This whole issue over the “spurned” interviewer and the pissed-off would-be subjects is getting silly. Most of the background is here, but basically the story is this: a reporter for Wired contacted a couple of A-listers to request interviews and either the reporter or the A-listers got snarky over whether the interviews should be voice-to-voice or by email. (Reading the various posts, there’s plenty of snark to go around. I’m not going to link to them all: most of it seems pointless.)
I would ignore all this if it weren’t for Jeff Jarvis’s post The obsolete interview. Some of his subheads give you a taste of his ideas: Who says that reporters are in charge of interviews anymore? Are interviews about information or gotcha moments? Too many reporters get too much wrong. Quotes need no longer be taken out of context.
I agree with a lot of what Jarvis writes. I like the idea of capturing the interview and providing links to it, so that I can dig as deep into the story as I want. I like the idea that there should be checks and balances. I like any process that extends the conversation, that allows for correction, expansion, extension.
But I’m choking on the concept that the best way to do this is in writing — through email, blogging exchanges, whatever. All open and transparent.
Great. All for openness and transparency but there’s no way, as a writer or a reader, I want to lose the value of the person-to-person, conversational interview.
Think about: if you’re sitting around the bar table having a conversation, you don’t do it through your Treo. You talk. Stumble over words. Backtrack. Digress. Work the living language to say what it is you’re trying to say, using not only voice, but tone, body language, eye contact… all those other communicative methods evolution has granted us. It’s not as efficient as email, or as well composed as a blog post, but, dammit, it’s human, and I don’t want to lose that to the carefully considered prose of an email.
Yes, let’s rethinking the interview. Let’s rethink the ways to make the process better, tap into more voices, work the process harder to get better accuracy. Let’s get it on record and post it, so I, the reader, can dig deep. Let’s use the full range of communication tools. But let’s not remove what is truly human from it in those cases where what we really need — as journalists and readers — is the real presence.
After all, even Jeff goes life live every once in a while.
UPDATE: Actually, the more I think about this, the less I like the idea that if we all just put it all in writing, the journalism will be better. That may be fine for the techno-celebrity journalism that brought this to the fore, and some other areas of coverage, but not for much of journalism. Consider this:
The old man in pink glasses mumbles this song. His name is Pyotr Grigorevich Baturintsev, a retired border guard captain and a veteran of World War II. He has survived two Chechen wars in this ruined house at 142 Ugolnaya Street, in the Staropromyslovsky district of Grozny. Now, sitting on his stool, which has been brought outside into blossoming nature, he meets the eighty-sixth spring of his life and his fifty-seventh after what everyone considered the final victory over facism for a long time.
“How’s life treating you, Pyotr Grigorevich?” This is a stupid question in Chechnya today, but somehow I blurt it out.
The old man raises has head from the top of his cane with difficulty and starts crying.
“Uncle Petya has almost nothing left of his own. All he has is from the ruins. His glasses, and his coat,” someone behind him says while he struggles with his silent crying spasm. “From the dead, I think.”
“I don’t have a life…I used to have one..A long time Ago…,” the old man finally says.
That’s by the late Anna Politkovskaya, the Russian journalist slain for her courageous work in Chechnya and Russia. It’s from the book, A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya, one of the most stark and chilling books of journalism I’ve ever read, precisely because it is based on the words of the ordinary people caught in the madness of war.
Can we get to journalism like this solely by email or blog post? No.
UPDATE 2: Scott Karp weighs in with as sensible a post on this as you’ll find: The Journalist Interview Process Needs To Change, Except When It Doesn’t