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Howard Kurtz: "The Humble Interview, the Linchpin of Journalism for Centuries, is Under Assault."

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Howard Kurtz's May 21st column in the Washington Post was entitled 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...

* It begins with this little incident involving Jason Calacanis, Wired magazine writer Fred Vogelstein, and Dave Winer, as recounted by Jeff Jarvis in his post, The obsolete interview. Jarvis: "The interview is outmoded and needs to be rethought." (NPR's On the Media interviewed Jason Calacanis about it.)

and two prior HP posts:

* That Man Tried to Run You Over. Why Are You Having Dinner With Him? in which I criticized Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times for the use he made of his interview with me about the White House Correspondents Dinner. ("I was not misquoted. I was used to make a point Rutenberg wanted to make before he talked to me.")

* "Something Quite Breathtaking." My Exchange with Neil Lewis of the New York Times in which he criticized me for knocking Rutenberg. ("Your complaint has the cranky tone of public officials who chronically complain they can get only a snippet of their worthy thoughts into the publication.")

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. (See also Mark Glaser, No Matter the Format, Interviews Are Not Dying.)

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.
Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York Univesity and writes the blog PressThink, where this first appeared.