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Sunday, October 14, 2007

"The Times does not 'clean up' quotations"

George W. Bush is generally thought to have cruised his way through Yale, skipping the books and racking up Cs. Not so, according to a friend of a friend of a friend, who (if he does exist) knew Bush at Yale and attests that, in fact, Bush worked his ass off for those Cs!

It's with that is mind that I indulge a little schadenfreude that Alice and I share. It seems that not only does NY Times Magazine interview columnist Deborah Solomon produce lousy reporting, but that reporting is the result of dishonest cutting, pasting and after-the-fact question writing intended to improve on the actual interviews!

Big mistake doing this with people who are not only 1) famous and 2) opinionated, but also 3) alive (just ask Simon Schama, who gets away with some very creative nonfiction because Rembrandt is 340 years removed from being able to protest). Jayson Blair and Patricia Williams got caught, and their subjects managed to complain even though they didn't even exist!

From public editor Clark Hoyt's column today:

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.

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. “Questions For” does not use quotations marks but is presented as a transcript. The manual also says ellipses should be used to signal omissions in transcripts, and that “The Times does not ‘clean up’ quotations.”

[NY Times Magazine editor Gerald] Marzorati told me, “this is an entertainment, not a newsmaker interview on ‘Meet the Press.’” But that does not relieve it of the obligation to live up to The Times’s standards or offer an explanation when it deviates from them.

... Now, I believe, if they want to preserve the illusion of a conversation, they should publish with each column a brief description of the editing standards: the order of questions may be changed, information may be added for clarity, and the transcript has been boiled down without indicating where material has been removed.

If such a disclaimer destroys the illusion, maybe “Questions For” needs to be rethought.

I strongly agree. There are talented interviewers out there who would love Solomon's job but insist on honest reporting. They shouldn't be punished because of Solomon and the Times Magazine's low standards.

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Blogger Alice on Thu Oct 18, 06:07:00 PM:
OK, I've noted on this blog how much I dislike the "Questions for" feature in the NY Times Magazine, but I think Solomon isn't totally wrong about there being no set method for Q&A. She's just not up-front about what choices she makes in her editing of the feature. Her now-exposed method of inserting her own pithy remarks after the fact isolates the very thing that bothers me the most about those columns--that they seem to be more about Solomon and less about her interview subjects. It's weird how the subjects all start to sound the same (defensive) when they're put through Solomon's method.

But there are interesting alternatives to the verbatim Q&A. I'm thinking of Jenny Davidson's Believer about Toni Schlesinger's columns for the Village Voice:

"Schlesinger’s capturing of patterns of speech, and more precisely the particulars that conjure character, has more obvious associations with the playwright’s work (she has had a number of stage pieces performed in New York and elsewhere), or even with biography. When we spoke, I had just been reading the Life of Johnson, and I was struck by a certain similarity between the problems posed by Schlesinger’s and Boswell’s reportorial techniques. Boswell usually went home after an evening spent with Johnson and wrote detailed notes about what had passed between them (assuming he was not too drunk to remember and/or stay awake), which he would later use to reconstitute the scenes for the biography, but his adeptness at impersonating Johnson’s manner in turn sometimes casts doubt on the authenticity of the conversations he documents. Because Shelter mostly represents conversation rather than monologue of the 'as told to' variety, Schlesinger’s own voice—charming, wayward, somewhat loopy—sounds at unpredictable moments as well. The divine paradox of the Schlesinger style lies in the way it mates the interviewer’s customary self-effacement with the wild egotistical workings of imagination."
Blogger Ben on Thu Oct 18, 06:27:00 PM:
Davidson captures what I love about Schlesinger's interviews, and I think (hope!) that this is the *opposite* of what Solomon's interviews do for me. Schlesinger's reportorial voice is either her real one (with verbatim words), or it's an incredible simulation of a real one; part of what's compelling about it is that it feels raw and unpredictable (see Davidson's well-chosen adjectives) and not stagy or proud. I dislike Solomon's writing mostly because her voice is so stuffy and baselessly arrogant, but also because, I suspect, she edits her interviews to make her voice *more* so. I don't know for sure, but I bet she'd sound more likeable--off-balance, unpredictable, surprised--if her interviews were transcribed verbatim.

My test for journalistic ethics could be, if I had done the reporting, would I wish the truth had gone the way the piece implies, rather than the exact way it went? If I would, then I think the journalist probably doing something wrong. A cough or a boring digression wouldn't bother me -- who cares if it's omitted? But inserting my own witty banter, and rearranging comments to create the appearance of rapport -- those are things I'd wish had happened at the time. There may be no set method for Q&A--or for most of reporting's many murky situations, for that matter--but on some level any writer who does what Solomon did knows she is dishonestly manipulating a story.