Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Reality Check

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Throwing Shade 2

This isn’t about interviewing, but it is about dialogue.  Specifically, the unwillingness to accept reality that defines how different groups talk to each other.  Democrats, once again, have been repeating their claim to hope that the Republican effort to overturn the Affordable Care Act is “dead.”  Their insistence sounds a lot like their certainty that Hillary Clinton would win the Presidency.

There is nothing wrong with believing in your side.  But, as the old Scottish rhyme goes, “If wishes were fishes, we’d all cast nets.”  In other words, believing it doesn’t make it so.  And when you turn out wrong because your belief accounted neither for history or the determination of your opponents, you end up looking weaker, not stronger.

I can’t think of anything that fires up an opponent faster than considering them stupid or their own passionate cause, dead.  Democrats and those on the left may consider themselves on the right side of morality but their insistence in trying to smash an opposition just as capable as them puts them on the wrong side of reality.  At the very least, those on the left need to remember that, at every turn, their opponents are human, like them.  Thoughtful, like them.  Afraid, like them.  Determined, like them.

There are bad actors on both sides (Hillary’s campaign throwing Bernie under the bus) and good actors (Tillerson, Mathis and Kelly trying to keep their President presidential in the American spirit).  Maybe that makes for a slow moving conversation forward.  Or maybe talks stall.  But by not throwing so much shade (as Sophia Loren is clearly and infamously casting over Jayne Mansfield’s breasts), at least it doesn’t go backwards.


Written by Interviewer

October 25, 2017 at 02:19

Posted in Scratchpad

Flags and Tote Bags

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Flag in truck

Since the 2016 election, I have noticed a plethora of big flags flying from the backs of pickup trucks in Oregon.  I don’t know how common this is across the country.  But it occured to me the other day that this display of affiliation; i.e., people who want to be known as “true” Americans, is kindred with people who carry public radio tote bags.  This is just a guess on my part.  Though, anedcotally, they are probably on opposite sides of the political spectrum, now might a good time to apply public radio research which, weirdly, seems to tie them together.

Audience 98, a seminal public radio study, was the culmination of decades of deep dives into who listen to and financially supports public radio.  For many years, it was the road map for how stations plotted their survivial by tuning their pledge drives to study results.  And one of the main things the work revealed was that certain types of listeners liked showing off their connection to public radio.  They liked not only setting themselves apart as people who gave to public radio in their own minds, but also letting everybody else know they’re in that distinctive class.  And the tote bag was how public radio responded.

The bags, hauled through grocery stores, antique shops, jazz concerts, wine tastings and all of the other venues any respectable public radiophile knows they need to patronize, immediately associates them with the “I’m better than you” crowd.  And when I see a fifteen square foot “Stars and Stripes” violently whipping in front of me on the interstate, I think, “Holy Shit, this person is saying exactly the same thing”.  As much as they would deny it, both groups are people who are desperate to convince me of something, though they’d probably say what I think isn’t important.


Plug in your own experience.  “People who tend to vehemently deny that they’re ________________, often secretly are”.  With this rock solid meme, the flag/tote bag dynamic starts to look less like a preference and more like a character trait.  It’s ironic to me that scratching the surface could show tote bag shoulder swingers and pickup truck flag fliers probably have more in common than they’d think.  But sadly, one of those might be their belief that they each, of course, think they are better than the other.

Written by Interviewer

August 13, 2017 at 23:08

Posted in Scratchpad

Quiet as it’s Kept

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It’s been awhile since I’ve posted.  I’ve been feverishly working on my book about the public radio pledge drive.  But very early this morning, something that you probably never knew could happened, didn’t happen.  And how it went down is something I find both characteristic and intimately related to that book.

NPR reporters were operating without a contract since June 30th.  They had been in negotiations for a new contract.  NPR management, like all management, wanted to reduce costs and increase its flexibility by cutting salaries, healthcare and expanding the use of non-union, possibly less qualified workers to do work being done by current staff.

Did you ever hear about this?  I’m sure not.  Just like you probably didn’t hear about the last set of contract negotiations in 2015.  That agreement extended to the start of the most recent set of talks.  The difference is this time, a federal mediator was called in because the sides couldn’t agree.  And, BIG difference, the employees had agreed to ask their union, SAG-AFTRA, to authorize a strike vote.

Who thinks this kind of thing happens at the cerebral NPR?  Nobody, because listeners never hear anything except the dulcet tones of Michelle Martin or Kelly McEvers or the soothing twang of John Burnett.   When nurses, firefighters, teachers or hotel workers strike, you hear about it for weeks in advance.  The chess moves are all the same, of course.  Late night negotiations, last minute concessions, rush, twist, restate.

But NPR is too polite for all that crap.  Too classy.  And, too concerned that if listeners knew it too has nasty family fights, there might be the tiniest chance they might rethink where their pledge dollars go.  The network is already on a political knife edge, what with attacks from the current administration and about one in five of its listeners in partial to full agreement with the President.  That’s 20% it can’t afford to alienate.  So it’s no surprise nobody knew.  Although, it has used attacks from without to generate listener support and tsunamis of cash in the past.

But, after all, its a media organization.  If it doesn’t want people to know something, nobody can turn a spigot off tighter.  If the employees had wanted to be really nasty, they could’ve waited until about October, when stations across the country were starting their Fall pledge drives and really needed the network’s gravitas to pull them across their finish lines.  I can’t imagine that piece of leverage wasn’t considered as employees and their union strategized what to do.

I support each and every voice, producer and writer, as I have always supported any set of troops.   Managers are also in their box and have their own set of marching orders.  And it must be hard, since many of them have also come up from the ranks.  Hopefully, this latest round of contract fights won’t lead to any recriminations, like firings or show cancellations.  Congratulations, #wemakeNPR.


Written by Interviewer

July 16, 2017 at 22:45

Posted in Scratchpad


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Journalists sometimes bait people.  And they do it under the guise of asking the simple, seemingly innocent question.  For instance, when Gayle King of CBSThisMorning asks today interviewee Chelsea Clinton if she has anything she wants to “pass along” to tomorrow interviewee, Ivanka Trump, the questions seems not to be an invitation to share ideas.  Because since the entire conversation focused on her mother’s loss of the 2016 election, the disagreements Chelsea Clinton feels with the Trump administration and whether or not she herself will run for future office,  Ms. King’s offer, instead, sounded like a prompt to get Ms. Clinton to do Ms. King’s dirty work, i.e., say some shit-stirring thing that she as an “unbiased” journalists couldn’t or shouldn’t say.


But something else.  After the third or fourth ask of whether or not she herself would run for office, you could see Ms. Clinton’s brow knit for a split second.  It was a microexpresssion and a true indication of her annoyance with the insistence of the program’s hosts to try to pin her down regarding her political intentions.  Of course, she was prepared for this, and of course, this is what journalists do.  But this post is about feelings obviously felt, but not necessarily shared in all of their pointy sharpness.

Microexpressions, identified by the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) are the tendency of a human face to reveal instantaneous emotion in reaction to a stimulus.  People almost always flash them across their face whenever they have feelings of disgust, fear, anger, surprise or one of the other, basic emotions.  But depending of the context, they may, in the next second, try to hide those expressions to present a more socially acceptable, sustained expression.

Radio is my thing but I’ve spent many years in TV and video production.  And radio interviews often require sitting face to face across a table with someone.  So, as with anyone who has worked in the business and done lots of interviews, I am trained to pick up on microexpressions.

As I’m sure are the journalists at CBSThisMorning.

Written by Interviewer

April 4, 2017 at 22:35

Posted in Scratchpad

Boiled Down

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In the course of my work on my book about the public radio pledge drive, I’ve found a lot of very strong opinions for and against NPR and the work it does.  But in light of the most recent presidential election, this comment, from a 2005 Metafilter post, reflects the views of many angry progressives I’ve heard:

“NPR is what the neocons hate about middle-class liberals. They’re so comfortable and self-content that they lack guts. The neocon movement has some of the vilest people alive, but all of them have guts. They have brass huevos to bust in here and tear down our constitution and start pushing our armies around. We liberals are going to knit our brows and wring our hands while they take the bank and torch our wilderness.”

And, the other side:

“Your second to last paragraph was brilliant, if misdirected. Your caricature of the complacent yet occasionally whiny liberal is dead on. NPR isn’t to blame though. Take NPR for what it is, and not what you want it to be. It’s not IndyMedia Radio. It’s not the liberal counterpart to AM agitprop. NPR, instead, stands as the closest and most respectable form of true journalism I’ve ever seen in America. It caters to rational independent thought without spoon feeding the “proper” opinion like IndyMedia or Rush Limbaugh would. Presenting a national public debate, giving each mainstream* side equal time with their strongest minds, is about as principled as journalism comes. One would assume that in issues as “nuclear testing within 50 miles of low-income housing,” that the side with the best argument would clearly win in front of millions of listeners. Why would you want to stifle that? Where else would you find that debate? Crossfire? Hannity and Colmes?

* this is where I find the weakness in the debate format: the assumption that one of two mainstream sides of an issue have it right, or worse yet, the truth is always in the middle.”

The inside/out dynamic is just as powerful of the traditional left/right one.  Angry people on both sides, as evidenced with Trump voters that would’ve just as easily voted for Bernie Sanders.  You have to wonder if politics is turning a corner somehow, and if the kind of emotion, expressed by this public radio supporter, is coming into the mix.   What will the outcome be?  More angry people yelling at each other, or both sides getting a much clear picture of where the other really stands with less “intellect” in the way?

Written by Interviewer

January 31, 2017 at 02:02

“There are four lights!”

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Decidedly uncomfortable looking Presidential spokesperson Sean Spicer tried to make the American public not notice the paltry number of attendees at the inauguration of President Donald Trump.  Why the numbers were so small is anybody’s guess and debatable.  What is not debatable, except only to the most strident supporters of Newspeak, is that even a significant fraction of voters for Mr. Trump seemed absent from the National Mall.

But this isn’t so much about those there or not there on Friday.  Those voters may feel they’ve already spoken and other demonstrations aren’t necessary.  It’s more about how easily can people be turned from the obvious to the shiny nothing.  It’s about how quickly can we all come to love the new President with the speed of the Stockholm syndrome. It’s about with how much enthusiasm can a redirect of “alternative facts” send us careening off in an insignificant direction or observing the joy with which will we finally surrender the “hard work of liberty.”  In the remaining time we have freedom of speech, they’re questions worthy of pursuit.

In college, we read a book called “Njal’s saga.”  It was about a Viking family around the year 1000.  The professor wanted us to take away from the story the fact that in ten centuries, people haven’t changed and continue to be swept up by their fears, angers, jealousies, desires for vengence, lust, prejudices, plots, quests for power and pitieous efforts to matter.  And how, there have been, are and will always be those who are constantly trying to bend others to their will.  But, as a trekkie and an ardent student of politics, Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean Luc-Picard got the last word.

As should we all –

How Was I?

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People can be sweet.  I say that because I can’t remember how many times, after an interview, somebody looks at me with all sincerity and innocence and asks how they did?  Did their answers make sense?  Did they sound like they knew what they were talking about.  “You won’t make me sound stupid, will you?”

At these moments, it’s my job to reassure them.  “No, of course you didn’t sound stupid.”  “You’re here because you’re the expert.”  “It’s not my job to make you sound bad.”  It is my job, though, to honestly present them to the audience.  To do otherwise would be doing a disservice to them and listeners.

I once interviewed a candidate for a state office in Oregon.  This person was registered with the Secretary of State, along with a slate of qualified and assumedly, highly confident and competent competitors.  But, this person was not confident.  And as we talked, they showed their utter lack of knowledge on the most basic issues someone running for that office would need to at least be familiar with.  At the end, they asked me how they did.  I asked them how long they had been considering their run before they decided to do it.  It was a decision they had made against the advice of family and friends.  As for the reason why they sought this office, I didn’t get a clear answer either in the pre-interview, during the conversation or afterwards.

I aired the interview.  Another candidate won the office.  But still, I didn’t see it as my job to present them in any way other than how they presented themselves.  And though I tried to be gentle in my review, the fact is, they didn’t bring the goods and they sat themselves down in front of my microphone.

Everytime, an interviewer has to be professional and most times, kind.  But you can’t always protect people from themselves.

Written by Interviewer

December 27, 2016 at 07:03