Saturday, July 02, 2011

Creative Quotation

Quite a few years ago, I had a relative who worked for a trade association of sorts for the manufacturing industry. She was a recent college graduate and was tasked with putting together their newsletter. Shortly before an edition went to press her boss asked her about an article, "This isn't punchy enough. We need a quote from Senator [Smith] that says the following...." The relative replied, "We don't have a quote from Senator [Smith] and won't have time to get one before the newsletter goes to the printer." The response? "Go ahead and add the quote. I'll clear it with the Senator tomorrow."

I guess that, as long as it was consistent with his political views and made him look intelligent, that senator didn't mind the taking of considerable latitude with what he did nor did not say. I have similarly never heard a politician complain about having the "er's" and "um's" excised from quotes or radio clips to make him sound like a better speaker, a sports figure complain that a rambling, adrenaline-fueled, semi-coherent post-game comment was edited into an insightful comment, or by any celebrity who turned down the opportunity to review an interview before publication to clear up any "misunderstandings" that may result from, dare I say, the accurate quotation of what they said.

In the U.K. right now, there's a bit of a tempest in a teapot over a columnist, Johann Hari, who has apparently built himself a considerable reputation as an interviewer. Some diligent souls, possibly offended by Hari's left-wing politics, took it upon themselves to research his columns and are now gloating that his interviews contain passages gleaned from prior interviews, biographies, and similar sources that quote his subjects. "Sloppy journalism", some scold. "A form of plagiarism." "He has built his reputation on being a savvy interviewer but the best stuff in his columns often comes from somebody else's work."

Fair enough, but...

He's apparently been engaging in this practice for many years, in a highly read U.K. newspaper. I have not yet seen it suggested that even one of his subjects complained about his practices. That is, the arrangement seems to have been mutually beneficial (it makes both interviewer and interviewee sound better than they did during the interview), accepted by the subjects as par for the course, or both. I also wonder to what extent Hari tried to get his subjects to repeat their most quotable language, only to have them sputter out something that sounded much better when they (or perhaps their ghostwriter) wrote it in their autobiography, or when a prior interviewer edited their words into a more coherent form - or made up a quote and got them to approve it after-the-fact.

Also, if you watch celebrities speak on their subjects of choice, you often hear them answer in the form of packaged sound bites. The more interviews you hear, the more you may come to realize that the person who sounded so brilliant in that first interview is working from a memorized set of answers and bon mots. Yes, certainly, some people are better at conducting interviews than others, but how often do you really learn something from an interview?

Is Hari's practice, or any of what I've described, good journalism? No, it falls short on a number of levels. But perhaps unusual only in that Hari made the mistake of not rewriting the material he clipped from other sources - had he revised the language such that the sources could not be identified, as his subjects seem to have had no interest in revealing his practices, it seems that nobody would be the wiser. That, perhaps, says less about the interviewer than it does about his subjects, and what they've come to expect when interviewed. ("Get interviewed by Hari - he'll make you sound smart; he won't embarrass you.")

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