Wednesday, September 09, 2015

A Famous Interview Using Unconventional Techniques. Ethical?

Portrait of Marlon Brando, "Streetcar Nam...
Portrait of Marlon Brando, "Streetcar Named Desire" 1 photographic print : gelatin silver. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Truman Capote , 1948
Truman Capote , 1948 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The late Truman Capote interviewed the late Marlon Brando. CJR remembers.

The morning after the interview, Brando had little sense of the peril in which he had put himself. Logan, having caught wind of the session, quizzed Brando’s makeup man about it, learning that Brando had “enjoyed the evening immensely.” Later, over cocktails with Logan, Capote couldn’t help but crow. “Oh, you were so wrong about Marlon not being gossipy,” Capote told Logan, noting that Brando had talked about his mother’s drinking and other personal subjects. “I don’t believe it, Truman,” Logan responded. “You must be leaving something out. He just doesn’t reveal personal things.” Capote must have tricked him somehow, he said.
“I didn’t trick him,” Capote countered. “We simply swapped stories. I made up stories about what lushes my family were, and believe me, I made them lurid, until he began to feel sorry for me and told me his to make me feel better.” Capote would expand upon this technique to his biographer, Gerald Clarke. “The secret to the art of interviewing—and it is an art—is to let the other person think he’s interviewing you. . . . You tell him about yourself, and slowly you spin your web so that he tells you everything. That’s how I trapped Marlon.” In an interview with Rolling Stone more than 15 years after the fact, Capote observed, “You remember I told you how startled Marlon Brando was? I hadn’t taken a note. I hadn’t done a thing. I hadn’t even seemed to be interested.”


Alexandra Minnick said...

I think this is an effective method. I often try to relate to the person I'm interviewing so that he or she feels comfortable. I don't think it's ethical, but part of the journalist's job is to get the story and relate human experiences. And journalists always get some truncated version of the truth anyway, so why not do what you can to get the most emotion or information out of the subject? However, Capote took it too far.

Hayden Gehr said...

I would say that this was a wickedly smart move by Capote, but he definitely used this interviewing technique in a way that abused his role as a journalist. When a reporter gets an interviewee to open up, it should be because he appeared trustworthy and understanding, and made the interviewee feel comfortable with sharing the truth. I don't like the idea of getting someone to tell you personal stories out of the pity they have for you. Interviewing is manipulative in its nature, as we have discussed, but you shouldn't have to rely on selfishness and ingenuity to get the quotes you want. Now, you could make the argument that if the person opens up and tells you what you wanted to hear, then you've done your job as a journalist regardless of the means you used to pry it out of them. Especially for someone as iconic and idolized as Marlon Brando, who was said to have never revealed anything personal, it is feasible to argue that using unconventional techniques was necessary to make the story unique and juicy. However, I think that poor ethics in the interviewing process shouldn't be written off just because it results in getting solid quotes.