Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Tyranny of the Prevail

Nelson

The last 24 hours have been a whirlwind of reporting in the wake of the death of Nelson Mandela. It is interesting how news organizations have covered his passing. Most organizations have, rightly so, glorified his life and his legacy. The South Africa of today might not even exist had it not been for his release from Robben Island prison, his election as President and his founding of the Peace and Reconciliation commissions among other achievements.

But Mr. Mandela was a freedom fighter before he was an icon. In today’s parlance, he was a terrorist. In fact, Condelezza Rice, former Secretary of State under the Bush Administration, was embarrassed that until 2008, Mr. Mandela was on a CIA Terrorism Watchlist. She ordered him removed from it.

Getting back to the coverage, I heard not an opposing word regarding Mr. Mandela and his excellent works until the Canadian based news magazine, “Q” hosted by Jian Ghomeshi, and even then, the discussion didn’t change until more than halfway through the broadcast.

Interviewers are not fools. They may see themselves as truthtellers, but sometimes, they know they need backup. Indeed, permission, before they can speak contrary to the prevailing wind. That’s what Jian Ghomeshi did, but only after the start of his conversation with Princeton Professor and Black Activist Cornell West.

Jian gingerly, and I mean gingerly asked Mr. West about Mr. Mandela’s early years and if he could be considered a subversive? In light of the current praising, that was no doubt a tricky question to consider, let alone ask. Fortunately, Mr. West, in his usual bold and unapologetic style, recapped Mr. Mandela’s history as a black nationalist who was a counter-cultural hero that railed openly and constantly against the oppressive white government of South Africa.

He shined much light on what some would consider Mandela’s shadow self, a self many might choose not to admit, lest it would diminish him as the icon they need him to be. But Mandela himself fought against being lionized and West told the story of how he warned South Africans during a speech that they must not be complicit in the “SantaClausization” of the man. In a later meeting, West was concerned that Mandela might have been offended. In fact, Mandela told West he agreed and told him to continue speaking his truth.

As West spoke, you could hear Jian getting more and more comfortable with asking about Mandela the warrior and Mandela the subversive. By the end, he almost sounded relived and I suspect, a little liberated.

When a person that we consider great dies, just like when a person we consider evil dies, we don’t do ourselves, let alone them justice, if we don’t stretch to understand the full measure of the man or woman. But an interviewer doesn’t always have the juice by themselves to look in both directions. Sometimes, they need help. But the fact the Mr. Ghomeshi knew he wanted to explore Mr. Mandela’s other side, and that he sought out Cornell West to help him do it gets him mass props from this interviewer.

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