By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Not such a linchpin

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen is ambivalent about doing interviews, and Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post asks him why. Kurtz, though, seems to think that the institution of the journalistic interview is more firmly established than it is. He begins:

The humble interview, the linchpin of journalism for centuries, is under assault.

In fact, what is widely regarded as the first newspaper interview was conducted not centuries ago, but in 1836, by New York Herald publisher James Gordon Bennett, who talked with the proprietor of a brothel in the hopes of shedding light on the notorious murder of a prostitute.

It seems strange to realize that great American journalists from Benjamin Franklin to Isaiah Thomas never interviewed people, but such were the customs of the day.

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  1. Don (no longer) Fluffy

    What about all those quotes from Jesus in the Bible?

  2. Anonymous

    Isaiah Thomas never interviewed anyone? Not even Joe Dumars?Bob in Peabody

  3. JonGarfunkel

    Well, there’s a new definition for A-Lister. They get quoted even though the don’t want to be.(Old definition: they don’t have do interviews, because that’s for those luddites that haven’t blogged every thought they’ve ever had)

  4. Anonymous

    Dan, one question…In fact, what is widely regarded as the first newspaper interview was conducted not centuries ago, but in 1836…Do you mean, the first newspaper article that was published as an interview (in the US) was in 1836? It strikes me that reporters would have had to interview people to do their reporting long before then–although I’m aware that more than a few newspapers over the ages were actually organs of political parties and were basically little more than opinion pieces.I read Der Spiegal regularly, and, indeed, have a subscription to their e-paper edition. They oftentimes publish lengthy interviews, and they are generally quite interesting.–raj

  5. Dan Kennedy

    Raj: That’s a good question, and I’m not sure I know the answer. Take a look at coverage of the Boston Massacre, for instance — it would appear that the papers talked to eyewitnesses, but no one is quoted, so certainly you can’t say that any form of interviewing as we know it took place. Of course, most of the details of the Massacre were made up, so no need to talk with anyone!Isaiah Thomas’ account of the Battles of Lexington and Concord is a good example of journalism moving toward something a bit more modern. Thomas himself was a witness, and he provided a fairly accurate account, although certainly not without spin. Again, he may well have supplemented his own observations by talking with participants, but you wouldn’t know it by reading it.Then, too, much of the “journalism” of the day consisted of essays and polemics.

  6. David

    Good point. Not only was interviewing a late arriver, it took a century or so to really find its place. I remember reading a 1927 newspaper story about the day Babe Ruth hit his 60th home run. The story ran six full columns, without a single quote from the Babe.

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