Monday, February 07, 2011

A Cautionary Journalism Tale About Reneging on Interviews

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J.—Even during a time of ill health, you manage to learn some lessons.

Last Monday, I was scheduled to do a phone interview with Aaron Katz, the bright young independent filmmaker whose entertaining third feature, Cold Weather, opened at IFC Center this past Friday. This was to be published as a blog post on The Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy blog. But then I got sick Saturday afternoon, and that sickness extended to Monday morning and beyond. And because I thought I only had equipment to record a phone conversation off a land line, and because I didn't have a land line in my apartment, I figured the only thing I could reasonably do is to ask the film's publicist to put off the interview for another day and see how I felt the next day. So that's what I did...and the publicist kindly obliged.

The next day, I turned out to be no better health-wise than I was the day before, and I made the same request: to see if I got better enough by Wednesday to be able to go to work and conduct a proper phone interview. Again, the publicist consented to this.

And then, Wednesday morning came and my cold had not abated; in fact, judging by the 101.7°F temperature I had when I woke up, it seemed to have gotten worse. By this point, I figured that if I hadn't been able to get an interview down on my digital recorder, I probably wouldn't be able to transcribe and edit the interview down quickly enough for it to be published either Thursday or Friday, in time for Cold Weather's official theatrical release. So, unfortunately, I felt I had to let it go—and when I asked one of the Speakeasy editors whether or not I should continue to pursue this interview, she agreed that it was best to drop it at this point.

Of course, these publicists weren't willing to let this opportunity for extra exposure go until they were absolutely sure they weren't going to get press from me. So they persisted in trying to coming up with alternative solutions. At one point, one of the publicists suggested an email interview. I ran this by the aforementioned Speakeasy editor, and, as I suspected, the editor said that was not acceptable.

But then this editor dropped this line at the end of the email:

"But for future reference, if you agree to an interview, you should try to do it [emphasis mine]."

Here's an approximate summation of the infuriated thoughts that swirled through my brain immediately after I had read this: You gotta be fucking kidding me! Could that be, like, the WORST thing anyone could say to anyone in my situation? You think I didn't TRY??? I could barely get out of bed Monday morning, and you honestly expect me to rouse my feverish, near-bedridden ass up to go to an office all the way in midtown Manhattan just to conduct a mere 20-minute interview that I will probably end up having to cut down to a mere 800-1,000 words just because you stupid blog editors impose some stupid word count on ONLINE blog posts in some misguided attempt at trying to affect a light, superficial (and completely uninteresting to me) "infotainment" style? And oh yeah: I don't actually get PAID for my stupid blog contributions, do I? So why the fuck should I bust my ass for you if you're not going to PAY me a little extra for my contributions, like you do with all the other OUTSIDE FREELANCERS you allow to contribute?

As you could guess, I was not happy to read those words at all, which reeked of a complete lack of sensitivity and empathy.

But then I got a valuable second opinion from a co-worker of mine who is also a news assistant at the Journal. She assessed the situation this way:

"It's definitely not your fault you got sick, but I guess in the journalism world--unless you're dead you're supposed to do an assignment (even if not in office). It's a sad but true fact of the culture."

And then I started reflecting on this situation more, on that day and on the next day (when I actually went into the office)...and I began to realize all sorts of ways that I could possibly have pulled off doing this phone interview even while sick. For instance, I could have done a Skype conversation and found some software to record off of my computer. I also could have conducted it through my cellphone and simply put my phone on speaker so my recorder could pick up both my voice and Katz's. Or, at the very least, I could have asked my Facebook friends/Twitter followers, many of whom are fellow film critics/journalists, to offer their own solutions to this unexpected problem; judging by the bevy of responses I got when I tweeted about this whole situation on Thursday, I would have gotten a lot of helpful responses, too.

However I did it, it most likely would have been a far more pleasing and effective resolution than the one that ultimately came about: with no interview to speak of and a lot of regret and frustration directed at others and especially at myself. Where is that intrepid, by-any-means-necessary mindset that actual journalists are supposed to have? Do I even have what it takes to be a good journalist, or was I just never cut out for this line of work in the first place?

I guess the takeaway from this story of an aborted interview is...well, I guess it's what that editor flat-out told me directly: "If you agree to an interview, you should try to do it." By any means necessary...because that's what is expected of you in the journalism world. Not even illness, it seems, is considered a legitimate excuse for reneging on an interview. Imagine if it was an exclusive with a prominent world leader! That would look really bad.

I still stand by what I said about my not getting paid, though.

P.S. I did see Cold Weather last year at Brooklyn Academy of Music's BAM CinemaFest, and wrote down some initial impressions here. I actually saw it again recently, and while I generally stand by what I wrote before, I admit to finding it a more pleasurable experience the second time around, especially knowing in advance the zigzags the plot would take. It's a problematic movie, but it's warmhearted and emotionally generous—very much worth checking out.

1 comment:

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