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From AJR,   March 1994  issue

Talking to Ourselves   

On the media beat, your sources know all too well how easily their words can be twisted, their reputations scarred, their egos deflated. They have seen your kind before -- every morning, in the mirror.

By Chip Rowe
Chip Rowe, a former AJR associate editor, is an editor at Playboy.     

HOWARD KURTZ, WHO SPENDS his working hours interviewing journalists, is being interviewed by me, another journalist who interviews journalists, for a story about journalists who interview journalists and the journalists' reactions to being interviewed.

"It's extremely frustrating -- like playing chess with a grandmaster," says Kurtz, who as the Washington Post's media writer has talked with hundreds of reporters and editors since taking over the beat in 1990. "Reporters slide on and off the record at a dizzying speed; some insist on conducting the whole conversation on background and then negotiating what can be used; others call back four or five times to revise and extend their remarks; and after all that, half will call to complain about the story anyway."

Kurtz belongs to an exclusive club that includes media reporters at newspapers, city magazines and journalism reviews such as this one. The beat can be a frustrating one, especially when you're confronted by sources who are well-versed in the methods used by interviewers to coax subjects into speaking candidly. Often the challenge in interviewing journalists is that they've done to others what you're trying to do to them.

Editors and reporters who have been interviewed for publication say that seeing their words compressed into print is humbling and has taught them to listen more carefully when sources complain about being quoted out of context or incorrectly. And while few journalists are eager to discuss controversial editing decisions or respond to public criticism, few will turn down an interview request. Whether their motives involve a sense of professional obligation, simple ego or an unusual naivety doesn't matter much to the media reporter.

But be forewarned: If you "burn" journalist sources -- or simply don't use every word they utter or describe them in less-than-glowing terms -- you can expect the sort of feedback you rarely get from readers.

Jack Shafer, editor and media columnist of the weekly Washington City Paper, puts it best. "They're sausage makers," he says, "so they know exactly what's in the sausage."

J ournalists are notorious for their ability to dish it out but not take it. "The press does not have a thick skin," Edward R. Murrow once quipped, "it has no skin."

That sentiment was repeated in some way by nearly every media reporter contacted for this piece.

"When you ask a journalist a question, the conversation immediately goes into the red zone," says Edwin Diamond, who covers the media for New York magazine. "They know that treacherous shoals lie ahead, that their words can get mangled."

Adds media reporter William Glaberson of the New York Times: "People in the public -- politicians, lawyers, executives -- sometimes have a better sense of perspective. My theory is that those people are not only concerned with how they appear in the press but also about what the electorate and shareholders think. Because journalists think [about press coverage] much more than most people, these interviews often have a more exaggerated place in their minds."

"I'm really surprised by the vehemence of some of the complaints about relatively minor stuff," says Kurtz. "They say something like, `You only quoted three of my nine points.' It's usually about details being left out -- the art of compression, something they're quite familiar with. At least politicians understand that combat is part of the game."

Ken Metzler, a University of Oregon professor who has spent 20 years studying reporter-source relations, describes the response of many journalists to being interviewed as "paranoia" (although he later said that description may be too strong). "They're envisioning how their words might look much more than [nonjournalists]," says Metzler, author of a widely used textbook on interviewing. "More than anything, they fear the loss of control. The techniques they use to control interviews don't serve them when they're being interviewed."

David Shaw, the Los Angeles Times reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for his critical coverage of the news media, described one incident in which he found himself hopping back and forth between two journalist sources, trying to salvage some sort of on-the-record exchange.

"A high ranking editor at the New York Times said something off the record tome, then started the interview," he recalls. "By the time it ended he had repeated what he said earlier off the record. I wasn't sure what to do ethically. It was a comment about the Washington Post, so when I interviewed the editor of that paper I said, `Someone said X about your paper.' Then I called back the Times editor and said, `I know you said X off the record, but you later said it on the record, and I don't want to violate the spirit of our agreement."

"He blew up, and we went back and forth. What he'd said had eight negative comments in it, and he said I could use one of them. I said, `You pick the one you don't want me to use and I'll use the other seven.' I finally managed to get three."

O ne of the journalist source's favorite techniques is to immediately go off the record or on background. Although a few will agree to approve some comments later for attribution, often the only thing you can quote them assaying after a phone interview is "Hello?"

Nicholas Horrock of the Chicago Tribune once returned my call after he was deposed as the paper's Washington bureau chief, saying he had done so only because he thought I did a fair job in an earlier item about the dismissal of one of his staffers. Horrock spoke on background for 10 minutes but wouldn't budge when I asked if I could use some of his assertions on the record.

When I asked why he had bothered calling me if he didn't want me to use any of the information, he said he wasn't sure, hinted that some of the things he'd earlier indicated might be OK to use if presented in a certain way actually might not be OK, and hung up. I was able to salvage in good conscience only that "Horrock says the move was not unexpected."

News people have the same fears as anyone about making ill-advised comments to the press, and the same suspicions that their words will be twisted. But Metzler at the University of Oregon sees the reluctance of journalists "as a sort of indictment of the media. The media make a lot of mistakes, and reporters feel very paranoid about that, very naked." Mike Hoyt, associate editor of Columbia Journalism Review, says that he and other CJR editors "have all had experiences with being interviewed and having it come out all fucked up. It happens out there more than you'd like to admit."

David Shaw of the L.A. Times heard much the same sentiment in 1989 in the hallway outside the judging for the Pulitzer Prizes. Editors were "exchanging stories about the last interview they gave to some reporter who fucked the mover," he recalls. "They were exactly the complaints that non-journalists make." Shaw later wrote a story describing the lessons some 40 top editors said they had learned from being interviewed.

Not surprisingly, journalists involved in sensitive situations (i.e. an editor gets fired, a reporter botches a story) nearly always ask not to be identified. Others slip back and forth between on the record and I'll-deny-I ever-talked-to-you so quickly it's hard to keep up.

Several of the media reporters I spoke with acknowledged the obligation they felt to speak exclusively on the record for this story. The only exceptions were a reporter who didn't want to be named identifying Howell Raines of the New York Times as a particularly cagey interview subject and another who pegged Steven Brill of Court TV as the most difficult. And while David Shaw did hint at a background-then-revise arrangement by answering my first question with, "Let me think aloud on this," he didn't pursue it.

Village Voice media columnist James Ledbetter says he's interviewed journalists who insist everything be on the record because they so dislike disguised sources. Unfortunately, he adds, what these journalists have to say is usually "a very watered-down response that's not that useful."

When a reporter does go off the record, his or her insistence on not being identified can border on hypocrisy. In a profile of A.M. Rosenthal, then executive editor of the New York Times, which appeared in this magazine in 1983, Gerald Lanson and Mitchell Stephens described how "24 present and former Times men and women, including the paper's publisher and almost every one of the top editors who work directly under Rosenthal, either refused to be interviewed or did not return calls."

Of 44 people who were willing to talk, more than half insisted they not be identified. Imagine the Times' response if the newspaper received the same treatment from General Motors, Congress or some other large, powerful institution.

Jack Shafer of Washington City Paper says he rarely allows journalists who are the subjects of stories to speak their minds unless he can use their names. "In this town that's almost as if I spat in their beer," he says. "They've learned these techniques from the absolute masters, and in the culture of Washington reporting, all of that is OK. They're abusing many of their own conventions."

Shafer has the perfect antidote for journalists who insist on being blind sources. "I allow them to go on background," he says, "and then I don't use any of their material."

A mong journalists who agree to talk, few miss the opportunity to direct traffic.

Glaberson of the New York Times says some journalists "tend to try to tell you what to ask, and they're much more interested in trying to get you to fix their quotations." He adds that editors "have a tendency to tell you that you're working on the wrong story because they often tell their employees they're working on the wrong story and they believe them. They quickly realize I don't work for them."

Even among those who don't give orders, there's a perceived camaraderie, the unspoken nudge-nudge, wink-wink, we're-in-this-together vibes that can be conveyed to a media reporter even over the phone. "The experienced ones assume they have some sort of special status, that they're helping you get the story rather than being the subject of an interview," says media columnist Jim Windolf of the weekly New York Observer. Kurtz adds that "many ask you to go easy on them, as if you're calling as a friend."

Some journalists go so far as to demand to know how they'll be described when they won't be identified by name. "They tell me, `I don't want to be this or that,' " says Diamond.

Even after all that, the journalist source may still not be satisfied. "They call you or your editors because you wrote the wrong story, took the wrong angle, didn't understand, didn't write it properly," says Glaberson, who covered big business before taking over the media beat in 1992. "Even corporate executives were a little more willing to roll with the punches."

With the influence of Wall Street creeping into news executives' offices at many papers, editors also aren't above considering the effect their comments, or those of underlings, can have on stock values. For example, Editor and Publisher Burl Osborne of the Dallas Morning News sent a terse memo to his minions in February 1993 reminding them that no one was to talk to the press about the newspaper without his permission.

When I asked him about it, he obviously didn't see the irony in his attempt to control the information flow from his newsgatherers. Instead, he explained, he had to consider the parent company's stockholders and how a reporter or editor talking out of turn or ignorance might affect the value of their investments.

O ne of the most frustrating aspects of talking to journalists for publication is the fact that they are attuned to the techniques used by experienced interviewers to prod people into being candid. Most journalists are taken aback when they find themselves at the head of the table (or even being served up for dinner) rather than in their usual position as a fly on the wall.

The conversations I had with media reporters for this article demonstrate how acutely aware journalists can be when you're taking down every word they say. Kurtz, for example, paused after making his earlier comparison between interviewing reporters and playing chess to exclaim, "There's a good analogy for you!" David Shaw reassured me he wouldn't be insulted if I didn't use all of his ramblings. CJR's Mike Hoyt apologized, saying, "I'm not sure I'm giving you any great stuff."

I can understand their uneasiness. I've been interviewed myself and found it to be an experience not unlike learning a foreign language. "When you think you're going to be quoted, you clam up," says media writer Pat Guy of USA Today, clearly uncomfortable with being interviewed.

Here are some results I've had using strategies outlined in books such as Metzler's "Creative Interviewing" and John Brady's "The Craft of Interviewing":

Method: "The Other Guy" (People have told me that...)
Civilian response: Really? Well, I disagree.
Journalist response: Who, specifically? I won't answer unless you have names.

Method: "Compliments Move Mountains" (I really enjoy your work/book/insights...)
Civilian: Why, thank you. Here's a scoop for you.
Journalist: Oh yeah, the old "Compliments Move Mountains" approach. What the hell are you up to?

Method: "Easy Does It" (Let's start with some easy questions. How do you spell your name?)
Civilian: Why, it's J-O-N-E-S. You're very thorough, aren't you?
Journalist: What are you, some kind of idiot?

Method: "Let's Be Buddies" (You're from Iowa? Why, I grew up in Louisiana! We're practically neighbors!)
Civilian: Oh my God! Small world!
Journalist: I haven't got time for this.

Method: "First Impressions" (I was talking with Vice President Gore the other day, and he said...)
Civilian: Wow! I'm flattered that you want to ask me questions.
Journalist: So? Write a book.

T he reporters I spoke with were happy to talk about their experiences on the media beat but also annoyed at what they see as hypocrisy by reporters and editors who offer only the tiniest tidbits of information or refuse to speak to the press altogether.

"Journalists are not particularly accountable," says Shafer. "They don't like to be asked about yesterday's story."

Or sometimes any story. Clay Felker once covered all the bases in answering a query from New York magazine (which he had founded) about his latest business venture, telling the magazine that "he doesn't comment on his personal or professional life." When the newspaper Felker launched folded after four months, he refused to discuss that, too.

David Shaw of the L.A. Times says he was surprised when he first started on the beat 18 years ago to find journalists who shared the attitude reflected by Felker's response. "An editor here at the Times once refused to talk to me[for a story] and ordered his reporter not to talk to me either," he recalls.

The New York Times' Rosenthal, now an op-ed columnist, wrote on January 18 that he refuses to talk with reporters from publications he believes "aren't fit for decent company" and "exist principally to damage, insult or embarrass other people." He cited the Village Voice, the New York Observer and Spy, which for years has described the former editor as Abe "I'm Writing as Bad as I Can" Rosenthal, as his principal foes.

Shaw says he doesn't often encounter journalists who won't talk, but when he does he has a speech ready. "I tell them, `If everybody had your attitude, neither you nor I would have a job,' " Shaw says. Kurtz tells hesitant sources that "it's hypocritical to demand answers from everyone else and then stonewall a fellow reporter."

Chicago Tribune Washington Bureau Chief and media columnist James Warren say she's amazed how often newsroom sources who will talk haven't the faintest idea what they're talking about. "There are no better purveyors of unadulterated, unconfirmed rumors than reporters," he says. "Prior to my being named Washington chief, I was allegedly about to be named for one of 33 different jobs."

Conversely, Warren says you can't get some journalists to shut up. "Reporters may be more savvy than the counter girl at the 7-Eleven, but I've had no problem getting them to be wonderfully indiscreet and to commit verbal self-immolation," he says. "More often than not, they have a terrible time saying, 'No comment.' "

J ournalists have good reason to be afraid of facing reporters poised to ask tough questions.

Ed Diamond recalls a time when he believes he got stung. "Jim Ledbetter of the Village Voice wrote about a piece I had done on [the late British press baron]Robert Maxwell and completely misinterpreted it," Diamond says. "I called him and used the words `fucking asshole' and he put that right in the paper! I still want to punch him in the nose."

Ledbetter replies that Diamond never said it was a private call. "I'm a media critic, and he was the subject of a column who was calling me to react. If he had said it was off the record -- reporters often use the phrase, "We're just talking here -- I wouldn't have used it."

Some interviewers have the misfortune of later becoming trapped in their own webs. In her 1979 memoirs, Jessica Mitford recalled the day the Boston Globe assigned one of her former students at Yale to interview her during a book tour. After some small talk, he dropped the bomb: "Oh, by the way," he said, "how does a person of your alleged radical persuasion square her conscience living it up in this super-posh hotel?"

Mitford immediately recognized the student's clever technique of ordering his questions from "kind to cruel" to catch her off guard -- SHE had taught it to him. The famed investigative reporter remembered stammering before "finally managing to get out the lame response, 'Well, my publisher is paying for it.' "

S trangely enough, despite the challenges involved in interviewing journalists, none of the reporters I spoke with mentioned any plans to abandon the beat. In fact, most insisted that they like talking with journalists, whom they generally find to be intelligent, funny and forthcoming subjects who often go out of their way to be helpful.

A year after the fact, I still fondly recall Henry Freeman, then-editor of the Wilmington News Journal, who agreed to send me a head shot of himself for an uncomplimentary story about how he had received recommendations from a U.S. senator and the Delaware governor to join a prestigious country club. My argument that "my need for art is greater than your need for self-preservation" brought a chuckle and an overnight package. Freeman, now publisher of the Courier-News in Bridgewater, New Jersey, was clearly not happy that the story was running in the magazine but defended himself on the record.

Jack Shafer, despite his belief that "hell hath no fury like one good journalist interviewing another," says that he appreciates sources who are "really straight up guys. [Leonard] Downie [Jr., executive editor of the Washington Post] will bob and weave and won't write my story for me, but he'll take the call. As journalists go, he's OK."

Adds Pat Guy at USA Today, "One thing that's great about editors is that they do return your calls. Usually when you call a newspaper, you don't have to go through a lot of PR people. You can call the editor's office directly, especially if you sound like an angry reader."

ABC media reporter Jeff Greenfield says he rarely encounters journalists who won't explain themselves. "They like to tell you off the record what an idiot their boss is, but that happens in any institution," he says. "When I started 15 years ago, journalists were much less expected to be asked, `Why did you do the story that way?' They were much more thin-skinned."

Naturally, before concluding my research, I asked some of my sources what they thought of being interviewed for this story. Most said they didn't mind, but a few acknowledged that if I never called again, it would be too soon.

"Being interviewed is a terrible experience," says Glaberson of the New York Times. "I do sometimes wonder why people subject themselves to it."