Deborah Solomon, meet the Ethicist

I’ve been enjoying the New York Times Magazine less and less of late. It’s the fault of two people: Deborah Solomon and The Ethicist.

To read Deborah Solomon’s “Questions for…” column is to realize that one of two things is true: either (1) she has superhuman powers, or (2) she’s a fake. Every interview Solomon prints is filled with the kind of pithy, colorful, perfectly on-target responses that almost no real interviewee is capable of uttering. There is never a wasted word or pointless digression.

Here’s an example, from this week’s column:

Deborah Solomon: Didn’t religion spring up in its earliest forms in connection with the weather, the desire to make sense of rain and lightning?:
Philosophy professor Daniel C. Dennett: We have a built-in, very potent hair-trigger tendency to find agency in things that are not agents, like snow falling off the roof.

Solomon: There was so much infant mortality in the past, which must have played a large role in encouraging people to believe in an afterlife.
Dennett: When a person dies, we can’t just turn that off. We go on thinking about that person as if that person were still alive. Our inability to turn off our people-seer and our people-hearer naturally turns into our hallucinations of ghosts, our sense that they are still with us.

Solomon: But they are still with us, through the process of memory.
Dennett: These aren’t just memories.

Okay, so perhaps Professor Dennett is uncommonly well spoken. Perhaps, even though he’s a philosopher, he’s used to speaking in two- or three-sentence sound bites. But this is the kind of interview Solomon manages to elicit week after week, no matter who’s on the receiving end of her questions. I just can’t imagine she’s able to get these kinds of responses so directly, without editing out anything.

Have you ever interviewed someone? People are almost never inclined to answer a simple question with a simple, relevant answer. Pick someone this week and try it out: Ask a friend or colleague ten (sometimes random) questions in a row, like Deborah Solomon does in her column, and see how closely your interviewee sticks to the topic, says colorful and interesting things, and ends on a wham-bang note, as all Solomon’s interviews do. Good luck.

I just want to know the basics. How many interviews does Solomon conduct each week so she can get one really good usable one? Does she edit out boring and/or irrelevant responses? Does she mix up the order of the questions to get the narrative arc she wants? If not, she’s the DiMaggio of Discourse. The Sultan of Speech. The Quintessential Query Queen. See? I even have time to think about it what I’m saying, and I’m running off at the mouth like a, a … oh, hell.

My pique with The Ethicist is similar; I just want to understand what his methods are. What bugs me about his column is that someone writes in with a problem, which the Ethicist then responds to, ostensibly to help that person navigate his or her personal ethical minefield. He addresses the questioner directly, offering advice and avuncular witticisms. He lets ’em know what they can and can’t do.

And then, in the very same column, he offers an “update,” telling us what that person ultimately went ahead and did, and what the result was. Each time this happens, I feel like I’ve been played.

Is the Ethicist providing real-time advice or not? Does he contact these letter-writers in advance of writing them into the column? And if not, does he offer his printed advice speciously, knowing the person has already plunged ahead, stung by the Ethicist’s silence into making his or her own decision? Don’t you think it’s a little — I don’t know — ethically dubious to pretend to offer advice when the person’s actual crisis is over?

Also, I think the Ethicist is a mite wordy in his responses. With greater economy of language, he could easily answer three or four questions each week, rather than one or two. Hmm… wordy. Perhaps he should get Deborah Solomon to pose the readers’ questions to him; then he’d respond with the requisite short, colorful, fascinating answers. Note to self: Email the Ethicist today.

Update: He ignored me.

3 responses to “Deborah Solomon, meet the Ethicist”

  1. Bryan Waterman says:

    I feel your pain, Lisa. But is her technique much different than what happens on NPR, other than the live/call-in shows? Certainly Fresh Air is heavily edited. Maybe reading it somehow makes it feel more phony? But unedited interviews are a real drag too–especially when they include UMs and ERs.

  2. Lisa Parrish says:

    You know, I don’t pay as much attention to how radio interviews are edited, perhaps because I’ve never done radio work. But with regard to print interviews, I do feel like it’s misleading to have them laid out as if that’s how they really happened when they didn’t.

    If you’re quoting someone in a book or straight-up news article and you omit part of their quote, you have to insert bracketed ellipses. Otherwise, the quote has been edited, which is unacceptable from an ethical point of view — at least in good newspapers, magazines and books.. Why does Solomon get a free pass on this?

    And yes, okay, I admit that her transgression bugs me more because in printing the interviews this way, she makes herself look impossibly clever. I reject, however, the notion (as expressed privately by a new reader of The Great Whatsit) that my blog posting can be summarized as “I’m jealous that Deborah Solomon writes for the New York Times Magazine and I don’t.” I’m all about the purity of the form. Really.

  3. Lisa Parrish says:

    Yes, readers, those pithy, colorful interviews by the impossibly-clever Deborah Solomon are fake. Her “Questions for…” interview with Tim Russert, which ran on Mother’s Day, implied he dodged questions about his mother. A reader even sent in a letter applauding her: “What could be funnier than Tim Russert’s refusing to answer insistent, Russert-like questioning about the things he learned from his mother?”

    But here’s Russert’s side of the story, from his letter to the editor on June 11th. If even half of this is true, Solomon’s tactics for interviewing and writing her column are deplorable indeed.

    “The portrayal of my interview with Deborah Solomon (May 14) was misleading, callous and hurtful. I spoke with Deborah Solomon for more than one hour for what she described as a Mother’s Day feature. We spent much of that time talking about my mom. I told her how my mom insisted her four kids sit at the kitchen table doing our homework while she prepared supper. We couldn’t trade our pencil for a fork until she had corrected our work. Her lessons of discipline, accountability and preparation were invaluable training for my job as a journalist. I told her of Mom’s joy at hearing our parish priest say, ‘The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world’ because it affirmed the reality in our family — that I was truly blessed to have a strong mother and strong father. I told her how my mom would wake me with a soft ‘Tim, Tim.’ To me this proved you could be heard without yelling, something I hope is reflected each Sunday on ‘Meet the Press.’

    I told Solomon the details of my mom’s final hours last August when she died from cancer. All four children were at her bedside. I told Solomon that my mom was a beautiful person, inside and out.

    Solomon chose to ignore all this, and instead the interview was selectively edited — an interview entitled ‘All About My Father,’ implying I chose to talk about my dad rather than my mom on Mother’s Day. She also combined questions in her piece, suggesting I did not offer separate and distinct responses to each of her questions, which, of course, I did.

    My mom was a central figure in my life. This was my first Mother’s Day without her. Your writer’s deliberate mischaracterization of our conversation and her feeble attempt at humor made it a particularly painful day.

    Tim Russert