By Jack Shafer
The journalistic lexicon abounds with terms designed to keep reporters' and editors' egos as plump, firm and purple as a ripe eggplant. If a dowdy news account needs dressing up, they rush to wardrobe to wrap it in the "special report" designation. Or if a journalist seeks to embellish his reputation, he refers to himself as a "prize-winning reporter" in his biographical note, suppressing the observation that the reporter without a prize is likely the one who has neglected to enter the contests.
The urge to adorn the mundane with the magnificent becomes most intense when a news organization bills an interview with a subject as an "exclusive." This is not to say that exclusive interviews do not exist. When a controversial or newsworthy somebody such as Lance Armstrong shuns the press or otherwise refuses to answer questions, a Q&A like the one Oprah Winfrey conducted with him deserves the appellation. Likewise, when a writer like Walter Isaacson develops deep and constant access with a press-hater like Steve Jobs, resulting in 40 interviews over two years, there's something exclusive about those talks even if Jobs had answered reporters' questions during that interval. Because Miami Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito has yet to talk at any length to anybody but CBS Sports, you would not begrudge that organization the crowing rights that go along with having gotten an exclusive.
Yet most pieces billed as an exclusive interview are usually no more exclusive than a seat in a public commode. The Financial Times, which knows better, frequently indulges the inner urge to hype its work by describing conversations with such people as Bill Gates, the Dalai Lama, and Ratan Tata as "exclusive interviews" when honesty-in-packaging would dictate that they limit their boast to "we were the only publication in the room when this voluble world figure sounded off." Or take Newsweek's recent piece about investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, a man who never shuts up, which was unashamedly billed as an "exclusive interview." Or CNN correspondent Sanjay Gupta's recent chat with Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, which the network deemed "exclusive," or Barbara Walters sitting down "exclusively" with Fox News correspondent Howard Kurtz to talk about her departure from "The View." Nearly every recent interview with Richard Branson (Inc., Jetset, Human Resources Director, Reuters, Thought Economics, 103.7 FM's Morning Ride, et al.) regards routine access to the billionaire as "exclusive." (Perhaps he stipulates it contractually?)
The more powerful the subject, the greater the tendency of the press to bill the interview an exclusive, which means that a session with the president of the United States — no matter how brief or devoid of substance — almost always gets the billing as long as none of the reporter's competitors are in the room at the same moment.
President Barack Obama gives interviews the press regards as "exclusive" with the regularity that the average citizen does his laundry. Last week he gave an "exclusive" interview to NBC's Chuck Todd. The week before, the "exclusive" went to cable news startup Fusion. In mid-October, New York's WABC got the "exclusive." Earlier that month, it was the Associated Press and CNBC that were treated to "exclusives" just days apart. In September, he gave "exclusives" to Telemundo and ABC News, in August to PBS NewsHour and CNN's New Day, and in July he gave an "exclusive" interview to Amazon's Kindle Singles.
It would be easier to compile a list of outlets that haven't gotten "exclusives" with the president over the past 18 months than those that did: Obama spoke with Charlie Rose, Today, JerusalemOnline, Meet the Press, Bloomberg News, Miami's CBS4, American Urban Radio Networks, NBC's Rock Center, Tallahassee's WCTV, Kirksville, Mo.'s, KTVO, Toledo News Now, and Washington's WJLA. The president even had time to answer Audubon's questions in an "exclusive interview," although the magazine sheepishly admits the encounter amounted to written answers to 10 submitted questions. There is rarely any exclusive content in any of these interviews; the only distinguishing thing about them is that they aren't presidential press conferences.
The president's profligate exclusivity reached its zenith during the last presidential campaign, when almost anybody with a microphone and a hand to shake could earn a special exchange with him. Nashville's WTVF spelled this out in late 2011, when its reporter, Vicki Yates, got her Obama exclusive in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House. Why WTVF? Why Nashville? Why Yates? The station's item about the Q&A explains, "The interview happened Thursday morning after White House officials extended a special invitation to Vicki to interview President Barack Obama. The interview was part of the President's regional press interview program that brings select local media to the White House for the exclusive interview." In other words, presidential exclusives are so extraordinary that his people have established a program to recruit reporters from second- and third-tier media outlets to conduct the interviews.
With the exception of the Queen of England, Thomas Pynchon, fugitives from justice, and a few eccentrics, almost everybody in public life finds it in their interest, from time to time, to board the informal (and never-ending) press tour for a chat with reporters. It's almost never newsworthy that somebody has talked unless they've said something worth hearing. Is the information incisive? Revealing? In my experience, this is rarely the case in a presidential exclusive.
It may sound like music to the ears of journalists, but the words "exclusive presidential interview" signifies little to knowledgeable news consumers beyond a sense that one-of-many-to-follow stories has just entered the news sphere. Casual news consumers can't possibly be impressed by the session unless they're amnesiac, too. The only people who can be relied upon to value these interviews are the reporters and editors who shepherd them into print and on air.
(The author is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)