Questioning The Questioner

You ever have a conversation where you thought afterwards, "I wish that had gone a bit better." Maybe after a date, or a job interview?

According to Matt Elzweig's new piece for the New York Press, New York Times Magazine writer Deborah Solomon has had that thought. And she decided – on at least two occasions – to change her weekly Q-and-A to be the conversation she wished she'd had.

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.

Awhile back, I discussed the Washington Post's crackdown on quote-cleansing – when journalists sanitize their sources' words for things like grammar and syntax. I said then that I was 'agnostic' about the practice. I'll admit it: I've tweaked interviews – some of the "Public Eye Chats" in this space, for example – for "uhm"s and "you know"s and "like"s. And I will continue to. There's no need for drive-by gotchas or '(sic)'s. They only serve to belittle the other person and make you sound overly sanctimonious or prim. Or just a jerk.

But according to the details shared by Ira Glass and Amy Dickinson in Elzweig's article, what Solomon engages in is not cleaning or editing as much as it is rewriting-bordering- upon-overhauling. No, such a practice doesn't rise to Jayson Blair-level crimes and misdemeanors. And no, two people stepping forward from a very large group does not make for a 'trend.' But if more participants in the weekly conversations step forward – particularly non-axe-grinders like Ira Glass and Amy Dickinson – and claim that Solomon's tactics are more widespread than just two occasions, then the New York Times Magazine must consider replacing her. (Or at the very least, posting an audio file online to each interview for complete transparency.)

Journalism is the rough draft of history, the saying goes. And Carl Bernstein called it "the best obtainable version of the truth." I'm good with either one of those bromides. But when it begins to feel like a writer's workshop where you tinker freely, that's when it stops being journalism and starts to resemble creative writing.

(Update to some readers: When I used the term 'non-axe-grinders,' I was including Ira Glass and Amy Dickinson in that classification. My intent was to indicate that criticisms could be deemed more credible if they weren't from political partisans who frequently are the interview subjects.)