W. T. Stead on Interviewing

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W. T. Stead on Interviewing

Extracted from “Are Interviewers a Blessing or a Curse?” in Idler: an illustrated monthly magazine, Dec. 1895) pp. 494-496

The answer to your question is, that it depends upon the interviewer, in the first place, and, in the second place, upon the mood of mind and state of body of the interviewed. I remember one of the first bank presidents in Chicago telling me how, on one occasion, he was knocked up by an interviewer when he was in the joy of his first beauty sleep, after a long and fatiguing journey, in order that he might be interviewed upon some political or ?nancial item that had just arrived by telegraph. My friend was very irate, refused to say a word, and waited the next day upon the editor to protest against such an outrage. The editor justified his interviewer, whereupon my friend replied: “All right; but bear in mind that if ever such a thing is repeated, I shall hire a stalwart man to ring your door-bell every night for a week an hour after you have gone to bed, and he will keep on ringing until you will come down, and answer the door.” The threat was sufficient, and the bank president was never again troubled at midnight by an inquisitive interviewer.

As a rule, interviewers are neither blessings nor curses, but conveniences or inconveniences. Inconveniences when you are busy, or when you do not want to be asked questions; conveniences when you want to get your ideas into circulation, or to announce facts for which you wish a wide publicity. I remember the first public man in England who consented to be interviewed was Mr. Forster. I interviewed him immediately after his return from Bulgaria, a dozen years ago, and that astute man made a remark which I have never forgotten. He said: “I have no objection to be interviewed, for I think the interview affords a public man an invaluable agency for launching his ideas without responsibility, and enabling him to feel the public pulse before formally committing himself on the subject; but,” said Mr. Forster, “there are two provisos. First, no interview should ever be published until the proof or the MS. has been submitted to the person interviewed for his correction; and, secondly, the fact that the interview has been read before its publication by the interviewed should never be revealed to the world, otherwise an interview which was known to have been revised by the person interviewed would be almost as compromising to him as if he had written a signed article or made a public speech.”

I have always acted upon Mr. Forster’s advice, and cordially recommend it to all journalists, as embodying the last word on this subject. I have had a pretty extensive experience, both as interviewer and interviewed, as the result of which I should say that those whom you interview are most impressed with the marvellous accuracy of your memory when you make them talk a great deal better than they did. An interviewer is rather a nuisance when he has to use his note-book. He should rely upon his memory, or he should take a verbatim note and very few men are able to dictate an interview to a stenographer. Mr. Chauncey Depew told me this summer that there was only one man in the New York press who could take down his observations satisfactorily in an interview, and yet I know few persons who speak more deliberately in dictating than Chauncey Depew.

On the whole, although I have suffered many things from interviewers, I have only reason to complain of two rascals. One interviewed me at Chicago, and made me say exactly the things which I did not say, but which he had specially asked me to say, and which I had refused to say. That interviewer, although then located at Chicago, was, I am sorry to say, an Englishman. The other interviewer of whom I have to complain was a gentleman at Montreal, who published an account of an interview which he had from me on my arrival in that city, in which I expressed various opinions, and made sundry observations, which I heard of for the first time when I read it in the paper. The interview was purely imaginary, although he had palmed it off upon his editor as a genuine document. His excuse was the train was late, he was tired, the “copy” was wanted, and he thought he could construct an interview that would read fairly well; and so he did; but when I publicly stated the fact that I had never seen him, there was a mild sensation in the meeting, as maybe imagined. The editor who had been hoaxed was present,and jumped up and protested. With these exceptions I have sufered little from interviewers. I may have inflicted much suffering on those I interviewed, but it is not for me to speak of that.