Archive for April 2013
This is about interviewing, AND it’s directed at Saturday Night Live.
Skit #1 – The Talkover
A Western media outlet anchor is on the phone with a subject, preferably someone with a noticeably foreign accent on a bad connection. In the course of the discussion, the person on the phone takes offense to something the anchor has said or implied. The person on the phone is defensive and tries to get out what they’re trying to say. But the anchor, when continuing the question or asking a follow up question, continues to plow through, and over, and under the person on the phone even as they are responding or trying to respond. The anchor makes sure they get their complete question asked even- when-their-speaking-speed-falls-to-one-deliberate-and-unyielding-word-per-second.
Would it be funny on SNL? Probably. Is it funny on the air? Not really, because it shows how arrogant anchors can be, though it’s understandable where this came from. It used to be that a bully interviewee could out talk the interviewer such that the interviewer looked and sounded like they didn’t have what it took to keep control of the interview. But as communication has advanced, with human nature being what it is, and journalism being the dark art it can sometimes be, an adversarial interview is a good excuse for a good interviewer to softly beat the hell out of somebody just like this. I mean, an interviewer is supposed to be asking the questions they think the audience wants to hear. But sometimes, these can feel and sound like poking the bear, appropriate to nothing.
Skit #2 – Splain Me
A Western media outlet anchor is talking to a subject and the subject makes a common, cultural reference, and the anchor inserts a verbal ellipse, essentially grinding the interview to a halt and says, “That means blah, blah, blah …” for that uninitiated audience member who just for the first time, cracked open the door of their 1953 bomb shelter. To wit;
Guest – Within about 25 years, the Earth will …
Anchor – And just to be clear, we’re talking about the third planet from the sun …
Guest – Uh, yeah, anyway …
This is sort of understandable too. Back in the 70s and 80s, was when we were just starting to hear about how American school students didn’t know state capitals. And that got news organizations worrying that Americans didn’t know basic geography. Sadly, every so often Conan or Dave Letterman, or Jimmy Fallon or Craig Ferguson show, that for some of us, this is still true. But back then, it wasn’t so funny. So the networks started using more graphics and maps, and taking more time to explain the basic connections to the story they might be in the middle of telling. But now, with as much instant communication and ubiquitous access to Google and Wikipedia as there is, I’m starting to think that if people don’t know, it’s a lot like non-smoking education; it’s not because the information isn’t out there, maybe they just don’t care. This is something similar from a comment board called “unfogged.com” from 2007:
Guest: “And then Franklin Roosevelt created . . .”
Interviewer (interrupting): “That would be Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States.”
Guest: “Yes. Anyway, then FDR created . . .”
Interviewer (interrupting): “FDR being Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”
Guest: “Yes. Then FDR created the Works Progress Administration . . .”
Interviewer (interrupting): “Commonly known as the WPA.”
OK, they may be a little less informed than you, but you’ve got them covered. So, maybe we can ease up on dropping the encyclopedia on the table in the middle of a good conversation.
SNL, these could be two new versions of your standard NPR skit setpiece. Pleeeeeze.
There are two ways to write a story.
One is to already know what you want to say and then look for quotes or soundbytes that you can drop into the spaces you’ve carved out ahead of time. In essence, you know what you want the story to say and where you want it to go and you don’t really care where it could possibly go on its own. Maybe you do it because you’re pressed for time, or you don’t really care, or because you want to look like something you’re not. Doing a story that way, , you’re kinda sorta censoring. But for sure, you are a lazy SOB who coasts the low road and God help anyone who swallows your crap thinking you’ve done your due diligence. God stop them from making an important choice based on the slop you feed them.
The other way is to start out by knowing nothing. You study the subject, you ask questions from every possible perspective. You talk to people who know what you don’t know and ask them to ask you questions. You ask questions against your own biases, against the information you’re given, with the information you’re given and with your own biases. And once it’s all in one place, on paper, in a hard drive, on a spreadsheet, you start making connections and relationships. You build matrices, and mind maps and block diagrams. And when you know as much as you can know in the time that you’ve had, you start to write. And when you finish writing, you press the button and launch it.
That way of writing a story is harder, slower and full of more dead ends. But, it’s more sincere because it goes where it is supposed to go. You may suffer at the hands of its path, not your own but in the end, you and it end up somewhere much much better than you though every you’d be, sometimes to your own greatest surprise.
This isn’t about interviewing, but it is about reporting.
First, a reporter may, in his or her career, be a lot of things; spokesperson, marketing expert, advertising consultant, author. But of them all, being a reporter like being a marine, is forever. Especially if being a reporter was first, because the reporter never forgets that the truth is what is really important. To a reporter, the crooked can never be made straight no matter the size of the giant or the paycheck. If someone is trying to make them see something one way, it will never look right to them. It will eat at them because their DNA is lit from within with the power of the pen. Eventually, they’ll start truthtelling because even if the reporter has stopped using his teeth, he never loses them and they resharpen quickly. Semper Fi.
Secondly, I am sick of hearing people who say that a reporter can never be objective so they shouldn’t try. Weak people point to human base nature as an excuse to do nothing. They say that since we can’t be “pure”, any attempt at objectivity is failed and thus, discredited and useless. So reporters should just report with their biases with no attempt to be balanced.
If we’re going to pretend to be civilized, then we should play it out, and that means swallowing the higher ideals hook too. Person A gets away with too much shit while trying to crush Person B for theirs. I’m not for double dealing, but I’m for hypocrisy even less. So, I guess I do care that some get away with it and others don’t simply because some thieves are thicker than others.
In journalism, decent reporters load everything they can find out about questionable someones into the reporter’s centrifuge and whirl the hell out of it until everything has separated, and then burn up what’s left in the reporter’s autoclave until all you’re left with is something that is as pure as you can get. And then you serve it back to the public and wait for what happens. Because in the end, if anything changes, they’ll be the ones to change it.
It’s not perfect, but it’s a damn sight better than nothing, and well above the curve for effort. I’ll take it.
A new track on SoundCloud “To My Soundcloud Followers”:
Just a quick note to my followers thanking you for following me and asking a few questions to help me make my interviews better.
I just heard Robin Young of the PRI program Here and Now interview Ann and Nancy Wilson of the band, Heart. She interviewed them in October 2012 and replayed the interview because of their recent induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This again, speaks to the necessity of a good interviewer knowing how to conduct a good interview. Ms. Young was able to remind listeners of why Heart made it into the Hall of Fame with a six-month old interview because her questions were essentially timeless.
She asked Ann and Nancy about their relationship as sisters and got them to talk about the strong roots of their military family. She asked them about the timeless notoriousness of the record industry and they talked about their hit, “Barracuda.” And she asked them about trials outside of the band that orbited the band, like their fiasco with Annie Lebowitz, and about other work, like decades of film scoring.
That’s why a good interview has no expiration date, because it’s not about events as much as it’s about people. And even if the people change between when you last talked to them and when you next talk to them, they’ll probably be glad to update you on the changes, which only makes the conversation more true to what it means to be human, which is why people listen to interviews anyway.
Good job, Ms. Young.