Mutual Hyperventilation

In Newsweek, Stephen Levy’s The Technologist column examines the controversy involving Fred Vogelstein of Wired magazine and a couple of bloggers who refused to submit to the oral examination of an interview.

Here is what happened to Vogelstein when he sought his interviews. First, blog entrepreneur Jason Calacanis told him he would not speak to him, but answer questions only by e-mail, something Vogelstein wouldn’t agree to. Then, blogging pioneer Dave Winer told him he would not be interviewed by phone. He suggested that Vogelstein e-mail questions that he would then answer publicly on his blog, a solution for which Vogelstein had even less enthusiasm.

Winer and Calcanis reportedly were concerned about possibly having quotes taken out of context, so they wanted their interviews in writing. They also didn’t want a slip of the tongue or a “gotcha” question to lead to something being published that didn’t reflect their real views.

Levy sees this as a troubling sign. His conclusion:

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.

What we have here is a case of both sides overreacting. Winer and Calcanis could have done the phone interviews, but asked permission to record them. Journalists make this request all the time of their subjects: “Is it OK if I record this? I want to be sure to get it right.” Then, if the article came out and didn’t quote them accurately, they could release or post the transcript or the audio file on their blogs. I understand that they might prefer to have time to pause and reflect in answering questions, though, so what gets printed isn’t just what they happen to blurt out.

Levy’s lament also is a bit overwrought. Lots of interviews happen by email, and it’s often for the convenience of both parties. An interview-via-blog is probably much more unusual, but in principle it’s in keeping with what Wired is attempting with its crowdsourcing initiative. Make the interviews and notes available to the world, and let readers judge for themselves how well you captured the essence of the story.

A greater concern is the attitude that comes through in his conclusion. Too many journalists seem to be suspicious of everyone’s motives except their own. “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.” Does he really mean, or expect us to believe, that journalists are the only people for whom self-interest doesn’t play a role?

If their only motivation is “to inform the population,” why would they object to publication of their interview on a blog? Wouldn’t that provide more information to the population?
The reality is that journalists are like the rest of the human race: we all have mixed motives for what we do. That’s why news organizations seek exclusive interviews: they want to get the story (at least as they see it) to the population, but they also want the prestige of being first with the story, or the only one with it.

The other reality is that while there was a time when journalism was the main source of information for the population, that’s no longer the case. People can get information directly, im-mediately, literally, “without media.”

Good journalism remains important, but I believe we will all be better off when we don’t create artificial distinctions between members of “the journalism tribe” and everyone else.

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Author: Lee Aase

Husband of one, father of six, grandfather of 15. Chancellor Emeritus, SMUG. Emeritus staff of Mayo Clinic. Founder of HELPcare and Administrator for HELPcare Clinic.

0 thoughts on “Mutual Hyperventilation”

  1. As a former journalist who now does PR, I can tell you that journalists have many good reasons for insisting on in-person interviews:

    1) You can make sure the person you’re talking to is the person s/he claims to be. With e-mail and faxes you can’t.

    2) It’s a good way to build rapport.

    3) A source’s physical surroundings can provide useful info.

    4) You can ask immediate follow-up questions.

    5) You can pick up cues by watching a person’s body language.

    6) People take you more seriously when you’re in front of them.

    7) It saves time. Many people speak faster than they type.

    For the vast majority of journalists, wanting to conduct an interview in person is not about seeking that “gotcha moment,” as Winer and Calcanis might fear.

    Most journalists want their sources to provide intelligent answers because it usually makes for good copy.

    In the cases of a controversial or high-profile figure, such as a presidential candidate, a journalist looking to make a name for herself might seek that gotcha moment. But most people don’t fall into that category — including Winer and Calcanis (sorry, guys).

    Remember: Publicity is a great thing. For most stories, journalists can speak to any one of a number of sources. If they call you, seize the opportunity. Don’t try to dictate how they should do their job. They’ll just move down the Rolodex to the next source.

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