Inventing The Interview

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Can an interviewee retract what he has said? Of course. Frederic Wile remembered an interview with William Jennings Bryan, in the presence of Mrs. Bryan, who sat knitting and listening. “I don’t think I’d say that, Will,” she interjected at one point. “And ‘Will’ immediately ‘unsaid’ it.” Charles Dana, editor of the New York Sun , made it a general precept to “never print an interview without the knowledge and consent of the party interviewed.” And it was standard practice to submit the interview to its subject for corrections before publication. Isaac Marcosson interviewed Gov. Woodrow Wilson for Munsey’s magazine in 1911 and returned from New York to Trenton to go over a proof with him. For Edward Price Bell, getting the source’s authorization of the finished copy was the seal of approval. He wrote of his interviews with the leaders of Germany, Italy (Mussolini), France, and Great Britain: “To these statesmen I said we were looking for truth, for light, for candor, for that which would be of lasting educational value to the world, and I am convinced they did their utmost to give us what we sought.” Bell’s sunny faith in his sources of course made him vulnerable to their manipulation.

An interview can be a conspiracy by the reporter and the source against the audience. One part of that conspiracy concerns whether information gathered in the interview will be attributed. Chauncey Depew, a leading turn-of-the-century politician, was quoted sometimes by name and at other times as “a reliable source"—a phrase that still sounds very familiar today. There is collusion also in the discretion of reporters in keeping confidences of the public officials they interview—and even in protecting those public persons from themselves.

Reporters covering William Howard Taft when he served as Secretary of War under Theodore Roosevelt were astonished one day when he spoke frankly to them of his disagreement with the President on an important issue. “Taft sat beaming, waiting for the next question, wholly unconscious of the bomb he had touched off,” wrote a New York Times correspondent, Charles Thompson. “He was safe enough in the hands of most of us; but the Hearst representative would assuredly print it under streamer head-lines in bold face type on the front page.” So the Associated Press representative, Arthur Dunn, told Taft that unless he said otherwise, they would surely print the comment he had just made: “We strongly advise you to place the injunction of secrecy upon us. Do I speak for all of you, gentlemen?” And everyone agreed. As the reporters left, the Hearst man said to the AP reporter, “Dunn, why do you hate a good story so intensely?”

A decade later, a few months into World War I, Karl von Wiegand arranged an interview with Germany’s crown prince, Friedrich Wilhelm. The crown prince told von Wiegand to tell his father, the kaiser, something he dared not tell him himself: He was convinced the war was already lost. Von Wiegand, abiding by normal understandings of the day, kept this sensational opinion confidential. As the reporter departed, Friedrich Wilhelm said: “I have trusted you. All I ask is, don’t write anything that will add to my troubles.”

Eleanor Roosevelt had a devout following of women reporters who protected her. In 1933 Mrs. Roosevelt leaked to four of them the news that President Roosevelt had refused to sign a joint proclamation with Herbert Hoover to close the banks the day before the inauguration. The reporters told Mrs. Roosevelt that such a story could start a worldwide panic, and they refused to print it. One of them recalled many years later that “the women always covered up for Mrs. Roosevelt. All kinds of things were said [by her] that shouldn’t be said in print.”

In the late nineteenth century, a period still dominated by the partisan press, politicians ordinarily spoke only to reporters whose papers supported them. Interviewing was often only puffery. Still, the interview was early on admired as manly performance, exploit, or coup, an enterprise attesting to the bravado and cleverness of a reporter. In the 187Os a New York reporter, Joseph I. C. Clarke, interviewed John Cardinal McCloskey. He asked the cardinal about the progress of building St. Patrick’s Cathedral and he took a good many notes on this. He then closed his notebook and casually asked about events in Europe, from which the cardinal had just returned. When he published his story in the New York Herald , he featured the cardinal’s views on Europe and all but ignored the cathedral.