The State of American Literacy As Represented by Talk Show Hosts

From The Leonard Lopate Show, September 22, 2004, at the 14:04 mark on the RealAudio file, from a conversation with Terry Gross:

LOPATE: The question that people ask me the most is, “Do you read all of those books?” And I don’t know what to say. I do get help. And I usually say, “I get help.” But they don’t want to hear that. They want to believe that all I do, day and night, even on the air, is read books for tomorrow’s show.

GROSS: Well, what I say is that I read all the books. But I put — use my fingers to put quotation marks around the word “read.” ‘Cause what I do when I read the book is probably a closer approximation to skimming. ‘Cause I’m reading really fast and then slowing down for parts that I think will be relevant to the interview. And then taking notes on what I read.

LOPATE: Have you discovered that it’s ruined your personal reading? It’s hard for me to read a novel today or anything else just for pleasure. Because questions are always from it. I want to ask, “Well, Mr. Dostoevsky, why did you have Raskolnikov do that in Chapter 6?”

GROSS: That’s a really good question. You know, often, on vacations, I read — I intentionally read — a dead author. So that I’m not doing what you just said. So that I’m off the hook. So I can just read it. But this summer was one of the first vacations in a long time I did not read a whole novel. I read part of a novel. And then I found myself reading newspapers. It’s so hard not to read the newspaper right now. The newspaper itself is so interesting. And I feel like I can’t go a day without reading the newspaper. There are magazines that I wanted to catch up on. And I had to — I had to not read. I went to see one or two movies, or a movie and a concert, every day that I was on vacation. And I really felt I needed to spend a little bit of time not reading. Because I read so much.

LOPATE: When you’re putting together the questions you’re to ask, do you ever rely on those press kits? Their favorite question, which is, “Why did you write this book?”

GROSS: The part that I usually — I usually read the press releases because it’s a nice kind of frame before you start the book. When you’re reading at my pace, it’s nice to have a kind of brief overview of the book. So I’ll read reviews also. But I will intentionally not read the questions that the publisher gives. Because some of those questions are going to be good. Some of those questions are going to be questions that I would have asked anyways. But if I see those questions, it will make me think, “Well, I can’t ask that question.” Because that question has been put before me by a publicist and I’ll feel like I’m asking it because they told me to. So I feel like I can’t afford to look at it. So I’ll just, you know, do you know what I mean?

LOPATE: I know perfectly well. It’s almost a perversity, their pride that I have to do it all by myself. If I don’t want to rely on the publicity machine to tell me what to do —

GROSS: Well, you want to expect that your questions are independent of that. And yet a lot of the publicists are really smart. And they’re coming out with really good questions. So…

LOPATE: Well, they try to intrigue you into having the guest.

GROSS: Yes. So my technique is don’t read it.


Terry Gross Responds

Terry Gross, recently referenced in this story involving a Jonathan Franzen interview that had been cut for broadcast, has been kind enough to respond to my questions. She informs me that “there has been no self-censorship or deals cut to suppress the Franzen interview.” Gross tells me that the audio for the original October 15, 2001 broadcast should have been available on the Fresh Air website and that she was surprised to learn that this wasn’t the case. Fresh Air has asked NPR to restore the original Franzen interview on the website, and I will follow up next week to see if it’s there.

Gross’s email was also forthright in describing Fresh Air‘s policy concerning repeat interviews. She informed me that when an interview is rebroadcast, “we almost always shorten it.” In the case of the elided Franzen remark, the decision was made to curtail the Oprah section because it was “dated.” As to Fresh Air editing policies, Gross pointed out that all of her interviews were pre-recorded and that they are all edited before they are broadcast. She does not record anything live. “Editing is not censorship,” wrote Gross, “Editing is not unethical. Editing is part of what journalists do.”

While I agree with Gross that a certain degree of audio cleanup is necessary to ensure a professional broadcast, I still remain mystified why additional broadcasts are edited further. I also wonder why such concerns as “dated” material should even matter. After all, if the listener knows that she’s listening to an interview that aired before, why then should such a distinction matter?

I have sent Gross a followup email, pointing out that abridgment is not indicated on the broadcast and that the main page for the Franzen repeat does not read, “This is an excerpt from an October 15, 2001 interview,” but reads, “This interview first aired October 15, 2001.” Thus, the listener might insinuate that what she is hearing is the same interview that aired before. This specification would certainly put Gross in a more ethically sound position.

Nevertheless, this offers some insight into how Gross and Fresh Air operates. And I am glad that she has at least taken steps to restore the original interview. I only hope that Gross will be more forthright about how future rebroadcast interviews are edited, if only to escape an ombudsman’s wrath.

Did Jonathan Franzen Cut a Censorship Deal with Terry Gross?

On October 26, 2001, Dennis Loy Johnson reported on the Franzen fiasco:


Three days later in an interview on National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air” he told host Terry Gross that he was still conflicted about Oprah because — well, “So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator or whatever. I worry — I’m sorry that it’s, uh — I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say ‘If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it.’ Those are male readers speaking.”

Thus does class meet boorish elitism. Franzen, through his publisher, issued an immediate sort–of apology: “I try to explore complicated emotions and circumstances as honestly and fully as I can. This approach can be productive on the page, but clearly hasn’t been helpful in talking to the media, many members of which used the occasion of my book tour to raise questions about Oprah’s Book Club and the supposed divisions among American readers. The conflict is preexisting in the culture, and it landed in my lap because of my good fortune. I’m sorry if, because of my inexperience, I expressed myself poorly or unwisely.”

So, as it turns out, it was Terry Gross’ fault; even though she started off the interview by gushing, “I read your book and I loved it!” and did not press him in the least or follow up on his blatantly chauvanistic take of Oprah’s audience, she was, apparently, out to get Jonathan Franzen . . . a poor, “inexperienced” lad with only two previous books and hundreds of previous interviews and public appearances under his belt.

And here is the quote reported by the Chicago Tribune and the Boston Review.

I remember hearing Franzen’s remarks. But if you go through the Fresh Air archive, you’ll find no trace of the full record, much less any indication that the broadcast was modified. There is, of course, this repeat of the October 15, 2001 interview in question, broadcast on September 6, 2002. But listen to the RealMedia file for this show and you’ll find only this excerpt at the 3:34 mark:

I mean, so much of reading is sustained, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV. Or, um, you know, playing with their flight simulator or whatever.

After this, we hear Terry Gross ask her next question. The other part of the quote, as reported by Johnson, “I worry — I’m sorry that it’s, uh — I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say ‘If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it.’ Those are male readers speaking,” is missing.

If Terry Gross is a journalist, then she has the responsibility to maintain the full record of this conversation, or at least apprise her listeners that the interview was modified. I do not yet know Ms. Gross’s motivations, but if she is willfully allowing her program to be pressured by authors and/or publishers, then it seems to me that the Literarian Award, which purports to “recogniz[e] the important contribution she has made to the world of books — and to our understanding of literature and the writing process — through her probing and intelligent interviews with authors” does not appear to recognize an interviewer who thoroughly probes her subjects. Indeed, the National Book Foundation has honored an ostensible “journalist” who has failed to preserve the historical record.

At the very least, Gross should have observed — both on the September 6, 2002 repeat broadcast and on the NPR page representing the broadcast — that the interview was edited or tampered with.

I have sent an email to Terry Gross asking for clarification on this matter. I will update this story if I learn any additional details.

[UPDATE: It would appear that Gross has a history of pulling punches. An interview with Village Voice reporter Robert I. Friedman was recorded on January 27, 1993, but Fresh Air never aired the interview, because they were looking for a “moderate” voice.]

[UPDATE 2: Terry Gross has responded to my questions.]