Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Archive for June 2015

No Platitude Zone

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I won’t be interviewing anyone from the NAACP or the Urban League or the Interfaith Network.  I won’t be talking to the police chief or the mayor or a councilmember.  I won’t reach out to a senator or a conflict negotiator or a psychologist for why this latest violence in South Carolina happened because all I’ll hear is everything I’ve heard before.  And right now, I don’t have much stomach for platitudes.  Maybe later, but not right now.

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Written by Interviewer

June 19, 2015 at 00:11

Colombo

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Colombo

As Jon Stewart prepares to leave The Daily Show, actor Mark Ruffalo tonight performed a three minute roast of Stewart’s notoriously poor attention to the movies and books of his guests.  From Patrick Stewart to Maggie Gyllenhaal, the segment showed how Stewart not only showed he rarely if ever read the books or watched the movies of his guests, but how he often didn’t even know the roles they played or the major characters they created.  I blogged about this in what I thought was a excellent flaying of him by for this kind of neglect by Jennifer Lawrence.

Interviewers should spend a lot of time preparing to talk to the people who agree to talk to them because they don’t want to look or sound like idiots.  But only one thing seems to be more important in the eyes of the audience than preparation, and that is personality.

A lot of interviewers think and have been trained to believe that seriousness equals credibility.  We think any emotions we show makes people not take us seriously.  We think, like in the fields of politics, science and the law, a dispassionate demeanor is much more believable than a passionate one.

But Jon Stewart found the balls to the wall balance between New Jersey punk and New York attorney.  Since 1999, he’s gotten away with saying shit that is literally peppered with the word “shit” and the audience loves him for it.  So if he doesn’t know all of the scenes in a movie or all of the plotlines in a book, so the hell what?  He has charmed his way through so many blank spots with so many “A listers” that they’ve probably come to not expect anything different.  It’s who he is.

But he also made up for those flubs when Donald Rumsfeld, Bill O’Reilly, Pervez Musharraf and Tony Blair among other sacrifices came onto his show.  Stewart showed he understood the complex policy issues well enough to eviserate many of them for their unpopular or untenable positions.

It was fun to watch clip after clip of him mush mouthing his way through his artistic cluelessness.  At the end, in a turnabout, Ruffalo pretended to not know anything about Stewart’s 2014 cinematic effort, “Rosewater” and spoke about it in platitudes.  It was cutting, fitting and funny.

But Jon Stewart can be like the old Peter Falk character, “Columbo”; you think he’s bumbling until he suddenly rips your throat out.  All of us behind the mic should be so bumbling.

Boy, am I going to miss him.

What Time is it Really?

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WWV

We have all been conditioned to believe that when a TV or radio program begins at the “top” or “bottom” of the hour, it means the program is starting at exactly 1 p.m. or 5:30 a.m. or whenever.

But it’s not that simple.

First, understand that official United States civilian time is maintained by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in Boulder, Colorado.  Those are the people who are responsible for ensuring the official weights and measures for the US, including time.  And precision is important to these folks. Time, i.e. the length of a second, is determined based on the vibrations of Cesium 133 atoms.  This was represented by a clock NIST called the “F1”.  But in 2014, they supplemented the “F1” clock with the “F2”, which unlike the previous clock, will not lose one second in 300 million years, making it three times more accurate than the F1.

Meanwhile, US time is synchronized with the rest of the world via something called Coordinated Universal Time (UTC), although it used to be commonly referred to as Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). Greenwich, by the way, is a real place. It is the location of the Royal Observatory in a municipality of London. GMT was the international civil time standard until recent years when there has been a hot debate about what GMT is and whether it deserves to be the standard it has historically been.

These two may not seem to have much in common; the measurement within time versus coordination of the World’s clocks. But they are intimately connected. To demonstrate this, imagine hearing a band playing Beyonce’s “Single Ladies”. Then imagine another band starts playing it, but is one beat off from the first band. The beat within both songs is the same length but the starting point of the song is different. Which beat should each group of musicians keep time to, their own or that of the other band?

That can be a problem for time keepers and, coincidentally, broadcasters. For decades, FCC regulations required holders of broadcast licenses to announce who and where their stations are before beginning a program. If you are watching KOIN in Portland, Oregon, when the previous program ends but within a minute of so of a new program, you see promos for upcoming local and network shows. Then, there will be a graphic somewhere on the screen that says you are watching KOIN 6 in Portland, Oregon. Or, if you’re listening to KOPB, you’ll hear promos, then the list of affiliate stations of Oregon Public Broadcasting and their individual locations. By law, you must see and hear these very close to “top” of the hour.

Then the next program begins, supposedly, “straight up”. But if you open the NIST’s time widget before the stations identify themselves, you notice that neither the radio or the TV program starts at the NIST’s official “top” of the hour. In the accompanying video, the CBS and NPR networks the locals go to are about 12 seconds behind the NIST. Twelve seconds might not seem like a big deal. But since billions of dollars are invested in advertising, technology and legislation for time to be both accurate and consistent, why isn’t it a big deal? Otherwise, why have a standard at all?

From simply an economic standpoint, how can stations afford to be off by up to 12 seconds an hour considering how important every moment is for generating revenue from commercials. I blogged about that a few years ago.

Anyway, I’ve had the larger question since my amateur radio days when I used to “DX” WWV, an NIST radio service that used to broadcast official time. If the NIST is the “official” US civilian timekeeper, why don’t broadcasters follow it?

*Accompanying audio and video are used under the Fair Use doctrine for the purposes of criticism, comment and news reporting.

Written by Interviewer

June 5, 2015 at 05:53

Something’s Burning

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Something's Burning

Andrew Jennings is a Scottish investigative reporter who has been following the mismanagement and corruption at the European soccer agency, FIFA, for nearly 15 years. In a recent interview with NPR’s Melissa Block, he said he provided the FBI with internal financial documents in 2009 in an effort to help the Americans prosecute FIFA’s wrongdoing. The FBI, along with Interpol and a number of other law enforcement agencies around the world began arresting FIFA executives on Monday, June 1st, 2014.

Ms. Block asked Mr. Jennings if he felt he had violated his journalist integrity by providing those documents. Mr. Jennings adamantly said no, saying FIFA is a corrupt organization, everyone knew it was corrupt and little was being accomplished in the way of internal reform, which he believed it needed desperately. This again brings up the question of how much should a journalist insert themselves into the story and it reminds me of a story from J-school which is built on much historical precedence.

A photographer is photographing a protestor who is preparing to self-immolate himself. What should the photographer do? Should he keep taking pictures as the person sets themselves on fire in the most desperate act of political protest, or should he drop the camera and save the person from what would certainly be a graphic, horrible and painful death? According to Wikipedia, journalist and photographer Malcolm Brown won the World Press Photo of the Year in 1963 for choosing to take just such a photo. In it, a Vietnamese monk named Thich Quang Duc set himself ablaze in protest against the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government of President Ngo Dinh Diem.

There have been 133 self-immolations for political reasons and 10 for economic reasons since Brown’s photo. Journalism has since weighed in on the journalist’s responsibility to intervene. The Society of Professional Journalists cautions journalists in a release from January 2010: “Report the story; don’t become a part of it,”  Even in a crisis, the SPJ says  journalists must be objective.  Actions the SPJ defines as not objective include advocacy, self-promotion, offering favors for news and interviews, injecting oneself into the story, or creating news events.

But Roy Peter Clark, a Pulitzer Prize winning author who recently wrote for the journalism ethics organization, the Poynter Institute, said “That standard – to observe, cover, but not intervene – is surely not absolute.” He continues, “There are those rare moments when a reporter (or other professional, such as a psychiatrist) realizes that life or public safety is on the line.  That professional may choose to assume a different role, to put on a citizen’s hat rather than a journalist’s”. Journalists have a responsibility to tell the story in a way that insures their credibility by not showing bias. But they also have a responsibility to be human beings.  That can be a tricky wire to walk.

What is the life or public safety issue regarding FIFA?  Some have argued that the thousands of immigrant workers that have died in Qatar’s hellish heat as they prepare the country for a possibly ill-gotten 2022 World Cup tournament might be cause for intervention.  Others like Mr. Jennings, simply see organizations like FIFA stealing what is precious to the people, and believe the people don’t deserve to be lied to or stolen from.

“What would you do”, asks Mr. Clark, “if you saw someone trying to set himself on fire?  I would probably run for my own safety, yell like crazy, and point out the danger to others.  I know Good Samaritans, braver than I, who would try to stop the action.  I doubt I would take out my cell phone and make a video of the self-immolation”.

Mr. Jennings made a similar choice. Under extraordinary circumstances, he heeded the call of the FBI to help them put out a different kind of fire.