“All journalism is a lie.” Perhaps an exaggeration, but the journalistic practice of pretending to have the interview subject’s interests in mind - when the story is really the only thing that matters - is as common as it is disingenuous. Bob ponders how candid reporters ought to be.
March 22, 2002
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When athletes and coaches resort to meaningless boilerplate we tend to be dismissive, but we are also aghast when the same people speak their minds freely and invective spews forth. John Rocker scandalized baseball when he complained about New York and "minority New Yorkers" in Sports Illustrated. Last year in the same magazine, San Francisco Giant Jeff Kent badmouthed notoriously aloof teammate Barry Bonds; then had to frantically backtrack. And this week Milwaukee Bucks Coach George Karl got into trouble complaining to Esquire Magazine about reverse discrimination in the NBA coaching ranks. Karl apologized and said he made a mistake, but the specific mistake he acknowledged was not race-baiting but speaking candidly to a reporter! So this got Bob to musing about the truth, insufficient truth and reporter interview relationships.
BOB GARFIELD:Yeah, George Karl, a professional coach with 30 years experience dealing with the media, should have known better than to let his guard down. But after 3 days with Esquire writer Scott Raab, Karl explained: "You start to think he's your friend."
Now-- I don't know how Scott Raab goes about his business, and maybe he was nothing but straightforward in his dealings with Karl. But this episode is merely the latest to raise the question: how does a media-savvy story subject come to be lulled into the illusion that the reporter is somehow on his side?
By word and deed, by tone of voice and body language, by artful introduction and strategic withholding of complete candor, reporters, producers and TV bookers routinely do a whole lot of lulling.
Even when we make no explicit claim, we certainly allow interview subjects to imagine that the interview somehow serves them, which occasionally it does, for reasons of business, politics, vanity or whatever. But fundamentally the interview is meant to serve only the reporter and the story. That is immutable, and when that fundamental reality is obscured, something unsettling is going on.
That's what New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm had in mind when she famously observed: "All journalism is a lie." She was writing specifically about Joe McGinnis and his fulsome cultivation of murder convict Jeffrey McDonald whom McGinnis would go on to portray as a monster in the best-selling book Fatal Vision.
But the principle, to greater or lesser degrees, applies across the board. Journalistic representations of sympathy or even the tonal implication of sympathy is disingenuous at best.
I'm not proposing a mandatory declaration of self-interest, a journalistic Miranda Warning or some such, and I'm certainly not suggesting that incautious statements don't often yield important journalistic results. To pick one among countless examples, nobody wishes that gubernatorial candidate David Duke had been shrewd enough to avoid showing his fascist stripes.
But I am suggesting that shocking candor seldom occurs in a vacuum; that it is too easy in the name of establishing a rapport with the story subject to cross the line into false sympathy, and I'm further suggesting that it is time for all journalists to look deep into our hearts to face the question: In our search for truth do we ourselves obscure it at the very first stage of the process? [MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD:That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price and Katya Rogers with Sean Landis; engineered by George Edwards and Dylan Keefe, and edited-- by Brooke. We had help from Jim Colgan and Lu Olkowski. Our web master is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike Pesca is our producer at large, Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Capello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is On the Media from National Public Radio. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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