Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Archive for March 2014

Big vs. Little

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Two recent disasters highlight the fact that reporting the facts isn’t always the priority.  And I don’t mean not reporting them is.

Malaysian Flight 370 disappeared three weeks ago and only in the last couple of days have authorities in Malaysia begun to specifically refer to the jet as “lost”, not crashed however.  Part of the reason for that is because although many countries have reported seeing, with the help of their satellites, debris, none of it has been confirmed to be part of the doomed jet.  Because of very rough winter seas, flight crews never seem to find the debris and so it can’t even be located, let alone retrieved and confirmed.

Meanwhile, families of the 239 souls onboard believe the Malaysian government has mismanaged and withheld critical information from the beginning.  And in a rare public protest, the Chinese government allowed the mostly Chinese families to march to the Malaysian embassy in Beijing and demand the Malaysian Ambassador address their anger directly.  (The Chinese historically have no problem if its people want to protest in the streets against a foreign government).

The Malaysian government has all but refused to expressly say all passengers are dead.  But after 17 days, the Prime Minister did finally say “I must inform you that according to this new data, Flight MH370 ended in the southern Indian Ocean”.  The Malaysian government seems to have been struggling between compassion, protecting military secrets, defending national honor and preventing anymore damage to their national airline’s reputation and tourism industry.

At least a few of those may sound like cold and calculated concerns.  But with the recent disclosures by Edward Snowden, it is a likelihood that surveillance by many nations captured more than we will ever know but will never know because of issues of national security.  A nation protecting how it knows what it knows will always be its highest priority.  And as far as damaging tourism, Vietnam Investment Review (VIR) notes that some Chinese travel agencies have stopped booking flights to the country.  Besides a 10% drop in tourism since the start of the year, the loss of Chinese travelers could push the total loss to near 14%.

But opinion on fate of the passengers, even this far into the disaster, is not universal according to something Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said.

‘“As long as there is a glimmer of hope, our search efforts will carry on.”’

And that comment goes a long way toward explaining why Snohomish County Washington has not, as of today, significantly updated the death toll of people who may have perished from the worst landslide in the history of the Pacific Northwest.  On Saturday, March 22nd at 10:37 a.m., a one square mile section of a hillside facing the Stillaguamish River between the cities of Arlington and Darrington gave way.  Ninety people are confirmed missing.  Twenty six bodies have been found, but as of this writing, only 17 people have been declared dead.

Listening to Snohomish County sheriff Lt. Rob Palmer choke up when describing the conditions rescue workers are trying to negotiate, two things stick out.  This work is taking a huge emotional toll on the entire community.  And secondly and perhaps more importantly, it’s still being called a “rescue” effort rather than a “recovery” effort.  In fact, I noticed that stories of rescues from the earliest days of the disaster were being broadcast as recently as today.  A hopeful story, even if eight days old, counterbalances the horror.

All reporters know that in the fog of disaster, like war, the first casualty is the facts.  In the first hours, days and even weeks after something catastrophic, truths are discovered, turned over, distilled and either kept and added to the body of knowledge or discarded as useless. Likewise, authorties can choose to restrict or withhold information for any number of political or economically based reasons.

But sometimes, despite the facts, people are just not ready to give up.  And they certainly aren’t ready to say goodbye.

UPDATE: As of April 15 @ 1600, the number of confirmed missing has been reduced to 7 and the number of identified dead has increased to 37.

Written by Interviewer

March 29, 2014 at 11:20

New Track: Teddy Keizer Interview

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A new track on SoundCloud “Teddy Keizer Interview”:

Teddy Keizer is a seventh-generation Oregonian who is running for the seat in Oregon’s House District 42. HD 42 covers NE & SE Portland. Mr. Keizer talked with Don Merrill about new technologies for some of Oregon’s rural counties, the skills gap between what employers want and what types of students Oregon schools are producing and how he’ll use his conservative upbringing and his progressive passions to bring new thinking to the Oregon legislature.

Written by Interviewer

March 28, 2014 at 00:42

Posted in Scratchpad

Failure to Thrive

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Jon Stewart interviewed media magnate Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post.  Ms. Huffington was promoting her new book, and any loyal watcher of the Jon Stewart show immediately felt the chemical mismatch between the two.  For one, his conversation w/Ms. Huffington was full of unusually numerous, uncharacteristically long non reactions. Several times, she would say something that seemed very far afield from something she had just said, and Mr. Stewart was having a hard time keeping up.

At one point, in an effort to help Mr. Stewart understand the context of the book, she recommended he read the last three points in four sections that would take him a total of seven minutes.  His incredulous reaction to that and other comments from Ms. Huffington caused reactions in her such as smoothing her hair against the back of her neck (a stress reliever) as well as breaking her chain of thought at least twice.  She also leaned back in her chair (to put space between her and him) and he reciprocated.

Since the point of the book is was to talk about what Ms. Huffington called the third metric of success, Mr. Stewart asked her what were the first two metrics.  She came back with “Money and Power”.  As an audience member, I wondered if a person could achieve the third metric only they had achieved the first two, or if someone had no hope of achieving the first two unless they had mastered the third.  I guess I’d have to read the book first.

The hosts traded some well placed barbs which seemed friendly at first, but when Ms. Huffington said that 20% of people use their cell phones during sex, Mr. Stewart disagreed and asked Ms. Huffington to cite her sources.  She said, paraphrasing, that she doesn’t need to talk to Jon Stewart about her sources because she talks to real experts.  At that point, friendliness seemed to be wearing thin.  And in the closing silhouette shot, when you normally see Mr. Stewart talking intimately with his guest, he was alone at the anchor desk.

I don’t know how many times Ms. Huffington has been on the Jon Stewart show.  But this didn’t seem to be among their chummiest meetings.

Written by Interviewer

March 26, 2014 at 10:34

Breaking News

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I don’t mean sudden and important updates.

Watching the CNN coverage of Malaysian Flight 370, I slowly became more interested in the commercial breaks than the news reports. For instance, the commercial break that happened at 23:47 PST on Friday, March 21, 2014, lasted about four minutes. The following spots played:

AXA Financial Advisors
Phillips Probiotics
UPS/America’s Natural Gas
Lumber Liquidators
Dish Network
Credit Karma
Christian Mingle

The next break came at 23:55 PST and lasted four minutes. Those spots were:

Liberty Mutual
Alka Seltzer
Exxon Valdez TV Special
Centennial Hyundai (non-network spot)
Cub Cadet
CNN/Anderson Cooper Promo
Anthony Bourdain Promo
ChicagoLand Promo

There was about four minutes of news between each break. There are eight breaks like this each hour. No doubt, CNN provides a valuable service. But a compelling story like the disappearance of a modern jet airliner with 239 souls onboard certainly draws more eyeballs to those commercials which is something I’m sure neither the network or the advertisers mind.

We’ve all known that ads pay for news; that advertising is more important than news. News purists like to think it’s the other way around, but it’s not. However, there is something skeezy about the concentration of ads throughout CNN’s broadcast day during this crisis.

In April 2013, Slate Magazine produced a story called “Breaking News is Broken”. I’ll be posting more later about “Breaking News” . But I wanted to make sure that I mentioned something about the money first.

Written by Interviewer

March 22, 2014 at 14:13

New Track: Shala Kudlac Interview

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A new track on SoundCloud “Shala Kudlac Interview”:

Shala Kudlac is running for the Curry County Circuit Court Judge in Oregon’s 15th Judicial District. She talked with Don Merrill about getting ready for election scrutiny, why a judge’s thoughts and feelings have to always be under lock and key and what she plans to do to bring more integrity to Curry County Courts.

Written by Interviewer

March 17, 2014 at 13:49

Posted in Scratchpad

The Stare

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The Stare2

Guests that you are interviewing may not always like where your questions are going. Or they may not understand what you’re trying to get at. Or they may not feel any chemistry with you. And consequently, you may sometimes get ‘the stare”. What is the stare?

The stare is a look that lasts just a few short seconds but is full of judgmental, incredulous or dismissive intensity. It may be a wrinkling of the brow, a rolling or squinting of the eyes or it may be expressionless. But whether intentional or not, it is a sign that you as an interviewer need to check yourself to make sure you know what you’re saying and how you’re presenting yourself to the interviewee. I say intentional or not because sometimes, savvy interviewees may want to throw you off your game for any number of reasons, ranging from wanting to control the agenda through intimidation to deciding they want to sabotage the whole thing. But other times, it comes from an interviewee who expected more professionalism than they’re getting.

It’s not as direct a tactic as confronting the interviewer openly and directly with a hot microphone. What it is engineered to do is silently shake your confidence with shame.

To deal with it when it happens,

  1. First remember the reason for the interview; the guest agreed to let you talk to them about a particular subject. You assumed you had a good reason for inviting the interviewee and that their story would be interesting or important to your audience. So you both want to be there.
  2. Next, have confidence in the research you did in preparation for the interview. Interviewees can be intimidated or impressed by you recalling pieces of their life they may have forgotten or didn’t realize were public. You never know which ahead of time.  BTW, that research should also include a look at the interviewee in previous conversations (if possible) so you can know something about their personality and whether it’s friendly or combative.
  3. Next, have confidence in the path you are plotting through their life as it relates to whatever the subject is. That means, make sure your questions follow some kind of logic/chronology that makes it relatively easy for the interviewee to see they make sense. And ask them those questions with confidence.
  4. Finally, respond rather than react when an interviewee gives an answer before or after the stare that seems judgmental, incredulous or dismissive. Respond means wait for the interviewee to finish, take a moment if you need it to compose a follow up question based either on your initial question, or on their response, and ask it directly with no qualifiers. (A qualifier is something you may say before or after a question or a statement that softens it).

Ideally, an interview is a conversation between equals, meaning the interviewee is talking with the interviewer who represents a listening or viewing or reading audience. Since no guest is greater than the people in the audience who acknowledge and empower them, they are obliged to treat the interviewer with respect.  When interviewees don’t, they are disrespecting the audience and their proxy, the interviewer.

But an audience will rally behind an interviewer and an interviewee will engage with that interviewer only if the interviewer is holding up his or her end of the bargain. If they’ve done a sloppy prep job or don’t engage the interviewee with confidence, then they may deserve the stare.

Written by Interviewer

March 17, 2014 at 13:05

Message Control

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Sometimes, when you’re interviewing someone, their emotions are all over the place. And sometimes, that’s good. A passionate audience member wants the object of their attention to be as enthusiastic as they are about whatever it is they share whether it’s music, cooking, science or whatever. It can also make for a lively interview.

In politics however, showing emotions is part of a strategy that seems to need surgical precision to be successful. It doesn’t mean emotions don’t get shown. It means politicians understand that people want people like them and but they also don’t want people who stray too far from whatever “being like them” means emotionally.

John Dean’s “scream” at the 2004 Iowa Democratic Caucauses was a perfect example. Dean and his base were fired up, but Dean was concerned over his poor finish behind John Kerry and John Edwards. His spontaneous expression of emotion in that battle cry that ended his speech to the party faithful (affected by a bout of flu and his unidirectional microphone) made him seem somehow emotionally unbalanced even to his base. Conversely, when Michael Dukakis lost to George Bush Sr. in 1988, it was because he didn’t show enough emotion when moderator Bernard Shaw asked him how he would feel if an escaped criminal raped and murdered his wife. Yes, we want our politicians to be in control of themselves, but many of his supporters thought he showed “too much” control to the point of having no emotion at all.

When interviewing someone running for office, the purpose isn’t to get them to reveal themselves emotionally. The purpose is to get them talking about why the voters should vote for them. And in the course of that conversation, the person, if they truly care about the office, the people and their own personal mission, will express emotion.

Some people express it freely. Others express it judiciously. Still others don’t express much at all. I’ve written about how listeners can detect emotion in what a speaker is saying versus how they are saying it. But face to face interviews are much more revealing in a way in that gives TV viewers an advantage over radio or print interviews.

A lot of this is old hat in light of TV shows like “Lie to Me”, but when watching someone respond to a question, you can learn as much from what they don’t do as from what they do. A person that has unchanging facial expressions, little to no body movements and little to no hand gestures is someone who has learned the fine art of personal message control. But just as too much emotion can turn off a constituency, too little with too few clues can make them wonder what’s going on inside. And for a politicians, it can be a choice between the worst of two world; either prove how sincere you are by being just a little too free with your feelings so that some people don’t take you as seriously as you wish. Or hold back everything and have people wonder if you are trustworthy.

I’m glad I just ask the questions.

Written by Interviewer

March 17, 2014 at 12:30

It’s News, it’s Live and it’s Legal.

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Written by Interviewer

March 8, 2014 at 16:13

Posted in Scratchpad

It’s News, it’s Live and it’s Legal.

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black and white

Tonight, I heard Jeff Norcross of Oregon Public Broadcasting apologize to the listening audience for comments made on the Thursday night edition of OPBs “Think Out Loud” program.  The comments came from Fred Stewart, a real estate broker, Northeast Portland resident and former President of the King Neighborhood Association.  Mr. Stewart made dubiously ethical comments regarding the resistance of the Portland African American Leadership Forum to the development of a Trader Joes at the corner of Alberta and NE Martin Luther King.   Mr. Norcross said Mr. Stewart’s comments didn’t reflect OPB and he apologized on behalf of OPB for any injury Mr. Stewart’s comments may have caused.

Setting aside the fact that the issue is incendiary enough on it’s own, and the fact that live radio is by nature unpredictable, I’m not sure if the way OPB responded to Mr. Stewart’s comments were entirely ethical either.  At several points during the program, Mr. Stewart emphasized his wish that “white” Portland media would stop listening to PAALF as the representative of “black” Portland because, according to him, it was not.  And on OPB’s website, the link to this program contains a note that it has been edited.  I can’t tell if the editing was for time or for content.

But at the end of the interview, when asked how can groups work together on development, Mr. Stewart said that “if all of those guys [on the PAALF board] had a heart attack tonight, Portland would be doing very very much better”.  And you can hear the engineer trying to kill his microphone, except there were two live microphones, so you still heard him.  Hear it here at 29:32.  As crude as those comments might have been to some listeners, they did not violate any FCC rules of profanity and were fully within Mr. Stewart’s free speech rights.  If OPB has standards where they reserve the specific right to remove what they consider objectionable speech, they should probably post that on their website or have it as a disclaimer at the beginning of any live program.  This safeguard already exists for profanity.  “Kill switches” with 5 to 45 second delays let hosts stop expletives from ever reaching the antenna.  But, that’s for profanity.

What OPB does say on its website is there shall be no “undue influence”, meaning intentionally coercive behavior undertaken by any source – including but not limited to governmental agencies, private corporations, funders, audience members, news or content sources, powerful individuals, or special interest groups – that seeks to influence or interfere with the accurate, impartial, professional creation of content for news coverage or programming.  As a caveat, OPB also says “This policy is not intended to diminish or prevent internal editing or quality control practices designed to ensure the maintenance of professional journalistic and/or program production standards”.  To me, that says nobody can mess with the message, except us, that is.

But in the next paragraph, under “Editorial Policy”, OPB says:

(b) Programming should be of a high professional quality and, in its totality, represent a well-balanced diversity of views, and

(c) Programming should be credible, accurate, fair, valuable, stimulating and relevant to OPB’s audience.

To me, these say we will be honest in what we broadcast to you.  And to me, their freedom to filter the message comes in direct conflict with the integrity that promises that they won’t.

I listened to the entire program, as I’m sure did many Oregon listeners.  But I couldn’t decide if the sanitizing was an effort to protect the delicate ears of adults or protect Mr. Stewart from himself or to help OPB adhere to what seem like confusing standards.  But no fixing seemed necessary to me.  I thought journalism was an endeavor where reporters presented the facts as best as they knew them and let their audience decide if the message and messenger are credible.  Mr. Stewart’s comments, OPB concluded, were too crude to let the community decide what is or isn’t an honest, legitimate if uncomfortable message.  In the future, I expect that OPB will leave it to the community to decide by letting it hear the legal comments from invited guests air in their entirety.

For OPB to turn down a microphone, in the same manner that Republican Congressman Darryl Issa tried to cut the microphone of Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings of the House Oversight Committee just two days ago is, well, eerie.

Not a parallel I expected.

New Track: Ted Ferrioli Interview

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A new track on SoundCloud “Ted Ferrioli Interview”:

Ted Ferrioli is the Republican Minority Leader for the Oregon Senate. He talked with Don Merrill about collegiality in Salem, the importance of listening to his constituency and his views on the effect of the American Legislative Exchange Council on lawmaking.

Written by Interviewer

March 5, 2014 at 04:12

Posted in Scratchpad