As a journalist, I expect to be asking the questions, not answering them. But in the past few months, the tables have been turned, and, as president of The Crimson, I've been interviewed fairly often.
Okay, I haven't been blitzed by the media in the way that President Clinton's newly-found half-brother has been. But since February, the pickings haven't been that slim, either. I've been quoted in USA Today, on Channel 5 TV in Boston and on BBC radio. I've been interviewed for The Economist. I've talked to two reporters from The Boston Globe (neither of whom quoted me.) And I've fielded calls from a slew of news organizations who simply call up The Crimson looking for help from whomever answers the phone.
Sometimes, they just want photographs. The Washington Post wanted a picture of the Adams House pool. Vogue wanted pictures of the class of 1968, and of the husband of California state Treasurer Kathleen Brown (I think he went to Harvard Law School.)
Other times, they want information. NBC wanted to know if we could get them videotape of Colin Powell's speech at Commencement. (I explained that, as a newspaper, we don't usually videotape events.)
Most troubling are the calls that ask for opinions, for analyses, for good quotes. Reporters can be insistent, and I am sometimes all too willing to oblige them in talking about things that I have no idea about.
The correspondent for the BBC asked me how real Clinton's troubles are, and what their source is. Never mind that I haven't been to Washington since the Bush Inauguration--I was duly, even solemnly, questioned about the $200 haircut and the inexperience of the White House Staff.
Other people want to know about things closer to Cambridge, such as how President Rudenstine is doing, how the campus political climate is changing, whether political correctness is a problem, how often students date professors, what the average student thinks of the Harvard Lampoon. I try to be helpful, but basically, I'm making things up as I go along.
In classes at the Kennedy School's Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy and in study groups at the Institute of Politics, I found one of the principal complaints from classmates who are readers and viewers to be that there is too much of "the press interviewing the press." They argue that this closed cycle limits the opinions available to viewers and is a manifestation of the lazy, incestuous nature of the American press corps.
I have a higher opinion of the press. I think, however, that laziness does play a role in journalists' propensity to interview other journalists.
It's quicker and easier to interview one newspaper editor than it is to interview 20 undergraduates. Because of strict deadline pressures, speed matters to reporters.
Reporters also know what makes a good quote. Having been on the other side of interviews, I talk slowly, in complete sentences, trying to be provocative and snappy.
My classmates at the Kennedy School were right to sense there's something wrong here. In quoting me, reporters don't necessarily get much closer to the truth--but they do get an entertaining sound bite.
The outside journalists risk not getting the full story when they just talk to me. But I also bear a risk. I'm supposed to be a fair, openminded journalist. Spouting my opinions about campus politics, or even simply revealing my analysis or conception of the current scene, may end up somehow indirectly flavoring the news itself, as Crimson readers get it.
Still, despite my best intentions to refer calls from the media to the Harvard News Office in Holyoke Center, I'm a sucker for being interviewed. So I write this as a warning. The next time you see me, or any journalist, quoted on TV or in print, proceed with caution.
Ira E. Stoll '94, the President of The Crimson, will answer questions from just about anyone.
Laziness plays a role in journalists' propensity to interview other journalists.
Despite my best intentions to refer media calls to the Harvard News Office, I'm a sucker for being interviewed