One morning in December 2007, a law-school dropout named David Shankbone sat on a couch in Shimon Peres’s office in Jerusalem. He’d been invited into the Israeli president’s inner sanctum for an exclusive interview with the elder statesman. Peres reclined on a velvet chair next to Shankbone, nibbling cookies while he talked in his soporific baritone about the future of nanotechnology, the likelihood of a first strike against Iran, and why Israeli youth turned to drugs. “He has a thick accent and he talks so low,” Shankbone recalled. “I couldn’t even understand him.”
Shankbone had flown to Israel earlier that week for a press junket on Israeli technology, organized by the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Along with half a dozen reporters from news outlets like BusinessWeek, USA Today, and Slate, he’d been shepherded on a whirlwind tour of the country’s tech industry. Before the trip, Shankbone had optimistically requested an interview with Peres, and was caught off-guard when, four days in, he found out one had been scheduled the following morning. “I flipped out,” he said. Shankbone scrambled to assemble a set of questions. “I think the Shimon Peres interview is one of my worst interviews,” he told me. “I felt like I had this responsibility to ask certain things . . . things he gets asked a million times. I wish it had been a much more philosophical interview. I would love to ask Shimon Peres how he would choose his own death.”
The strange thing about this whole episode isn’t that a little-known reporter landed an hour-long interview with Shimon Peres. It’s that he isn’t a professional journalist. Shankbone isn’t even his real name. It’s the nom de plume of David Miller, who until recently was a paralegal at Herrick, Feinstein, a top New York law firm. For the past year and a half, he’s been moonlighting as a reporter for Wikinews, a Wikipedia offshoot that’s languished in obscurity since its debut in 2004. Wikinews was created as the news equivalent of the encyclopedia: anybody can write and edit stories. It is an experiment in pure amateur journalism, and it functions a bit like a haphazard wire service. Most of the five to ten stories posted each day are cobbled together from mainstream sources; only two or three a week involve original reporting, the bulk of which is done by two dozen “Wikinewsies,” like Miller, who are accredited through the site.
Miller is Wikinews’ star reporter, and his niche is in-depth q&as. He’s interviewed nearly forty public and not-so-public figures, including the Reverend Al Sharpton, journalist Gay Talese, the editors of The Onion, and the owner of an S&M dungeon. He posts the mostly unedited transcripts on the site, along with a photo of the subject and the occasional snippet of audio. “I just wanted people to talk to,” the thirty-four-year-old told me over dinner at 7A, an all-night joint that’s one of his favorite places to eat near his apartment in Manhattan’s East Village. “I was curious about people who attained goals and how they felt about them.”
Miller’s journalistic sideline began in 2005 after he dropped out of Fordham Law School. He says he couldn’t afford the tuition for his final year because he missed a few credit-card payments and didn’t qualify for loans. His older sister gave him a low-end digital camera for his birthday (he’s since upgraded), and he began snapping photos around the city, which he’d then upload to relevant Wikipedia articles that had no images.
It was around this time he created his pseudonym. “Miller” was too generic, he said, and not easy to track online. (Type “David Shankbone” into Google, and he’s a top hit.) Miller liked the sound of “Shankbone” because of its masculine, slightly pornographic ring. The Israelis he met on his press junket thought it was Jewish, a reference to the beef shank bone used in Passover seders.