I've blogged several times about Deborah Solomon's uncomfortably harsh questions for interview subjects in the New York Times Magazine. It turns out that some of those questions were never asked -- indeed, public editor Clark Hoyt reveals today that the print version of the interview is fundamentally misleading:
WHEN you read Deborah Solomon’s “Questions For” in The New York Times Magazine, it’s like crashing an exclusive book party at Tina Brown’s East Side garden apartment.
There you stand, sipping white wine, as Solomon and a famous author or politician or media personality trade zippy repartee. Her sharp, challenging questions elicit pithy, surprising answers — a disloyal comment about an employer, a confession to a Diet Coke habit, what’s in Jack Black’s iPod.
That is the illusion of Solomon’s column. The reality is something else: the 700 or so words each week are boiled down from interviews that sometimes last more than an hour and run 10,000 words. Though presented in a way that suggests a verbatim transcript, the order of the interview is sometimes altered, and the wording of questions is changed — for clarity or context, editors say. At least three interviews have been conducted by e-mail because the subjects couldn’t speak English or had other speech difficulties. And, Solomon told me, “Very early on, I might have inserted a question retroactively, so the interview would flow better,” a practice she said she no longer uses.
“Questions For” came under fire recently when a reporter for New York Press, a free alternative weekly, interviewed two high-profile journalists — Amy Dickinson, the advice columnist who followed Ann Landers at The Chicago Tribune, and Ira Glass, creator of the public radio program “This American Life” — who said their published interviews with Solomon contained questions she never asked.
While the vast majority of Solomon’s interview subjects have never complained, these are not the first who have. Last year, The Times Magazine published an angry letter from NBC’s Tim Russert, who said that the portrayal of his interview with her was “misleading, callous and hurtful.”
After recounting the complaints of Dickinson, Glass, and Russert, which appear credible, Hoyt calls Solomon's journalism into question:
In an interview with Columbia Journalism Review in 2005, Solomon said: “Feel free to mix the pieces of this interview around, which is what I do.”
“Is there a general protocol on that?” her questioner asked.
“There’s no Q. and A. protocol,” Solomon replied. “You can write the manual.” Solomon told me she was joking.
In fact, there is a protocol, and “Questions For” isn’t living up to it. The Times’s Manual of Style and Usage says that readers have a right to assume that every word in quotation marks is what was actually said. “Questions For” does not use quotations marks but is presented as a transcript. The manual also says ellipses should be used to signal omissions in transcripts, and that “The Times does not ‘clean up’ quotations.”
Marzorati told me, “this is an entertainment, not a newsmaker interview on ‘Meet the Press.’” But that does not relieve it of the obligation to live up to The Times’s standards or offer an explanation when it deviates from them.
I think editors made a mistake by not publishing an editor’s note with Russert’s letter, acknowledging error and explaining the reforms. Now, I believe, if they want to preserve the illusion of a conversation, they should publish with each column a brief description of the editing standards: the order of questions may be changed, information may be added for clarity, and the transcript has been boiled down without indicating where material has been removed.
If such a disclaimer destroys the illusion, maybe “Questions For” needs to be rethought.