Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Archive for January 2014

New Track: John Lewis Interview

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A new track on SoundCloud “John Lewis Interview”:

John Lewis is a congressman, writer, activist and one of the “Big Six” in the civil rights movement. He has just written, with two co-authors, a graphic novel called “March”. It is the first in a trilogy that looks back at his career in an effort to present the past to young people as a way to preserve it. Don Merrill talked with US House of Representatives member John Lewis at the Hotel Deluxe in Portland while he was here on his book tour.

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January 18, 2014 at 15:36

Posted in Scratchpad

An Impossible Question

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I am listening to Terry Gross’ interview with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.  Terry asked her, did she think she would be as successful as she was if she had had children?

I want to talk about the question for a minute, then about Justice Sotomayor’s response.  The question asks the interviewee to speculate on an alternative reality that doesn’t exist and because it doesn’t exist, no answer is possible.  It’s the kind of question most interviewers, most of the time avoid like the plague.  Rather than asking the interviewee to relate an anecdote based on personal experience or share a fact based on professional training, “What if” questions make the interviewee address a decision about a ship that has long since sailed.  And although their process might be valuable to a listener facing a similar choice, it asks something that is to some extent unfair.

Justice Sotomayor paused a long moment. In fact, the pause was so long that Terry realized she couldn’t answer it because, as they both simultaneously acknowledged, it was “an impossible question.”  It is a question in the current tortuous vein for women, “Can you have it all?”  Justice Sotomayor noted that there have been two women on the court who did have children.  So she said she would like to think that she would have been just as successful with children as she has been without them.  Her logic caused Terry to acknowledge and admit, “Exactly.” [NOTE: When I first wrote this post, I seem to remember hearing in the interview an audio response of “Of course”.  But now the audio is “exactly” so I have changed it to that].

But she also reinterpreted Terry’s question, saying “Can women have it all?” is the wrong question, and substituting it with “What makes you happy as a person?”  Success, she inferred, was dependent on what a person has the will and drive to do regardless of circumstances.  And she was totally gracious with the rest of her response, which led Terry to move on to a different question about her earlier work in a District Attorney’s office.

Sometimes, an interviewer comes up with a list of questions, and they all look good.  Then, they cut the list down to what they think are the best questions.  But sometimes, the don’t realize that there’s still a klunker among them.  A question that, if they were to hear someone else ask it, they might think to themselves, “That’s an impossible question.  How could anybody ever answer that?”  A question that attempts to group groups, not by desire and capability but societal expectations.  Is it a question that puts interviewees in a box or gives them the chance to bust up the box?

And the ultimate test of the question is, would it have been asked of a man?  You can hear Justice Sotomayor’s hesitation after the question is asked here at about 32:04.

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January 14, 2014 at 11:40

New Track: Natasha Bjornsen Interview

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A new track on SoundCloud “Natasha Bjornsen Interview”:

Natasha Bjornsen is a Douglas County Democrat and teacher running for House member in Oregon’s Second District. She talked with Don Merrill about why education is the key to her strategy, how collaboration and compromise are not dirty words and how she gets annoyed when people mischaracterize her and her views on gun control.

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January 12, 2014 at 14:24

Posted in Scratchpad


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Wanda Sykes 2

How, as an interviewer, can you have a dream and a nightmare all rolled up into one?  When you’re about to interview somebody you really like and admire, but you’ve only got them for 15 minutes and you have an hour worth of questions.   When you face a crunch like that, it requires a re-think of what the purpose of the interview is.

As an interviewer, there several interviewing arcs you can follow.  One of them might have you starting out with personal history stuff to help establish the interviewee with the audience; where did you grow up, what did you do as a kid … stuff like that.  Then, you might talk about how they started doing what they’re known for and elaborate on some of the recognition or success they’ve had for doing it.  Then, you might mention controversies or criticism of how they’ve done it and how they felt about that criticism and how they overcame it.  And you might end with a, “So, what’s in your future?” type of question.

That’s a perfectly legitimate way to talk to somebody you don’t know.  It’s comprehensive.  It covers the bases.  But sometimes, it’s not enough.  Sometimes, the person you’re talking to is so awesome that you don’t want to be stuck asking “standard” questions.  But interviewees are used to standard questions and venturing too far outside the box can spook them.  You want them to know that you know they deserve to be seen as more than a cardboard cutout.  So what to do?

What I did was be as honest and straightfoward as I could be from the outset.  When I talked with actor and comedian Wanda Sykes, I started out by telling her that ordinary people come to her shows for her comedy, but they also listen to how she had dealt with challenges in her own life; a double mastectomy, coming out as lesbian, a mixed race marriage, betrayals she describes by Fox for the cancellation of two shows.  All of us can relate to marriage, medical issues, betrayal, social acceptance and courage.

Something else I did was ask her if there was anything she wanted to make sure she mentioned.  Normally, interviewers don’t do that, and guests probably don’t expect it because interviewers are expected to know what to ask and interviewees are expected to follow along.  But again, interviewees aren’t one-dimensional and maybe they don’t spontaneously talk about what’s important to them because interviewers don’t give them the option.  That can be a tricky one.  The point was to let Ms. Sykes know that the conversation is about her and it’s conceivable that there are things deep in her heart that she might want to mention that my research didn’t uncover.  So I offered.

That also meant that in the course of the conversation, unnecessary questions got thrown out.  Questions that, in retrospect, I could see were fluff questions.  It’s not that they weren’t good questions, but for the time I had, they weren’t deep enough, personal enough and wouldn’t touch people fast enough. That’s why, if you’re an interviewer, it is absolutely your responsibility to do your research in advance.  That gives you time to sift through your questions and cull the herd depending on how much time you really have, not how much time you think you’ll have. And it gives you a chance to figure out which questions will really matter to people.  Because the thing that matters to a listener is “How much are they like me”?

It’s OK to follow a flexible template when interviewing.  But sometimes, even that has to be thrown out.

You can hear the conversation here and here.

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January 11, 2014 at 03:13

New Track: Wanda Sykes Interview

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A new track on SoundCloud “Wanda Sykes Interview”:

Wanda Sykes is a comedian, but so much more. As an actor, she has had two shows of her own on Fox. She’s also been in the hits “Curb your Enthusiasm” and “The New Adventures of Old Christine”. She’s starred in the movies “Monster-in-Law” and “Evan Almighty”. And her voice has been in several animated hits like “Ice Age: Continental Drift” and “Over the Hedge”. But she’s much more than just that, also being a spokesperson for GLAAD and PETA. Don Merrill talks with Wanda Sykes and runs out of time way too soon.

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January 11, 2014 at 03:03

Posted in Scratchpad

New Track: Kelly McGonigal Interview

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A new track on SoundCloud “Kelly McGonigal Interview”:

Kelly McGonigal has a PhD in psychology from Stanford University, the home of the famous “Marshmallow Test”. In the late 70s, four and five year olds were tested on how well they could resist the temptation to eat a bowl of them; a willpower test. Don Merrill talks with Ms. McGonigal about her book, the results of those experiments and how willpower can be strengthened just as you exercise any muscle.

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January 8, 2014 at 12:03

Posted in Scratchpad

Losing Control

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dueling microphones

The interplay between interviewer and interviewee is a delicate one.  And sometimes, you hear the balance go off-kilter.  Such was the case in today’s installment of “Q” with guest host Terry O’Reilly  He was talking with reporter Ben Hubbard, the Middle East correspondent for the New York Times, about the issues in Dubai and free speech.  And the reporter had a lot of information to share.  But the interview had two problems.  One, the reporter didn’t realize he was bogarting the interview, and two, Mr. O’Reilly didn’t cut him off when he needed to be cut off.

Hosts are the captains of the interview ship.  They have the clock in front of them, they’re thinking about editing and network breaks.  So they have to be the ones to corral guest commentary.  And you can feel it when it isn’t happening.  The most obvious clue is when you hear the host trying to force their way back into the momentum of the guest’s response and failing. You see this at parties when someone on the periphery of a conversation tries to say something to capture the attention of the circle but a more powerful and maybe more credible someone keeps talking and so, holds the attention of the assemblage.  I call this “The Talkeover” and either the host or the interviewee can be guilty of it.

Of course, a guest with a history of being interviewed knows hosts need to cut in sometimes and has an obligation to let them.  But another problem is when a host has a guest with specific and unique information that timeliness might demand they share all at once.  You don’t want to stop them, really, because nobody else might have this insight or you don’t know when you’ll get them again or they might tell you something your researchers or librarians have left out of your notes.  So you balance the risk of letting them talk to the risk of cutting them off.

This isn’t a case of either person being rude.  It’s more both parties trying to fulfill their responsibility as journalists as each of them understand it.  And even between practicing professionals, it can get kind of hazy.  Worse, it can leave the audience wondering what just happened.

Written by Interviewer

January 7, 2014 at 05:38

Posted in Scratchpad

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