Writing about our monstrous ruling class is not as easy is it might look. The ultra-rich are awful, and it’s simple enough to say that, but they are also our designated winners in a society that valorizes having money as winning; they believe, expansively, in their own rightness, and in some sense that belief is correct or at least hard to falsify.
When reporters give wealthy subjects space to indulge in that expansiveness, it can be read as—and readers often do read it as—surrender or publicity or non-judgment. This is more and more of a problem as news outlets have less and less control over which audiences may encounter their work, or how that work may be presented when it reaches them. It produces that depressing situation in which a reader complains that a writer has failed to notice this, this, and that point about the subject, all of which are facts that the reader has just read in the story itself, where the writer intentionally included them.
Yet the reader is not always 100 percent wrong about this. Implication is difficult, and plenty of writers do give a subject a platform for nonsense or lies without meaningfully doing anything about it, out of a misplaced confidence in the power of giving them enough rope to hang themselves. No matter how much rope there may be, it’s still the writer’s job to tie the hangman’s knot in it.
That was what Ben Widdicombe did for the New York Times‘ Sunday Styles section, telling the story of the acrimonious and expensive divorce of the “art-world power couple” David and Libbie Mugrabi, a breakup that “involves exposing the Mugrabi family’s sophisticated structure of asset ownership by offshore corporations,” which promises to “offer a rare window into how art-world titans like the Mugrabis shield their finances from public scrutiny.”
Around that public-interest story, though, there was plenty to interest the public—starting, in the opening anecdote, with “an attractive brunette in the television room” of the couple’s mansion, naked and asleep with David Mugrabi in the early morning after a dinner party. Widdicombe included the details that the dinner party had included “$800 bottles of wine served by the family’s staff” and that the naked twosome were “beneath a painting from Richard Prince’s ‘After Dark’ series,” but the most literarily and psychologically effective touch in the passage came via Libbie Mugrabi’s own words:
“She was naked on my couch with a towel on top of her, and he was sitting on the floor with his head lying on her breasts,” Ms. Mugrabi said.
And then, four paragraphs later, Widdicombe again quoted Libbie Mugrabi, from a recorded confrontation with the woman:
“You were naked on my couch,” Ms. Mugrabi said. “How is that appropriate?”
Naked on my couch. Not “naked with my husband.” Naked on my couch. Naked on my couch. Naked on my couch. Here was the substance of a relationship betrayed.