Story location:

May 21, 2007

Howard Kurtz Sez: "The humble interview, the linchpin of journalism for centuries, is under assault."

Kurtz asked me to do "an e-mail interview about doing e-mail interviews, or not doing interviews at all." I agreed. He also said "I'd be happy to have you publish the exchange [after] I write my story." So here it is.

Today Howard Kurtz’s column in the Washington Post is called Interviews, Going the Way of the Linotype? “It is a transaction that clearly favors the person asking the questions,” he says. (Which is true.) His column is mostly based on an e-mail interview he did with me about that transaction. There’s a back story, as he put it…

and two prior PressThink posts:

I’ve talked to Kurtz a bunch of times over the years, and he’s always been accurate and fair with me. In that spirit, you can compare this to what he wrote in the Post.

Kurtz: What disappointed you most about the New York Times article—since, after all, no reporter can include all the comments by each person he interviews for a daily piece? Did you feel your views were misrepresented, or just oversimplified?

Rosen: I’ve done hundreds of interviews with reporters, including Jim. I consider it part of my job, generally enjoy it and have no complaints. You’ve interviewed me a bunch of times; I’ve never had a beef with the way I was quoted in your pieces. Usually I learn something from reporters.

In fact, I did a phone interview on the same subject—the correspondents’ dinner—two days after my [Rutenberg] post.

So I am well aware that not all of my comments, or even most, or even ten percent will appear in the final story. What disappointed me was that the story was framed as a bloggers vs. journalists or partisans vs. the pros thing, as if the people jeering at the invitation to Rich Little were mainly online activists. I had tried to contest that interpretation in the interview but somehow got recruited into it.

Now, as a student of the press I ask myself: why did that happen? My answer is: it happened because a certain narrative takes hold in the reporter’s mind. I thought it was the wrong one for the event. Rutenberg disagreed with me. The thing is, David Carr and Frank Rich disagreed with him. That’s what my post says.

Kurtz: You’ve certainly been quite available, and generous with your time. In that case, why reconsider the old-fashioned practice of doing interviews (even if done via e-mail)? Do you find yourself agreeing with Jeff Jarvis that “the interview is outmoded and needs to be rethought”?

Rosen: Yes and no. Outmoded goes too far. There will be plenty of situations in which a face-to-face sit down will be the best option, others where a phone interview under the old rules will work splendidly. So should the “traditional” news interview be junked? No, it still works; it’s an essential tool in the craft.

But I agree with Jeff that re-thinking the interview is important because in some situations the balance of power has shifted. Everyone used to be landlocked, and the media was the outlet to the sea of public discussion. But now there are many routes. When sources can “go direct,” as Dave Winer says, when they can get their views out through an online world that welcomes their participation, there may be less of a percentage in trying to speak through reporters. My favorite example is Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks.

I don’t think people will quit talking to reporters. But the terms and conditions may change. Readers have more power because they have more sources, and sources have more power because they can go direct to readers.

By the way, years ago I quit doing taped television interviews suitable for soundbiting in a news report. I will go on live (though I rarely get asked) but don’t do taped unless it’s a full length documentary because there is no percentage in it.

Kurtz: “No percentage in it” because your views aren’t given their due, or because it takes so much time for so little end product — meaning that only a snippet or two of your wisdom winds up being used?

Rosen: Takes so much time for so little a contribution to public discussion.

Kurtz: Are you disappointed overall in the way journalists use interviews, given some of your less-than-satisfying experiences?

Rosen: General disappointment? I would not go that far, no. And I think sources and journalists will continue to cooperate in interviews, but the basis for trust might be clarified as both sides adjust to new conditions and a different balance of power. For example, you said to me: you can run this when I do. Different rules, reflecting different conditions.

This isn’t one, but there are situations in which there’s no percentage for me in participating. That’s what I meant to say.

Kurtz: To segue into Assignment Zero, why do you say only about 28 percent of what you tried worked? What worked and what didn’t?

Rosen: Well, one thing is that in the beginning were shocked by how many people signed up and wanted to contribute. I thought we’d have maybe 250 for the whole project and we had 500 in a few days, ultimately more than 900 who joined Assignment Zero. [Actually it’s over 1,000 now.] When we had that burst of enthusiasm we did not have the right system in place for handling or directing it, and by the time we had something better in place we did not have the same enthusiasm.

Also, I don’t think we found a clear path to participation for all these potential contributors. Our idea of breaking this big trend story into 50 plus “story parts,” each of which would draw amateur contributors who would figure out how to start checking them out, did not prove equal to the challenge of pro-am journalism under real world conditions. It was insufficiently developed. So we had to adapt and modify it. This is what I meant by 28 percent of we tried worked.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Get ready for….

Off the Bus: Campaign coverage by people who aren’t in the club. Or on the bus.

Off the Bus ( is going to be the name of my collaboration in campaign journalism with Arianna Hufffington, which was announced in March. It’s of course a reference to The Boys on the Bus, the most famous book ever written on the campaign press, and the campaign bus as used by Clinton-Gore, John McCain and others. The project will bring together NewAssignment.Net, the Huffington Post and hundreds of citizen contributors.

Katharine Seelye of the New York Times wrote about it for the Caucus, the Times political blog: A New Campaign Media Entry.

Come fall, campaign junkies will have yet another way to get their political news, one that will rely largely on ordinary citizens, not political reporters or media pundits.

Arianna Huffington, of the Huffington Post, and Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, are collaborating on a Web site they are calling “,” in which bloggers will cover the top six candidates in each party.

The idea is to be, literally, off the bus. Being on the bus, Mr. Rosen said, can be a trap, where reporters get caught up in inside baseball, become “corrupted” by their dependence on the campaigns, and write about political positioning instead of substance.

Speaking of NewAssignment.Net, here’s a pretty good video interview with me (presented in its entirety) by Robert Mills of the American Microphone series. It’s all about New Assignment.

The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger tells a gathering of ombudsmen: “Everything we do is going to become more contestable, more open to challenge.” See this report by Jeff Jarvis.

Tired the bloggers vs. journalists frame up? Do something about it! Two researchers at Texas Tech and the Univ. of Tennessee-Knoxville are asking for PressThink readers to help them in compiling a better understanding of how people actually use blogs to inform themselves Go here to help them out. They need to know how your news mind works when it uses the Web.

Jossip gets into the act: Assault on the Interview. And Dan Kennedy thinks Kurtz has some history wrong. See Rhetorica for more.

Chris Nolan’s stand alone operation, Spot On—twelve writers on politics and current events—gets a distribution deal with Washington-Post-Newsweek-Interactive. Press release.

Hillary Rosner is senior editor of Assignment Zero, which is concluding its experiment with Interview Week. In the comments. she writes: “If media outlets ran stories based only on what their sources wanted to say, they’d be little more than public relations tools.”

Tom Matrullo of IMproPRieTies in the comments:

What’s missing is any openness to the idea that an interview can be truly dialogic - that the interviewer has as much to learn as the interviewee. That, rather than a product designed in advance, it might be a rupture of journalism as usual - an intervention that sideswipes the story, the understanding of the master narrative, the mastery of the interviewer - introducing complexity, dissonance, into the smooth pre-formatted product plotted by the interviewer.

Paul Lukasiak says that “interview subjects need to be extremely cautious about what they say to journalists” because “reporters like Kurtz will choose the facts that fit the pre-determined narrative.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at May 21, 2007 12:57 AM