When You’re on the Record, You’re on the Record

source: American Journalism Review

A bit of a kerfuffle in the beer world this week. On Thursday, James Beeson wrote a buzzy article quoting Shaun Hill (Hill Farmstead) discussing alcoholism and mental health. It’s a nice piece that went viral precisely because Hill made surprising, searching observations that are so manifestly true. I thought Beeson did a good job and the article left me feeling Hill—whom I’ve never met—was a reflective, deep guy. It’s hard not to like him after reading the piece. 

Well, turns out Hill didn’t like it:

James asked about how I came to brewing - about my travels- about Hill Farmstead and my thoughts on New England IPA. This was perhaps 95% of the interview. Maybe even a higher percentage. He asked a question about a comment that I made in a Good Beer Hunting podcast concerning consumption and alcohol in the beer industry - and I answered with some of what is quoted. I was not really speaking about any of these items - I was simply answering the (guided) questions that the journalist had asked.

His objections are pretty lengthy and I don’t need to quote them all—go read his post if you’re interested. He concludes, with evident dismay, “I will never conduct another interview with the same innocent naivete again.” 

Since I interview lots of people all the time, let me add from the writer’s perspective: when an interview is on the record, it’s on the record. I have no doubt Hill’s discomfort is genuine, and I feel for him—you feel exposed when an unexpected article comes out. But this is what writers do—they look for a story. Hill Farmstead has been the highest-rated brewery in the world for the past four years. The Hill Farmstead story is so well-known is has not only become hallowed legend, but the brewery’s calling card. You can’t blame Beeson for not writing the same article a hundred others have written. It might have been good for the brewery and comfortable for Hill, but it’s not interesting journalism.

Take another example. I’ve recently written about the new book of Josh Noel’s that puts AB InBev and Goose Island under a microscope. It was not a congratulatory book and a number of the subjects had to wince when they read what Josh extracted from their interviews. But that means it wasn’t fake news. He found the story.

When a writer goes into a brewery or sits down for an interview, she’s looking for the most interesting article. Questions aren’t probes to get subjects to recite corporate talking points—they’re the mechanism we use to find the story.  Subjects don’t have to answer, either—and that happens all the time. Beeson heard something interesting Hill had mentioned about alcoholism in a Good Beer Hunting podcast and asked him about. Hill could have said he’d prefer not to talk off the cuff about a serious subject like that or asked to go off the record. Beeson asked that question because he sensed there might be a story there. Of course, he was right.

A good writer is beholden to her reader, not the interview subject. People go on the record for a lot of reasons, and breweries can generally expect good press. But providing good press is not the reporter’s job—telling the reader something new and informative and interesting is. All of this hits a little close to home because I watch how hated reporters are in the US right now, and everyone ascribes to them (us?) the basest motivations. Hill stops just short of going there with Beeson (“My understanding is that both Garrett Oliver and Paul Jones from Cloudwater had similar experiences with this same journalist”), and yet the article was accurate and honest—just what you’d expect.

The irony is that the original article presented Hill in a more favorable light than his own rebuttal. There’s a lesson in this, too. Writers understand language and communication better than most of their subjects. Sometimes that works out to their benefit, even when they fail to notice.