Vox Pop

The art and science of the interview

It’s Over

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Voting Booth

For 11 months, I’ve been deep in Oregon politics; calling candidates, setting up interviews with candidates, interviewing candidates, editing the interviews with candidates, posting those interviews – repeat.  I ended this project with pretty much the intention I started with.  I was sick of people complaining about the poor quality of political candidates and I wanted to see where the problem really lay.  Was it with the candidates themselves, or was it with the people who listened to them, believed them and elected them?

I interviewed almost 70 of about 300 candidates.  Some dropped out.  Many didn’t return calls.  A few agreed to be interviewed and then apparently changed their minds.  No matter.  What matters is I’ve talked with a respectable number of executive, legislative and judicial office seekers since December 2013. I’ve blogged a lot about them.  And I’ve come away with some lessons.

1.  We should be grateful and proud that our elections are decided peacefully by the ballot rather than the bullet.
2.  We should be ashamed that our elections can be essentially paid for through deceptive ads by multinational corporations that keep hammering on the public’s perceptions until they cave.  To coin a friend from Russia, “The difference between Russia and the US is that at least we know we live under a tyranny.”
3.  We should be grateful that our system allows anyone to run for office.  The diversity of the electorate is reflected in the diversity of the candidates and that’s a good thing.
4.  We should be fearful that our system allows anyone to run for office.  I talked with several people who couldn’t put a sentence together or say what they were proposing but were quick to personally berate the opposition.
5.  Politicians know this can be a game.
6.  The voters often neither know it can be a game nor know the rules of the game.
7.  Neophytes tend to talk about what they will do if they get into office to change things and how they will work with those on the other side of the aisle to fulfill those changes.
8.  Incumbents by contrast spend their time pushing the opposition away with promises of what they’ve accomplished and candy dangling of what they’ve yet to do.
9.  Many of them were sincerely grateful to be given a chance to truly be heard.
10.  Everybody intensely believes they and their tribe have the answer.
11.  Everybody intensely believes in the system.
12.  I do too.

I’ve come to believe in it because, as President Obama clearly articulated, to get change you have to hold your politician responsible.  That means you have to hound the hell out of them because that is exactly why they are there; to be your advocate.  The problem though is that everybody who wants something from that politician thinks the same thing.  So it really does come down to who has the loudest voice.  And many people think that since money = speech, mo’ money means a really big mouth.  But I’ve found that’s not always true.

I’ve found that a tiny but consistent noise, like this one, can be pretty effective in getting a politician’s attention.  That’s how politics works.  That’s the only way it can work.  Point 12 is only true if an annoyingly persistent constituent can countervail points 2, 4, 5, 6, 8 and 10 by always being somewhere in the vicinity of a politician’s ear.

No, it’s not Mr. Smith goes to Washington.  But it does keep the playing field surprisingly level.  Because although money is a big motivator for a politician to be a shill for a moneyed interest, a persistent, watchful, educated minority can make it very, very hard for them to enjoy spending it.  So if, in the end, a politician ends up doing the right thing either because they truly are good people or because they don’t want to be pegged as bad people, what’s the difference? I really don’t care.

Tonight, I was fortunate to cap a year’s worth of reporting by being one of three hosts during three hours of live election coverage.  And I’ve realized that I don’t care much about the spin, or the agenda pushing, or the mind games.  I’ve learned how to deal with that stuff.

But, to circle back to what started this post, what did I discover?  Was the problem with politics with the candidates themselves, or was it with the people who listened to them, believed them and elected them?  Was it us?

To both questions, I can only answer … yes.

I will be paying much close attention to politics from here on out.

Written by Interviewer

November 5, 2014 at 14:22

This was Q

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Jian

Among the logistical sciences is inventory movement and control.  So with the recent firing of Q host Jian Ghomeshi, I began to wonder what will happen to the thousands of interviews he has recorded over the years for the popular Canadian Broadcasting Company program?  Ghomeshi began hosting the program in April 2007.  Since then, with at least three interviews per 90 minute program (2 hours on Friday), a conservative guess is that he has logged more than 5000 interviews in seven years.  And they’ve included cultural icons ranging from Joni Mitchell to Kermit the Frog to Bjork.  Many of stars he has talked with have died and thus, they are immortalized in the Q archive.

Q and the CBC own those interviews, but how will they replay them?  Will it be a circumstance similar to the BBC, which for six years banned the voice of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams?  Or will a time come when Mr. Ghomeshi’s voice can be heard by listeners, but in doses?  Or will the CBC begin the arduous process of re-editing those precious conversations with a different hosting voice?  Right now, by all indications, he has been thoroughly scrubbed from CBC’s websites.  But I bet those conversations of what to do with those priceless interviews are in process.

As I look at recent interview airings by Q since Mr. Ghomeshi’s October 26th firing, they are selecting conversations he has not conducted.  But I’m guessing the ratio of guest host interviews to Ghomeshi’s interviews is tiny.  That well may run dry relatively soon. “Encore” and “archived” programs give a variety show like “Q” breathing room.  Without a cushion of pre-recorded stuff, pressure is on to create it.

This is the double edged sword of a successful concern, no matter what it is.  If it is mission based, people flock to it mostly for what it does.  However, if it is personality based, people flock to it for who does it.  Mission based is much more durable but much less sexy.  And when the cult figure tilts and falls, what to do with that legacy, whether emotional or digital?

Written by Interviewer

November 1, 2014 at 05:05

This is the Problem with Pretaping

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OPB Exterior

To paraphrase, that’s what OPB’s Dave Miller said before a retake on the intro to a story about a report issued by the state on elder and disabled adult abuse.  The story was the second segment on this morning’s “Think OutLoud”.  He was retaking the intro because he wasn’t happy with how he had said the words “vunerable adults” as he described that upcoming story.  It was one of those rare moments when you get to peek behind the veil of what seems so often like aural perfection to see the tiny screw ups that most producers and editors successfully remove.

It also made me realize that Think Outloud isn’t live.  They’re clear that the evening rebroadcast isn’t live, but I’ve always thought the morning version is.  It isn’t, but it suddenly made sense why they tell listeners earlier in the morning to start submitting comments for Think Outloud; because they begin recording the program at 10 a.m. and are finished between 11 and noon, which is when they broadcast the taped version for the first time.

I’ve talked about these kind of mistakes before, noting that with the sophistication of equipment and the crunch of time, it can sometimes be easy to miss a retake until you hear it later.  It can be a cringe worthy moment.

It will be interesting if Mr. Miller’s retake is in the evening re-broadcast.

Written by Interviewer

October 31, 2014 at 02:40

Posted in Scratchpad

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Yes, No Thank You

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Confusion

Politicians is what makes politics interesting. Specificially, how they use language and perception to try to bend time, space and minds.  You can see this when, for example, a politician votes for or speaks on the behalf of something that they know has absolutely no chance of becoming law.  They may not even agree with it but dare not speak against it for fear of alienating a potential constitutiency.  So, they throw their support behind a sinking ship so they can say, “See, I support you” knowing they’re true intent is as safe as if it were in a mother’s arms.

You can see a version of this “yes means no” thinking sometimes when it comes to interviewing them.  You can try for weeks to interview someone.  And each time, they or their aide promptly send back a reply saying “I’ll be available in a few weeks”, or “Call and we’ll set something up” or “Give me some options”.  So, you wait, or you call or you propose.  And again, a prompt reply saying, “Still out of town” or “Sorry we missed you” or “Those won’t work for me”.  So you wait, or try again or suggest alternatives.  Strangely, nothing ever seems to work.  And yet, when you look at who’s never available versus who makes themselves available, it’s easy to wonder, “Hmmmm, A’s campaign or prospects don’t seem nearly as hectic as B’s, yet, B and me talked last week and A is still in the wind.  Curious”.

Then, when the prospect of a conversation is obviously off the table because of time or some other factor, there are emails of apology.  And in those moments come the easy realization that they never intended to talk with you.  But as a way of seeming accomodating, they stay in touch, respond promptly and are always polite but never available.  Politicians want love, even from people they won’t meet.  They really are experts at what they do even if the way some of them do it, sometimes, seems pretty unseemly.

Written by Interviewer

October 30, 2014 at 22:40

The Comma, the Period, the Horror

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Punctuation

Post means post-production, or the phase of an interview when its time to fix any problems that may have come up during the interview and turn the conversation into something concise and coherent.  Many times, if you’re lucky, this isn’t necessary.  Most interviewees stay on point and can compartmentalize thoughts within their answers, so their argument is both logical and chronological.  This means the discussion tracks an order of importance path; from introducing the listener to the interviewee, to the meat of the discussion, to a more light-hearted conclusion.  It’s a standard interview arc and one listeners have come to expect, mostly because it works.

But when an interviewee rarely uses punctuation, editing the conversation into a listenable final product can be a nightmare.  There are people who can talk for long minutes at a time and never take a breath.  Sometimes, talking without a break is less malicious than psychological.  Some people are never asked to give their opinion or are never allowed to finish once they start.  So they are delighted to talk and because it may be rare to have someone actually listening, they may not know the cues of polite society that should tell them it’s time to pause and allow dialogue.

I suspect though that some interviewees have learned to do this purposely and as a strategy (1) to prevent the interviewer from immediately challenging the interviewee’s suppositions, (2) in an attempt to shift power in the conversation to the interviewee, or (3) to purposely make editing difficult.

When an interviewee talks without letting the interviewer ask follow up questions, they are trying to push an agenda.  They are forcing out talking points that represent an ideology which has no tolerance for examination.  Or they are trying to plant something in the listener’s mind with such force that they hope an interviewer’s questions won’t uproot it.  That’s hard to deal with but not impossible.  The best way, if you’re not up against the clock, is to simply say you have X number of questions and you want to get them all asked before you finish.  You’ve put the interviewee on notice that no matter how long they talk, they know every question is going to get asked no matter how long they try to delay you asking them.  If you are up against the clock, you either take control of the interview or end it.

And this can lead to shifting power which can be a tougher problem, because then, it’s not about the content of the conversation as much as it’s about the dynamic between the interviewer and the interviewee.  But an aggressive interviewee can be dealt with in a couple ways.  An interviewer can butt heads with them once as a way to show them they are not going to dominate the conversation but then choose not to escalate confrontation beyond that.  If the interviewee chooses to escalate, the interviewer lets them while remaining calm, knowing it it they who will come off looking like an ass.  Otherwise, an interviewer may try to reign in a confrontational interviewee with a long pause after a tirade, or they may come back with a dispassionately asked follow up question devoid of any emotional energy.  Using the interviewee’s name is also another method of bringing the discussion back to a balanced interaction.  The key is for the interviewer to not let themselves be drawn into the interviewee’s own unique form of crazy.

But no matter why run-on answers happen, they can cause real technical problems.  Namely, someone who isn’t using punctuation doesn’t have natural breaks in their speech, or if they do, they may not always line up with logical breaks.  Natural breaks are places where people take a breath or where their inflection falls such that editing that point to another point where it later rises makes for an almost unnoticeable transition.  Logical breaks are where someone carries a complete thought to its conclusion. The thing is they don’t always happen at the same time and are a lot less likely to happen without punctuation.

Ideally, editing is where a natural break coincides with a logical break.  But now imagine two lanes of traffic, both moving in the same direction but at different speeds.  Trying to shoot an arrow across both lanes without hitting something is almost impossible and that’s what editing an interview with someone speaking in run-on sentences is like.  It can make for a jerky sounding interview and no producer or audience wants to listen to that.  From an aesthetic point of view, unfortunately, smooth sounding bullshit sounds a lot better than choppy sounding truth.

But no self respecting editor will give a message they believe is being manipulated a pass.  They will use every tool in the effects tab to smooth, to separate, to equalize and to make each word of a circular breather stand on its own, not lean on those around it like a phalanx of bullies trying to bums rush the listener.

REphrase Me

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Steering Wheel

Talking to people with an agenda and a need to frame a message is very interesting.  I have talked with several politicians in recent weeks who have endeavored to restate the question I asked, not because it was inaccurate, but because it casts attention on an aspect of a particular issue that they wish to divert attention from.  Specifics would be indelicate, but suffice it to say that some politicians of some persuasions have a vested interest in casting a subject in the best light, in part by not using the language they perceive to belong to their opponent.

If politician A calls something X, politician B may choose to call it Y in part, to not acknowledge that the two actually share a common definition.  To admit commonality anywhere with the opposing party could put the support of their diehard constituents in jeopardy.  Or to use the language of the other side might risk giving credence to that other argument (even if they agree with it), which must be avoided at all costs.

I talked about message control and agenda setting in an earlier post, but there, I was talking about how people speak.  Here, I’m talking about what they actually do or don’t say in an effort to steer. The job of the interviewer isn’t to let the interviewee drone on their message unchallenged in an attempt to put it, them or their party in an unexamined light.

But it is interesting to watch when they try.

Written by Interviewer

October 2, 2014 at 11:52

Posted in Scratchpad

Calling the Media’s Hand

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Big Kanuna

Sometimes, as media and journalists, we can get caught in our own rules of fairness.

I don’t have a good handle on why some media outlets focus solely on major party candidates during forums in advance of presidential, general and off year elections. Maybe it’s got to do with polling and how the issues of third party candidates aren’t always the same main issues as they are for the majors. Maybe it’s got to do with the influence of the majors who want the punch bowl all to themselves and more or less convince the media through ad buys that they deserve it. Maybe it’s got to do with the fact that the numbers of the minors don’t come close to those of two party candidates and so, the media – a numbers driven concern – makes an economic decision that the largest audience comes from those who capture the largest numbers. I don’t know.

But I do know the standards of Sigma Delta Chi, which is the organization for the Society of Professional Journalists. And its stated missions are (1) to promote and defend the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of the press; (2) encourage high standards and ethical behavior in the practice of journalism; and (3) promote and support diversity in journalism. So when Third Party candidate Jason Levin crashed a debate between only Democratic Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber and Republican challenger Dennis Richardson at the editorial offices of the Pamplin Media Group on September 23rd, it was kinda what the latter three deserved.

Political forums are not private love-ins. They’re should be more like racous holiday dinners where the whole family is at the table.  Of course, maybe that’s just me.  I happen to like the idea of the unpredictable and the un-anointed peeing in the sacred pool.  That’s why although I think weather modeling and the Dow Jones Industrial 30-day average are cute, they show us every day that we have no idea what will or should happen next.  I root not for the havoc, but the humbling.

Besides, if Oregon’s Ballot Measure 90 passes, getting a seat at that table may be even more difficult for third party candidates in the future. Congratulations to Mr. Levin for having the kahunas to pull out his own chair and forcing forum hosts to put their journalistic principles above whatever it was that made them initially not.

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