Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Archive for October 2013

The Unreachable Star

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Interviewing is a balance between getting to the truth and glossing over it. And the goal of an interviewer is to ask the question the audience wants to ask and get an answer the audience never expected to hear. Different interviewers have different levels of guile, meaning, some interviewers are more fearless or naive or innocent to ask questions that others may consider off limits. Still, when we hear such a question, we immediately recognize it as sincere to the point of ballsy, because it’s a question we all want to ask sometimes. Sometimes, the surprise is in the question.

Such a question was asked by Gayle King of Harrison Ford at the end of the interview Mr. Ford did with CBS This Morning. Mr. Ford was promoting his movie “Enders Game”, and at the end of the conversation he said that he was “delighted” to have been there with them. Gayle asked him, “Are you really delighted?” I gasped.

We all encounter situations where we question the sincerity of the social conventions we’re all expected to abide by. We smile at things that aren’t funny. We hold our tongue at things ridiculously said. We turn our eyes from things it would be impolite for us to directly see. The simplest example is when someone asks, “How are you?” What you are going through and what you are expected to say are two completely different things. But our language lies to us. The words say, tell me the truth, while the truth is, people ask because they are being polite because politeness is what greases the billions of split second interactions between us each day. Nobody really wants to hear what’s really going on with you in any detail because they’ve got their own stuff.

The thing is, when Gayle asked that question, it was a very rare attempt to pull back that veil and to fillet something that is usually sacrosanct, i.e., “Is this real sharing or is this just part of the promotional tour?” For me, it was a “wow” moment. I’m just sad she didn’t ask it earlier because there was no time, either by the studio clock or in the guest’s mind to create the kind of personal response I think she was shooting for. I’m sure if she had asked it earlier, the result would have been a lot more interesting.

But I bet that for Mr. Ford’s people, that was long enough. His agents, attorneys, publicists … I can imagine they could have imagined a lot of questions that she could have asked him with that certainly not being one of them. But again, kudos to Ms. King. It is such an outrageously simple question and at the same time, so impeccably honest, it’s one no interviewer can ever really expect will be answered, even if there is enough time.

Terry Gross and Stephen King talked a little about the sincerity of the famous and interview. I talk about it here –

Written by Interviewer

October 31, 2013 at 23:18

Posted in Scratchpad

Running out the Clock

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Interviewing can be a dark art because sometimes, people have ulterior motives. And among them can be the intention to burn up the interviewer’s time forcing a message through by; (1) Blaming the people who got it wrong worse than you did, (2) Giving a very long and detailed history of what you’ve done right, (3) Attacking the interviewer by telling them they are asking the wrong questions and wasting time or (4) Talking about something else entirely.

I’m listening to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on NPR with Robert Segal.  As much as we like to think that dulcet tones and years of respected journalistic training would give Mr. Segal the kind of moral authority to fairly guide an interview from start to finish, it doesn’t always happen.  Especially when you’re talking to a politician who has been on the defensive for her job, her party and her president for a few solid years.  So when the conversation turned to the problems with the Affordable Care Act website, it was gloves off.  She’s gotta be tired of it.  To be honest, neither party has been behaving the way they expect us as citizens to.

This post – – makes reference to two SNL skits that I wrote about at the time because they point out what the interviewer can do when they want to take control of the interview. But “The Talkover” is something guests can do too. When a listener hears it, they wonder “They keep talking over each other.  Are they going to have a fistfight?” When the interviewer hears it, they think “I will get the last word here. You just don’t know it yet, even if it’s ‘GOOD-BYE;”.  And the interviewee thinks, “My message is the most important thing, whether I’m telling my truth or trying to divert you from yours.”

Yep, sometimes interviewing can be a Mosh Pit.

Written by Interviewer

October 29, 2013 at 06:28

Posted in Scratchpad

The Personal Lessons of

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US Map

I listen with sadness to the problems plaguing the Federal Government’s health exchange website rollout. I’ve been working on a website that is kind of a big deal to me since May, and I’ve been doing it alone. I can’t afford IT people. Besides, when I hired an IT person to build a different site, they gave me lousy artwork, pages that didn’t link and grammar that sounded like it came from the same people who made “I want cheezburger” famous.

The fewer people working on a project, the better, although alone isn’t ideal either. The progress is really slow. But the accountability is 100% and that can make it worth it. This problem with reminds me of the British problems with the rollout of its health service website 5 years ago, the Medicare Part D portion of Bush’s prescription drug plan seven years ago, and most recently, the massive foul up associated with the reworking of the USAjobs website. Whew!

And, I’m seeing that being in a rush to make other people look bad only gives them ammunition that eventually makes you look bad. So, I don’t have a deadline for my website, but I am working diligently and consistently to finish it. With no deadline per se, I can go through the steps with everything I’ve learned and everything I already know.

And there are a lot of them. There are the design questions like, what do I want the site to look like, since for webpages, function follows form. And there are other, big sky questions – What do I want the site to do? Can I do it? Will it deliver the value I expect it to? Then, there are the technical questions. I’ve shared plenty of those – how to create a scroll follow box, how to deal with host site content limitations, how to create an image map, how to link drop down menu selections, how to overcome out of memory messages, etc.

And there are marketing questions – who should be contacted; newspapers? Think tanks? Political bloggers? Marketing basics say never use a shotgun to spread your message because you’ll tell a lot of people who don’t care. But the people who care, really care. So devoting the time to them is extremely important.  And that comes down to the grunt work of creating lists.

The saddest thing about the debacle is somewhere along the way, somebody said they were bringing in the “A Team” to fix it, to which I wonder, so who did you start with?  No IT person wants to come in to clean up the mess of a lesser IT person.

My site will be the most complicated thing I’ve ever done, and I’ve done it essentially by myself. And I will have some advantages over; I’ll be able to test pieces of it independently and collectively because I don’t have to coordinate with other IT people or their schedules half a world away; I’ll get opinions on the content from people most interested in it – people whose opinions I trust; I can remove stuff, tweak stuff or add stuff. But the greatest luxury I have is time.

That being said, I think my site will be ready by Veteran’s Day.

Written by Interviewer

October 24, 2013 at 06:45

New Track: Stephen Kinzer Interview

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A new track on SoundCloud “Stephen Kinzer Interview”:

Stephen Kinzer was a foreign correspondent for the NY Times when travelled to Iran and began chronicling America’s foreign policy successes and failures in a series of books. The latest one about Dulles brothers is called “The Brothers”. Mr. Kinzer talks with Don Merrill about how these two Calvinist Presbyterians divided the world into good and evil and the damage their personal beliefs did to the American legacy in the Middle East and around the world.

Written by Interviewer

October 19, 2013 at 03:59

Posted in Scratchpad

Out of Memory

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Out of Memory

I always though the “Blue Screen of Death” was the message you never wanted to see on a PC. But there is another one – Out of Memory.

I’m not exactly sure how this message manifests itself in all circumstances, but I know how it affects website building. Website building programs have internal limits on how much space they need to function, meaning, the number of processes they use as they are being built, and as they run.

Those limits depend on whether they are 32-bit or 64-bit. If they are 32-bit, they can only use about 2 or 3 gigabytes of memory at most. I’m also not sure where that memory comes from. It doesn’t seem to be RAM and it doesn’t seem to be from the computer’s Hard drive. But once the program hits its limit, it crashes.

There is no fix for this except moving to a 64-bit version. It’s a physical barrier, like a wall. But there are options. One is to go to Task Manager and turn off other processes that might be using memory unnecessarily. I say “might” because this is tricky. You can’t always be sure if a process is necessary to the session you have open. Turning off the wrong one can shut down your current session, requiring a restart. Or, you can get rid of parts of the site you’re building that you don’t really need. With them gone, they won’t load and so that’s less memory you need.

Or, you can split the site into pieces. The problem seems to be that all of the site in one file, like a bunch of appliances plugged into the same circuit, can cause a crash. But putting different pieces of the site into different folders in the site’s directory tree, and linking to them from the root directory (don’t ask me what I just said) apparently divides the memory use so all of the site isn’t running at one time from the same place.

Anybody who has read my blog knows it’s not just about interviewing. It’s also about trying to have a web presence doing something I love, and dealing with problems along the way. I am chronicling what seem to me to be the minimum number of things somebody like me trying to do what I’m doing might expect to encounter. So I’m also offering them as a heads up.

I kind of like problems because they piss me off and make me prove to myself how committed I am to what I’m doing.

They make me think.

Written by Interviewer

October 15, 2013 at 22:48

Posted in Scratchpad

New Track: Michael Alexander Interview

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A new track on SoundCloud “Michael Alexander Interview”:

Urban League of Portland President Michael Alexander is simultaneously soft-spoken and intense. And although he intends to end his career where he began it, working within the Urban League, he doesn’t intend to finish quietly. Don Merrill talks with the man who told the Portland Business Journal that the Urban League has “never been a huge asset” for Portland, and what he’s in the process of doing to change that.

Written by Interviewer

October 13, 2013 at 12:02

Posted in Scratchpad

Keeping Up

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carrying stuff

Just a quick note about updates.

When I do an interview, it gets posted in three places. Promos get created and the site gets updated via ftp. And I post notices to all of my social networks. At the same time, more popular conversations get moved to higher profile sites and less popular ones to lower profile sites. Thing is, I can forget what has or hasn’t been done sometimes. If any of these things don’t get done, some links may lead nowhere. Like, I just realized that some were pointing to places interviews no longer were.

I set up a system to track that and make sure the process keeps them current, but I can get busy doing other stuff. On one hand, that’s a good thing because it means I am getting so much of work and so many opportunities that it’s building a big inventory of conversations. But on the other, I don’t like it because it means people are looking for stuff they can’t find.

They’re all updated now and all of the links work, but I realize it might be time for an assistant.

Written by Interviewer

October 13, 2013 at 00:02

Posted in Scratchpad