What We Don't Know:
Interview With Ed Zotti
by v3rsus (January 2010)
v3rsus: How did you end up as an editor for The Straight Dope?
Ed Zotti: Well, I began in 78. The column had begun in 73, and the first editor was a guy named Mike Lenehan, who is no longer with the newspaper, but he was for many years. He is still a writer and I actually still see him from time to time. He decided to move on and the only person they thought could handle Cecil at that point was me. So they signed me up and I've been doing it ever since. Now it's been whatever it's been, 30, it's a frightening thought, but more than 30 years.
v3rsus: What exactly do you do as the editor?
Ed Zotti: You have to bear with me. The exact details of what I do must remain shrouded in mystery to an extent. I have a lot to do with the fact checking, let's say. Cecil, of course, knows everything and is never wrong, but I have to fact check everything he writes, which means practically call up all these people and email them, and basically make sure everything is correct. Then of course I have to, not that Cecil is anything less than Shakespearian in terms of his command of the English language, but I have to do what tweaks an editor would normally make in connection with the copy. So I've been working with Cecil for a long time and we think very much alike. Let's put it that way.
v3rsus: So you still enjoy working with Cecil Adams?
Ed Zotti: Tremendously.
v3rsus: How did Cecil remain so private for over 30 years and what's his reason for that?
Ed Zotti: He's a national asset. If what he knows fell into the wrong hands, it goes without saying that it would be a disaster for the free world. We made it our mission to keep his information about him quite. We've had books published, there was briefly a Straight Dope TV Show and we have a website, and I've been his front person all this time, to the extent that we do radio interviews or Television appearances and things like that. I do all those things. Cecil thinks it's better in the interest of all to keep his face out of the picture and so far we've pretty much stuck with that. Worked out okay and we're gonna continue to do it that way.
v3rsus: The Straight Dope's mission is "fighting ignorance since 1973". So what do you think? Has ignorance declined, or increased, or has it been more or less on the same level?
Ed Zotti: (laughs) Well, I would like to think we've made some difference, but it's difficult to make any claim that ignorance has noticeably declined. Perhaps it hasn't increased at the rate it would have otherwise, had we not been around. Clearly with the advent of the internet, which provides the ability to spread complete horseshit around the globe at the speed of light, we have our work cut out for us. Although one would think it would be easier on some level, which it is, it's far more challenging on others. I will say one thing that has changed: when The Straight Dope began in 1973, it was pretty much it in terms of places that separate the wheat from the chaff. There were obviously advise columnists and things of that nature, but in terms of trying to clear up questions that have been tormenting people The Straight Dope was pretty much the only active game in town for quite a while. There are quite a few others now, and The Straight Dope has been widely imitated. We still think we do the best job of anybody, but considering how things have gone, we need all the help we can get, so we don't regret that others are sort of doing some of the same things we do. In fact we think the more the better.
v3rsus: Do you think it is a problem in mainstream media that opinions and biases take preference over truthful information?
Ed Zotti: I wouldn't restrict it to mainstream media. I think it's something that happens across the board. A lot of what we have done is stuff that comes out of the peripheral parts of the media world. A lot of what we do is the sort of email factoid things that float around. The stuff comes from all over the place. We have corrected the Encyclopedia Britannica on one occasion, likewise we have been dealing with rumors like people having their kidneys removed surreptitiously. Those urban legend type of things which clearly find their way into the mainstream media to some extent, but really come from any place. I wouldn't say we restrict ourselves to a particular focus in terms of where the stuff comes from. If it's misinformation and it's widely booted about we do our best to get things straightened out.
v3rsus: How do you determine the reliability of information when there is so much information out there?
Ed Zotti: It is way easier on a lot of levels than it used to be. I can't tell you how tedious it was years ago, to have to go to medical libraries and go to the paper abstracts that they used to publish, trying to find out whether it's true that people's hair would turn white from fright. It's a lot easier now with a lot of stuff online. However, there is a vast quantity of information out there, and the percentage of stuff you can rely on versus the unsupported stuff is still 100 to 1 at best, and it's often difficult to tell. We get a lot of stuff that has been passed around from one source to another, but nobody's really been checking it out. We have to apply the usual standards, the kind of thing we've been doing all along, and reporters have always done and we basically as journalists: Does it make sense? What's the provenance, where did it come from, who said it? We had a column, which Cecil wrote a few weeks ago, about the state of world fisheries, of all things. Somebody was asking whether farmed fish was as good as wild caught fish. There was two questions, that was one, and the other one was: is it true that sort of undesirable fish are being introduced into the restaurant business, because it's cheaper or for whatever sort of underhanded reasons restaurants might have? That was the pretext for Cecil to write about the decline in world fisheries, a matter of ongoing concern. We did that mostly from public sources and got a long letter from a guy from the National Fisheries Institute, which is a trade association representing the seafood industry, and he had a laundry list of complaints. So we had to get on the phone and call people up, and ended up spending a lot of the time on the phone with a guy who is a Canadian fisheries expert, and asked him: "Did we get this wrong somehow? We just wanna make sure." We established that we had gotten the story right. The guy who was complaining had an economic interest at stake. He didn't want his industry to look bad because they had overfished the world's fish populations, but clearly the science suggests that the world fishing industry had done so. It's pretty much the old-fashioned kind of thing: calling people up and trying to get to the bottom of things.
v3rsus: Do you think it's a problem that journalists seem to be relying more on news agency and industry information instead of doing the research themselves?
Ed Zotti: This is a tough thing to generalize about. I don't know that Journalists are more or less over-reliant than they used to be on flacks work from industry. I think that to the extent that the influence of the mainstream media has diminished, that if anything the climate of the information out there that is unreliable has just mushroomed. There is no editing process, a lot of times. We get people who cite us gobful of stuff on websites which is clearly completely unsupported, but widely spread around. Whatever complaints you might have had about the editing process for conventional journalism over the years, there was a process. Whatever complaints some people might have about non-conforming views being suppressed, a lot of complete BS was suppressed as well, and that was, I think, for the good. The fact is that that is not happening anymore, and a lot of stuff goes directly from the dark regions of some paranoid's mind to the internet and gets spread all over the place. We spend a ton of our time trying to track those kind of things down. We're far from the only people that do that. There are other groups out there, like snopes.com for example. Basically all they do is track down rumors, of which there are numerous new ones every day. We don't have an issue with Journalists being more or less reliable as such. The quantity of information out there, whatever its provenance, the amount of stuff we gotta chase down is multiplied. You are always concerned in this business that you're gonna wind up having answered all the good questions. It's not been a problem. Every time we turn around somebody comes up with some new thing that we gotta track down, that in some cases may be spread around by conventional Journalists, but in other cases may just have sort of gone through wildflower through the blogosphere, that we still have to get to the bottom of. Take that for what you will.
v3rsus: A recent study suggests that Journalists rely a lot on information that come directly from corporations, and there are actually more PR agents writing copy than Journalists. Do you see that as a problem?
Ed Zotti: I don't think that that has changed dramatically. I don't know what types of employment there is in the PR business these days, but I go pretty far back with that and relying acceptly on corporate hand outs and so forth, that's been a concern since the day I got into the business. That wasn't even when the internet was a gleam in the eye of the people over at the defense research project agency. We get into a philosophical discussion here, but I think one of the issues that we deal with nowadays is the lack of provenance, the lack of authority. I give you an example: Wikipedia is a great resource. There is no question that if you want to go to one single source to get the quick fill on virtually any topic you can imagine, Wikipedia is a great place to go. Can you rely on Wikipedia? To be completely factual the answer clearly is no, cause who knows where that stuff comes from? Wikipedia embodies the difficulty of getting reliable information today via online sources. A lot of it is completely reliable, some of it is complete bologna, and it's very difficult for a non-professional to tell one from the other. It all looks the same. The Wikipedia folks have made more of an effort nowadays to flag articles, but you still need to take a lot on faith. In the old days, whatever one may say about deficiencies of the print media, circa in 1860, if you read the Encyclopedia Britannica, you could pretty much rely on the stuff having gone through an editorial process that would verify information. You could be reasonably confident that the stuff, whether or not you could understand it, was at least accurate. You can have much less confidence these days about that kind of thing if you rely primarily on online sources. And again, not to be overly critical of the material that's out there, the process of lending authority to things has completely gone by the wayside. I don't want to sound like I'm longing for a return to the old days, I'm clearly not. I stand in awe of the bulk of information that you can put your hands on in a short period of time. Having done this all these years, I'm still amazed how much information we can assemble in a very short period of time. Nonetheless there is still this basic underlying question of reliability and authority, and that is one that is not gonna go away any time soon. That, we find ourselves, has given us a somewhat different mission than what we started out with, but if anything, one that is of more importance.
v3rsus: Do you think it is more difficult to differentiate between good and bad information now than it was 30 years ago?
Ed Zotti: In the sense that there were fewer outlets. I live in Chicago, and the dominant newspaper here, then and now, is the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune, when I was a little kid, was this rabid Republican rag that editorialized on the front page and all this sort of thing, and they clearly had a point of view, to the extent that anybody who swallowed the stuff as gobful was taking a big leap. The thing about it was, the biases of the newspaper were well-known and obvious, and if you were reasonably sophisticated you could still throw out the obvious bologna and figure out and decipher what's reasonable. There was also competing newspapers and so forth . Between the media outlets you had available you could come to some reasonable semblance of what was going on out there. Not to say that there weren't subjects that were completely ignored, because there were, but up to a point you could take account of the known biases of the sources that you had. Today I think that's my problem. You don't really know where people are coming from. You have so many more sources, and you don't know what sort of process there is behind it. The editorial process in newspapers, in the United States at least, is a fairly standardized one. Everybody has editors and everybody has reporters and they have copy desks and they do all that the same way. Whether they do it as well, one paper versus another one, there is a lot of variation, but at least the process was a well-known, well-established one. With online sources you don't have that confidence. It could be one guy in his Skippies in the basement, it could be the New York Times which has a complete news organization of considerable skill behind it. Having been in the business we can assess the sources with a reasonable degree of accuracy, and that enables us to do our job. Can the average person do that? That I'm not so confident about. The fact that we get some questions, somebody wants to know, pick a topic, and they are citing sources which are clearly spurious, makes me think that a lot of people aren't really all that clear on what they can rely on and what they can't. It's just a new world. I mean, it is what it is and it's given us a job security, I guess you would say. Things are gonna have to be looked into going forward, but it's changed the picture. If anything, it made it way more challenging. Clearly the job is easier on some levels, but way more challenging on others.
v3rsus: Do you think that has a negative effect on culture?
Ed Zotti: It has an impact. This is one of these philosophical conversations we can spend an afternoon and a six pack on. It's tempting, in a way, to tie the polarization of the political process in the US, and I don't mean to point particularly at the internet here, to the fact that there are enormously greater numbers of media outlets across the board, ranging from talk radio to cable TV to the internet to email, as for that matter, and to the fact that there is no fairness doctrine. There is nobody looking over your shoulder to make sure you see all points of view. In the 60s and 70s, for example, when there were only VHF Television stations, and not many of those, there were all sorts of government imposed guidelines. If you're gonna give a point of view on the one side you gotta give a point of view on the other side, and it may be some pretty dull Television, but it also meant you didn't get this polarization of views that you do now. All that went out the window, and in addition you've got a whole lot more Television channels, some of which clearly specialize in political points of views, which wasn't even legal, really, if you think about it, 50 years ago. Is there a much wider spectrum of opinion being expressed? Yes there is. Is that possibly a good thing for the democratic process? Yeah, yes it is. Does it also mean that you have much more polarization than you used to have? I think the answer unquestionably is yes, that's true also. If you want to find media outlets that only broadcast stuff that happens to be something congruent with your own personal opinions, you can. You can spent all your time listening to the Rush Limbaughs of the world, and if that's all you want you're fine, but you're gonna wind up getting your own opinions reinforced, without a lot of challenging, without any contrary opinions being expressed. There is nothing that obligates you to listen to both sides. Some will argue "I'm a great free speech advocate and people want to have their left wing or right wing media outlets.", and that's a fine thing, but it does tend to reinforce views at the extremes of the political continuum versus the center, which was the peculiar feature of the American political process for a long, long time, and it's much less so now. So I think there is a difference.
v3rsus: Would it be over-exaggerated to say that mainstream media just reinforces a consumer culture and that everything else is taking the back seat?
Ed Zotti: I don't think it's got that much to do with mainstream media per se. I am a technical primitive, and I get America Online, which I get for free, something I've been using for a long time. I just happen to see the stuff they sent to me on the welcome screen, and a lot of it is celebrity news. There is all kinds of relatively new media types of outlets, the TMZs of the world, which clearly reinforce consumer culture. You can't blame this stuff on the mainstream media as such. I don't see any great difference in terms of the kinds of things people focus on. It's very difficult to argue that the non-mainstream media have noticeably elevated the quality of popcivic discourse. If anything, quite the contrary. I know there are those who think that we are embarked on a Brave New World, and things are way better because we have much more media. I'm not entirely convinced that's the case. There's a lot more outlets, whether they are better is a pretty dubious, pretty difficult argument to make.
v3rsus: Do you think there is reason to be concerned about the state of culture and the values that are perpetuated? How do you raise children in that environment?
Ed Zotti: I have children, and it's always been a challenge. I don't want to pretend that it's more difficult than it used to be. I was a kid 50 years ago and I don't want to be thinking about how difficult it was for my parents, but there is a whole lot more out there. I was just reading in the New York Times the other day about how kids spend 8 hours a day on electronic media of various types, ranging from text messaging to iPhones and iPods and all that sort of thing. There is clearly a ton more information washing over people than there was when I was a kid. Is that a positive thing on the whole? It's by no means obvious. As a parent you do need to be aware of the stuff that washes over your kid, and try to filter it. You obviously can't protect them from it, but you do have to prepare them to be skeptical: don't believe everything you hear and just the fact that they're telling you to buy something doesn't mean you need to. It's certainly a challenge to be a parent. It's never been all that easy, but it's certainly been no easier the last 20, 30 years. We get into a long conversation here about whether we have been pushed down the road to perdition by the vast quantity of media we've got out there. I don't know. People have always had to make choices. There has always been the issue of separating what the world around you wants you to do versus what you yourself think are desirable things to do. And you still have to make those kind of moral decisions. I don't think that's changed too much. That being said, 50 years ago, for example you could rely on things like the schools, or the newspapers, or the neighborhood, or the community, to do a lot more of the imposition of social controls that have just gone by the wayside. A lot of those things have just disappeared, or have much less authority than they used to have. It's made it far more important for a parent to be able to be more in their kids face about concrete values, because the whole consensus of middle of the road mainstream American values 60s thing that we used to have has pretty much gone out the window.
v3rsus: Do you think it's time to look back and find the virtue of those family and community values again?
Ed Zotti: I hope so. I don't know that I see a whole lot of trends in that direction. We're gonna be forced in that direction, I think, a little bit, just by virtue of changes in the world economy. Due to the fact that oil is gonna run out at some point and that there are great demands placed on limited resources, we're gonna have to rethink a lot of the materialistic aspects of the culture we've been taking for granted all this time. This can get into a whole conversation that doesn't have much to do with the media anymore. We're gonna have to have a much more considerate approach to what we consume than we've had up until this point. I think that's gonna be forced upon us by the economic realities. Do I see any great awakening in terms of people becoming aware of that? Clearly there are some people who are just refusing to accept that at all. I don't wanna say that necessarily breaks down into red versus blue in the political arena. There are people who clearly give very little thought, very little consideration to the consequences of the choices they make, in terms of what they consume, and how they raise their kids, and the values that they try to inculcate in their children. Whether or not that's gonna give us problems down the road remains to be seen. I think to some extent however we're clearly gonna have to take a little more stock in the choices we make than we have up until now.
v3rsus: You wrote the book "The Barn House - Confessions of an Urban Rehabber", where you describe your experiences restoring your house in Chicago. Was that just a hobby to you, or was it also a way to make a commitment to a community?
Ed Zotti: It clearly meant a lot to me. It was something I enjoyed, obviously. It clearly had a sense I'd like to convey in the book, that it was more than just the joy of woodworking, for example. It wasn't strictly a hobby. I felt it had quite a replication. It was an attempt to come to terms with the past. In America, in particular, there is a tendency to forget what happened more than two weeks ago and focus purely on the future. Working on a house that was a hundred, and whatever it was, years old, was one way of doing that. Of course by world standards it's not a particularly old house, but for the US it is. You clearly had a sense of, and again I try to convey this in the book, of looking at the past and taking the best of what had come before and adapting it for the future. I think that was certainly our goal in working on the house. In a larger sense, it's about living in an old city like Chicago, which experienced a turn-around at the time we worked on the house, at a time when our cities were continuing decline. Much of the industrial Midwest for example is in very sad shape, and there is no obvious solution for the problems of the Detroits of the world. So yeah, there was a great sense of relationship with the surrounding community. There's also a lot of stuff in the book that, maybe, got a little bit wooly for some taste; taking the work of craftsmen long gone and restoring it, and adding something of your own that you could in turn bequeath to the legacy to the future: your own children or the next guy who bought the house. Perhaps he would appreciate the kind of work and love that has gone into it. I think there was certainly a larger sense to what I was doing than the fact that I liked working on the house, but not diminishing in any way that I did like working on the house, and I got a great deal of satisfaction out of it.
v3rsus: Has that project connected you to the community?
Ed Zotti: Oh yeah. (laughs) Probably because they were mad at me for getting dust all over their houses. When we were first working on the house, I met a lot of people who I remain friends with to this day. I'm the kind of guy who likes to work on houses, and one of the things I have in common with other people who also work on houses is that it's a lot of fun for me to talk about. It was a way to get in touch with the community. I met the ultimate, and made a lot of relationships from the years of working on the house, that, even though the house is not substantially complete and I'm not out there hammering away anymore, have endured and have given me a pretty deep investment in the community that is manifested in other ways than strictly working on the house. So yeah, I think that was definitely a way of connecting with the community.
v3rsus: It seems like our way of communicating has become so abstract with digital technologies. Do you think it's important to reconnect on a community level?
Ed Zotti: I've been working in the online business for a long time and there is no question that the relationships you can form online with people who live across the country or in some places around the world can be every bit as valuable and illuminating as with those who live next door to you. So I don't want to deprecate the new kinds of relationships you can have nowadays, but that doesn't take away from tying to a sense of place, to a physical community, to neighbors who you can see every day. It doesn't replace that. In fact, it makes those kinds of things all the more precious. I think to feel a sense of connection to a place and to feel some responsibility to it, has a lasting impact on the kinds of decisions you make, on the kinds of things you value, on the kinds of things that the community as a whole values. The complaint that's been made about Americans since time immemorial is that they will use up what's in front of them and then move on to the next thing. I think that's clearly something that's not gonna be supportable in the future, in the relatively near future. I won't say that I didn't have those sorts of notions prior to working on the house, but it certainly reinforced them. The sense of some attachment to a local community, no matter if it's Chicago or Madison, Wisconsin, that's got a history, that you have investment in , not financially but emotionally, has always been important, but it's gonna be a lot more important in the future that looms not too far down the road.
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