Questions for the Questioner

| 11 Nov 2014 | 01:47

    “Readers should be able to assume that every word between quotation marks is what the speaker, or writer, said. The Times does not “clean up” quotations….No one needs to be reminded that falsifying any part of a news report cannot be tolerated and will result automatically in disciplinary action up to and including termination.”

    —The New York Times Company Guidelines on Integrity, 1999

    DEBORAH SOLOMON: Feel free to mix pieces of this interview around, which is what I do. You don’t have to keep it in this order. CJR: Is there a general protocol on that? SOLOMON: There’s no Q-and-A protocol. You can write the manual. “The Q-and-A Queen”

    —Columbia Journalism Review July/August 2005

    When I began my reporting three weeks ago, this story was slated to be a benign profile of an incisive, witty, cantankerous, high-profile-but-not-quite-famous, powerful, puzzling, playful, combative contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine. Through Deborah Solomon’s weekly column, a Q-and-A interview that has become a popular staple of the Times’ Sunday magazine since its launch in 2003, the former art critic and author of two biographies has developed a voice easily as distinctive as the ones she features.

    Most of my interviews with people in Solomon’s column over the years reflected positive overall experiences. (Several of those contacted either declined to comment or didn’t respond to requests for an interview.) But after conversations with two prominent Solomon Q-and-A subjects—Ira Glass, the popular host of Public Radio International’s “This American Life,” and Amy Dickinson, the nationally-syndicated advice columnist who replaced Ann Landers in 2003—the story became more complicated. Both Glass and Dickinson, without any prompting and in significant detail, told me that in the published versions of their interviews, Solomon had made up questions, after the fact, to match answers that, at least in one instance, she had taken out of their original context.

    “[Solomon] rewrites her questions and then applies any question to any answer that a person says,” Glass told me in a tape-recorded telephone interview.

    Both experienced journalists, Glass and Dickinson accused Solomon of violating basic ethical standards by making up dialogue never said during their conversations with her—conversations Solomon taped. Dickinson (in a tape-recorded telephone interview) described an exchange that she says “didn’t happen” during her interview, that she said Solomon put together using her quotes. Glass went even further; of one exchange, he said that “she never actually asked that question,” and added that Solomon “was changing context in a way that changed what I meant.” In Glass’s case, he told a fact-checker for the magazine about the distortion of the interview, in an attempt to have it corrected. “I made my case as forcefully as I knew how,” Glass said in an email to me last week, “but I guess he just disagreed with me.”

    And so, the conversations I had with Glass and Dickinson transformed a human interest story into an examination of the questionable ethical choices one very prominent reporter made on behalf of the nation’s top newspaper—an institution itself ravaged by an ethics scandal only four years ago, when then-reporter Jayson Blair was caught falsifying information in his stories, leading to his resignation and the eventual resignation of the paper’s executive editor, Howell Raines.

    Nine days ago, I began repeated efforts to contact Solomon for an interview. I sent my first email after my interview with Glass, but before my conversation with Dickinson corroborated his version of her approach, and so I didn’t mention this aspect of the story. I told Solomon I admired her writing and was working on a profile; without an additional source to back up Glass’s account of his experience, I wasn’t even sure I would include it in this piece. Solomon wrote back to say she was on deadline but would be free to speak as of last Friday: “Like most writers, I would rather pose questions than answer them. But if you want to proceed with this, can it wait until Friday, when I finally get off deadline?”

    I followed up with several more emails and phone messages to her home and cell phone numbers, and she failed to respond to those requests. I also tried to reach her at The Times, but was told that she did not have a desk (or a phone) there. Solomon doesn’t have a full-time staff position with The Times; she holds the title “contributing writer,” which in most cases refers to a freelance, contractual relationship with the magazine.

    Last Friday—after the interview with Dickinson on Thursday suggested a pattern of ethical lapses by Solomon—the Press’s editor-in-chief, David Blum, sent Solomon an email alerting her that our story would raise “serious questions” about her approach, and requesting an interview; she never responded. As of Tuesday morning, at least 10 emails and phone messages from The Press to Solomon had gone unanswered.

    On Monday, I spoke to Catherine Mathis, vice president of corporate communications for The New York Times Company, who serves as the newspaper’s chief spokesperson. I explained to her that we had been trying unsuccessfully to reach Solomon for several days in connection with our story. I also told her the essential elements of what we’d learned from Dickinson and Glass, and their identities, and asked to interview a Times editor with whom we could go through the specific allegations made against Solomon. Instead, late Monday afternoon, Mathis emailed me the following statement:

    “The editors of the column assure themselves that the Q-and-A, which obviously must be boiled down from a much longer rough transcript, reflects accurately the gist of the whole conversation and contains actual quotes, both questions and answers. Fact-checkers also go over the entire transcript of each interview when they check the manuscript. Quotes are not replayed to the interviewee, but factual assertions in them are. We believe the columns involving Ms. Dickinson and Mr. Glass met these standards.”

    I replied to Mathis’s email by alerting her to the fact that the accounts of Glass and Dickinson directly contradicted her statement, and offered again to go over the specifics of our story with her or a Times editor. Early Tuesday morning, Mathis wrote me a one-sentence email followup response: “Please feel free to email your findings.” I responded by pointing out that The Press—like The Times—prohibits reporters from sending material to sources from its forthcoming stories. I reiterated my request to review the specifics of my reporting with Mathis, Solomon or a Times editor. As of Tuesday afternoon, Mathis had not responded to that request.

    “Q: What’s it like to be called the next Ann Landers?

    It’s true that my column is replacing the Ann Landers column, but it’s a whole new venture. It’s the same format, but it’s funnier and snappier and might be more fun to read. Without a doubt, it will be more entertaining.

    How immodest of you! Isn’t it bad manners to brag? Some of us found Ann Landers hilarious. —From “Questions for Amy Dickinson,” The New York Times, 7/27/2003

    When Deborah Solomon approached Amy Dickinson for an interview in the summer of 2003, the advice columnist, who had just replaced Ann Landers, recalled that she was “tickled to participate.” Dickinson describes herself as “a very big fan of [Solomon]” at the time, and says she could relate to Solomon since her own column was written in the Q-and-A format.

    Solomon asked her to set aside 90 minutes to chat over the phone; that struck Dickinson as long, but didn’t faze her. She had been “doing a ton of press” for her new column, she recalled, and had herself written for the Washington Post, Time, Esquire and other national publications, and worked as a producer for NBC News.

    But even with dozens of media experiences behind her, Dickinson now describes the Solomon interview as “by far the most unusual I’ve ever had.”

    Dickinson recalls that Solomon wouldn’t give Dickinson her number, and told her instead to wait for a call at an appointed time. Once on the phone with her, Dickinson remembers hearing “one or more dogs” barking in the background. When they barked, Solomon would yell at them. Solomon acted very rushed despite the wide-open time slot, Dickinson says, and the “environment” remained “chaotic” throughout their talk. Dickinson remembers wondering what motivated Solomon’s odd behavior. Was Solomon doing this on purpose or was this just how she was?

    Dickinson also noticed that Solomon had skipped the preliminary small talk that reporters often begin with to make a source comfortable, and immediately fired off questions that Dickinson says “you would call, you know, kind of stupid.”

    One line of questioning that particularly riled Dickinson related to the subject of etiquette. She says she told Solomon repeatedly that she does not dispense advice on proper etiquette in her column, unlike her predecessor, Ann Landers. Dickinson says she reminded Solomon about this repeatedly, “and then she would say something like, ‘Well, if you’re at a dinner party, and…’

    “And I said, ‘I DON’T—’… It was highly-charged...I felt like she kind of set me up.”

    But in retrospect, Dickinson says she doesn’t think Solomon was trying to hunt for certain answers. Rather, she theorizes that Solomon “was trying to push it and push it and push it and push it...because if you keep asking somebody the same question over and over, they will give you a different answer, eventually.”

    But Dickinson says she was “surprised” when she read the published version of the interview. “I had this distinct feeling that the answers she ran did not go with the questions that she ran in her column,” she says. While Dickinson acknowledges that Solomon quoted her answers accurately, she adds that she “felt [Solomon] supplied different questions to the answers that I gave.”

    This is the exchange that Dickinson says “didn’t happen” in the interview, referring specifically to the “immodest” line that followed her comment:

    “Q: What’s it like to be called the next Ann Landers?

    Dickinson: It’s true that my column is replacing the Ann Landers column, but it’s a whole new venture. It’s the same format, but it’s funnier and snappier and might be more fun to read. Without a doubt, it will be more entertaining.

    Q: How immodest of you! Isn’t it bad manners to brag? Some of us found Ann Landers hilarious.

    “She didn’t say that in person,” Dickinson says.

    Dickinson says she has no problem with “cleaning up” questions by “shortening” or “editing” questions or answers, but adds: “The most basic standard that should be adhered to, is that the question match the answer.”

    Preoccupied with other matters at the time, Dickinson says she never contacted Solomon or the Times to complain after the interview was published. Instead she viewed the article as a learning experience. Despite it all, Dickinson says, she’s “still a fan” of Deborah Solomon, but acknowledges that she now reads the column “completely differently” than she did before her interview.

    Q: What do you think of the network? I don’t meet many people who are talking about shows on Showtime. —From “Questions for Ira Glass”

    The New York Times, 3/4/2007

    In February 2007, Deborah Solomon met with Ira Glass in his Midtown office, tape recorder in hand, to discuss the latest chapter of his public radio career, which began in 1978. The television version of “This American Life,” the popular PRI program he created almost 12 years ago, was about to premiere on Showtime, and Solomon planned to feature him in her column. Glass was familiar with Solomon’s reputation “as a ‘gotcha’ sort of reporter,” he says, and adds that he was even warned about sitting down to talk with her. But when he finally did, he found nothing exceptional about her or the interview itself, although he would later conclude that Solomon’s “crossing the line” by “changing the meaning” of his answers was something he hadn’t anticipated.

    Glass says he found Solomon “perfectly likable,” and adds: “She seemed like any other reporter. She was chatty, she tried to talk to me like a person... I mean, she seemed like a good natural reporter.” He says he sensed that like any other skilled reporter, Solomon was “digging around” for something, anything, that would make her story compelling, not just a puff piece for the new show, and he had no problem with that.

    Glass remembers the questions as eclectic: Who did he read? What did he write? What about his father’s cousin, Phillip Glass, the composer? She asked how he might categorize “This American Life”—a show that seemed to exist on its own plane, not exactly documentary, not exactly narrative journalism, perhaps a distant relative of the reality show (with much better genes), but not quite like any one of those.

    At one point, Glass says he spoke to Solomon “at length” about Showtime’s marketing campaign for “This American Life.” The discussion was prompted by the fact that this would be the radio personality’s first foray into television, and its success would depend on reaching a wider audience than ever before. Glass acknowledges that during that discussion he told her: “I don’t meet many people who are talking about shows on Showtime.” But he remembers that comment as only a small part of a much longer discussion about marketing.

    The day after the interview, Solomon emailed Glass to ask a follow-up question. In the email, which Glass provided to The New York Press, she included parts of her interview transcript to indicate to Glass the context of her new question. (Solomon’s email to Glass itself represented yet another apparent violation of New York Times policy, which prohibits sharing material with the subject of a story in advance of publication—the policy referred to in Catherine Mathis’s comment for this article.)

    This is how Solomon started the email to Glass: 700 words. 700 shackles. Wish we had more room. One more question.

    Solomon then went on to describe the context of the quote she now planned to use this way:

    (you say about Showtime) I don’t meet many people who are talking about shows on Showtime. (me [Solomon]: Then why are you doing a show with them?) Here are the advantages of Showtime. They came to us, and at first we said no. And they persevered. We had a good experience with them with the pilot.

    My question: Isn’t that a cocky things [sic] to say? Why don’t you feel more appreciative of people who appreciate you?

    In Glass’s email reply, he wrote an extensive response to her new question in an effort to put all he’d said to her about Showtime into a broader context—a context he says he also made clear in the original interview, though it wasn’t reflected in her email.

    Glass wrote:

    But I do feel appreciative! I’m not communicating my feelings very well if you’re not getting that. And the more I talk to other people who’ve worked in TV, the more I realize what total sweethearts the Showtime people have been, and how rare it is to have such sensible, smart collaborators at the network level. We’ve been insanely lucky.

    Soon after that, Glass says he got a call from a fact-checker at the New York Times Magazine—“a lovely guy named Aaron,” he recalls. “And in fact, when the fact-checker talked to me about it, I even said, you know, ‘that isn’t exactly true, now that I think about it. You know, people are actually talking about ‘Dexter,’ people are talking about this or that. But the fact-checker chose to disregard that as well.” “And then they just put it in the paper.”

    In the published interview, Solomon edited Glass’s response by eliminating his specific comments on “Dexter,” the Showtime series. And, more important, she substituted her new, fabricated question—“What do you think of the network?”—in the space where, in her email, she’d only written the words “(you say about Showtime).”

    Later in the published interview, Solomon follows the “I don’t meet very many people who are talking…” quote with a question that pushed Glass to explain the reason he’s working with them, if he thinks Showtime has so little audience reach.

    His printed response: “Here are the advantages of Showtime: They came to us, and at first we said no, and they persevered. We had a good experience with them with the pilot.”

    “But isn’t that a cocky thing to say?” Solomon shoots back, in her follow-up email. And instead of including the full context of his answer, she edits his remarks down to this bare-bones reply:

    “But I do feel appreciative! I’m not communicating my feelings very well if you’re not getting that.”

    But it’s clear from Glass’s email exchange with Solomon that his actual answer was given to Solomon in a much fuller context: “…and the more I talk to other people who’ve worked in TV,” Glass in fact told Solomon, “the more I realize what total sweethearts the Showtime people have been, and how rare it is to have such sensible, smart collaborators at the network level. We’ve been insanely lucky.” Indeed—contrary to Solomon’s published version of their conversation—Glass had no trouble at all finding the words to praise Showtime.

    Predictably, the marketing people at Showtime were not pleased when they saw the column. And though Glass blamed Solomon and the fact-checker for the snafu, he felt compelled to call the president of the network to apologize.

    Still, Glass chose not to confront The Times directly with his belief that Solomon had fabricated a question and taken his words out of context. “I don’t see what the point would be of getting in touch and complaining,” he says. And as a reporter, he felt conflicted about the experience. “I felt like, if somebody says something to a reporter, it’s fair game...having said that, I think it was lousy.”

    Glass went on to criticize Solomon’s approach as beneath the standards of The Times, a newspaper he clearly admires. “It’s one thing for an entertainment magazine to do it and another for a newspaper to do it, especially The Times,” he says. “And it’s something that they wouldn’t allow in the news pages.”

    In a follow-up email to me, Glass wrote: “As you and I talked about on the phone, though magazines radically rewrite and fabricate interviewers’ questions all the time….I don’t think a newspaper should do it. I know in some picky way, the New York Times Magazine thinks of itself as a ‘magazine,’ but for me and for most readers, we assume the editorial standards are the same as in the newspaper of record, and when the paper says a reporter asked a question, the reporter did in fact ask the question.”