Writing Without Interviewing
Why I didn't talk to Dave Weigel before writing about him.
Dave Weigel, reflecting on the recent firestorm surrounding his Journolist emails, wonders why it is that so few of us that wrote about the incident bothered to call him for his side of the story.
[T]ry a Google News search for my name; you’ll find more than five hundred articles about what happened. Approximately 1 percent reflect any attempt to contact me.
Some of this I understand. A discussion of whether medical doctors should worry about having private online discussions leaked maliciously would not benefit from my contribution. (A free tip: Don’t write about possible medical advice for Matt Drudge.) And I understand why someone would write about all of this without lifting a phone or opening an e-mail; contacting the Controversial Figure means getting spun. But all those thumb-suckers on what my case Meant for Journalism, or what the Overlooked Story of the thing was, or whether I was lying when I said that I’d sent most of the e-mails before joining the Post — those couldn’t have been hurt by quick e-mails to the Controversial Figure himself, right?
I can’t imagine ever again writing about someone without manning up to get him or her to comment, or provide more context. (Or explain why the hell he wanted Matt Drudge to set himself on fire.)
As someone who wrote quite a few postings on the Weigel mess without calling him, perhaps I should explain. (Although, I’ll note that Weigel never called me to find out why I didn’t call him before writing about it in Esquire! I kid.)
The short answer: I don’t need to call anyone to give my opinion about facts in the public domain.
The longer answer: Of the examples given above, only the issue of his veracity on the timing would have benefited from his input. Were I writing about Weigel’s Secret Motivations or the like, it would have made sense to interview him about it. I wasn’t, however, writing about that but rather giving my views on the implications of a reporter known to be hostile to the group he was covering on his ability to be fair to said group and doing some broader philosophizing about the state of journalism, privacy, and civility.
It would never occur to me to interview Dave Weigel — who, after all, was just a hook for those tangential discussions — on those things, any more than it occurred to me to contact Stanley McChrystal on the implications of generals spouting off to reporters for civilian control of the military. While the subjects might well have had something interesting to say on the subject, their opinions aren’t the focus of my musings here.
Moreover, Dave is a reporter who has a strong opinion. I’m an opinion writer who occasionally does reporting. Not only don’t I get paid to chase down leads and interview sources (except, at the margins, for my day job) but it’s not how I’m wired. I’m an academic by training and rely mostly on the written record for my analysis. Occasionally, I’ll phone or email some official’s office to get an answer to something that’s bugging me and for which I can’t find a source. Mostly, though, I’ll extrapolate from what I’ve read and my previous experience.