How the Tape Recorder Killed Journalism

Question: Is investigative journalism in danger?

Gay Talese: It’s very difficult. Sometimes in my senior years a lot of work in print; I’m asked to go to colleges to teach a class or speak before students of nonfiction writing, and they ask a lot of questions. How did you do this, and how did you do that, and I tell them.

But sometimes I think to myself, how are these people going to get a job? And while these people are very interested and eager and certainly attentive to what I am saying in these classroom sessions, I wonder, how are they ever going to do it? Because the life is changed, and the year 2009--it’s not at all like it was in 1959 when I started writing for magazines. And I kept writing for magazines through the 1960s into the 70s.

That piece on Frank Sinatra was published in 1966, and when I did that piece, Esquire was the publisher. They sent me out to California. They put me in a very fine hotel – the Beverly Wilshire a Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. I was able to rent a car. I was able to have an expense account and take people to lunch to dinner, and I kept careful records, of course, I have always, of what I spend, because I’m to be reimbursed, and I want to be very accurate about it. And there was never even; I was not getting the cooperation that it was expected I would, because it was expected I would get an interview, but I never got an interview, but I still stayed out there and talked to all these minor people that I mentioned earlier. And never did the editor say, oh listen you better come home.

I actually volunteered when I was staying in the Beverly Wilshire – it was the third or fourth day. I was aware that maybe I should move to a cheaper hotel; find a place I was going to spend a lot of time out there. Turns I out I spent about four weeks at Beverly Hills, just research, and I’d asked the editor if he wanted to me to try to look for a hotel room that wouldn’t be so expensive, and he said, no stay where you are.

Not that that wouldn’t happen now, but a lot of things have happened that make life hard for young writers who would like to do what I used to do, but it’s so changed that the technology I think has had a ruinous effect.

It started with the tape recorder; that was number one the worst thing that ever happened to serious nonfiction writing, was the tape recorder. What this did was allow reporters or magazine writers to use Q and A techniques – question and answer. Take a tape recorder and then rather not much time at all to get a lot of verbatim quotes from well-known people.

Magazines prefer to have well known people when they put them on the cover – usually they’re movie stars or well known people in aspects of political life, and the tape recorder allows the reporter to go to a hotel room, for example, and interview a movie star, and within a matter of about an hour, we’ll get enough for an article and then go back and write it using a lot of direct quotes. Some of these quotes, I said earlier, aren’t quotes that I would want to use because it doesn’t necessarily mean what people have in their heads. It’s rather what’s coming out of their mouths; extended sound bites is what they’re getting.

And also I think in the process of having a tape recorder, they brought the whole format of the magazine article indoors because the tape recorder is done indoors. Most of the pieces that I wrote, and still would write if I was able to do what I want to do, would be outdoors. I travel with people. My technique is hanging out with people.

When I wrote about Sinatra, I was never indoors with him. I was watching him in the studio, and I described him when he was recording. I watched him taking walks in Las Vegas as he went to casino to casino – the scenes of his gambling, going to a prizefight in Las Vegas. There were big scenes, and they were outdoors and they were very descriptive, and they told the reader what it was like to be there.

It wasn’t this narrow question and answer, and the owners of magazines – the publisher or the editor, or the owner are very interested in cost cutting of course, and the tape recorder played right into that.

Moreover, it would be to the advantage of the publisher of a magazine to have things directly on quote with the tape recorder to verify, so the lawyers would be able to fight off any challenge in terms of misquotation and libel suits. So that was another contribution to the cost cutting emphasis that was brought by editors upon the writing process.

What you have now –a great magazine like The New Yorker is the exception—but what you have now is nothing of the kind of art of the magazine piece that I, and many others of my generation, used to practice. We had expense accounts.

Also, the tape recorder meant you didn’t have to send people out to the other side of the United States. You could wait for the movie star or the singing star or the rock star to come to New York, performing at Madison Square Garden and staying in the Pierre Hotel or the Plaza Hotel or wherever they’re staying, and you send somebody over there with a tape recorder for an hour, so they’ll get a lot of quotes.

So the magazine piece is not a work of art anymore.

Recorded on September 22, 2009.

 

 

Gay Talese describes the deleterious effects that recording devices, hollowed expense accounts, and an emphasis on 'indoor life' have had on the writing process.

Related Articles

How does alcohol affect your brain?

Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.

(Photo by Angie Garrett/Wikimedia Commons)
Mind & Brain
  • Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
  • Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
  • Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
Keep reading Show less

Scientists sequence the genome of this threatened species

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.

Surprising Science
  • A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
  • It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
  • Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.

If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.

Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.

elephant by Guillaume le Clerc

Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons

13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.

It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.

But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.

John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."

What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.

Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.

Why cauliflower is perfect for the keto diet

The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.

Purple cauliflower. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Surprising Science
  • The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
  • The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
  • It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
Keep reading Show less