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Inventing The Interview

June 2024
7min read

It emerged just a century and a half ago as an unrespectable reporter’s gimmick but came to dominate newsgathering

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.

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.

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.

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