Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Why I Worry about Student Journalists Doing Long Profiles

I worry because even supposedly hardened and experienced political reporters are influenced by superficial acts of friendship that are actually transparent acts of manipulation. (I'm copying from Atrios here.)

Tucker Carlson writing in his book about the 2000 campaign:

McCain ran an entire presidential campaign aimed primarily at journalists. He understood that the first contest in a presidential race is always the media primary. He campaigned hard to win it. To a greater degree than any candidate in thirty years, McCain offered reporters the three things they want most: total access all the time, an endless stream of amusing quotes, and vast quantities of free booze.


I saw reporters call McCain "John," sometimes even to his face and in public. I heard others, usually at night in the hotel bar, slip into the habit of referring to the McCain campaign as "we"- as in, "I hope we kill Bush." It was wrong, but it was hard to resist.


Maria Dinzeo said...

My profile subject is defintely one who likes to frequent bars, and talks openly about his love for it. This is not to say I would ever feel comfortable accompanying him. The one time I interviewed someone in his house, it took me a while to get acclimated to the surroundings. Once I interviewed someone in a coffee shop and even that was awkward since my subject refused to accept my offer of food and drink.
It's so strange to just hang out with people about whom you are writing. If they think you're their friend, they expect you to make them sound intelligent, clever, and good looking in your piece.

....J.Michael Robertson said...

Yes, well, all you say is true. I think it was in last semester's ethics class that we talked about the the ethics of drinking with people, the problem being that if you drink slow or even dump your drinks, they get drunk and you get a notebook full. We got some comments from working journalists, and I was surprised at the fact some of them said quite emphatically that they thought drinking with sources was unethical because it was manipulative. I suppose I would say sometimes yes and sometimes no. If bar-hopping is a key constituent of your subject's existence, then bar hop you should. Maybe up front you should say, "I want to come along. But I won't be drinking." They are forewarned. Oh yes. The whole problem of your feeling "friendly" toward you subjects is constant, real, more nagging for some reporters than for others. But... this is a long topic. Let't talk in class.

johnusher said...

Fortunately, I don't think I'll have to worry about the offer of free booze from my subject for the profile peice (I'm not sure I would be able to resist). But, that will be fun to see what bars he may take you out to, how much he drinks, and what drinks he prefers.
I'm faced with an obstacle that is quite the opposite. Interviewing a Christian minister, I suspect that my subject may try to "save" me. We will see though, maybe he will be really progressive and respectful of my views on faith, or lack thereof.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you. I don't think I would be comfortable with interviewing someone in their home or at a coffee. I tihnk the most awakard thing is if you go to a coffee shop and at the time you have to pay. How do you do? Both ways can be interpreted in the wrong way. And then as you hang out and maybe, get more comfotable, they might think you are their friend, like you said and expect something. ANd what happens if you do an article and portray the person with good and bad things about them and they don't expect it. Should you tell them from the beginning? What would you do?

....J.Michael Robertson said...

It looks as if this is a good topic for longer discussion after break. The Janet Malcolm book addresses this problem in an extreme form.