September 18, 2005

Ritual interviews

Joel Martinsen at Danwei has a translation of a post (in Chinese) from Linghu Lei's blog Life is Extra, entitled "So this is how the New York Times conducts an interview". A sample:

During the interview process today, the reporter from the New York Times first spoke a good deal about why he wanted to do the interview, and then after I had answered the first question, he said that he "identified" with my viewpoint and felt that it was "special." Then he said, "Your viewpoint is extremely close to what I want to communicate with in article," and wanted me to discuss it further. To express this identification that he felt toward my viewpoint, I elaborated on the point I had just mentioned in passing, and then expanded a bit on his viewpoint. Then he echoed my viewpoint. During this process of communication, the New York Times reporter always led me to understand that what I said was precisely what he needed for his article. My viewpoint supported his argument exactly. So unwittingly I became his news spokesperson. At the end, for the final question, the reporter summarized our entire "discussion" and asked me if I agreed - at this point, there was no way I could deny what I had just said, so - right, "that's correct."

This is the friendly version. The hostile version was caricatured by Rasheed Wallace as "Is it true that you're the team's asshole?", as discussed in a Language Log post "Ritual Questions, Ritual Answers", which Martinsen references as providing "a further analysis of the phenomenon".

Public figures need to learn how to enter into these rituals safely. Some people learn by trial and error, and I suppose that media consultants offer training -- are there any good books about it?

[Update 9/27/2005: Karl Weber sent in this anecdote, taken from a 1991 column by Michael Kinsley entitled "Don't Quote Me", and reprinted in his book Big Babies:

"During the last election a television journalist called up to say he wanted to interview me. Puzzled--this man knows far more than I do about politics--but flattered, I said sure. He showed up at my office, set up his lights and camera, and asked, "Mike would you say that . . . " Then he proceeded to enunciate some theory about the course of the campaign.

"Me (eager to please): Good point. You're absolutely right about that. I never thought of it before.

Him (testy): No. Would you say it.

Ah. He didn't want my wisdom. He wanted a sound bite. . . ."


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 18, 2005 11:00 AM