Inventing The Interview

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The rise of the interview coincides with the rise of newspaper reporters as relatively autonomous workers eager to achieve an occupational identity. Reporters in the late nineteenth century came to identify with one another across newspapers (in addition to identifying with their own employers). Other professionalizing changes in news writing occurred in the same era. There was a shift from a fairly informal address from a reporter to an editor (“The sky was blue and air was clear when I set off to the Capitol this morning ...”) to a thirdperson professional address to the reader (“Rep. Jones today introduced a path-breaking spending measure ...”). Chronologically presented news gave way to a summary lead and inverted pyramid structure that required the reporter to make judgments about what aspects of an event mattered most. Journalists began to be less relayers of documents and messages and more interpreters and explainers. The summary lead and the interview enlarged the reporter’s field of action and sphere of discretion. They helped make him or her a visible public type, even occasionally a celebrity. The interview especially demonstrated—to the audience, to the editor, to other journalists, and to other sources—not that the reporter speaks truth to power but that the reporter speaks close to power.

Over time interviewing became less the occasion for a separate feature article and more a routine technique incorporated into most news stories. After first appearing in the unusually democratic culture of the mid-nineteenth-century United States, it grew up to offer a novel mechanism for public watchfulness over the powerful. This intimate surveillance, especially suited to a democratic society, was by the 1930s well institutionalized, but it could never shed its contradictions—including the vulnerability of the reporter to the source, of the source to the reporter, and of the public to both.