Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘BBC

News, Politics and Dead Children

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Politicians

I just listened to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a follow up report by CBC reporter Nahlah Ayed on the BBC Newshour.  A family in which a father, Abdullah Kurdi, lost both of his boys and his wife as he tried to get them to Europe from Turkey and the grief of the remaining family was featured.  One of his sons has become the subject of worldwide revulsion.  More about that later.

As I listened to the father and his sister crying over the death of the children, and the father’s pledge to put a banana on their graves each day (the children loved bananas), I was thinking about the function of emotional impact on breaking news stories and how politicians gravitate between amplifying and attenuating that impact in their own political self-interest.

When Terry Schiavo was at the center of a life support termination whirlwind in the early 2000s, the conservative elements of the American Congress rallied, along with then President George W. Bush, to try to prevent her husband from disconnecting Ms. Schiavo.  The Congress intervened as the country was embroiled in a debate about what constituted “persistant vegetative state”.  Eventually Mr. Schiavo did disconnect his wife from life support despite what some called the misplaced efforts of Congress.

This refugee crisis issue doesn’t seem much different in that the life of a people and their right to survive is being counterbalanced against public opinion which has again translated into political calculation.  Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing Iraq and Syria, crossing the Mediterranian, and landing in Greece and Turkey as they try to make it to Germany.  Germany has opened it’s doors to them but curiously, those people are being blocked by Hungary and are unable to reach Germany.  David Milliband, former Home Secretary for Great Britian, told Todd Zwllich of The Takeway today that the United States needs to begin taking more refugees to help reduce Europe’s crisis.

The Newshour’s Tim Franks paraphrased the speech by Mr. Harper addressing the crisis by saying that people can expect many more deaths.  Mr. Harper himself said he has visited a refugee camp and said the numbers of people awaiting transit to Europe stretches into the millions.  That clip, though possibly incomplete, seems to suggest that although there will be more deaths, we should not be surprised by them.  And that seems to be an oh-so-gentle way of beginning the distancing of the political responsibility from the humanitarian crisis.  That he has visited a camp apparently buys him little on the way to being able to actually address its existence.

Europe is hamstrung as to what to do about the flow of refugees, even though the spigot was turned on the moment President Assad of Syria began barrell-bombing citizens he called dissidents and turning a blind eye to ISIS operatives in his territory.  That is what began the flow of people west and north away from the Middle East and North Africa.  And it represents a second catastrophic failure of political will by the world in general.

Injured and dead children are no motivation for change.  Phan Thị Kim Phúc, also known as “Napalm Girl” from the famous photo taken in 1972 during the Vietnam War was nine.  The war raged on for three more years.  And if twenty murdered six year olds at Sandy Hook Elementary School by a gunman in 2012 didn’t affect the politics of guns in one of the most powerful and progressive countries on Earth, the ability of other nations to successfully address their own crisis doesn’t look hopeful.  Maybe it’s a defect in human DNA.  But when babies, like 2-year old Alyan Kurdi, the son of the father mentioned above, wash up on beaches as corpses or disappear beneath oceans because elections, public opinion, budgets and soverignty collide with empathy, resolution promises to be a long, slow, grinding process in which many many, many more will die indeed.

As a reporter, I understand how vile and intransigent politics and politicians can sometimes be.  But as a listener hearing a crying father, or as a reader looking at a picture of a toddler in tiny tennis shoes face down in beach sand, I find me sometimes asking journalism, “What am I supposed to do with this horror?”

Photo by Virginia Mayo of Reuters

Rubber Hits the Road over Charlie Hebdo

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Rubber Hits

As Charlie Hebdo prepares to print 3-million copies of its monthly magazine that is normally only a 60,000 print run, the news program BBCNewsHour reports that BBC management did not make themselves available to speak about the question of whether it would display an image of the latest Charlie Hebdo cover; a cartoon characterature of the prophet Mohammed holding up a sign that says, “I am Charlie” with a tear in his eye and a caption below saying “All is Forgiven.”

BBCNewsHour subsequently said the image is being displayed, but far down and deep within the BBC’s website.  But since this is a blog about interviewing, I think it is very interesting that management of one of the most respected news organizations on the planet didn’t want to talk about a breaking news and key journalistic issue with one of their own journalists.

This, as I mentioned in my previous post about this, is where the rubber for journalists hits the road.  All of the support for Charlie Hebdo is crashing head-on into fears by management and audiences alike, especially in European countries where Muslim populations are high, of how much will supporting the ethics of free speech incite?

I guess when you don’t share a border with a country who was a former colony and for whom now, emigration is a historical reality, you tend to be a little braver.  And when you’re separated from some of those same countries that may be harboring terrorists by a couple of oceans, maybe you’re a little braver still.

In this country, if an indigenous ethnic minority, affiliated with some similar organization, employed radical, random and guerilla style insurgent tactics of terrorists with the frequency that they do overseas, we would likely be more sympathetic to what Europe is going through.  And some American pundits might not sound so much like Ironman.

I’m not saying they shouldn’t, but there might not be so many of them.

Written by Interviewer

January 14, 2015 at 04:37

This was Q

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Jian

Among the logistical sciences is inventory movement and control.  So with the recent firing of Q host Jian Ghomeshi, I began to wonder what will happen to the thousands of interviews he has recorded over the years for the popular Canadian Broadcasting Company program?  Ghomeshi began hosting the program in April 2007.  Since then, with at least three interviews per 90 minute program (2 hours on Friday), a conservative guess is that he has logged more than 5000 interviews in seven years.  And they’ve included cultural icons ranging from Joni Mitchell to Kermit the Frog to Bjork.  Many of stars he has talked with have died and thus, they are immortalized in the Q archive.

Q and the CBC own those interviews, but how will they replay them?  Will it be a circumstance similar to the BBC, which for six years banned the voice of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams?  Or will a time come when Mr. Ghomeshi’s voice can be heard by listeners, but in doses?  Or will the CBC begin the arduous process of re-editing those precious conversations with a different hosting voice?  Right now, by all indications, he has been thoroughly scrubbed from CBC’s websites.  But I bet those conversations of what to do with those priceless interviews are in process.

As I look at recent interview airings by Q since Mr. Ghomeshi’s October 26th firing, they are selecting conversations he has not conducted.  But I’m guessing the ratio of guest host interviews to Ghomeshi’s interviews is tiny.  That well may run dry relatively soon. “Encore”, “archived” and “evergreen” programs give a variety show like “Q” breathing room.  Without a cushion of pre-recorded stuff, pressure is on to create it.

This is the double edged sword of a successful concern, no matter what it is.  If it is mission based, people flock to it mostly for what it does.  However, if it is personality based, people flock to it for who does it.  Mission based is much more durable but much less sexy.  And when the cult figure tilts and falls, what to do with that legacy, whether emotional or digital?

Written by Interviewer

November 1, 2014 at 05:05

An “Ol G” of News

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Image

In my opinion, PRI’s “The Takeaway” is very near to its perfect form.  But it wasn’t always so.  The Takeway arose from the ashes of the Bryant Park Project, an effort in the early 2000s by National Public Radio to create and present a hip, fast paced morning talk show geared toward a younger audience.  BPP was groundbreaking in the way it tried to present its own avant-garde style of news.  But one person’s innovative is another person’s disjointed.  And NPR responded to BPP’s poor ratings by cancelling the program within a few short years of its debut.

The Takeaway, with co-hosts John Hockenberry and Celeste Headlee quickly filled the void and came on strong with hard hitting, fast paced and topical news and feature programming.  It was a response to what public radio listeners wanted in conjunction with NPR’s flagship news program, “Morning Edition”. The Takeaway didn’t chase people away from their radios after Morning Edition as BPP had done.  But early Takeaway had different problems.

Namely, it rocketed through its segments with such speed listeners often didn’t have a chance to take in what they had just heard before they were hearing something new.  And although the two host format does add variety to the mix, it can also contribute to an already too fast pace by making listeners feel they are trying to follow a ping pong ball.  The news was good, the announcing was good, the format was good.

But now, it’s much better.  Hockenberry has taken over the announcing chair.  And in exchange for speed, the program is now “tight”.  Here’s the difference.  Any program that tries to smash too many stories into too little time or does too much experimenting with how it presents news can leave listeners under-informed and frustrated.  It can sound hurried, rushed and unsatisfying. And within that hurriedness there can be other problems.  Dead air, stories that don’t complete the storytelling arc and a flipness to reporting that can sound almost careless point not just to production problems but conceptual problems.

By contrast, calling a program “tight”, in production parlance, is high praise.  Tight means there is a flow between segments with transitions that make sense.  And it means those transitions are so seamless that you don’t notice them. It means the authority of the narration doesn’t talk down to you.  And it means that the mix of that narration, orchestrated with interviews, soundbytes, music and sound effects is credible.  Plus, The Takeaway’s partnerships with the BBC, the New York Times and WGBH in Boston along with Mr. Hockenberry’s presentation give it a width and depth that is rare even within public radio.

Also, Hockenberry is ballsy.  He eschews labels and rolls up to the assumptions society is all to eager to swallow about itself.  He is pushy, relatively loud (by public radio standards) and, dare I say, sometimes indelicate.  That is what makes him so great.  He is, probably, the coolest old white public radio dude ever.  But, I’ll bet he knows that.

Faith Sailee, the original BPP host, along with Celeste Headlee, Mr. Hockenberry’s original co-host have both moved on.  Ms. Sailee is a fixture on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.  And Ms. Headlee is an alternate host for Michelle Martin’s Tell Me More.  While I’m sure Mr. Hockenberry is not satisfied yet with The Takeaway, as a listener, I can see the program has traveled parsecs from where it started.  I am grateful for everything it went through and everyone who worked on it to get it there.

The term “old school” has become shorthand for the measure twice cut once mindset that typifies high quality work.  But sometimes, for some people, you have to go a little further. Back in the day, you called the best of the best an “Ol G“.  As I listen to The Takeaway, I am convinced Mr. Hockenberry has moved into the ranks of an Ol G.

Joke’s on Somebody

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Dunce

This is about interviewing, AND it’s directed at Saturday Night Live.

Skit #1 – The Talkover
A Western media outlet anchor is on the phone with a subject, preferably someone with a noticeably foreign accent on a bad connection. In the course of the discussion, the person on the phone takes offense to something the anchor has said or implied. The person on the phone is defensive and tries to get out what they’re trying to say. But the anchor, when continuing the question or asking a follow up question, continues to plow through, and over, and under the person on the phone even as they are responding or trying to respond. The anchor makes sure they get their complete question asked even- when-their-speaking-speed-falls-to-one-deliberate-and-unyielding-word-per-second.

Would it be funny on SNL? Probably. Is it funny on the air? Not really, because it shows how arrogant anchors can be, though it’s understandable where this came from. It used to be that a bully interviewee could out talk the interviewer such that the interviewer looked and sounded like they didn’t have what it took to keep control of the interview. But as communication has advanced, with human nature being what it is, and journalism being the dark art it can sometimes be, an adversarial interview is a good excuse for a good interviewer to softly beat the hell out of somebody just like this. I mean, an interviewer is supposed to be asking the questions they think the audience wants to hear. But sometimes, these can feel and sound like poking the bear, appropriate to nothing.

Skit #2 – Splain Me
A Western media outlet anchor is talking to a subject and the subject makes a common, cultural reference, and the anchor inserts a verbal ellipse, essentially grinding the interview to a halt and says, “That means blah, blah, blah …” for that uninitiated audience member who just for the first time, cracked open the door of their 1953 bomb shelter. To wit;

Guest – Within about 25 years, the Earth will …
Anchor – And just to be clear, we’re talking about the third planet from the sun …
Guest – Uh, yeah, anyway …

This is sort of understandable too. Back in the 70s and 80s, was when we were just starting to hear about how American school students didn’t know state capitals. And that got news organizations worrying that Americans didn’t know basic geography. Sadly, every so often Conan or Dave Letterman, or Jimmy Fallon or Craig Ferguson show, that for some of us, this is still true. But back then, it wasn’t so funny. So the networks started using more graphics and maps, and taking more time to explain the basic connections to the story they might be in the middle of telling. But now, with as much instant communication and ubiquitous access to Google and Wikipedia as there is, I’m starting to think that if people don’t know, it’s a lot like non-smoking education; it’s not because the information isn’t out there, maybe they just don’t care. This is something similar from a comment board called “unfogged.com” from 2007:

Guest: “And then Franklin Roosevelt created . . .”

Interviewer (interrupting): “That would be Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd President of the United States.”

Guest: “Yes. Anyway, then FDR created . . .”

Interviewer (interrupting): “FDR being Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”

Guest: “Yes. Then FDR created the Works Progress Administration . . .”

Interviewer (interrupting): “Commonly known as the WPA.”

. . . and so on . . .
Posted by: Paul W. | Link to this comment | 02- 2-07 11:36 PM horizontal rule

OK, they may be a little less informed than you, but you’ve got them covered. So, maybe we can ease up on dropping the encyclopedia on the table in the middle of a good conversation.

SNL, these could be two new versions of your standard NPR skit setpiece. Pleeeeeze.

Written by Interviewer

April 30, 2013 at 04:10