Alas, the interview

Steven Levy in Newsweek weighs in on the blog discussion regarding the future of the interview — that is, reporters thinking they can demand live interviews and sources now demanding on-the-record email interviews. I spoke with Steven for the piece. Irony No. 1: I didn’t have time to get into an email discussion and so I spoke with him on the phone. Irony No. 2: He uses a quote from me but I wish I had the fuller quote to link to. If I had done the interview in email, I’d have that context to give you now. But it’s gone in telephone ether, proving the point of those of us who prefer email interviews.

The point I was trying to make: Steven at first interpreted my stand as saying that I wanted to kill the old interview. I said that, no, I saw the opportunity, thanks to technology, to improve the interview. Why should journalism be immune from improvement? Thanks to email interviews, as I’ve said before, subjects can give more accurate, complete, and cogent answers to questions. Answers never need be misquoted and they need never be taken out of context; we can link to quotes in their fullness and in context. And for whose who want to read more, it will be there. Journalists should rejoice: The new, improved interview. And subjects should rejoice: They regain a proper measure of control.

Instead, Levy echoes the complaint of too many journalists that they don’t want to change; they don’t want to lose their live interviews. He paints this only as a decline in the interview, the loss of his opportunity for serendipity (which, to too many experienced subjects, can be translated as a gotcha moment). Steven acknowledges subjects’ complaints about interviews — about being misquoted and got — and then concludes:

The twist is that the Internet has altered the relationship. Blogger and NYU professor Jay Rosen says interviews have been an exercise in unequal power between the writer and the submissive subject. But with blogs the subject has a direct channel to the public. “The interviewer used to be in charge, but that’s no longer the case,” says media blogger Jeff Jarvis. “I can decide how long the quote is, I can make sure the context is accurate.”

All this can be unnerving to someone (like, um, me) who has spent a career conversing with people on the other end of the phone line or lunch table. A live interview allows me not only to follow up quickly but to sense the verbal cues that direct me to more fruitful topics. In e-mail, people talk at you; in conversation I can talk with subjects, and a casual remark can lead to a level of discussion that neither party anticipated from the beginning. I am more likely to learn from someone in a conversation than in an e-mail exchange, which simply does not allow for the serendipity, intensity and give-and-take of real-time interaction.

We in the journalism tribe operate under the belief that when we ask people to talk to us we are not acting out of self-interest but a sense of duty to inform the population. It’s an article of our faith that when subjects speak to us, they are engaging in a grand participatory act where everyone benefits. But these lofty views don’t impress bloggers like Rosen. “You have to prove [you represent the public],” he says. Yes, we do. But every time we lose the priceless knowledge from those essential, real-time interviews, our stories are impoverished, to the detriment of our readers: you.

So he’s blaming us, the interviewed bloggers, for not having lofty views and for robbing you, the readers, of priceless knowledge.

I’d say that reporters who insist on doing interviews on the phone without benefit of thought, time, and transcript are robbing us all of priceless knowledge, accuracy, and context.

If I’d done my interview with Steven via email, I’d link to it now and let you decide. But I can’t. My fault. I did it by phone and robbed you of that. Sorry.

: Here’s an account of the last time I was interviewed by Steven, in March, 2005. In that case, nothing I said made it into his column, which is fine; his choice. But then I wrote about it and if Newsweek had linked to what people were saying about what they published, then they’d be part of a larger conversation with more information, more of that priceless knowledge.

To be clear: I like Steven and always enjoy chatting with him. I just wish our chats occurred — and continued — in public.