Farrow puts it—that led to Ford and Kavanaugh’s televised testimony, which captivated the country. Yet Mayer, sitting across from me at lunch, is focused only on the scoop she missed. I ask if the Kavanaugh debacle has been difficult to process. “It took me a while,” she says. “I got sick. And I’m not done yet, that’s the other thing.” Working through it? I ask. “No,” she says, and her voice becomes steelier. There had been another allegation, she explains, similar to Ramirez’s, but she hadn’t managed to get it on the record. “I’m not done reporting yet.”
On the page, Mayer, a staff writer at the New Yorker since 1995, is authoritative and direct, and as a journalist, she is relentless. She’s waited outside the house of a CIA operative as day turned to dusk, hoping to question him about the death of a man he was interrogating. She uncovered a vast government-run domestic surveillance program in 2011, two years before Edward Snowden became a whistle-blower. “She’s the best investigative reporter in America,” says Daniel Zalewski, her New Yorker editor. “Not the best female investigative reporter.” In person, Mayer, who is petite with brown shoulder-length hair she usually wears down, the tips slightly flipped up, displays a confidence that has no visible fault lines. She also has a tendency toward self-deprecation. And while her mind often seems to whir with seamless elegance, this appears to fuel in her not impatience but curiosity. She has this way of holding her head—neck slightly forward, face tilted down, eyes up, eyebrows raised—that is the exact posture of receptive interest. At lunch, she maintains this stance as—in between answering my questions—she asks if my parents are still married, what I was like as a teenager, and whether my family is wealthy.
As for her next article, all she’ll tell me on the record is, “I’m focusing broadly on stories about abuses of power, threats to democracy, and corruption,” which she surely knows covers pretty much everything she’s written over the last two decades. “She thinks very carefully about what piece she’s going to pursue,” Zalewski says. “It’s like watching a rock-climber stare at a cliff, considering potential routes. And then she climbs.”
Mayer grew up in New York City but lives in DC, where she shares a three-story house with a husky yellow Lab, Rosie, and her husband, Bill Hamilton, the Washington editor for the New York Times (their daughter, the press secretary for a Vermont congressman, lives nearby). Mayer often writes in an office on the second floor overlooking a dog park, but she also has a workspace at the New Yorker’s modest DC base. A few weeks after our lunch, I arrive to find her standing with another writer by the empty reception desk, discussing whether to get rid of it altogether and turn the area into a lounge. “We’ll resurrect the Algonquin Table!” Mayer says, walking over to her office, which is decorated with, among other things, a bust of Robert F. Kennedy—she received it when she won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award in 2009—with a Nationals cap perched on his head and a graveyard of old Rolodexes around him. More awards hang on the walls. “It looks like a doctor’s office,” she says apologetically, settling cross-legged into her chair. “I didn’t know what else to do with them.”
The midterms happened the week before, and I ask whether she thinks the next few days might yield big political developments, as people are suggesting. But in response Mayer pauses, as if considering whether I have an actual source (my source, for the record, is Twitter). “As you can see, we might be the last people to know,” she says finally and laughs. “We’re supposed to be way ahead of the news, but we’re here wondering whether to get a couch.”
Needless to say, this is unlikely. “She has Washington wired,” Farrow tells me. “It’s the kind of infallible crystal ball that only comes from years of putting in the work.” Over the course of her career, Mayer has written four best-selling books, and one quality they share, according to Michiko Kakutani, former chief book critic of the New York Times and a longtime friend, is that they “demonstrate uncanny historical prescience.”
Mayer’s first book, Landslide, cowritten with Doyle McManus in 1988 about the Iran-Contra scandal, revealed that President Ronald Reagan—later diagnosed with Alzheimer’s—was already displaying signs of mental unsteadiness in office, to the point that aides considered invoking the Twenty-Fifth Amendment. Even in 2015, the scoop remained juicy enough that Bill O’Reilly reprised it in his book Killing Reagan, without direct attribution. (Mayer considered legal recourse, then thought better of it. “I have so many enemies,” she says. “Bill O’Reilly is maybe one more than I need.”) In 1994, she and her friend Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of the New York Times, cowrote Strange Justice, about Anita Hill’s accusations against Clarence Thomas during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings. In 2008, Mayer published The Dark Side, about the CIA’s war on terror. Most recently, her 2016 book Dark Money and the New Yorker features that preceded it not only helped turn billionaires Charles and David Koch into household names but spelled out money’s influence on conservative politics so thoroughly that the left began using it as a how-to guide. “It had a big effect on progressive donors trying to create similar networks,” says Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, a Columbia University political scientist.
Before the buildup to the last presidential election, in other words, Mayer was already widely admired and reviled. (After her first story about the Kochs appeared in the New Yorker in 2010, she was the target of a private investigation that attempted unsuccessfully to discredit her. “Clues leading back to the Kochs were everywhere,” she writes in Dark Money.) But since 2016, due to some weird alchemy between Twitter, where Mayer has 167,000 followers, and the rise of Trump, her work’s prominence has risen dramatically, with her New Yorker features—about Trump’s The Art of the Deal ghostwriter, about the ex-spy behind the Trump dossier—slamming into the media landscape, one after the next. Last May, she and Farrow teamed up for the first time to publish an exposé about New York State attorney general Eric Schneiderman; three hours later, he resigned. Then came their Kavanaugh reporting. That Farrow’s byline received more credit inspired a flurry of social media posts crying sexism, but “I didn’t even think about it until I saw all these people feeling sorry for me,” Mayer says. “I thought it was funny. I mean, not funny, but I don’t feel that I lack for attention.”
The paradox is that Mayer is having this moment at a time when even deeply reported pieces are dismissed as “fake news” and blockbuster stories soon get swallowed up. “There was a river in Louisiana people used to call the Bottomless River,” says Albert Hunt, Mayer’s editor at the Wall Street Journal in the ’80s. “That’s the way you feel these days. There is no bottom.”
“It’s a great time to be a reporter,” Mayer says, before clarifying, “it’s an important time to be a reporter.” She also describes her job as like being an unwilling combatant in a war. In an essay Mayer and Abramson cowrote last fall for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, they closed with a question: “Is the truth loud enough?” But is anything loud enough to be heard over an inferno?
This could be discouraging, but during the time I spend with Mayer, she never seems discouraged. “It’s a dangerous time,” she says. “But it’s a very exciting time to be on the front lines.” She is frustrated but also fascinated, and she returns again and again to a question that has come to preoccupy her. “I’m pretty obsessed with what happened with Trump. How did he get elected in 2016? It still doesn’t feel quite right,” she says at one point. “How did it get so divided, so ugly?” she says at another. “Trying to figure out how we got into this and how we get out of it—there’s no question right now that’s more interesting.”
Near the beginning of the 1987 rom-com Broadcast News, the main character, Jane Craig, a TV news producer played by Holly Hunter, is with a film crew in Nicaragua when she’s caught in a firefight. Instead of being frightened, she is invigorated to have gotten the shot. Craig is also whip-smart—the only subject that confuses her is love—and talks a mile a minute. “Even my mom said she recognized me in the role when the character started bossily telling the cab driver the fastest route to take!” Mayer writes me in an email. It turns out director and writer James Brooks drew inspiration for the character from Mayer, whom he got to know in the ’80s, along with two other women. “What they all shared was integrity,” Brooks says.
Mayer’s parents were artistic—her father was a composer, her mother a painter— with a “strong sense of right and wrong,” says Mayer’s husband, Hamilton. From a young age, she wanted to take on bullies. One day, upon noticing a neighborhood boy picking on someone, she socked the boy in the chest, expecting that he’d fall down like the bad guys in TV Westerns. (All that happened was that she hurt her hand.) The family also had pedigreed roots. Mayer’s paternal great-great-grandfather co-founded Lehman Brothers, and her mother’s father was an acclaimed historian. But for a well-off New York clan, they had relatively down-to-earth values. On Mayer’s first day of seventh grade at New York’s private Ethical Culture Fieldston School, she wore a corduroy skirt she’d made herself. “Are you so poor you have to make your own clothes?” a girl asked her.
In 1977, Mayer graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale, where she was a campus stringer and intern for Time; she’d gravitated toward journalism because it sounded fun. She followed a boyfriend to Vermont, where she got a job at the daily newspaper the Rutland Herald. Later, she studied briefly at Oxford, then moved to DC to work as a city reporter at the Washington Star, a scrappy underdog competitor to the Washington Post. It was only then that she began to take her career seriously. (A few years earlier, in what she terms “the least sexually liberated moment of my life,” she’d picked up an application for the Rhodes Scholarship program, only to pass it off to her boyfriend, who was accepted.) When the Star was shuttered in 1981, Mayer landed at the Wall Street Journal.
One of Mayer’s earliest memories is of being hustled out of the room after her historian grandfather received a call from John F. Kennedy, instilling in her the belief that nothing could be more exciting than “touching history,” as she puts it. She’s since had a firsthand view of so many pivotal world events that she says she’s often felt like Typhoid Mary. In 1983, for example, she convinced her editors to send her to Beirut to profile a war-zone cameraman; her hotel was close enough to a Marine compound targeted one morning by a truck bomb, killing hundreds, that it almost knocked her out of bed. Soon after, she became the paper’s first female White House correspondent. (“We were not the most enlightened place,” says Hunt, in regard to the fact that it took until 1984 for a woman to hold this role.) “The sexism at the time was so overt,” Mayer says. “You’d be giving some boss a ride, and he’d start kissing you at the red light. It still makes me mad.” She was also kept home during the 1986 arms control–focused Reykjavik Summit. “There was this belief women weren’t up to it,” she says. When she protested, an editor suggested she write instead about one of Nancy Reagan’s favorite designers, Adolfo. (She didn’t write about Adolfo.) At one point, Mayer noted that Reagan called more often on female reporters wearing red dresses, prompting Hunt to suggest she don one for the next press conference. “There’s the little girl in red,” Reagan said about Mayer when she did. “That was sort of how I was seen, I guess,” Mayer has said.
Beyond any of this, it didn’t take long for Mayer to become frustrated by the limitations of the White House correspondent job, which felt to her like stenography. Once the Iran-Contra affair leaked, “it was as if it were written on a billboard: You are wasting your time,” she says. She took a six-month leave to cowrite Landslide, then got reassigned to a position that let her roam the world, following her instincts. In 1989, she traveled to Germany and, prompted by a radio report, made it to the Berlin Wall in time to watch a wave of human beings breach the barrier.
By then Mayer was professionally established, but like Broadcast News’s Jane, she found that her love life still delivered setbacks. In the early ’90s, she returned from a reporting trip to discover that the lawyer she’d been living with had taken up with her “polar opposite,” Laura Ingraham, now a Fox News host. The new couple refused to return Mayer’s dog, so one day, when they weren’t home, she and Abramson drove over, and Mayer climbed through the pet door to retrieve it. (“She’s a lot of fun,” Abramson tells me. “I don’t want you to make her seem deadly serious.”) The house, incidentally, was also the site of a delicious piece of DC gossip: After the guy and Ingraham broke up, Ingraham supposedly flooded it by sticking a hose through the mail slot. Mayer was resigned to never having the family she wanted when Hamilton asked her out. “Luckily, he turned out to be the nicest guy I’d ever met,” she says.
Mayer and Abramson had long wanted to collaborate on a book, and they began working on Strange Justice just after the Thomas hearings in 1991. Over three years, they spoke with virtually everyone they could who knew anything about the confirmation battle, and even spent an evening at Abramson’s bungalow watching a triple-X film they’d heard Thomas liked, The Adventures of Bad Mama Jama (both fell asleep). Mayer also married and had a daughter, who was just six weeks old when Anita Hill agreed to be interviewed for the book—leading Mayer to fly cross-country, leaving the baby with Hamilton and carting a breast pump into the bathroom of the plane, before such practices were commonplace. “People looked at me like I was doing dialysis or something,” she says. The book made a strong case against Thomas, but to the authors’ surprise, many saw it as just the latest volley in the culture wars. Writer David Brock even tried to blackmail one of Mayer’s sources into recanting. “There seems to be no way that people accept that there are actually facts in this story,” Mayer told Charlie Rose, incredulously, when she and Abramson appeared on his show in 1994. When read today, the book is as strong an argument as any that history repeats itself. “I pulled it off the shelf during the Kavanaugh hearings,” says its editor, John Sterling. “It was like déjà vu.”
The only time Hamilton remembers Mayer being truly unsettled by her reporting was when, for a piece about Fox’s torture-heavy show 24, she watched five episodes in a row. “It was just too much,” he says. (The resulting piece was negative, and the show later introduced “Blaine Mayer,” a senator who gets killed by a submachine gun.) In the lead-up to the Kavanaugh hearings, though, Mayer worked numerous 20-hour days, which was extreme even for a woman whose workload often leaves little time for everyday tasks—her car’s license plates were once so long expired that, on her way to a C-Span interview, she was pulled over, handcuffed, and brought to a police station (somehow she still made it on air). And as Mayer explained in late October, when she visited a class Abramson teaches at Harvard, the Kavanaugh reporting was “unusually draining, partly because I had done the whole thing 24 years before. I thought things had improved.”
Mayer’s involvement in the story began last summer, when she heard rumors swirling about Kavanaugh among his Yale classmates. Meanwhile, word of Ford’s account made its way to Farrow via Ford’s friends in her Silicon Valley hometown. “It became the talk of Palo Alto,” Mayer says. “Before long we were hearing Sheryl Sandberg knew about it. It was so far from the conspiracy view that someone leaked her name.” Just after they published their story about Ford on September 14, they learned about Ramirez, and Farrow began spending hours talking to her, while Mayer focused on “the accountability portion, trying to be fair.” (Their Schneiderman article had involved the same division of labor.) The decision to publish was fraught, but informed by the other incident Mayer learned about, the one she didn’t get into print, which also involved sexual misbehavior at a drunken party. “It wasn’t a one-off,” Mayer says about Ramirez’s allegation. In the resulting piece about Ramirez, though, their attempts at carefulness, specifically their acknowledgment that she was not initially sure of her memory, prompted furor from both the left and right.
Mayer watched the hearings at home, alone. Despite her reporting, it was only then that she made up her mind about Kavanaugh’s eligibility. “Almost everybody was a jerk in high school in some way, right?” she says. “For me, what was much more important was how he deals with the truth about who he was. And the fact that he couldn’t means you’ve got somebody on the court who, I think almost certainly, lied under oath.”
What does Mayer make of the fact that this happened, regardless of the pieces she and others had published? In general, when I ask her this kind of question, about the impact of her work or lack thereof, she repeats a version of the phrase “It’s not resistance, it’s reporting”—her point being that journalism is meant to inform, not influence. “Some people say reporters are the last naïves,” she told the audience during a recent talk at the University of Vermont. “I think most of us believe if we give people information, democracy will work.” It’s an idea echoed by Hill when I call her in late October. “I refuse to believe nothing has changed,” she says. “The truth is what matters. It’s all that matters.”
“As I’ve said many times, if we’d been able to figure out [Hill] was lying, we would have written it,” Mayer says about Strange Justice. “She wasn’t lying. You know?” Far from being disturbed to discover this, with Thomas already confirmed, Mayer says it was thrilling. “It’s like being an explorer,” she says. “You hear nothing for a long time. And then suddenly someone tells you something that makes it all clear, and you think, ‘Oh my God, thank God, thank you, thank you.’ ”
This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue of ELLE.
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