You’re interviewing somebody, not dating them

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Media / Workbook

Interviewing people is hard. It’s not easy to talk to someone to try and understand who they are and what they’re about. In journalism, you’re trying to get interviewees to say interesting things too—things that hold up on the page, sound good to the reader, that get the subject to provide a kind of forensic self-examination. The result is that the best interviews are elevated to an art form.

But interviewing is also a skill that can be learned, and it’s not limited to speaking to somebody on the record as a journalist. You probably do interviewing a lot, whether it’s on either side of a recruitment process, when you’re dating, when you’re talking to prospective clients, having coffee conversations with friends-of-friends, or hanging out awkwardly with strangers at parties (although nobody goes to parties any more, of course, whether they are populated by strangers or not.)

Since I enjoyed and linked to the NYT magazine’s recent interview with children’s author Mo Willems, I figured I’d read up more on how David Marchese sees the task of interviewing.

Turns out his main tenets are pretty straightforward. Be prepared, but not too prepared. Be open. Do lots of interviews.

But here he is giving a particularly salient piece of advice that shows what makes journalistic interviews different from all those other kinds.

One clarifying event was a long interview I did with Lou Reed, who was known for being combative in interviews. I sat down with him and he was insulting and aggressive, and not only did he not really answer my questions but he took issue with the premise of a lot of the questions. I finished it thinking, “That really went badly.” But afterward, when I was putting it together, I could see that while I was bearing the brunt of a lot of his aggression in the interview, the piece actually hadn’t suffered journalistically. It turned out very well. I think it’s a natural human desire to want to feel that a person liked you after you’ve had a conversation with them, but in terms of what an interviewer is supposed to be doing, that’s not always the goal. It’s important to keep that in mind.

You aren’t trying to get the subject to like you: you’re inquiring about their essential character. That’s easy to forget in the moment.

Mo Willems on pandemic parenting

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Marchese: When I was first putting together my questions for you, I realized that a lot of them had to do with things like how we can help kids with the ambient stress of parents’ worrying about the pandemic or politics. But maybe it’s wrong for me to assume that a successful children’s-book author has unique ideas about kids’ emotions. So let me ask you: Do you think you have special insights about kids?
Willems: Probably the most fundamental insight is that even a good childhood is difficult: You’re powerless; the furniture is not made to your size. But when parents come up to me and ask, ‘‘How do you talk to the kid about the pandemic?’’ they’re asking me to be disloyal. They’re actually asking about a form of control. ‘‘Hey, you have this relationship with kids. Help me control them.’’ [Expletive] you! I’m not on your side. I wish there was a better way to say it. The real answer is: Show that you don’t know. Show them that you’re fumbling. Why wouldn’t you? How do you expect your child to fall and then stand up and say ‘‘That’s OK’’ when you won’t even say, ‘‘I don’t know how to discuss the pandemic with you’’? Are children not allowed to be upset? Does that inconvenience you? You want to protect and prepare them. But I’m not saying it’s easy.

Weeks 41-43

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weeknotes

They make no sense, deserts. They are an affront to comprehension. I’ve never been anywhere so empty than these alien landscapes, scarred and parched, impossible for me to comprehend. And then you have the preposterous oasis, the cities carved out of rubble, the green valleys hidden between folds in the mountains. They are inventions. Deserts make no sense, unless you are a snake or tumbleweed or a cactus.

We escaped for a change of scenery, played scrabble, and dunked ourselves in the pool. The heat was oppressive, the break perfect. Ten days and we were back home.

The last seven months have been a ride. I’ve thrown myself into work because I am stupid, but also frankly what else do you do when you can barely leave the house? But the last few weeks have been a different kind of effort, more enjoyable, just as daunting.

Three new faces on my team: Eileen Guo joined to start reporting on ethics and social issues, and Lindsay Muscato and Cat Ferguson helping spin up our project to look at pandemic technologies in even more depth.

We popped up a daily election newsletter, The Outcome, from Patrick Howell O’Neill and Abby Ohlheiser. We held a conference!

Oh, and then there was the magazine. That explains my silence in September.

Somewhere along the way I managed to read a lot. Some for pleasure: Angela Chen’s Ace blew my mind and made me think about society’s attitude towards sex in ways I didn’t expect.

And then, for an essay I’m writing, I read a lot about food and hunger. A couple of older classics like Enough by Roger Thurow and Feeding Frenzy by Paul MacMahon. Some fresher morsels like Food or War (Julian Cribb) Bite Back (edited by Sayu Jayaraman+Kathryn De Master), Uncertain Harvest (Ian Mosby et al), Perilous Bounty (Tom Philpott) Food Town, USA (Mark Winne) and not one but two paeans to the potato from Rebecca Earle. This binge puts me a tiny bit ahead in my one-book-a-week challenge for the year, finally.

This is preposterous

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Media

A review of Zeke Emanuel’s new book comparing health systems across the world has as good a description of the American maze as I’ve seen.

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Britain is so lucky to have the NHS; I find it literally impossible to explain to people here how the system doesn’t have to be this way.

By contrast, the US health care system—if one can call it that—excludes more people, provides thinner coverage, and is far less affordable. It combines socialized medicine practiced by the Department of Veterans Affairs, four-part federal Medicare (A, B, C, D) for the elderly and disabled, state-by-state Medicaid for the poor, health coverage provided by employers, and policies bought privately through an insurance agent or an Affordable Care Act exchange—all of which still leave 10 percent of the population unprotected. Among the biggest problems, says Emanuel, is that Americans are baffled by their health care: uncertain of the benefits they’re entitled to, the providers that will accept their insurance, the amount of their deductibles and copays, and the accuracy of the bills they receive. It is a system, moreover, in which people are regularly switching insurers out of choice or necessity—a process known as churning. “The United States basically has every type of health financing ever invented,” Ezekiel adds. “This is preposterous.”

Rate my room, Swiss hoarding edition

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Workbook

We’re all spending a lot more time on Zoom these days. Hangouts with friends are a lot like work meetings are a lot like coffee chats are a lot like calls to family.

And we’re all spending a lot more time thinking about—and commenting on—our Zoom backgrounds. Room rating is a thing.

I wonder how the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget would have gotten along with it all.

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I mean, I don’t think he’d have cared very much at all. But still.

Weeks 38-40

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weeknotes

Silence, as usual, means a heavy workload. Closing an upcoming issue of the magazine, pushing along another large project with lots of moving parts, and helping corral our election coverage has been intense—that’s on top of the day to day business. Next up the election, which I suppose is my third or fourth time around, depending on how you count it. We moved to America shortly before the 2008 Obama victory, which I think skewed my perception of what American presidential races and outcomes were like. The never-ending chaotic evil spin cycle of US politics is enough to leave anyone brain damaged.

I’ve managed to properly read just a couple of books in between, but not much. The Death of Vivek Oji by Akwaeke Emezi I liked well enough, despite feeling a little contrived. And, due to popular demand from the 8-year-old, The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, which I thought was good for a kid’s book and certainly light years ahead of most of its peers in terms of sheer quality of the written word.

There have been so many exciting new projects from friends that I will make separate posts for them.

The reverse Chotiner

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Media

Britain’s left is riddled with anti-trans views in a way that continues to disappoint me. This interview with Judith Butler in the New Statesman is a great example of that, and of how to think about representation and poisonous discourse. We see a journalist trying to prod a certain kind of answer out of a thinker, and the thinker responding by rejecting the premises of questioning in an artful and coherent way.

I confess to being perplexed by the fact that you point out the abuse levelled against JK Rowling, but you do not cite the abuse against trans people and their allies that happens online and in person. I disagree with JK Rowling’s view on trans people, but I do not think she should suffer harassment and threats. Let us also remember, though, the threats against trans people in places like Brazil, the harassment of trans people in the streets and on the job in places like Poland and Romania – or indeed right here in the US. So if we are going to object to harassment and threats, as we surely should, we should also make sure we have a large picture of where that is happening, who is most profoundly affected, and whether it is tolerated by those who should be opposing it. It won’t do to say that threats against some people are tolerable but against others are intolerable.

Zombie news

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Media

For nearly as long as there has been newspapers and magazines, there have been people who use publications to launder their own reputations or advance their own agendas. Press barons were a real thing before fake news, and media ownership is still a great way for the powerful to access even more power. PR folks, meanwhile, take great pains to try and place op-eds by, or positive stories about, their clients in the pages of prestigious and not-so-prestigious publications.

But the gutting of news media over the past 20 years, driven by a storm of competition, disintermediation and greed, has led to some slightly different beasts emerging from this hellscape.

One is the fake news outlet: something that looks and behaves like a genuine publication but is really just propaganda dressed in a costume of real publishing.

Now we have the “zombie magazine”—the formerly prestigious publication that uses the reputation it gained in the past to launder bad ideas. Prime candidate? Newsweek, which let its pages be used as the starting pistol for a racist conspiracy theory about Kamala Harris.

As Alex Shephard puts it in The New Republic:

Newsweek’s opinion section… has become a clearinghouse for right-wing nonsense. But it also points to a larger crisis in journalism itself: The rise of the zombie publication, whose former legitimacy is used to launder extreme and conspiratorial ideas.

Even by the volatile standards of journalism in the twenty-first century, Newsweek’s recent problems are extraordinary. There are the usual issues: a sharp decline in print subscribers, Google and Facebook, the difficulty of running a mass-market general interest news magazine in an age of hyperpartisanship. But Newsweek has also been raided by the Manhattan district attorney’s office (a former owner and chief executive pleaded guilty to fraud and money laundering charges in February) and has been accused of deep ties to a shadowy Christian cult, amid many other scandals.

Zombie magazines are different from more traditional places that propagate conspiracies under the guise of legitimate news—say, the Wall Street Journal‘s often rabid op-ed pages or the New York Times‘ recent Tom Cotton debacle— because the value is in the gap between public perception and current reality (that is, the folks who buy into the Harris spew likely recognize Newsweek as a voice with a little bit of historical authority even if the publication is clearly a long, long way from what it once was.) It’s also different because everybody involved seems so totally fucking desperate.

The canonical story on this turmoil at Newsweek is probably Daniel Tovrov’s CJR story on “dropshipping journalism,” which is prominently credited in Shephard’s piece. But I thought it was interesting to see this piece appear in The New Republic, because for a while I was pretty sure that TNR was going to become exactly the same kind of zombie magazine itself.

And perhaps that’s the thing to recognize from this sad tale: we can all end up there if we aren’t careful.