Interviews, Going the Way of the Linotype?

Fox's Chris Wallace greets candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney at last week's debate, which drew the network praise from unlikely quarters.
Fox's Chris Wallace greets candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney at last week's debate, which drew the network praise from unlikely quarters. (By Mary Ann Chastain -- Associated Press)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 21, 2007

The humble interview, the linchpin of journalism for centuries, is under assault.

It is a transaction that clearly favors the person asking the questions. A print reporter writes down someone's answers, then picks and chooses how much, if any, to use, how to frame the quotes and where to put any contrary information. Television correspondents slice and dice taped interviews in similar fashion.

But in the digital age, some executives and commentators are saying they will respond only by e-mail, which allows them to post the entire exchange if they feel they have been misrepresented, truncated or otherwise disrespected. And some go further, saying, You want to know what I think? Read my blog.

"The balance of power has shifted," says Jay Rosen, who teaches journalism at New York University. "Everyone used to be landlocked, and the media was the outlet to the sea of public discussion. But now there are many routes. . . . Readers have more power because they have more sources, and sources have more power because they can go direct to readers."

My interviews with Rosen, who writes the Pressthink blog, were conducted by e-mail. Here's the back story: New York Times reporter Jim Rutenberg interviewed Rosen for a piece on the White House Correspondents Dinner. They "had a pretty detailed conversation" about Washington journalism and culture, Rosen later blogged, "but what Jim needed me for was the bloggers vs. journalists debate . . . I was not misquoted. I was used to make a point Rutenberg wanted to make before he talked to me."

Rutenberg says he is "totally open to criticism" but feels he handled Rosen's comments fairly. He says he told Rosen during a 45-minute phone conversation that "this is not what I'm writing about, but I'm interested to hear your thoughts. I think he wanted some of the larger points he was talking about to be in the story."

In the blog world, criticism is good fodder. When Times reporter Neil Lewis chided Rosen in an e-mail for being unfair, Rosen posted it (with Lewis's permission) along with a detailed response. Rosen said he had cried foul "not because I only got a few lines in the play and waaaaaahhhhh I wanna bigger part. By my participation in Jim Rutenberg's story, I ended up perpetuating a lame, wrong-headed and outworn interpretation of a failed ritual."

Rosen now refuses interviews for pretaped television pieces -- "Takes so much time for so little a contribution to public discussion," he says -- and is weighing whether to insist on e-mail with print reporters.

"I think one of the basic functions of journalism is to interview people and have discussions," Rutenberg counters. "If we accepted that from the White House, I have a feeling many readers of [Rosen's] blog would have a problem with that. . . . To me that's more message control."

Some interview subjects, particularly on controversial stories, have long insisted on taping their discussions with reporters. More recently, such prominent newsmakers as Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban have largely limited themselves to typed exchanges with journalists -- a technique that allows them to take their time in responding and is easily posted online.

Jason Calcanis, chief executive of Weblogs Inc., says on his blog that "journalists have been burning subjects for so long with paraphrased quotes, half quotes, and misquotes that I think a lot of folks (especially ones who don't need the press) are taking an email only interview policy."

Veteran magazine editor Jeff Jarvis adds at his BuzzMachine blog: "Are interviews about information or gotcha moments? . . . Isn't it better to get considered, complete answers?"

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