December 11, 2017

Helping PR pros make smarter decisions

A Bulls— Argument

A Bulls— Argument

Jeff Jarvis takes John Koblin of the New York Observer to task for misrepresenting an epithet uttered during a “fact-checking” phone call. The article alleges that Jarvis said “bulls—” in reference to New York Times Editor Bill Keller and his ideas. Jarvis refutes that and indicates he was referring instead to the reporter’s question.

The prominent media blogger makes a fairly compelling case that the reporter was at the very least inaccurate and possibly even deliberately deceptive.

Unfortunately, Jarvis then veers off into a laundry list of other gripes that have no bearing on the quality of the story. He takes issue with the way his glasses are described (“My glasses are too damned expensive to be unfashionable”) and essentially questions the definition of “consulting” for the Washington Post (“I helped with one small task but I told the reporter specifically that I had not done consulting of note”).

Jarvis then comes to what may be his biggest beef with the article:

What really pisses me off is that they couldn’t bother to mention my book – the only good reason to talk with a reporter – even after the reporter visited the recording of the audiobook. Now that’s bullshit.

In other words, he didn’t get the free publicity he was looking for. Understandable, for sure, but not really the basis of a claim of malfeasance in journalism.

But here’s where the train really jumps the tracks. Jarvis concludes that the interview itself is the culprit. Not this particular small “i” interview, but any “Interview” conducted in the name of article-writing. He writes that “the interview itself is becoming outmoded” and cites the example of one of the earliest bloggers, Dave Winer, who “wisely refuses interviews, telling journalists that
everything he has to say he has said online.”

Jarvis explains:

The process of the interview has the reporter hold all the cards in
his hand: who he talks with and what he will reveal to each and what he
will say in the end, without links to what any of the parties has said.
Then the reporter gets to toss it all on the table. A process of links
and discovery and conversation and correction would be far more
illuminating of the ideas and issues than this old process of control
through the sieve (and efforts to trump up conflict and drama). That,
you see, is the real moral to the story: It’s the form that’s bullshit.
Keller isn’t. I leave it to you to decide whether I am.

Is Jarvis right? Certainly some reporters and writers do manipulate the interview process to achieve a particular outcome. And many only seek to interview those who will bolster their predetermined outcome to the story. It is not even uncommon for reporters to subtly attempt to put words in their subject’s mouths — something that some Washington pundits are splendidly adept at taking advantage of.

But to suggest that Googling someone’s thoughts is “far more illuminating” than conducting an actual interview seems absurd on its face. Online conversation does not replace in-person or telephonic communication. Humans respond to verbal and on-verbal cues which cannot be easily communicated in writing. Moreover, the spontaneity of real-time dialogue often uncovers ideas and viewpoints that may remain hidden in the more measured pace of typed thoughts and opinions. And written words can be just as easily misconstrued — deliberately or deceptively even — as spoken ones.

One questionable interview — or even a bevy of them — does not make the technique “outmoded.” To put it in lyrical form, this isn’t a case where “blogging killed the interview star.”

Or to put it in Jarvis’ jargon: I call bulls—.

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About The Author

Chip Griffin is the Founder of CustomScoop. He writes and speaks frequently about data-driven public relations. You can follow him on Twitter at @ChipGriffin.

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