Tape It, Baby, Tape It! Scrawled Interviews Are a Risky Romance

You might not think it’s such an earthshaking issue. You might think the question has been settled. But it turns out that a number of highly regarded journalists still reject using a tape recorder or believe their note-taking is superior to it.

A forthcoming book, The New New Journalism by Robert S. Boynton, a series of interviews with 19 nonfiction writers (including yours truly) focusing on the craft of writing, reveals that what I thought was obvious by now isn’t obvious at all to many of my most accomplished colleagues.

And the more I read of the contending views, the more I realized-to my surprise-that the whole tape-recorder debate isn’t just some inside-baseball, craft-guild dispute. It’s one that has larger, literary implications: What do we talk about when we talk about “nonfiction”? What does the “non-” in “nonfiction” really mean?

And this seemingly technical taping vs. note-taking issue raises once again the question of a journalist’s responsibility to his or her subject, and to his or her readers. Janet Malcolm–type questions, questions that go to the very heart of what it means when we say we are reporting on, or representing, the real. And what the reading public believes it’s reading.

Yes, taping is only a start-a tape recorder is not equipped to capture the entire contextual gestalt of an encounter. But isn’t it preferable to start with more raw material, rendered with more accuracy, than less? The kind of record a tape recorder offers that hastily scrawled note-taking can’t.

KRAKAUER’S CHALLENGE

For those who believe anyone’s note-taking is equal or superior to what a tape recorder captures, I invite you to take Jon Krakauer’s challenge. Krakauer, author of Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, and Under the Banner of Heaven, tells Mr. Boynton:

“[I] don’t understand journalists who don’t record their interviews. Sure there are situations where you can’t record [and] I understand that newspaper writers facing daily deadlines don’t often have time to tape and transcribe-it’s an incredibly slow and tedious process-but magazine writers should tape more than they do.”

And here’s Mr. Krakauer’s challenge: “I’ve conducted an experiment that I would encourage any journalist to try. Do an interview in which you simultaneously use a tape recorder and take notes by hand. Then transcribe your tapes and compare this to the handwritten record. I’ll bet you’ll find that you got many of the quotes wrong in your handwritten notes. Often you may get the intent or the meaning right, but you miss the idiosyncratic phrasing, the precise inflections, the unique qualities that make a quote ring true. Quotes not based on a taped interview often sound more like the writer than the interview subject.”

I’d suggest an emendation to Krakauer’s Challenge to make it more stringent: transcribe your notes first, fill in the gaps that often occur in note-taking the way you customarily do (note-taking rarely pretends to replicate every single word) and then compare it to a tape transcription. I’d invite anyone who still claims their note-taking is “just as good” as taping to take this challenge as a kind of elementary fact-checking exercise about your claim. I promise not to mention the number of fact-checkers at serious magazines who have told me how often the quote a writer reconstructs from his notes bears little resemblance to what the subject says he or she said. (It’s happened to me.) Sometimes that’s the interview subject retracting an ill-advised or embarrassing utterance, but sometimes it’s just a flat-out inaccuracy.

But the True Believers in note-taking don’t rest their case on “mere” accuracy. They depend on various versions of the “higher truth” or “this is art” argument.

Before I get into the variety of arguments the Note-Taking Party puts forward in Mr. Boynton’s book, I want to clarify my own position. I’ve often taken notes when I thought the introduction of a tape recorder would make the situation less comfortable. But that doesn’t mean I think the note-taking method of recording speech is intrinsically preferable. I often think, while note-taking, how much I’m missing by not being able to have a record of every word, every nuance, every change of tone.

I started to use a tape recorder early, mainly because I was a terrible note-taker, but I came to appreciate that despite the oft-cited downside of tape recording-self-consciousness on the part of the subject, cumbersomeness in certain situations, time-consuming difficulties of listening and/or transcribing-for me, there’s no comparison.

First of all, note-taking doesn’t really escape the downside of taping. Self-consciousness on the part of the interview subject, for instance. Time after time, the people one interviews become fixated on the movement of the note-taking pen on the pad. Wondering what is being taken down and what is missed, how pronouncedly the pen responds to certain remarks, wondering if it’s getting down the entire context of the thoughts being articulated. Rather than just talking.

By contrast, a tape recorder, once started can roll for an hour and a half or more (if you have an auto-reverse function), and-to one degree or another-will often fade from awareness. Especially if you use an unobtrusive model with a built-in mike that you can just set on a table or hold in your hand (rather than thrusting a mike in someone’s face) while walking or traveling with someone.

In addition, taking notes rather than taping, diminishes, one would think, the depth of awareness a writer can bring to the actual person one is talking to. Even if you’re not gazing down at your note-taking, as many reporters do (Richard Ben Cramer, author of the definitive work on political campaigning, What It Takes, has a funny riff on this in Mr. Boynton’s book), it takes at least some attention away from one’s awareness of one’s subject if one has to simultaneously be writing furiously. Where the mind is called on to do two tasks with a tape recorder running-listening and thinking ahead to the next question-one’s brain is taxed by three simultaneous tasks while note-taking. Getting it down, really listening to it (not that easy when note-taking) and thinking ahead. It’s hard to believe that this added distraction sharpens one’s awareness of the whole situation, the all-important intimate gestalt the party of note-takers often cite as more important than the “mere” accuracy of a tape record.

Nor is typing on a computer keypad while talking into a phone mike (as a great volume of reporting is done these days) an improvement on handwritten note-taking.

And while the party of tapers is often put on the defensive because the party of note-takers claim the presence of a tape recorder precludes the disarming intimacy, the state of utter candor they claim they are able to establish with their subject, Mr. Boynton’s book even offers what I thought was a remarkable suggestion on how to take the tape recording to a new level, a greater level of intimacy than the note-takers are capable of.

Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (author of the much-lauded Random Family, about the harsh reality of inner-city life) tells Mr. Boynton (who taped all his interviews) that she will sometimes hang out with her subjects, taping or not taping depending on the circumstances. But when she goes home, she will sometimes give her tape recorder to her subject to take home and ask them to talk about their life without Ms. LeBlanc present. And that often in doing so, she learns far more than either straight taping or note-taking. It’s not the only perspective in her stories, but it adds to the dimensionality of her portraits. Brilliant suggestion! I wish I’d thought of that a long time ago.

Still, quite a few of the writers Mr. Boynton interviews stick to note-taking and advance various reasons for its superiority or the tape recorder’s superfluity.

Here are some of the categories of reason they use:

TAPING SHOULD BE RESERVED FOR POWERFUL PEOPLE, ESPECIALLY THOSE WHO CAN AFFORD THEIR OWN TAPE RECORDERS AND (PRESUMABLY) LAWYERS.

“I tape if I’m interviewing a high official or someone who talks exceptionally fast, or someone who, for whatever reason, is hard to understand. Or if the person I’m interviewing is taping [me] …. But usually I take sloppy, longhand notes, which I have to re-read immediately after the interview so that I can decipher” them.

This is from William Finnegan, a reporter I’ve long admired for his skill and commitment, and who often has a very good reason (he’s often operating on dangerous ground, foreign and domestic, as in A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique and Cold New World) not to use a tape recorder.

But why just “high officials” when not on dangerous ground? Should the less high and mighty only get the sloppy longhand decipherment treatment? Don’t those who can’t afford to bring tape recorders (and perhaps make legal threats on the basis of the taped record) deserve the same degree of fidelity to their words?

Then there’s this from Michael Lewis ( Moneyball, The New New Thing), another reporter I’ve been a fan of: “The only time I can remember having to use a tape recorder was when I was writing about the presidential campaign of Alan Keyes. I’ve never heard someone speak so eloquently and quickly. So I bought a tape recorder. Otherwise I never tape-I use my own style of shorthand. I write on yellow legal pads …. Then immediately afterwards I go to the computer and then type them up.”

Fascinating. I thought Mr. Lewis’ campaign reporting for The New Republi c in 1996 was brilliant. And I can see the downside of having to record and listen to or transcribe so many metric tons of political blather. But since campaign reporting has become so controversial, with so many scandals over nuances, near and real gaffes and their misrepresentation, would Lewis’ note-taking pass the Krakauer test? Could he capture John Kerry’s “nuances,” George Bush’s precise (or imprecise) syntax?

I think there’s an element of sentimentality or old-school romanticizing in the cult of note-taking and the disdain of tape recording. Note-taking is for artistes, those who have the special talent to peer deep into human souls, while tape recorders are for philistines who depend on flimsy mechanical devices that can only give you the surface, not the deep, deep subtexts.

I usually take the side of the humanist in these John Henry vs. the Steam Drill, man versus technology arguments. But to cast it as man vs. technology, as art vs. mechanical reproduction, can be is misleading. Because if you’re on the side of the human, isn’t it more respectful of another human’s dignity to represent their words as they say them rather than as you reconstruct them? Who’s the humanist here?

IT TAKES TOO MUCH WORK AND COSTS TOO MUCH

I sympathize with this view, most forthrightly articulated by Susan Orlean, another of my favorite writers in The New New Journalism, author of The Orchid Thief, a wonderful book.

“So much of the time I spend with people is spent just blabbing,” she tells Mr. Boynton.” I talk about a lot of stuff that isn’t at all relevant to the story, just so I can get a sense of who they are. I can spend hours talking to a subject about something like make-up. Do I really transcribe hours and hours of tape of that?”

Well, no, I rarely do, although I try to relisten to it. But some might say (indeed some of the note-takers in this book do say) that it is in such “irrelevant” conversations that one gets a more dimensional feel for the subject than the on-point direct question can deliver. And it’s always possible to say to someone (as I often do), “You know, I’m such a bad note-taker and this is something I’d like to get right, so I hope you don’t mind if I turn on the tape recorder now.” Perhaps you lose something, but you also gain something-the speech rhythms, verbal quirks, silences, pregnant pauses and hesitations that are often more revealing than the words themselves. The tape recorder accurately captures something that note-taking can’t: the spaces between words.

But the transcription problem is a real one. It’s expensive to get it done professionally. The ideal solution-both listening and transcribing yourself (along with taking notes on the unspoken physical and emotional context of the interview)- is laborious and time-consuming. But one does get a chance to relive and re-evaluate the encounter. It can be good discipline. And if time and money are the reason for not doing this, it’s not entirely persuasive. It’s saying to the interview subject (and to the reader), “I didn’t have the time, or the magazine didn’t want to spend the money, to record and transcribe your words with maximum accuracy, so I hope you’ll settle for what my note-taking gives you.”

If it were you being interviewed, would you settle for that? I can’t tell you how many times writers and reporters I know who are interviewed themselves (usually about their books) complain that their quotes-when taken down in notes or typed into a computer rather than taped-come out mangled and/or decontextualized.

Yes, it’s true that some note-takers go to the trouble of confirming quotes with a subject (Richard Ben Cramer even showed the subjects of What It Takes the chapters about them to ensure the context of the quotes was accurate). And someone with the superior skill of a Susan Orlean may achieve a kind of candid intimacy with her subject better, and be able to give her readers more and deeper truths, with note taking-or with no note taking at all-rather than taping. But that’s an argument for the superiority of the writer, not the method. For most people, not taping is a compromise, not necessarily a virtue.

BECAUSE YOU CAN SAY IT BETTER THAN THEY CAN

I wonder if what’s going on is fiction-envy: the nonfiction writer’s desire to be seen, like the novelist, as an intuitive investigator of human nature, an artiste who somehow knows the person talking better than the person talking knows himself. And thus can express that person’s voice better than that person.

This is what seems to be suggested by Lawrence Weschler, another great writer whose company I’m delighted to be in ( Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder is my favorite).

“Do you tape your interviews?” Mr. Boynton asks Mr. Weschler.

“Sometimes. Although when people ask to tape-record me, I tell them that it is okay, as long as they don’t quote me verbatim. I tend not to use tape recorders, and when I do use them, I am certainly not religious about the transcripts. I use them as an aide-mémoire, perhaps.”

“But isn’t the point of using a tape recorder to record the exact words a subject uses?” Mr. Boynton asks.

“Actually the tape recorder falsifies the situation in two ways. First of all its presence falsifies the encounter. As any writer knows, the moment you turn the tape recorder off you get all the really good stuff. And that is even true in those cases where it seems that it no longer matters, that the person is completely relaxed about the thing’s presence.”

This, I think, from my experience, is the best critique of the limitations of the tape recorder in the book. I’ve often had this post-taping revelatory moment happen and been frustrated that I will have to reconstruct it from memory, or ask the person who spoke so candidly in that situation to confirm the story for the fact-checkers when he or she knows it’s not on tape.

So it can be a tradeoff: the possibility of post-tape (or no tape) candor versus a diminishing of accuracy and contextuality in a story based on notes alone.

“The second way in which a tape recorder falsifies the record,” Mr. Weschler continues, “is that the transcript is an entirely false record of what has taken place between a subject and a journalist. For what is actually taking place is a series of communication events, which really makes it a symphonic interaction. These include your expression, my response to your expression (seeing you are bored, interested, excited), my voice going up, my voice going down, your voice going up, your voice going down …. And none of that is conveyed in the flat transcript. The words themselves don’t approximate what actually took place between us. Phrased differently, what took place between us was a narrative, a story, and a transcript is not a story.”

Setting aside the somewhat reductive terms of the comparison-it’s not memory and notes vs. “flat transcript,” but memory and notes vs. the nuance of the actual recorded voices-no one would disagree with this. But the question is not whether a transcript should substitute for all those “symphonic” qualities, but whether it’s just one resource in what might be a panoply of ways of understanding the context or finding the “narrative.”

And how would we know, from note-taking and memory alone, exactly when one voice “went up” and another “went down” if not by listening to a tape? Note-taking has to be of surpassing virtuosity to reflect changing tones and colorations of voice as well as getting all the words.

But then Mr. Weschler boldly goes into territory that none of the other writers in the book (as far as I can tell) will admit to going into:

“The challenge is to record as fairly as possible what people mean to say, what people even remember having said-which is almost invariably is not what they said! What they said is invariably not what they meant to say.”

I admire the confidence that allows one to make that kind of argument. I wonder how widespread the belief and practice it reflects is, and whether the reading public is aware of the “process,” let’s say, that the quotes they read go through in some instances. “Cleaning up quotes” (removing “ums” and “ahs,” etc.) is standard journalistic practice-but this sounds like rephrasing them.

I think it’s fine for Mr. Weschler to go on doing just what he’s doing; I trust his judgment, and on the strength of his fine body of work, who would want him to change?

But as a reader, I’d like to know if others are doing this. Candor like Weschler’s is rare, and I wonder if more transparency (to use the current buzz word) about their “process” from other writers would be helpful to the reader in evaluating the often subtle degrees of distinction that can be found in the plain-sounding “non-” of nonfiction.

Mr. Weschler makes a point of saying, “I have never had a quote challenged,” but I wonder if he’s considered the possibility that he’s endowing them with some of his own insightful intellect and eloquence. And when someone makes you sound smarter and more insightful than you are, you rarely complain.

Does that mean we should all be made to sound more articulate for publication? That’s a topic for another time. What I want to get to is a clue to the source of the continuing animus against taping in literary nonfiction.

I found it in Mr. Boynton’s interview with Richard Preston.

JOHN MCPHEE SAID NOT TO

Mr. Preston makes an excellent defense of note-taking:

“I’ve found find that a notebook disarms someone more than a tape recorder. The presence of a tape recorder sometimes makes someone feel as if their words might be turned into legal evidence, whereas a notebook doesn’t seem as threatening.”

Interesting: Why doesn’t the notebook “threaten” to seem like evidence? Because, I’d venture, everyone knows they’re relatively unreliable compared to a tape recorder when evidentiary precision of words count. This seems a tacit admission that, at the very least, a tradeoff is made here: a more disarmed person, as opposed to a more accurate rendition. I’m sure it works for a lot of people. I’ve done it, but I’m not happy about it. I see the downside. Maybe that’s just me.

It certainly seems to have worked for the guru of the note-taking faction, John McPhee. He’s inarguably a great nonfiction writer, and he’s taught for years a seminar at Princeton (which several of Mr. Boynton’s interviewees have taken). And in that seminar, Mr. Preston tells us, Mr. McPhee tells his students not to tape.

Mr. Preston, the author of The Hot Zone, tells Mr. Boynton that “this is the way I was trained in McPhee’s class.”

He goes on to tell us all that a tape recorder leaves out: “A scene is kinesthetic: it has sound, smell, sight, and emotional environment all around it. The way a person is dressed, the way he’s behaving, the weather, the natural environment-none of that is captured by a tape record.”

Mr. Preston says, “In a notebook you can take down all these kinds of details”. Good point, but there’s no reason you can’t be taking them down while taping-as several of the writers in Mr. Boynton’s book, members of the party of taping, say they do.

I had always thought the anti-taping meme went back to Truman Capote, with his claim to have trained himself to reproduce hours and hours of conversation (as in In Cold Blood) without notes. A claim that has aroused some skepticism.

But the disciples of Mr. McPhee seem to be the most partisan anti-tapers. And I’m sure Mr. McPhee as a teacher has his reasons; in certain ways, note-taking alone is a valuable discipline in attentiveness. It’s true that people can get lazy and inattentive taping, or can skip listening to the tapes themselves, relying instead on flat transcripts. And Mr. McPhee himself has an unusual gift for note-taking it would seem from his stories. But his genius, his gift may mislead those with somewhat lesser gifts to believe that the only way for an artiste to write nonfiction is to rely on his heightened sensibility to render sloppy notes into eloquent decipherments. More power to them. But maybe more transparency, too.

Now who among the party of note-takers will step up and take Krakauer’s Challenge?