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 Fox 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.