October 4, 2020
(RIVERSIDE, Calif.)—For more than 1,100 episodes, Marc Maron’s WTF podcast has turned out intimate, illuminating conversations with artists, entertainers, and public figures. Maron, a standup comic by trade, makes no attempt to call himself a journalist. Yet discussions about just that have followed him for years, with a number of journalists eager to hear his advice on a critical skill in the professional repertoire — the interview.
But Maron’s interviews, effective as they may be, are unusual creations that say as much about him as they do his guests, and this is ultimately what precludes him from being called a journalist.
Once an interview begins, Maron brings up topics he wants to discuss but largely lets the hour flow where it will. He sometimes clicks “record” before the guest knows the interview has started, he interrupts and shares his own stories and shortcomings, and he loosely guides conversations more than he crafts careful interviews. Perhaps Maron can be an interviewer without being a journalist.
“I’m even wary to call myself an interviewer,” he told Scott Leadingham of The Quill, the magazine produced by The Society of Professional Journalists. “I’m an engaged conversationalist.”
To have an especially engaged conversation, he educates himself on his guest so he can “at least know a little bit about [the subject] and be familiar with it,” he told Leadingham, but he develops no list of questions. There is no evidence he clocks as much research time as other radio interviewers more easily labeled journalists, such as WHYY’s Terry Gross, whose days (and often nights) are packed with research — dog-earing pages, taking notes, exploring past projects, drawing connections, writing questions — and whose producers help her prep for Fresh Air interviews so they might be both comprehensive and nuanced.
Maron, on the other hand, is more reactionary, often operating from assumptions. He presents a perception of an individual directly to that individual and then invites a response — be it a confirmation, defense, or rebuttal. When he told Ira Glass the This American Life office seemed like it had its nose in the air, Glass wasn’t offended.
“Such tactics would cause the dispassionate journalist’s pen to skitter across the notebook,” Simon Liem wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review. “Neutrality in interviewing is a hallmark of journalism orthodoxy. Standard operating procedure holds that if questions are open-ended and unguided, the subject will answer comfortably, without coercion. So Maron, by dropping his emotionally fraught judgments of TAL into Glass’ lap, left him nothing to address. Or so the thinking goes.”
Somehow, this approach works. CJR included Maron in a 2017 series of conversations with “some of the world’s greatest interviewers” that sought to “examine the science and art of journalism.” Did that make Maron a journalist?
Perhaps not. Though Maron previously co-hosted a political commentary show at the progressive talk radio network Air America — the pre-MSNBC home of The Rachel Maddow Show — he seems to pursue different goals. In terms of the Pew Center’s Core Four Principles — obligation to truth, loyalty to the public, verification of fact, and avoidance of bias — he doesn’t set out to pursue truth, exactly. He sets out, with genuine curiosity, to understand his interviewee, but the fact-finding endeavor is also clouded by what he gains: Maron overtly admits that he finds personal, therapeutic value in these conversations. That is one of his driving intentions, which is where he departs from Gross and other journalists.
Maron is transparent about this, too. He talked with Gross and about getting something for himself emotionally from what happens when he draws people out in conversation. While he’s learning about someone else, he is also working through his own issues, needs, and neuroses in real-time.
Though nontraditional, this isn’t necessarily wrong. Interviews are not meant to be about the interviewer, but if WTF episodes are simply conversations, then Maron is free to bring as much of himself to the episode as any conversation would allow. His vulnerability is a large part of what makes his guests open up to him. What he draws out in those moments may be truthful, but his approach makes any adherence to the Core Four incidental, and journalistic credentials still appear thin.
However, he also landed an hourlong one-on-one with a figure many seasoned journalists aspire to interview — a sitting president. Barack Obama’s 2015 visit automatically conferred newsiness onto a podcast recorded in a standup comic’s garage. Political figures are not his most common guest, but earlier this year he also sat down with Stacey Abrams, former Democratic gubernatorial nominee for Georgia, and they discussed the importance of a free and fair election.
Other guests have revealed or elaborated on newsworthy information or allegations. Actor and musician Mandy Moore discussed the destructive behavior of her ex-husband, musician Ryan Adams, in the wake of a New York Times investigation that broke allegations of a pattern of emotional abuse, manipulation, and control. The NYT had done its fact-checking before he ever sat down with Moore. Contrast this with HBO’s John Oliver, for example, who also eschews the title of “journalist” but clearly displays his commitment to thoroughness and verification, often through primary sources. Between him and Maron, Oliver’s brand of news entertainment hews more closely to the Core Four.
Maron’s podcasts have yielded powerful conversations, some of which served the public by taking an unflinching look at mental health and what helps us heal, for example. Maron is a fine interviewer but he is not a journalist, not because he doesn’t create journalistic content sometimes, but because it’s not what he sets out to do.