NYT 'Questions For' Writer Follows Hallowed 'Journalistic' Tradition

October 15th, 2007 12:45 PM

It's a tradition that goes back at least as far as the Vietnam War, when CBS edited and reshuffled the content of a TV interview with a US general to make it appear as if he believed that having wars from time to time was a necessary and good thing. CBS, operating in the days of Old Media's de facto monopoly, paid little if any price for its transgression. Someone on the order of a Bill Buckley or Cal Thomas objected, and that was about it.

That creative editing was occurring and considered a hallowed right of Old Media during its "good old days" is almost indisputable. As I recall it, several Nixon Administration advisers in the early 1970s whom the networks wished to interview agreed to do so, with but one proviso: The interviews would either be live, or air unedited. My recall is that CBS never followed through on any of these interviews. Readers are welcome to fill in any gaps in yours truly's memory.

The practice of "creative interviewing" continues. The latest to get caught doing it is New York Times "Questions For" writer Deborah Solomon.

At least this time, someone at the media outlet involved is openly questioning the technique. That would be Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt, who skewered Solomon's methodology in his Sunday column (HT Don Luskin; link requires free registration; bolds are mine throughout this post):

The reality (of Solomon's column) is something else: the 700 or so words each week are boiled down from interviews that sometimes last more than an hour and run 10,000 words. Though presented in a way that suggests a verbatim transcript, the order of the interview is sometimes altered, and the wording of questions is changed — for clarity or context, editors say. At least three interviews have been conducted by e-mail because the subjects couldn’t speak English or had other speech difficulties. And, Solomon told me, “Very early on, I might have inserted a question retroactively, so the interview would flow better,” a practice she said she no longer uses.

In other words, she admits that she made stuff up. Continuing (links added by me):

"Questions For” came under fire recently when a reporter for New York Press (that would be Matt Elzweig; it's amazing how the Times chronically refuses to credit people for their work -- Ed.) a free alternative weekly, interviewed two high-profile journalists — Amy Dickinson, the advice columnist who followed Ann Landers at The Chicago Tribune, and Ira Glass, creator of the public radio program “This American Life” — who said their published interviews with Solomon contained questions she never asked.

While the vast majority of Solomon’s interview subjects have never complained, these are not the first who have. Last year, The Times Magazine published an angry letter from NBC’s Tim Russert, who said that the portrayal of his interview with her was “misleading, callous and hurtful.”

Russert, the author of two books about his father, told me that the interview had been presented as an opportunity to talk about his mom on Mother’s Day. Instead, the interview, headlined, “All About My Father,” featured a seemingly insensitive Russert dodging Solomon’s questions about his mother. “I talked at great length about my mother,” he said, but none of it appeared in the published interview. Russert said that Solomon combined questions and took “an answer and transposed it to another question.”

Gerald Marzorati, the editor of the magazine, said, “We examined his complaint and found it more or less justified.” Russert had talked about his mother, Marzorati said, and Solomon made it appear that he had not. Solomon said, “I made a mistake not putting in what he said about his mother.”

Afterward, Marzorati said, a new policy was put in place, requiring that Solomon give the tapes of her interviews to her editor or a magazine researcher, in case a subject raised an objection. It was then, Solomon said, that she also stopped inserting retroactive questions.

In other words, she supposedly stopped making stuff up once she knew she would be taped.

Hoyt goes on to describe a Solomon interview with Ira Glass of Showtime's "This American Life." I come away from that segment believing that Solomon may have refined her "interviewing" technique to note a question asked, then following it with an answer that was given (perhaps even to another question) at a different point in the interview. In other words, there is reason to believe that Solomon is still trying her level best to make stuff within her new constraints.


..... In an interview with Columbia Journalism Review in 2005, Solomon said: “Feel free to mix the pieces of this interview around, which is what I do.”

“Is there a general protocol on that?” her questioner asked.

“There’s no Q. and A. protocol,” Solomon replied. “You can write the manual.” Solomon told me she was joking.

Judge for yourself. My verdict: Not joking.

Hoyt's take on Solomon's journalism:

In fact, there is a protocol, and “Questions For” isn’t living up to it. The Times’s Manual of Style and Usage says that readers have a right to assume that every word in quotation marks is what was actually said.

Imagine that.

Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.