Inventing The Interview

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It is the fundamental act of contemporary journalism. Washington reporters depend so heavily on it that in most of the stories they write they use no documents at all. Yet the interview is a relatively recent invention.

Newspapers in America date to the late 160Os, but not until the 182Os did leading urban dailies even begin to hire reporters to gather news. With the rise of commercially minded penny papers in the 183Os, reporting of local news became, as the Boston Herald observed in 1847, “one of the specialties of the press.”

Still, most reporting remained no more at first than the publication of official documents and public speeches. Reporters talked with public officials but they never referred to their conversations in print. In Washington, politicians’ and diplomats’ confidences were regarded as inviolate. President Lincoln often spoke with reporters in informal conversation, but no reporter ever quoted him directly.

Journalism historians have tried to date the first newspaper interview—some credit James Gordon Bennett in 1836, others Horace Greeley in 1859—but it is less important to identify an individual inventor than to recognize that a practice largely unknown as late as 1860 was familiar, and controversial, a decade later. From the beginning this new journalistic form, in which a reporter questioned and then quoted by name a public figure, came in for heavy criticism. E. L. Godkin, editor of The Nation , attacked it as “the joint production of some humbug of a hack politician and another humbug of a newspaper reporter.” Nonetheless, President Andrew Johnson himself submitted to the new practice in 1868, and “the idea took like wild-fire,” as the Atlanta journalist Henry Grady wrote in 1879.

Many veteran reporters found interviewing undignified, and everyone seemed to judge it vulgarly American—"this modern and American Inquisition,” according to a New York World correspondent. Europeans noted it with disdain; Americans, with defiant pride in Yankee ingenuity. Thompson Cooper, supposedly the first reporter anywhere to interview the pope (Pius IX, for the New York World , in 1871) was lionized by his editors. “The Roman Catholic Church is the oldest, as the interview is almost the youngest, of the institutions of mankind,” they wrote. “And they are this morning presented face to face in the persons of their respective representatives—his Holiness Pius IX and Mr. Thompson Cooper upon the part of The World of New York. The spirit of the Church and the spirit of the age, in concrete and accurate types, have met together. The Church and the Press have kissed each other.”

Decades after interviewing had become common practice in the United States, American journalists were teaching Europeans that their own elites would submit to interviews. In 1897 an American named James Creelman became the first person to interview the president of France. During World War I American correspondents helped transform the standing of the interview in Britain. One of them recalled, “You saw the immemorial aloofness of the King of England wiped out at a tea party for American journalists at Sandringham; you beheld the holy of holies of the British War Office as the setting of a weekly conference with reporters.” The World scored with the pope (Benedict XV) again in 1915. Interviewing the pope seems to have been the next best thing to interviewing God for American journalists, and they kept on citing papal interviews as earth-shattering achievements. The United Press correspondent who interviewed Pope Pius XI in 1929 was far from the first to do so, but the UP boasted that he was at least the first to do so “in the private library of the Pontiff.”

Interviewing, quickly inventing its own lore, also developed its own etiquette. Should a reporter take notes? The Cincinnati journalist Joseph McCullagh reported that in his historic interviews with President Andrew Johnson, he wrote down nothing until the next morning, when he took two hours to commit his recollections to paper. Whereas early-nineteenth-century reporters had taken pride in their stenography, interviewers took pride in their recall. A 1901 journalism handbook urged them to write “as few notes as possible” and never in shorthand: “Notebooks are used only by reporters in stories and plays.” Another textbook agreed that “the stage has hardened us to seeing a reporter slinking around the outskirts of every bit of excitement writing excitedly and hurriedly in a large leather notebook. . . . But real reporters on real newspapers do not use notebooks. A few sheets of folded copy paper hidden carefully in an inside pocket ready for names and addresses and perhaps figures are all that most of them carry.”

A 1901 journalism handbook declared that “notebooks are used only by reporters in stories and plays.”

Julian Ralph, a newspaperman, observed that “note-books and pencils frequently alarm and put upon his guard a man who would talk freely in an ordinary conversation.” As late as the 1930s, European reporters were still being warned against note-taking, but as a British observer wrote, American public men were by then “more willing victims to the interviewer than those over here,” and note-taking was more acceptable in America; indeed, it might even flatter the interviewee.