If Aristotle ran the Huffington Post

Artifice is not the same as deceit. The media is full of artifice. Words are edited in print, chopped and put back together in audio and video, not to misrepresent, but simply to provide a smoother, more coherent picture of the ideas being presented.

Most of the time we do not think of any of this as deceitful. But this seems in part to depend on how good our media literary is. For instance, it is standard practice when filming an interview with only one camera to, at the end, record some “noddies”: the interviewer is seen nodding or responding to what the speaker is saying. This is in effect a re-staging of their actual reactions – at the time they are filmed, the interviewer is just looking into space. But some viewers do feel deceived when they discover this.

So where is the line between benign artifice and deceit? I got wondering about this after I received an email from Tom Morris, author of If Aristotle Ran General Motors. He has started a series of “interviews” with philosophers at the Huffington Post and he was on the look out for “interviewees”. You’ll see why I use scare-quotes when you read what his message contained:

If you have an idea for an interview of about 1,000 words or fewer (or up to 1,200 on rare occasion), please email me. Then I ask only that your submission be formatted like the interview you see. Suggest my questions and comments as well as your own, and I’ll edit from there. Please also help me with the formatting time by using this code for your name and mine with each question and answer….

As examples, he has:

Tom: Hi, fellow philosopher! You have a new book out on XYZ.

You: Hi, Tom. Yes indeed.

I wasn’t comfortable with this. Morris was asking people to write “interviews” with themselves, pretending that Morris had set the questions. Morris would then edit them if he didn’t like any bits of them.

Now this is hardly criminal behaviour, but I think that philosophers of all people should be wary about being so brazenly untruthful. I should say that Morris is very open about the process, and clearly doesn’t see this as deceitful. When I raised my concerns to him in an email he said “It’s just a quicker and easier way of providing a forum for the voices of others,” adding “I’ve been very fortunate to have ample public hearing for my work. I’m just wanting to share some of the stage, so to speak. I’m 58 and won’t be doing this forever. I want to encourage others in the academy to ‘get out there’ with more of their work.”

Although I made it clear I was not accusing him of any subterfuge, his response didn’t convince me. I followed up:

For me something doesn’t sit right abut philosophers presenting themselves so falsely. It isn’t an interview. You didn’t ask the questions. It’s just not truthful. It’s not a big deal, perhaps – we’re not talking about major disinformation here. But if Aristotle ran The Huffington Post, no way would he would approve! And I think if Huffington Post readers knew this, some at least wouldn’t like it.

One part of his second reply really didn’t convince:

Of course dialogues written by just one person have a rich tradition in our biz. Plato didn’t mean to trick people, nor did Hume. And these aren’t even written by just one person.

But no one ever thought they were real dialogues. He also wrote:

My understanding is that the philosophers I interview just suggest the questions. That’s how I take what they write to me. If I approve the questions, that amounts to my asking them. If I don’t, I propose a question of my own or a bevy of such questions. The end result, to me, counts as an interview, not just an “interview”.

I want to stress that I do not think Morris is behaving with any malign intent. He said he was happy for me to blog about this and quote from his emails. But I do think he’s mistaken here. The artifice in this case is misleading, whether it is intended to mislead or not. And although this is not an important case – it’s really just a good example of a wider issue – I do think it is important for philosophers to uphold values of truthfulness, even when the stakes are low.

Am I being too puritanical? Or hypocritical? After all, I use artifice when I edit my podcasts and written interviews. At a time where more and more people are using media tools, it is perhaps important that we try to draw some rough lines at least between acceptable and misleading artifice. But where?

31 Comments.

  1. I don’t see why he couldn’t just present the ‘interviews’ as constructed as they are. Be up front about the philosophers/academics interviewing themselves? That might be a fun take on the interview and would be honest.

  2. When I edited a TV news programme in Bristol we ran a ‘council cuts’ item about library closures. The crew filmed a librarian closing the shutters — at their request — with a view to using the sequence to illustrate a script line. I insisted that they went back to film him actually closing up at the end of the day. I suffered a lot of flak for this as the shot was practically the same as the ‘preconstruction’, it made the edit rushed, and I was — I was told — being anal. My view was that viewers should be confident that averyone involved should use their best efforts to stay close to reality — not perfect, but good enough. Even though this was trivial it spoke about our concern for truthfulness. Is this the line to draw? Honest best efforts while being absolutely upfront about artifice (I’m thinking about Crimewatch-type reconstructions, and not much else)? I sometimes ask editors why they are happy to restage a past event (fraud victim answers ringing phone for camera, etc) and the answer most often is … because we can.

  3. You are presenting one thing as another, for the purpose of labour saving and, in the process, misleading the reader about exactly what they are getting.

    Secondly, in a real interview the interviewer will respond to the answers given to his questions, and for example, if she does not agree with a point made she will challenge it.

    The danger with the proposed scheme is that the ‘arranger’ will not do this and the published ‘interview’ will therefore present the views in an unchallenged manner, possibly giving them false legitimacy.

    If the ‘interviewee’ put certain remarks in the piece I may then choose, for example, to quote them in Wikipedia as being evidence of something because ‘interviewee’ and ‘interviewer’ both presented them without challenge. When in reality they may represent to unfounded views of one person which have been published without criticism.

  4. David Baggett

    Well, as I was the first interviewed, I’d say this. I thought Tom’s was a generous offer, transparent from the start, that gave fellow philosophers a chance to talk up some of our current work and draw a bit more attention to it in a public medium where our voices are often absent. Suppose instead we’d e-mailed back and forth and he had said, in the course of the dialogue, “I’m not a journalist, but I’d like to interview you about your work; what are some questions you might suggest I ask,” doing so would be tantamount to interviewees coming up with some of the questions themselves. This would save time and enable the exchange to find focus. In terms of our answers, well, clearly enough the interviewee provides those. Tom then goes back and tweaks the questions we suggest along with his own comments primarily, not just changing “bits he doesn’t like,” but fleshing out his own questions, suggesting new ones, eliciting more feedback, bouncing it back and forth some more, etc. (so by the end of the process it becomes a robust exchange). He added some things about me, for example, that I would have never written myself; this is how Tom is and always has been: encouraging, affirming, supportive. Despite his own achievements in the field, he’s always looking to help someone else find their own voice. So characterizing what Tom’s doing here as dubious strikes me less as puritanical than simply myopically slanted, choosing to focus on one dimension of a situation quite a bit more complex than that, together with an intimation that there’s something nefarious going on that’s quite a bit less exciting than that.

  5. Having read Tom and David’s interview I’d agree it’s “transparent” but to call it “a robust exchange” is pushing it!

  6. David Baggett

    I meant, Julian, that he and I had a robust exchange in hammering the interview out. Sorry I wasn’t clearer.

  7. Jeremy Bendik-Keymer

    Julian,

    I agree with you about the importance of truthfulness, which in this case means accuracy, since Morris isn’t trying to hide what’s he’s doing. Allen Thompson and I were just interviewed for Morris’s blog, and I did not find the process inaccurate, though. It’s common to propose -or even agree on- questions for an interviewer to use before an interview. This is common in politics, although I remember using it to some degree when working on the radio when less was at stake. What Morris did is a version of that.

    The objection above about the method not allowing Morris to go into detail is not to the point. He can if he wants to, and he will reframe things if he thinks that he wants the interview to go a different way. In some ways, having the entire process carried out in writing makes the possibility for reframing all the more possible for Morris.

    As to the edited nature of the piece, that is a widespread practice in interviews in almost all forms of journalism I’ve seen.

    So, perhaps my only concern is that in the form of interview Morris is using, not just the questions but the answers are proposed by the interviewee ahead of time. Here, Since Morris reframes both of these as he sees fit, asks for clarification or something he wanted to hear about, and so on, I don’t see how he has fouled out. The final interview is still the result, not of just one party pitching questions and answers, but of Morris working on a proposed set of questions and answers and going from there. And this fits what an interview is. My Oxford American Dictionary has this for an interview: “a conversation between a journalist or radio or television presenter and a person of public interest, used as the basis of a broadcast or publication.” (Apple, 2005-7). That is what Morris did with Allen and I: we had a conversation that became the basis for an on-line publication. And I can say, just to be sincere, that Allen’s comments were in his voice, and Tom’s were in his. Only stubs of the original proposal remained, around which or against which we each said what we wanted to say, how we wanted to say it.

    Thanks for being a watchdog.

    Jeremy Bendik-Keymer

  8. Thanks for all the comments. I’d be interested on thoughts on the general issue though. When does artifice become unacceptably deceptive? I don’t want to turn this into an inquisition into the Morris example!

  9. Ralph Sabella

    Julian,
    I’m glad I read this, because I’ve had no experience with behind the scenes of an interview. My strongest suspicion was that the interviewer probably advised the person to be interviewed what ground was to be covered and in the case of politicians, the actual questions that would be asked. But for the interviewee to pick the questions seems altogether to kill the purpose of an interview. It certainly smacks of dishonesty, and I wouldn’t call your stance on it puritanical. Hypocritical? No, not that either but also not a purist. I want to believe in your editing of interviews the only content altered is that which both you and the interviewee agree upon. Or is there a problem with that?

  10. Jeremy Bendik-Keymer

    Julian,

    I don’t think “deceptive” is the right word to associate with Morris’s blog. I don’t know what you think of Williams’s distinction between sincerity and accuracy, but it seems accurate, to me. What Morris did is at worst inaccurate, not deceptive, since deception is a matter of insincerity (to use the technical term). But Morris is not hiding the truth. What is at issue is whether he is accurate in his use of the word “interview”. As I thought I showed, he is, at least with respect to ordinary language.

    Ralph, this comment covers your use of “dishonesty” as well. But I’d also add that the interviewee does not *decide* (you said, “pick”) on the questions in advance. He or she *proposes* them, and then Morris picks. In my case, he rewrote the questions substantially, although he found the topics they proposed reasonable.

    Julian, I like the larger question you seem to be getting at, which is about what the internet does to genres. I don’t think that there is an essence here to be unearthed, but that we are dealing with a matter of convention.

    I don’t usually spend time in blog discussions. So excuse me if I don’t respond further. I happened to be on, because I checked to see whether my comment was posted.

    Thanks for this public discussion.
    Jeremy Bendik-Keymer

  11. Jeremy Bendik-Keymer

    Julian,

    I spoke with my colleague Dan Roche, who is both a non-fiction writer and journalism professor. He and I agree that a single line by the blog-writer indicating that the interview is a dramatized report would be more accurate, and I emailed Morris this feedback.

    Best wishes,
    Jeremy Bendik-Keymer

  12. I agree with Ralph. A interview seems to imply a certain give and take between the interviewer and the person interviewed; if that interaction is missing, the reader should be informed.

  13. I just followed the link to the Huffinton Post and read the interview between Tom and Dave.
    Tom says to Dave: “your first-rate editorial work is surpassed
    only by your philosophical insight”, except that Dave really says that to himself. I don’t doubt that Dave’s philosophical insight is superlative, but it does make a difference if he says that himself or if an interviewer says that of him.

  14. Rebecca Housel

    What an interesting postmodern quandary. Interesting because there is no singular definition of truth, which in turn leads one to question the nature of honesty. An example is how my truth is different than say, my brother’s. Yes, we grew up in the same house with the same parents, but everything from our gender to our birth order gives each of us a unique perspective. We have differing views of our parents, though we share the same general experience, because we, two people who are arguably two of the closest people on the planet not only by virtue of our genetics, but by virtue of shared experiences, shared culture, shared geography, shared familial impact, shared theology, etc., have unique positionalities. And despite ALL we have in common, we still find ourselves differing in how each of us perceives our family. Does that mean my brother is not being honest? Does it mean I’m being deceptive? No, it simply means that “truth” and “honesty” are not static concepts, and haven’t been for more than sixty years. The caveat here is that millions upon millions were murdered the last time someone declared truth to be absolute.

    Like David Baggett, I also have been interviewed by Tom recently. But I have also been interviewed by Redbook magazine, Woman’s World, Inside Higher Ed, the Democrat & Chronicle, Fox news, NBC, Marie Claire–and what’s amazing is that these reporters, these writers, these editors–whoever it was ASKING the questions–often took things I said out of context, used and abused my words to twist the interview to their truth. How is that honest? It’s not. But it is ACCEPTED. However, I would caution those who may agree with Dr. Baggini about this sort of debate.

    I have known Tom Morris for approximately seven years. We have worked together on numerous projects. From my positionality, Tom is one of the most HONEST people I know, not to mention one of the best editors, and of course, one of the most “talked about” American philosophers–as Dr. Baggini’s essay lends proof toward. And during our interview, like other interviews I’ve had that took place over email, I sent Tom my thoughts on the topic I hoped he’d include in his Huffington Post column. HOWEVER, what was different about THIS interview was that I KNOW, without a doubt, that my words will not be misused, will not be abused–not only because Tom sent me his final write-up for my approval, but also because Tom Morris is HONEST. He’s truthful. He doesn’t want to “trick” me into doing an interview I’ll later regret (and there have been many, unfortunately). A good example is a piece written by David Downs for Gelf magazine. If you read the article, it appears Downs interviewed me when in fact, I didn’t even KNOW the article had been published, let alone written. All Downs did was take quotes from one of my book chapters, inserting those quotes in the framework of his article. That isn’t honest, is it? Downs didn’t lie though. I did say those things–just not to him. Positionality again.

    Though I appreciate Dr. Baggini’s recognition of Tom’s good intentions, I have to wonder why Dr. Baggini, who admits to potentially finding issues in his own work (in reference to his podcasts, etc.), chose to use Tom’s newest column as a vehicle to discuss the lines between “acceptable artifice” and “misleading artifice”? The irony is, of course, that there is no line between “acceptable artifice” and “misleading artifice.”

    Artifice has several definitions; artifice can be ingenuity but it can also be trickery. Either way, it’s still artifice. The word artifice itself came into use in the mid-1500′s from the Latin, artificium, meaning craftsmanship. Of course, etymologically speaking, artifice is related to the word artificial–which is more along the lines of what Dr. Baggini is suggesting about Tom Morris’s collegial offer to feature fellow philosophers in his new Huffington Post column. The word artificial originates in the late 14th century, a Middle English word also from the Latin, artificialis, meaning contrived by art. But this isn’t a case of linguistic semantics…this is philosophy, for the love of wisdom. Let us proceed then, and wisely so.

    What’s really happening here is a sort of Campbellian trial–where Dr. Baggini wishes to transform consciousness in order to discern what he perceives to be an underlying singularity to a rather vexing duality. It’s existential. And it’s entirely human. And by extension, innately flawed.

    I don’t know what would happen if Aristotle ran the Huffington Post, but I can say that when Amanda Huffington runs it, she makes good choices. Choices like Tom Morris. Obviously Dr. Baggini received a similar invitation from Tom, like me, like David Baggett. What I don’t understand is why Dr. Baggini felt this invitation so heinously offensive that he had to use quotes from emails and use a public forum to “prove” to the world, I suppose, that Tom Morris isn’t an honest guy…with the qualifier that Tom had no mal-intent. Mixed messages to be sure.

    The email “that got…” Dr. Baggini “wondering” was sent by Tom Morris on April 17th. And yet, we find Dr. Baggini’s criticism one month later? And even more intriguing to the observer, Tom Morris’s Huffington Post column had its first run one week ago today…and received a tremendous response. So tremendous, in fact, a major LA newspaper posted Tom’s piece on its online edition. It would almost seem as though this is, perhaps, a case of a pig that wants to be eaten…but that’s not my area of specialization. I leave that to you, Dr. Baggini. And may I stress that I don’t believe you are “behaving with any malign intent”… not at all.

  15. Philosophy and controversy! Who would have guessed!

    I have to admit that I’m utterly thrilled to be the cause of a brand new metaphysically and epistemologically unsolvable and infinitely discussable problem, just when we thought we were all out of new ones!

    Please allow me to settle everyone’s nerves. When I have an interview with the Pope one day, I won’t act like Morley Safer of “60 Minutes” fame, or like Jack Bauer, of “24″ renown. It’s not meant to be an adversarial situation of interrogation. It’s a meeting of minds, a conversation. That’s exactly what my interviews on the Huffington Post are.

    I chose the title “Interview With a Philosopher” rather than “Conversation With a Philosopher” because of its obvious allusion to the culturally prominent Anne Rice book and subsequent movie, “Interview With The Vampire.” We philosophers are, after all, creatures of the night, reading, researching, and writing at all hours. We draw our sustenance from the lifeblood of the human condition, and as Socrates demonstrated, most often nothing will stop us short of a stake to the heart.

    People rough out a proposal of questions they’d like to be asked, and answers they’d like to give. That is the starting point, not the end point. The interview that went up today had 7 versions of collaborative thought that went back and forth. I’m not looking for a “gotcha” moment. If I think someone is doing important or interesting work, and I want to get the word out, then if I see them saying something untoward, or less precise, or less developed, than I’d like to see, I have no desire to object to their statements and “correct” them in public. I’d rather collaborate in advance to get the best results between or among ourselves and publish the best we can provide the reading public about their good work.

    Is this artifice? It’s art, for sure. And, I hope, good art. As we all know, philosophers have used a profusion of literary forms and processes over the centuries to get their ideas out. I know plenty of people who think Socrates said everything Plato “reported.” How many have thought that Epictetus’ student who took notes from his lectures, got it all verbatim? Were either of them seeking to deceive?

    I understand that this is different, and because of the technologies available to us, it’s new. But what we are doing is having great conversations and reporting the best bits. When I and an interviewee both sign off on the final result, which may be created over many days, we take up those words as the words we want to say. Presidents of the US have sometimes written every word of their speeches. Mostly, they use speech writers, and add their own suggestions and demands and don’t stop until they can “own” all the words. What we are doing is much less contrived than that. We’re having an ongoing conversation, a real conversation, and when we get to the end, to 1,000 words or more that we all like and think reflect the things we’d like to say, we all sign off on them, “own” them, and publish them.

    There is no deception, no misdirection, no faking it. Is it a 1950′s newspaper interview where all sat down in the same physical room, and someone transcribed the first conversation held? No. What is, these days? Is there any intention to mislead? Of course not. That’s why you know what’s going on. I myself spread the word as to exactly how it would all transpire! Would Aristotle approve? I can’t think of any of his principles or beliefs that would cause him to pull out of the process, as it actually takes place, or to pull the plug on the whole effort, if his last name were Huffington.

    I appreciate the concern expressed here. I applaud any good thinking it launches. But we have other equally demanding problems to solve, like whether ANYTHING that happens on reality TV shows like “Gene Simmons: Family Jewels” or “The Real Housewives of New York City” is unscripted, spontaneous, and actually real in any respect at all.

    Thanks again for your pondering of this new online blog genre. The proof, as they say, will be in the pudding. I invite you and your readers to visit weekly and enjoy the interviews that are yet to come.

    Good Wishes! Tom Morris

  16. David Baggett

    Amos, for the record, no, I didn’t write those lines about myself, as I was trying to suggest earlier when I said Tom said nice things about me that I would have never said myself. Unsure why you would assume the least charitable possibility: “except that Dave really says that to himself,” as you say. No, that’s quite inaccurate, but a discussion of this nature easily falls into just this sort of presumptuous, uncharitable “what’s wrong with this picture” mentality done, sadly, under the guise of a “commitment to the truth.” Forgive me for being skeptical.

  17. Ralph Sabella

    The reference to Anne Rice and her Vampire interview was cute though I admit I didn’t get the “obvious allusion” to it.
    A few weeks ago in these pages we discussed art. Someone, I believe it was I, suggested the only way of knowing whether something is meant to be art is if its creator says it is. So, I guess you have every right believing what you do is art. Or were you just playing on the word “artifice?”
    You did point out that your mention of the works of Plato and Epictetus’ student were different than the issue before us. I’d say so much so that I wonder why you unearthed those two ancients for your argument. Do you really think that the US President’s ghost writers are closer to the mark you’re aiming at?
    I have no complaint with what you do, and anyway, if your boss likes what you’re about why would you care what I think? But I do feel the word “interview” in its normal use does lead one to expect more than what you propose it is. Perhaps a change of name to, quasi-interview or faux-interview would be more appropriate and consider, in keeping with art genre names, both have a rather nice ring to them.

  18. Ralph Sabella

    Tom Morris,
    Sorry, I meant to address the above comment to you.

  19. In response to Rebecca Housel, it is right to point out that a lot of interviewers take words of context and so on, so the HuffPo interviews are in some ways more truthful than the average newspaper one. Also, a lot of celebrity interviews are so controlled by PR people they are hardly interviews at all. However, I don’t think these are the standards by which philosophers should judge their own work. If we are to uphold a distinction between reasonable and misleading artifice, why take as a benchmark the norms of the time, when those norms are already so corrupted?

    Where the issue of norms comes in is that perhaps if the distinction is already so blurred, is it reasonable to ask philosophers who get engaged in the mass media to be much more exacting in their standards? There is a risk of a clean hands problem here, where in order to engage, you just have to go along with some conventions that wouldn’t exist in an ideal world. As someone who does write for popular media, this is part of what interests me in this issue.

    But I do object to one thing you said. I do not think it helps to speculate as to motives. You say

    “The email ‘that got…’ Dr. Baggini ‘wondering’ was sent by Tom Morris on April 17th. And yet, we find Dr. Baggini’s criticism one month later? And even more intriguing to the observer, Tom Morris’s Huffington Post column had its first run one week ago today…and received a tremendous response. So tremendous, in fact, a major LA newspaper posted Tom’s piece on its online edition. It would almost seem as though this is, perhaps, a case of a pig that wants to be eaten…but that’s not my area of specialization. I leave that to you, Dr. Baggini.”

    I’ve just been too busy to post until yesterday, when the latest issue of tpm finally went to press. And I didn’t know the first interview had been posted until after I had written the blog. You don’t have to believe me, but you should note nothing I have said about Tom is about alleged hidden intentions that he could not prove. My frequent caveats about no allegation of malign intent are there for a good reason: I think it is wrong to say anything about bad intent when you have no way of knowing what the intent is.

    So when you say

    “I have to wonder why Dr. Baggini, who admits to potentially finding issues in his own work (in reference to his podcasts, etc.), chose to use Tom’s newest column as a vehicle to discuss the lines between ‘acceptable artifice’ and ‘misleading artifice’?”

    first, you don’t have to wonder at all! If you do, the answer is because this was a philosopher, not a journalist, doing the interviews, and it was a rare occasion where I really had to ask myself if I would be comfortable to go ahead. I wasn’t. I spoke to Tom, he was open, he was happy to have it discussed.

  20. I’m baffled and perturbed by Rebecca Housel’s comment, which implies in a heavy-handed manner that Julian Baggini’s piece is somehow self-serving and that his account of his reasons for writing it is dishonest – a view that Tom Morris himself clearly doesn’t take. And putting words like “HONEST” and “KNOW” in caps makes her argument seem more aggressive rather than better reasoned. Two factual points: 1) “The caveat here is that millions upon millions were murdered the last time someone declared truth to be absolute.” I have no idea what she is talking about: Nazism? Can’t see absolute truth was an issue there. Stalinism? A better candidate, but I still don’t think epistemology had a great deal to do with it. The Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”)? The Roman Catholic Church? 2) Much more trivially: it’s Arianna, not Amanda Huffington.

    I’d like to take up one point she makes: that journalists routinely twist an interviewee’s words or take them out of context. That does indeed happen a lot, and I appreciate how frustrating the experience must be for the interviewee; but you should be wary of saying that the journalist in the case is not being honest (or even HONEST). In my career as a journalist, I’ve discovered how easy it is to misinterpret or mispresent what an interviewee says, so that even with the best will in the world you may end up distorting their views. Even if what you write is impeccably accurate and fair, it’s still the case that – just like Ms Housel and her brother – your truth may not be the same as the interviewee’s truth. And don’t forget that between writer and reader sit editors and sub-editors who may cut words, change the order of things, add headlines and straplines – all things that have the potential to shift the emphasis of a piece in important ways.

    Tom Morris’s method of conducting the “interview” eliminates most of those problems; but in making the relationship between journalist and interviewee less problematic, he introduces an element of deception into the relationship between both parties and the reader. If he is going to continue to conduct interviews like this, it’s important that he makes the process as transparent as possible. I think the sort of disclaimer suggested by Jeremy Bendik-Keymer is a minimal requirement.

    One of the great things about the internet is that it opens up the possibility of a conversation between journalist, subject and reader: we can ask questions, add comments, refine or dispute what has been said before – a journalist’s account of what has been said need not be the final word. But that process can only work well when there is a presumption of good will and honest intent on all sides. Ms Housel seems to have abandoned that presumption; I think she owes Julian Baggini an apology.

  21. David, My apologies if I attributed those lines to you when Tom wrote them. However, you claim that a discussion of this sort leads to uncharitable readings such as mine. I would say that interviews which are not interviews lead to uncharitable readings.

  22. Deborah Solomon of the New York Times got into some trouble a few years ago because her interviews in the Sunday magazine were much more edited than she was letting on. Now her author credit explicitly says something about editing. So–yes, journalistic ethics pertains to interviews here and I think everything Julian says is right, where journalism is concerned. But is blogging journalism? Is Tom Morris really a journalist working under Arianna’s editorship? Not really, not exactly. That’s why when I got his email, I did think “odd way to write an interview” but it didn’t stop me from later thinking “maybe I’ll send him something.” One reason is because it was clear he was going to select “interviews” he liked and then edit. So the author’s write up was just a stage in a longer process. I don’t think this would be a legit method for Deborah Solomon in the NYT or for Julian Baggini in TPM, but again, we’re talking about blogging.

  23. Jean: It is a blog, as you say, but one does expect more rigorous standards about truth from a philosophy blog, as Julian
    points out above. You yourself have an excellent philosophy blog, and as far as I can see, you are very precise about what you say. Every time I go to the dentist I leaf through piles of magazines full of interviews with ageing, but still glamourous movie stars, interviews that one knows are not interviews, especially since two pages after the interview, one runs into an ad for a miraculous
    beauty cream featuring the same ageing, but eternally beautiful movie star. Fine, but one expects something different from philosophers.

  24. michael reidy

    Morris wrote Philosophy for Dummies and when I read that book puff in Huff and Puff I thought ‘yes that is your metier’, interviews that are not interviews, dialogues that are no dialogues in the great American tradition of flim flam and egregious fawning. The medium really is the massage.

  25. Jeremy Bendik-Keymer

    Wow. This really became a discussion. I’m glad I checked back in. Here’s some semi-technical philosophy:

    What convinced me and Dan that there was inaccuracy in the use of the word “interview” was the convention “[name]:” -a dramatic convention. I was being misled by counter-examples to think that there was no inaccuracy at all. Moreover, the dictionary definition of “interview” did not reveal any. But I do think the convention “[name]:” has a meaning. It signals that someone has initiated some utterance and taken responsibility for initiating it. I do not work in philosophy of language, but it seems to me that there might be some sort of conceptual distinction to be made here between the initiation of an utterance -its act- and what the utterance says -its content. I have a feeling that the strong sense journalists have that an interview is not what Morris did results from this conceptual distinction. In effect, it seems that the verity of the act is in question, not the spontaneity of the content.

    This is moving out of my waters fast, and I barely have my S.C.U.B.A. license. It can also become tedious. But for what it’s worth, this kind of consideration made me see where an inaccuracy in the use of “interview” might lie in a case where conventional usage reveals no inaccuracy by dictionary standards. There may actually be a conceptual feature of language that the boundary violation-worry is tracking.

    Best wishes,

    Jeremy Bendik-Keymer

  26. Regardless of whether blogging is journalism or not, whether I will engage with any written piece is determined in part by how truthful I believe the piece to be. If I believe a blogger is trying to deceive me, I will either disengage fully or attempt to expose the deceit. The mere fact that a blog entry is not vetted by someone else than the writer themself does not exempt blogging from some of the same ethical standards journalism aught to follow. Yes, blogging is more akin to classic oped than investigative journalism. Still, deceit is deceit. And an oped writer has a responsibility to try to get their core facts right. If an oped writer says “I interviewed such and such” and it turns out they didn’t really interview such and such, my willingness to engage with their opinions will erode. That said, it’s not like Tom Morris didn’t even engage in exchange with his “interviewees”. Unlike Jayson Blair and that scoundrel Plato he didn’t fabulate the entire thing!

    And as an aside, I have to disagree somewhat with Housel. Whereas knowledge of truth is less than perfect, truth is absolute and uncompromising. It’s only relative in the sense that trueness exists only as a relationship between subject and predicate. That said, truth is indeed (as Housel points out) fluid. What is true today will not necessarily be true tomorrow. Our condition (especially our social condition) is affected by our beliefs, making truth appear to be relative (although, ultimately, it’s not). Positionality does not affect the truth of whether my mother was, and is, an alcoholic. My brother will not disagree with me on this one. But even if he did, he would plainly and simply be wrong given the criteria for the class known as Alcoholics. Relativism is more troubling than absolutism. I agree that absolutism can be dangerous when people start thinking they are infallible (and somehow have a monopoly on determining the truth). All extreme-Isms are dangerous. But western relativism is a more insidious problem and continues to be a greater threat to the future wellbeing of humanity.

  27. Everyone seems to accept that Tom Morris asked his interviewees for questions and their responses in writing and that he then edited them for presentation on his blog. He made changes in content and maybe even in the way questions were framed. He wasn’t simply a pass-through, a conduit for the interviewees to interview themselves without review.

    I do agree that it would be best in the future for Tom to state clearly how the interviews were developed, but I don’t see deliberate deception here, or trickery, and I do see philosophical discussions getting out to the public in an attractive format, one that may lead more non-philosophers to engage in discussions on these topics.

  28. michael reidy

    The giddy thought occurs: ‘Tom Morris’ may only be a humble rower that urges the great trireme forward.

  29. Until recently, I dealt with this kind of thing regularly, but in a broadcast news environment. That is, one in which the word ‘epistemology’ would get me banned from anybody’s gang. I had some maxims: if it isn’t live, don’t say it is. Don’t even imply it. ‘Codded’ interviews (an odd term which means questions and answers being captured asynchronously and edited together later) were right out. I understand that entertainment outlets in particular do this all the time — a film company supplies a video of a star answering questions which can then be intercut with a journalist ‘asking’ them. Codded two-ways (a presenter q-and-a with a reporter on location which couldn’t happen synchronously for technical reasons) were OK, if handled carefully, and if the questions were actually asked by the presenter, probably over a non-broadcast link. This was, in content terms, an alternative to having the reporter rant for a couple of minutes; interstitial questions simply made it more palatable on-air. These inserts must be intro’d with an ‘earlier I spoke to’. The point is that something called “an interview”, in order to be trusted by an audience, should be a proper interaction between at least two people with each given the opportunity to scrutinise the others’ response. There is, of course, the epistolary interview mode in which I believe Dr Baggini may well have been involved … “Dear Bishop, you’re wrong” .. “Dear AC Grayling, I’m right”. But this is explicitly something else.

    The template we’re discussing makes me uncomfortable because it seems to be neither fish nor fowl, and there appears to be an intention to make it appear to be a synchronous interaction between pals (“I love your work…. Thank’s very much”). Would someone, having due regard for being absolutely upfront with regard to the circumstances of the conversation, have included that flourish? I guess that, in reality, this particular style of engagement would crumple if the exchange became truly robust. Maybe a future participant could test this with a more combative approach.

  30. Artifice is not the same as deceit. The media is full of artifice. Words are edited in print, chopped and put back together in audio and video, not to misrepresent, but simply to provide a smoother, more coherent picture of the ideas being presented.

  31. There is so much misunderstanding in our communications that the truth can seem to be distorted or manipulated at the most innocent of times.

    I recently had a conversation with my sister where I made an off-handed comment which led my sister to defend her comment and position (perhaps it was the way I said it, without thinking about how best to say it). I later cleared it up that I was not criticizing her but the situation itself (she cited a psychological study which I said generally that I am more interested in the application of the psychological finding as opposed to the study itself).

    Providing a script of the questions to the interviewee and possibly doing a dry-run before appearing on camera might lead to “better truth without misunderstanding” but would take away from spontaneity, possibly appearing less genuine (appears too scripted).

    Would the Jon Stewart Daily Show be considered artifice?