Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Archive for May 2014

Yes or No

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When citizens want to ask their legislator a question, the best way is to visit. If you can, just show up with your question in hand.  The face to face dynamics between legislator and citizen (or even legislative aide and citizen) leaves a lasting impression that carries all the way to the ballot box.  Because that old saw, “What people do and what they say matters a lot less than how they made you feel” is absolutely true and doesn’t lie. Of course you want a substantive and true answer, but you want sincerity too.

The next best way is to call.  It’s fast and it’s direct.  It can be intimidating because the bureaucracy of a government official and their staff can feel off putting.  But voice to voice really is the next best way to hear how you’re regarded.  We all know what being dismissed over the phone sounds like, and if you can call your representative and you don’t hang up with that feeling, that’s a great thing.

The next best way is email.  While there is no direct, person to person contact, you do have a record which is the advantage of a letter combined with the immediacy of a phone call.  Again, the tenor of the reply quickly shows how dedicated the office of your congressman or congresswoman is to constituent services.

The last best way is by letter.  There is no direct, person to person contact and there is no immediacy.  But a letter has a cachet’ that none of the other forms have.  Offices know that when someone sits down and takes the time to write a letter, this is probably someone who is not going to be easily placated by a quick answer.  This type of person has patience.  They do their homework and they can be a legislator’s worst nightmare if they don’t get a personal and comprehensive answer.

So what does this have to do with a simple yes or no?

The more direct the interaction, the fewer opportunities for others to erect barriers between you and the answer you’re seeking.

Bill Cosby has a great routine where, one of his kids breaks a lamp and he asks, “Who did it?” The kid responds “I don’t know”.  But since that kid was the only kid in the room, as Cosby says, “You know who did it”.  Many times, when people call their legislator looking for answers to questions, the best kind of question to ask is one where a simple yes or no is really the only reasonable response.  Parents and the partnered know the logic of this.  When confronting a loved one, all you want to know is what is the answer, yes or no.  And you know, if you get a fifteen minute answer to a two second question, there is probably a lie in there somewhere.

Many times, the responder will argue that the answer needs context.  That they need to make sure you understand the circumstances around what made them make the decision they made.  They sometimes say an issue is too complicated to give a yes or no answer.  But if your kid breaks a lamp, or you find a condom missing from the box of condoms in your partner’s nighttable, you don’t need an explanation of the financial fortunes of Pottery Barn or how the process of vulcanization works.  A simple yes or no will do.

So when a question pops into your mind, dear citizen, do not let yourself be swayed by delays or obfsucation.  As with interviews, make clear what you want to know before you make contact.  Listen to the answer you get and ask yourself, does that answer the question?  If not, come around again and this time, be prepared to strafe.

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Just Say it!

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Here’s the thing.

Whenever I hear many commentators talking about an issue that involves black people, they almost always hit a speed bump in their pacing whenever the teleprompter rolls up to the words “black people” or “African-American people”.  I’ve noticed this for years now and it really stands out compared to whenever they have to give the nomenclature for any of the other four federally “protected” minority groups, to wit:

Asian-American

Native-American

Hispanic-American, or

Pacific Islander American

There just doesn’t seem to be the same kind of angst there.  Those groups seem to roll off the tongues of commentators, announcers, pundits, whoever.  But when it comes to saying “black” or “African-American”, it seems there’s some kind of an asteroid collision happening in the heads of the talking heads, as if they are torn between not wanting to sound bigoted and not wanting to seem bigoted.

The difference being, in the former, “This is how I should say this which is how other culturally informed, color blind professionals in my field say this in the second decade of the third millennium”, versus the latter “I’m really uncomfortable with this because I’m uncomfortable with a lot connected to this and I don’t want to expose that un-comfortableness but I’m afraid I will”.   Most recently, I heard this on my beloved NPR, the supposed broadcasting paragon of diversity and enlightenment.

For God’s sake, just say it and move on.  As I heard a grown black man, who was no doubt prompted, stand up and say in a Denny’s in Cincinnati on New Years Day, 2000, “This is the year Two-Thousand!  You people need to get over it.”

Seems like we still do.

Written by Interviewer

May 20, 2014 at 02:09

Singed

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This is a quickie.

I have been interviewing candidates since December.  I’ve talked to at least 40 passionate people running for judgeships, the legislature, govenor and the US Congress.

My strategy was ask them similar questions, according to their category, so that people comparing candidates in that category could compare answers – apples to apples.  Many times in past political races, candidate answers have sounded to me like trying to compare cell phone plans.  So by asking all judges-to-be, all legislators-to-be, all governors-to-be and all US Congress-to-be candidates the same types of questions, it would be much easier for listeners to decide who has the best answers.  And as issues have changed or been resolved, I adjusted the questions.  For example, questions about the Columbia River Crossing disappeared when the Oregon legislature FINALLY killed the proposal.

I did my last interview of those candidates that showed interest and initiative to follow up with me about two weeks ago.  But because of a last minute rush to speak to candidates live over three nights, and concurrently, a deadline to get reporters to and from Kansas City in time for a long form piece due during the early days of KBOO’s fund drive, I haven’t been able to edit the remaining interviews fast enough. So, I am trying to get the rest of the interviews up before the primary on May 20th so those candidates too get heard on my Between Us podcast.

This has been a whirlwind, and I will be happy if I don’t see any more waveforms for a little while so I can recover from drowning in them over the last few months.  I’m not burned out, but I am a little singed.

I love this stuff, and I can only hope it has made a teeny bit of difference.

Written by Interviewer

May 17, 2014 at 00:03

Links in the Media Chain

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“Here lies one whose name is writ in water”.  That’s on the headstone of the grave of poet John Keats.  In his time and ours, it means that there is no such thing as the irreplaceable person. I’m thinking about this as I remember all of the commentators, journalists and reporters who I used to see and hear and don’t anymore.  But also, how when I do hear or see them again, I realize how I, against my will, stopped thinking about them and how insidious that tendency to forget can be.

Most recently, I think of KOIN’s Chad Carter.  Mr. Carter was a morning host for KOIN’s morning news broadcast before he was let go just about 10 days ago.  In an interview with KOIN Meteorologist Bruce Sussman back in 2011, he said he grew up in Portland and interned at KTVZ in Bend, Oregon.  He lived in Texas before getting the chance to come back to Oregon in 2006.  He worked for local rival KPTV and was eventually hired at KOIN.  You just can’t think of anyone more home-towney than that.

But Mr. Carter is just the most recent example of people who were heavily in the limelight and suddenly one day, they were just gone.  Even his profile has been removed from KOIN, as if the station wants to erase any history of him ever being there.  That’s how institutions behave.  But we the public can be just as selective.

For instance, Mo Rocca is the new “it” for CBS This Morning.  He’s portrayed as a guy Friday who is all purpose funny and versatile.  Just what a news show wanting to have a good mix of professional and fun needs to stay on top of the ratings.  But a couple generation ago, it was George Plimpton.  And as funny as Mr. Rocca is, I can imagine that a couple of generations from now, people will be thinking of him in the same way I think of Rudolph Valentino.

I’m also thinking of people like Daniel Pinkwater.  Mr. Pinkwater is a children’s author who was a regular on National Public Radio for years with host Scott Simon before he suddenly wasn’t anymore. Horticulturalist Ketzel Levine, the so-called “Doyan of Dirt” by Mr. Simon; also inexplicably didn’t appear in her regular timeslot one Saturday morning several years ago.  Sports commentator Frank Deford, also on NPR, seemed to be seamlessly replaced by Mike Pesca and Stephen Fatus.  And financial expert Marshall Goodman was a fixture on the American Public Media Program “Marketplace” until he, along with previous host David Brown, vanished.  Often, there is no explanation as to why the people are gone, and if there isn’t, that’s probably a good indication that the parting wasn’t amicable.

Sometimes, these people refuse to be forgotten.  Ann Curry’s saga with Matt Lauer on the “Today” show is more of a management than journalism case study in behind the scenes politics at morning TV news broadcast shows.  But Ms. Curry has thrived despite the misery Mr. Lauer inflicted on her and his ham handed methods to try to clean up his own image in light of it.

And Barbara Walters, who will tomorrow announce her retirement from TV on “The View” did not let Harry Reasoner destroy her during ABC’s co-anchor experiment in the 70s.  Then ABC News’ Roone Arledge gets credit for seeing her real power was in reporting, not putting up with crap from someone who didn’t realize he was already behind the march of history.

But many excellent journalists and reporters have been scraped from the credits and scrapped because media companies are moneymakers and they are constantly shaking them to make mo’ money, mo’ money.  Consultants and focus groups drive budgets, whether they’re fueled by donations or stock prices.  And when colleagues get the ax, you are sad and at the same time, maybe guilty that you still have your job.  Maybe angry that the team has a hole in it (NCIS fans know this feeling well), but silent because you know where the power lies and it’s not in front of the camera.

That’s something else about not being indispensable.  It seems ones life goes smoother if one doesn’t see oneself as being more important than one ultimately is.  If Dante had an inferno for reporters, there would probably only be four levels rather than nine.  The top ring would be for innocents who were unjustly fired.  The next one would be for the incompetent.  The next would be for the stupid and the bottom ring closest to the fire would be for the pompous.  And because of this tragic flaw, the media gods hate them most.

What reporters and journalists do is important, but we can’t act like it is.  Because I think we are all just links in a chain from the past to the future and there is a lot of humility in that.  Sort of like lying on the ground at night and looking up at all of the stars.  It makes you feel kinda small, or at least it should in the healthy, non-sociopathic.  The people from the past likely couldn’t imagine us and the people in the future likely won’t remember us. So the work we do now has to be to make the best “us” we can.  To improve on those that came before us and give a good foundation for those who come after us but ego-wise, I don’t think any of it can be about us.

So getting back to Keats, it seems there is little to be done about a finicky public that cries for what it says it loves and misses until somebody dangles something shiny in front of its face.  In every one of these cases, only insiders know what really led to these arrivals and departures. But you can bet media managment have their talent and reporters on tight leashes to keep bad feelings from you letting their smiling faces into your living room.  Maybe Mr. Carter is a standard bearer for those who realize that all you can do is to do your best, keep calm and then, … move on


I Can’t Help You

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This is a quickie.

In the course of these interviews with political candidates, I have had ocassion to interview some folks who don’t always know what they want to say or how they want to say it.  I completely understand that.  Many times, I have several thoughts going through my mind at once and I often have to make me pause long enough to time the traffic lights in my head.  And sometimes, some people are just a little overwhelmed and could use a teeny bit of help.

But some political candidates don’t realize that it is absolutely … and let me say that again, … it is absolutely their responsibility to know what they want to say before they sit down in front of a microphone.  This is important for several reasons.

First, if you want the people’s confidence and, by virtue, their vote, they need to know you can organize critical thought.  They need to see you know how to mentally put one foot in front of the other.  In other words, how do you think when you’re not under pressure.

Next, they need to see that you can think on your feet.  That you can grab facts and concepts from the air and knit them together in response to unexpected questions.  In other words, how do you think when you are under pressure?

Then, you need to show you are able to stay focused on the question while you’re thinking of your answer.  Consistently drifting off or losing your place does not instill confidence in voters.

Then, you need to show them that you have understanding of an issue or at least the savvy to know how to beg off until you can learn more.  Have you researched it?  Has your staff looked into it?  Do you care?

Then, that you can answer the question that was asked, not just repeat your talking points over and over.  Interviewers aren’t stupid and neither is the public.  We hate that.

And finally, that you can be cool under pressure.  That you can defend yourself and your ideas with aplomb, not dripping with passive aggressiveness.  Nobody likes bitchy from anybody.

All of these are important, autonomous skills that the candidate must have mastered because there will be times, in office, when they will choose to go against the prevailing wind and endure unimaginable pressure from enemies, friends and constituents in business and colleagues in other branches of government.  The voter must believe they can stand alone when they must.

So, when I’m asking a candidate a question that I think, because of the office they have registered for they should certainly be able to answer, and they give me a deer in the headlights look because one of these things either has or hasn’t happened, there is nothing I can (or will) do to save them.

Because these people want you to trust them with your money.  They want you to let them do things in your name.  They want you to give them the authority to shape your life and the lives of the people you love and care about for years into the future.  If they can’t handle a few questions, listeners should seriously think about whether they can handle anything more.

Written by Interviewer

May 7, 2014 at 23:42

Wow!

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This is a quickie.

First, go here – http://www.oregonlive.com/politics/index.ssf/2014/05/blah_blah_blah_notes_by_willam.html

I’ve interviewed Jo Rae Perkins.  And I have been working to set up interviews with Mr. Conger.  Although I contacted all of the candidates for the race mentioned in this news story, I only followed up with those that showed any interest.

Though I’m not sure I would poke a candidate about the Easter Bunny because I was incredulous about their views over climate change, I understand when a reporter faces an interviewee that can be, to some degree, unpalatable.  You can find some of those posts here and here.

I always wonder how personal, familiar, jocular or whatever to get with interviewees.  I don’t know these people.  And knowing what I know about human ego in general and my own ego in particular, I’ve decided that when left w/the choice to say something snarky or keep my mouth shut, I’ll keep my mouth shut.  It doesn’t mean that some people, sometimes, don’t give me plenty of runway to say something absolutely and deliciously shitty.  But, what does it get me?  I mean, I may conclude that a candidate is a jerk.  But if I deny the audience the chance to decide that for themselves through my work, I don’t think I’ve served them.

Only the people in that room know how Mr. Callahan responded.  There is one way to say he felt Ms. Perkins wasn’t getting her respect and to demand his own.  And there is another way.  Just like there is one way to say you don’t agree with a candidate’s position, and there is another. And as I find me moving through another very large journalism related project, I am reminded of how important it is to treat people cordially.  I need stuff.  I have questions.  And if I act like an ass, my requests find their way to the bottom of the stack.

What I’m saying is, journalists are people too.

And BTW, Ms. Perkins stayed for the interview.  It seems she wasn’t nearly as bothered by the “blah, blah, blah” as Mr. Callahan was.

Written by Interviewer

May 3, 2014 at 05:04

Good Stuff

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Last night was the last of three, live candidate forums I moderated.  Two candidates for US Congress showed.  Tuesday night, three gubernatorial candidates came.  And Monday night, eight legislative candidates (four vying for the same district) were there.  This whole process of being immersed in politics was nothing planned.

It started with me annoyed that the federal government was doing so much illegal surveillance of ordinary citizens.  So I built a website to give people more direct access to their state constitutions – http://www.stateconstitutions.us.

Then, I got the idea to interview political candidates in advance of the 2014 state elections.  In many cases, the parties anoint who they want to be the frontrunners and the smaller candidates with no money and no name recognition get no exposure from the media.  I wanted to change that and give them all a voice.  Of the 283 candidates that filed their candidacy on the Secretary of State’s website, I’ve interviewed about 40 of them since December 2013.

Those led to the idea of having debates between candidates running for different branches of government.  And come June, after the Secretary of State opens filing to third party candidates like the Greens or the Constitution Party,  I’ll probably repeat the process over for them who get even less love.

I’ve learned a lot about government, what it aspires to be and what it often is.  And that has made me both discouraged and encouraged.  Most people who want to be judges care because they know the judicial system can be intimidating.  Most people who want to be lawmakers are not greedy, self-centered whores of moneyed interests.  By contrast, they are passionate about serving their neighbors and trying to make a better world.  And most people running for governor are clear thinkers capable of making truly executive decisions that try to balance the reason of courts against the passion of the legislature.

Before this project, I would’ve dismissed politics as an impediment to people trying to conduct their day to day lives.  But now, I see it as a process that is absolutely essential to be at least aware of, if not engaged with. It is your right to not engage.  But I’ve learned that if you have that kind of apathy, other people who don’t have your best interest in mind, will engage in your name for their own benefit.  They will sponge your resources, make your decisions and they will affect your life in ways that you will only accidently discover when you day to day runs into their deaf, ubiquitous and unyielding bureaucracy.

Written by Interviewer

May 2, 2014 at 05:59