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.

  • I’m not sure what world you have lived in that ever allowed journalists to “demand” interviews. Sources always have had the power to say just what they please or to say nothing at all. Journalists don’t have subpoena powers.

    Moreover, journalists have powerful incentives to get interviews right. Burned sources rarely consent to be interviewed again. Every editor I have known takes complaints from unhappy sources very seriously. Reporters who consistently misquote generally wind up in another line of work.

    I have interviewed a few thousand people over the years, and every single one of the best interviews took place in person. There simply is no substitute if you want to do quality work.

  • Chris C.

    A very easy compromise suggestion: make sure the interview is recorded and that the audio is available to either party should there be an issue about accuracy.

    I actually would like to see at least full transcripts of interviews run with stories, if not the actual audio.

    The problem with e-mail interviews is the lack of an actual conversation. Often the best stories from interviews evolve from follow-ups, threads that evolve from answers to the original, scripted questions.

    In e-mail that spontanaity and depth is problematic.

  • Jeff, I think what you say in this post would be true if everyone — writers, sources, readers alike — thought and acted like a conscientious blogger.

    But a lot of people, business leaders and politicians especially, get where they are with the help of rigid message control. They equivocate and prevaricate and plan every word of every prepared public statement with the help of a committee of spin doctors. A personal interview, whether it’s face-to-face or on the phone, might be the only chance a reporter gets to knock such a person off his or her message track, usually by asking an unexpected question or pressing for ever-more detail until the subject has to speak off the top of his or her head. With an e-mail interview, the interview subject has all the time in the world to come up with a processed response to any question the writer comes up with. They’d use the e-mail format to make sure they didn’t reveal a single thing they didn’t want to reveal.

    For a blogger, behaving that way would be deadly. Nobody would want to read a blog written that way. Other bloggers would tear such a writer apart. Where the audience is concerned, I don’t think everyone has the same intuitive skepticism and yearning to do further research that a conscientious blogger does. A blogger is a lot harder to B.S. than the typical person on the street.

    It’s true that a lot of bloggers seem to be, in a way, more themselves when they write than when they talk, anyway. They’re instinctively open and direct. For them, and in a handful of other cases, e-mail interviews might well make sense.

    In my professional-journalist job just now, I’m waiting for an e-mail answer to a complex policy question from a reasonably prominent Canadian political leader. Luckily I’m not in a hurry to get this information, and I’m just after a factual clarification about her views on something.

    I’m also pretty confident that she’s the kind of person who’ll have written the response herself and that she’ll sound like a human being rather than a message-machine. I’m very sure that she’s in a minority among people in her line of work.

    Eventually, maybe the Internet will make that approach to communication mandatory and the pols created by committees will die out, but I don’t think we’re there yet.

    Till we are, I think e-mail interviews will do an awful lot more to serve interview subjects who have something to hide than to serve readers who have a right to know what that something is.

    (Incidentally, do you think making available an audio recording of a “live” interview would be transparent enough?)

  • Esteban

    Before my current job, I spent an extended period as a senior message manager for a major public institution. My job was less to inform the public in any useful way than to use every available tool to promote my institution’s view of the world. We were not an institution typically viewed as venal. People liked us. But given the realties of financial and political power, we had a clear agenda to promote.


    The fact is that the email interview was a godsend. In fact, it got so I would fudge and say something like: “I’d love to talk, and maybe we can when the craziness dies down, but for now let me answer your questions via email.”

    And then what happened? We, the senior management team, would sit down, strategize, and think of the most nuanced prose we could that would answer the reporters question yet fudge any issues we wanted to be less than forthcoming about. And we were good. I was very good. But not so good that I could have finessed the probing questions of a good reporter talking with me in person.

    Example: A major newspaper wanted a comment on the passing of a high-profile muckety-muck. We had mixed feelings about said muckety-muck, but were not anxious for those mixed feelings to be public knowledge. The result? An email “interview.” In fact, any reporter either speaking with me on the phone or in person would have quickly sensed my ambivalence.

    When the subject is a flack with an agenda to promote, beware of email! They really aren’t interviews at all, but a statement prepared by a flack embedded in the veneer of an interview.

    Email interviews should really be referred to as email “interviews.”

  • Eric Gauvin

    Yes. An “interview” conducted as a stream of carefully controlled, pseudo press releases is not an interview. Jeff Jarvis often refers to the conversational nature of blogs and I think that’s where he’s got a misunderstanding about verbal and written communication. It seems obvious to me that an interview is inherently verbal and benefits from the unique characteristics of verbal communication. Conversely, the conversational style of blogs is what makes them so tedious. Who wants to read a conversation? It was such a pleasure to read Steven Levy’s well-written and carefully thought ideas.

  • Mark Rutledge

    Every response above is right on. Think of it this way: E-mail is just a faster version of regular mail. It’s like spell check. — a great tool, but a hard-copy Webster’s is still on the desk.

  • As usual, thousand of years ago the Latins knew better:

    Verba volant, scripta manent…

    For those who do not know latin:
    The words fly, the written things stay…

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  • Roger Rainey

    Its not like the only choices are email and a live interview where the journalist interprets. If a journalist prefers a live discussion, why not tape it and make the whole thing available online. That will allow him to quote and summarize, but at least keep him honest.

  • John

    But a lot of people, business leaders and politicians especially, get where they are with the help of rigid message control.

    That’s so true. Everybody spins and plays to their own biases. So true that’s it’s true of every reporter and every blogger as well. Thus, I think .your following conclusion is false:

    For a blogger, behaving that way would be deadly. Nobody would want to read a blog written that way.

    Nothing has ever been written that lacks spin or biases (can you name even ONE counterexample?). People must like reading spin and bias, or there’d be no print industry, much less blogger that people pay attention to.

    Every newspaper has a bias toward the idea that we should read newspapers because worrying things are always going on, and every day in every newspaper sees at least a few stories hyped to seem more worrying or interesting than the truth would be.

    There have been some corporate blogs that have gone nowhere, but others have succeeded brilliantly (Microsoft, Sun). You have to make your propaganda interesting, I guess.

  • Email hasn’t leveled the playing field. Everyone can record interviews and I presume everyone does — I know I sure did as a reporter whenever possible.

    As a reporter I also always favored actually speaking to someone. Interviews are conversations, and email is not a good conversation medium.

    It gets easier every day to capture audio and now you can upload a podcast in no time flat. End of problem. Moving on.

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  • It’s not spin I object to, and certainly not bias. You’re right that everyone does and has both. I do think it’s a bad idea to give people who are supposed to be accountable — mostly politicians and public officials, but other people, too, in some circumstances — a chance to sanitize every single thing they say. Lying and misleading are a lot easier for most people if you don’t have to do it right to someone’s face and on the fly.

  • David and Esteban really nail this. Not only do email ‘interviews’ allow subjects to prevaricate, hide discomfort, avoid tough questions, and add even more spin to the already-overspun media landscape, but they also make for boring, colourless copy that never moves beyond talking points determined by agendas. I’ve blogged about this, partly in response to this BuzzMachine post: Email interviews will be the death of good journalism

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  • Andrew Wilson

    The email interview is the only acceptable way to deal with the modern attack-journalism. Many reporters act as if they have a right above all others in society. They don’t. The First Amendment applies equally to all; or else what is left of the First Amendment does. What reporters hate about email interviews is that they cannot twist words or meaning, they cannot write always as they want, achieve the political goal they want.

    And, it about time. Journalism as currently practiced is a danger to the Republic. I for one am very glad technology has given the rest of us some leverage against the more radical and dishonest elements in it.

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