Issue #5 “This is about a man who dared to fly past the sun”
A discussion with Saki Knafo. He is the host and creator of season one of Conviction, a podcast produced by Gimlet Media.
|perspectivves||Aug 10, 2020||1|
Photo by Yarden Haddi.
Saki Knafo is an award-winning journalist who spent nearly two years following private investigator Manuel Gomez in the Bronx. He would later put that story together for his critically-acclaimed podcast series, Conviction, produced by Gimlet Media. The original story appeared on the front cover of the New York Times Magazine. We reached Saki in Brooklyn to talk about it.
Ziv: Your bio, on your personal website, mentions the interesting fact that you grew up in Brooklyn above the flat of a legendary mobster’s son. Do you have any interesting anecdotes to share about that?
Saki: I gotta be careful with what I say. I can’t believe I actually put that out there. What was I thinking? Ever heard of Omertà?
Ziv: Yes, I heard about that!
Saki: I’ll tell you. The mobster was Joe Gallo. He was shot dead in Umbertos Clam House in Little Italy [in 1972]. He led a rebellion against one of the five families of New York and he had a hideout around the corner from where I grew up...long before I lived there. The story was that he kept a lion in a cage in the basement and his son lived downstairs, from where I lived as a kid, with his bodyguard. That was Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn in the 1980s.
Ziv: Now to Conviction. How did you cross paths with private investigator Manny Gomez?
Saki: I had been writing about cops in New York for a while. There is a contingent of Black and Latino cops who have been speaking out against some of the police department’s policies, which they believe are unjust. I met Manny through this network.
Ziv: One of the most fascinating aspects of Conviction, in my opinion, is Manny’s personality. How would you describe him?
Saki: He’s a magician with words. I describe him, at the very beginning of the podcast and the article [I wrote about him], as having a pen that’s really a knife and a watch that’s really a camera. And he says that his favourite book is the bible, but he’s constantly quoting from the book, The Art of War. He’s this flashy, brash character who, when I met him, was driving around the Bronx in a silver Corvette convertible. He wears three-piece suits with his initials stitched into the cuffs. He has a sense of himself as a living legend [and] as a mythical hero. In a way, those are some of the best people to interview, to report on, [and] to write pieces about; people who mythologize themselves in their own minds because they make for such colourful copy. They’re such good talkers. But writing about those people can also be very tricky. The main challenge is that it can be hard to know what to believe as the image of his deceptive watch would suggest.
Ziv: Has there ever been a point, while following him, where you just felt like giving up?
Saki: To be perfectly honest...yes. There were points where I wish I had never taken on this project.
Ziv: I can only imagine.
Saki: Yeah, because the deeper that I got into it [and] the more invested that I was, the harder it was to get out of it [and] the more I came to question certain things that he was telling me. It was my duty to question those things. We had a friendly rapport and Manny is a very likable guy, in many ways, but my job isn’t to like him. It’s to question and verify everything. That’s always an element of any investigative piece, right? But usually, you have your sources you basically trust and then you have the object of the investigation, the person you are looking into. This was a case where everybody I was writing about had an angle and had an agenda and it would have been foolish to take anyone at their word.
Ziv: In the very first scene of Conviction, you can be heard asking him the simple question, “what’s your name?” And, he responds with, “Are you kidding me? Is this guy busting my balls or what?”. Right off the bat, it sounds like Manny has a mental wall there. So how did you manage to get him to open up?
Saki: I had no trouble getting him to talk to me initially. He was dying to talk to somebody. He had this whole story about how he had been wronged and he was on this mission to right the wrongs of society and the wrongs that had been done to him. He was looking for me to tell his sort of hero narrative and, based on my initial meetings with him, I was perfectly willing to tell that story. I was [thinking] this guy is a little rough around the edges, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It only became a problem much later in the reporting process when I began to doubt certain important things that he was telling me. At that point, I did lose access to him for a period and it was hard to regain access. He [eventually] came back to me because he still wanted his story to be told.
Ziv: So he started to close off when you were telling him that you were doubtful of certain accounts he made?
Saki: Yeah. When I started revealing that I had done some reporting that maybe contradicted what he was saying or, at least, presented an opposing point of view. He’s someone who operates with an unmitigated sense of self-righteousness. In his mind, he’s virtually incapable of doing anything wrong and that’s what makes him so tricky. Whenever you’re talking to a source like that, someone who has a story of being wronged, they have their story that they want you to tell and they’ll often be disappointed if you don’t tell it the way they see it. But I’ve talked to people like that, I’ve had stories like that where people will be self-critical. They’ll say, “I wonder if this was my fault. Maybe I was complicit. Maybe I did something wrong”. I’ve had sources even say, “I hope you’ll interview my adversaries. My critics. I want my story to reflect a neutral perspective and to benefit from the credibility that would come with that”. Manny wasn’t like that. He was like, “this is how I see it, and it’s the only legitimate way to see it”. That’s what made our relationship, at least in my mind, very difficult. He might have a different answer.
Ziv: I find it particularly amusing that, at one point, the two of you debate the meaning of the story of Icarus from Greek mythology. What does that say about Manny?
Saki: First of all, that he sees things differently from anybody. You’re referring to a part of the story where he has a painting of Icarus on the wall [of his home], having fallen from the sky. He’s being cradled by a group of nymphs. Manny [sees] this as a heroic portrait of a man who had attempted to do the impossible. And I just pointed out that, as far as I know, most people see Icarus as a symbol of hubris. What’s amazing about Manny and says everything [about him] is that he didn’t say, “you’re right” or “agree to disagree”. He said, “that’s bullshit! This is about a man who dared to fly past the sun”. He sees things differently, and he doesn’t back down.
Yarden: What did sharing this story as a podcast allow you to do that the written piece could not?
Saki: There’s a lot that you can do in podcasting that you can’t do on the printed page. People always talk about the intimacy of podcasting or radio and I think that’s true. The main reason I pitched [the story] as a podcast was because of Manny and his voice. If I had only written about him, I could describe the quality of his voice, and how he says things and I could quote him at length. But if you hear him talk you just want everybody else to hear him talk. I think his self-image was informed by movies and TV. I think he would have been a brilliant actor. He has a great ear [and] he has a way with words. If you want to make a podcast, it definitely helps to find someone like him. And I don’t think that means you have to find someone who has his sense of bravado or who’s as flashy as him. You know, the cliché is that you want a good talker, but that could be somebody who’s very quiet and careful about what they say and who doesn’t use any colourful expressions. Maybe they have another quality. Maybe they’re very precise or they convey emotion in a certain way. You just want someone who will hold your ear in that way and Manny, in his way, definitely did that. It’s also something that I’ve been criticized for. There’s a critique that maybe one should be careful about building a narrative around someone who's just a good talker. Not that Manny is just a good talker. He’s a charismatic figure and that naturally makes him appealing to a reporter, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s the best story or the most important story that you should be trying to tell. I think there’s some legitimacy to that.
Yarden: It’s interesting that you bring up the idea that there’s a sense of intimacy with podcasts. I find it funny that I am talking to the person that I’ve been listening to. I feel like I almost know you.
Saki: Yeah. That’s the magic trick, right?
Ziv: I also find the timbre of your voice to be very unique. Very soothing.
Saki: I think people either find it to be soothing or that it puts them to sleep.
Ziv: If you could go back in time and change something about the way you told this story, what would that be?
Saki: There’s one line that I would change. At the end, I have this sort of monologue that I deliver that, I think, is one of the best pieces of writing in the piece. That line wasn’t by me [laughing]. The best lines came from one of our editors, Lynn Levy. It’s the passage where I deliberate over the idea of a hero and I make the point that nobody in this story is black and white. Nobody in this story seems to necessarily be all good or all bad. But the problem with the whole criminal justice system, one of the problems, is that it basically slots people into those categories of being good and bad. Once you’ve been branded as a criminal in the justice system, for example, then it’s very hard to overcome that. I think that’s true and I love that passage, but I have one line where I raise the question of whether Manny is a hero. And it’s a question that I start the whole story with. At the end of the story, I was like, “now I am ready to answer that question. I have the answer and it is that he is not a hero”. But, in a way, looking at people as heroes or as villains is the problem. And I think if I went back I probably wouldn’t write that he’s not a hero because I don’t know that I need to answer that question. I felt like I didn’t want to set up a conflict and not resolve it. I didn’t want to set up a question and not deliver an answer at the end. I think a lot of narrative podcasts have been criticized for failing to deliver a concrete solution [and] for failing to solve the crime. So I felt compelled to answer that question and I’m not sure I had to do that.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
About the creators:
Yarden Haddi: Student of the Image Arts Centre at Ryerson University.
Ziv Haddi: Graduate of the Master of Media in Journalism and Communication program at Western University. A former intern at 680 News at Rogers Media and q on CBC Radio. Currently produces a current affairs program on Zoomer Radio.
Made with chutzpah in Toronto.