Managed Transparency

Last week, this blog touched on the recent conversation surrounding “the media interview” in which many of the self-anointed new media pundits portrayed the live media interview as outmoded, if not antithetical to the reporting process.

Their vitriol was in part inspired by the popular Fred Vogelstein of Wired who attempted to interview Jason Calacanis and Dave Winer for a profile of TechCrunch’s founder Mike Arrington.

Both Winer and Calacanis agreed to the interview, but with the condition that Vogelstein submit his questions via e-mail. The Wired reporter declined, and the two gleefully blogged about it.

In Winer and Calacanis’s world, and echoed by Jay Rosen, Dan Gillmor and Jeff Jarvis, the live interview gives the journalist the upper hand and can result in a one-sided, incomplete, or distorted editorial product. Jarvis even inferred that journalists deploying this long-standing mode of interviewing are really seeking that “gotcha moment.” (See more in comments below.)

Newsweek’s Steve Levy just weighed in on the brouhahah by sensibly defending journalists’ integrity, e.g., their sincere desire to serve us — their readers, viewers and listeners — not themselves.

“We in the journalism tribe operate under the belief that when we ask people to talk to us we are not acting out of self-interest but a sense of duty to inform the population. It’s an article of our faith that when subjects speak to us, they are engaging in a grand participatory act where everyone benefits. But these lofty views don’t impress bloggers like Rosen.”

I know I probably should endorse the Winer/Calacanis approach given our profession’s natural desire to exert more control over a story’s tenor. But I’m not holding my breath waiting for the fourth estate to embrace this Utopian world of new media wherein prepared, (e.g., canned) answers are preferred over spontaneity. (Frankly, I would have liked my college professors to offer take-home tests exclusively, as well.)

Moreover, let’s not forget that this brave new demand works best with A-list newsmakers who are given the latitude to dictate the terms of the interview. The greater the demand for the newsmaker, the more territory the journalist will cede to land an interview. Did you hear that Paris and Barbara Walters struck a post jailhouse deal?

The call for all interviews to be conducted via email is short-sighted, if not naive, from a PR perspective. Most of us don’t represent those A-listers. Our clients simply are delighted to have the chance to lend their pearls of wisdom to a story. As their counselors, we’re not about to tell the reporter how to do his or her job, and thus risk losing the opportunity altogether.

PR pros earn their keep through the management of both ends of the interview equation so that each side emerges with what they sought. Can we obtain interview questions in advance? No. Can we ask for the general subject the reporter wishes to cover? Sure thing. We can also obtain information on who else the journalist has interviewed, when the piece might run, etc.

Yes, new media pundits, it all sounds so insidious. It isn’t. Managing the message continues to thrive even in an age where any hint of deception can have virally negative consequences. But I truly believe that newsmakers can retain control and be transparent at the same time. Is there such a thing as “managed transparency?”