Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

I Don’t Have to Take This.

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Oregon’s governor, John Kitzhaber, walked out of an interview with KATU reporter Kelly Lane in early January after four minutes and two questions.  Staff cut the interview short because they said the governor needed to stay on schedule.  But coincidentally, the interview ended immediately after Ms. Lane asked Mr. Kitzhaber about the failed Cover Oregon website. The governor’s office has taken an intense amount of what some would call well deserved heat for a breakdown in the site at practically every level of its development and implementation.

There are many reasons why a prior appointment time may have been missed by a staffer, thus forcing an interview to be cut short. Staffers also however, have the responsibility of shielding their bosses from potentially embarrassing questions that could lead to other questions about credibility. Which precipitated this incident is unclear.

This non-interview reveals how the most simple questions can be the most explosive, with two in particular being the time honored fuse and match. They represent the most basic questions reporters must ask whenever they are talking to a politician about a high profile and potentially politically damaging subject.  Ms. Lane managed to ask a derivative of one of them. They are:

1.  What did you know and when did you know it?

2.  Where did the money come from and where did it go?

This whole kerfuffle was because the governor said he never received a message regarding an update on the problems of Cover Oregon although a member of the legislature said they received a reply from the Governor’s office that he would.  Email messages can certainly be lost, accidentally deleted or misdirected.  Which was the cause of the truncated conversation comes down, sadly, to he said “I didn’t get the message” while she says “Oh yes you did”. But there are things the reporter can do to not get in the way of these snits because such confusion can be surprisingly illuminating. And when it happens, it’s not the reporter’s job to get in their way or save an interviewee from themselves, although there can be exceptions.   Those safeguards include:

1.  Confirming the amount of time that will be set aside for the interview in advance and re-confirming that time before the interview begins.

2.  Never taking such incidents personally.  Reporters should only be a mirror that reflects the candidate’s behavior and actions back to themselves and their audience.  A clear reflection lets the audience apply their own filter and make their own judgments on candidate viability.

I’ve said before how one of the most important things that the reporter can do during an interview is prompt a “reveal”.   But as this example shows, non interviews can prompt them as well.

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Written by Interviewer

February 26, 2014 at 12:21

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