Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘CBC

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

Rats

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Rats

I’ve spent the afternoon listening to the rebroadcast of All Things Considered.  The local public radio station plays two hours of ATC and then, replays it.  Two hours ago, I heard all of the stories I was now hearing again.  And I was remembering the finer points of each story.  Once you’ve heard something once, you have a pretty good idea of what it’ll sound like if you hear it again.  And, it checks your memory when what you hear differs from what you remember.

I bring this up because I told Q host Piya Chattopadhyay via Twitter that I heard her say, “I’m Piya Chattopadhyay sitting in for Jian Ghomeshi” at the start of a story about the Mars One project.  When I heard that, I thought “This must be an archive interview from before Ghomeshi’s dismissal in October 2014″.  But I went online and saw the interview was actually today, not six months ago.

While listening to ATC, I was thinking, ‘Yeah, I remember this story and that story.  I remember that cadence, those words, that pause.”  In other words, the stuff my ears were linking to my memory was a lot more complicated than the eight words I was certain I heard Ms. Chattopadhyay say on Q earlier in the day.

All stations use something called an aircheck, which is a device that records every second of every minute of broadcasts for legal and archival purposes for a time.  I suggested she check that file since what I heard was before the story that appears on the Q website.  Later in the day, she very kindly responded and told me she said something that was distantly similar but not what I remembered.

So, I have two choices and neither are all that great.  Argue with someone who insists they said one thing.  Or deny myself my recollection of the other thing.  And at this moment, I am reminded of the essentially ethereal nature of radio.  Once the sound is gone, it’s gone and there is no way the public can prove what was said.  In this case, I am the public.

How important is this, really?  Well, I don’t like to be wrong.  I’ll start there.  But I can’t do what I do, being a journalist, without admitting that I can be even if it makes me look bad.  And who wants to admit looking bad.  So there’s that.

And honestly, to go any further with this just seems petty.

I was wrong.

I’ll stop there.

Written by Interviewer

March 24, 2015 at 11:54

The Nuclear Option

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Nuclear Explosion

In what I believe what may have been one of the few treatments of the CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi situation since late October, Q host Wab Kinew interviewed cultural observers Justin Worland and Tyler Coates about how recent allegations of sexual predation against a spate of stars by victimized women has tainted their public persona.  For most of the interview, Mr. Kinew seemed to be talking around the CBC’s own nightmare.  But at the end, he asked the question I asked in my November 1st blogpost; What will the CBC do with the thousands of hours of conversations recorded by Ghomeshi in his six years as host of the CBC’s flagship arts and entertainment program?  And if they air, would the CBC in some way be condoning Ghomeshi’s alleged behavior?

The CBC, according to Mr. Kinew, has decided to not only not replay any of the interviews Mr. Ghomeshi conducted, but it is apparently in the process of removing all of those interviews from its archive.  By starting fresh and essentially saying those interviews never happened, the CBC has chosen the nuclear option. The discussion was mostly good yesterday memories v bad today news stories; not my focus here.  Besides, both guests had different opinions over how they see the current situation and how they recall questionable behavior from Roman Polanski through Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Ray Rice to Jian Ghomeshi.  It’s a split I suspect divides listeners as well.  Loyalists for these famous men will probably continue to give them the benefit of the doubt.  And in a democratic society, that is their right.

As of this post, only two people had commented on today’s conversation.  And both of them were against deleting the archives.  They feel people should have the choice to listen or not.  That only two people commented on a story that, a month and a half ago, split Q’s massive audience down the middle does seem to say that people, in large part, have moved on.

It is interesting that both men seem to praise  the writers and producers of the Cosby Show and the good work they did even if Bill Cosby’s name is the prominent one.  They are kind to the show and say it has much to give future generations in terms of its messages of positive family life.  I feel the same way about many of Qs hard working producers who sweated bullets to get some of the best interviews of their careers only to know they have essentially been erased from history.

My focus is the cultural loss that was balanced against the moral outrage.  The fact that CBC is going to essentially burn thousands of hours of interviews from legendary luminaries whose voices, many of which will never be heard again, says they don’t have much of an appetite for ambiguity.

Fire and forget.

Written by Interviewer

December 16, 2014 at 11:31

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

The Answer you Want versus The Answer you Get

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its-not-warming-its-dying-campaign-to-tackle-climate-change-1-640x640-590x590

Jian Ghomeshi recently interviewed Milton Glaser, an ad man who has taken on the task of bringing the warming of the earth into public consciousness with a jarring image that implies the earth is dying.  It shows the green of the earth being overtaken by black.  During the course of the interview, Ghomeshi asks Glaser why he decided to take on this challenge.

As a listener and an interviewer, I hear this question and I automatically assume both a reason for the question and anticipate an answer.  The reason, namely, since Mr. Glaser is 85, might Ghomeshi be asking him if he is taking on the cause because he is of advanced years and wants to do something both big, and something that deeply affects his and all of our lives in an intimate way before the end of his own life?

And the answer I assume is, yes, that is true because … and then Mr. Glaser would talk about the changes he’s seen, or how he himself was never sold on the idea of an earth that’s getting hotter but as he’s grown older, he gradually become aware of a truth he can’t ignore.  Or maybe he’d say something like he’s at an age where he doesn’t really care about how people in general or people in advertising in particular might react to his methods.

Perhaps I wrongly assume the question and the answer, but I still assume them.

And then, he says something completely different.  He says, “Yikes” in a way that implies he hadn’t really thought about why he decided to take on this work.  And as both a listener and an interviewer, I’m disappointed and I think, “How could you not think about what drove you do this?”  Worse, I think “How could you not answer the way I though you would?”

That’s pretty terrible, I know.

The thing about interviews and interviewing is they don’t always line up.  You hear a set of questions that seems to point to an answer like bowling pins to a strike.  But then, you get something completely different and you’re thrown.

But then again, maybe not.  Maybe you are living in the moment and appreciate the answer because you weren’t thinking you were smarter that the person actually answering the question.  Or maybe you had the thought but you pushed it out of your mind as ridiculously pretentious.

When you talk to a lot of people, you hear a lot of answers.  And when you’re coming up with questions, sometimes, you have a bias.  There is a certain thing you want to hear and when you don’t hear it, as an interviewer, sometimes you ask the same question again because you’re thinking, “OK, I’m going to lay this out for you and please say what I’m expecting.”  When it doesn’t happen, as an interviewer it can be frustrating because you might think the answer in your head is better than the answer in your guest’s head.

But it’s not true.  It never is.  And it never will be.

Bad listener/interviewer.  Bad.

Crosstalk

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Image

Alan Mulally, the President of Ford Motor Company, was on CBS This Morning with Charlie Rose and Nora O’Donnell.  Mr. Mulally is about to leave the leadership of Ford, and he was talking with Mr. Rose about Ford and his transition.  By watching Mr. Mulally’s body language, you could tell this was someone who is either naturally comfortable and confident, or someone who has an excellent public relations staff.  He leaned forward on the newsdesk toward Mr. Rose with his fingers interlocked.  His expression was calm, his manner was casual.  He was in full control of himself.

Sometimes though, an interviewee like this can be a challenge to an interviewer because of that confidence.  And at one point during the conversation, Mr. Rose and Mr. Mulally were both talking, and they proceeded to do so for at least 5-10 seconds.  People are careful to avoid this in day-to-day conversation in the real world.  And if it starts to happen, it certainly doesn’t last 5-10 seconds.   Usually, when one person realizes they are interrupting another person and are being “rude”, one of them will stop to let the other person continue.  But in interviewing, it is often the case that interviewer and interviewee will try to talk over each other.

Why this happens can vary.  Sometimes, if it’s the interviewee, it may simply be a case of them not realizing the other person is talking because they are so focused on what is in their own mind.  A variant of that is someone who has such a large ego that they aren’t really interested in dialouging with the other person and instead, see them only as a facilitator for their own thoughts.  In another, someone may feel they have been mischaracterized or that their point has been misunderstood and they are trying to take control of the direction of the conversation.

If it’s the interviewer, perhaps they know the interviewee has a reputation of treating interviewers in a subordinate manner and so they come ready to stand toe-to-toe, conversationally speaking.  Or maybe they understand that the interviewee is a high energy person who speaks out of enthusiasm and passion but tends to get on a roll.  For the purposes of time, the interviewer may know they need to govenor the pace to keep the talk on track.  Jian Ghomeshi of the CBC radio program, “Q” also does this.  Ghomeshi, when his pace is ramped up either for time, to match the rythmn of his guest or out of his own sheer excitement, has a staccato way of questioning which when at a fever pitch can sound like swordfighting.

This is similar to when an interviewer is slow-walking a question and, in essence, beating a guest to death with a rubber mallet.  Crosstalk can be both invigorating and frustrating to listeners. Invigorating because it shows that interviews aren’t always the cool and professional conversations most people envision them to be.  Frustrating because when everybody is talking, it can sound like an episode of “Modern Family” – you know something is going on, but you just can’t figure out what.

Tyranny of the Prevail

Nelson

The last 24 hours have been a whirlwind of reporting in the wake of the death of Nelson Mandela. It is interesting how news organizations have covered his passing. Most organizations have, rightly so, glorified his life and his legacy. The South Africa of today might not even exist had it not been for his release from Robben Island prison, his election as President and his founding of the Peace and Reconciliation commissions among other achievements.

But Mr. Mandela was a freedom fighter before he was an icon. In today’s parlance, he was a terrorist. In fact, Condelezza Rice, former Secretary of State under the Bush Administration, was embarrassed that until 2008, Mr. Mandela was on a CIA Terrorism Watchlist. She ordered him removed from it.

Getting back to the coverage, I heard not an opposing word regarding Mr. Mandela and his excellent works until the Canadian based news magazine, “Q” hosted by Jian Ghomeshi, and even then, the discussion didn’t change until more than halfway through the broadcast.

Interviewers are not fools. They may see themselves as truthtellers, but sometimes, they know they need backup. Indeed, permission, before they can speak contrary to the prevailing wind. That’s what Jian Ghomeshi did, but only after the start of his conversation with Princeton Professor and Black Activist Cornell West.

Jian gingerly, and I mean gingerly asked Mr. West about Mr. Mandela’s early years and if he could be considered a subversive? In light of the current praising, that was no doubt a tricky question to consider, let alone ask. Fortunately, Mr. West, in his usual bold and unapologetic style, recapped Mr. Mandela’s history as a black nationalist who was a counter-cultural hero that railed openly and constantly against the oppressive white government of South Africa.

He shined much light on what some would consider Mandela’s shadow self, a self many might choose not to admit, lest it would diminish him as the icon they need him to be. But Mandela himself fought against being lionized and West told the story of how he warned South Africans during a speech that they must not be complicit in the “SantaClausization” of the man. In a later meeting, West was concerned that Mandela might have been offended. In fact, Mandela told West he agreed and told him to continue speaking his truth.

As West spoke, you could hear Jian getting more and more comfortable with asking about Mandela the warrior and Mandela the subversive. By the end, he almost sounded relived and I suspect, a little liberated.

When a person that we consider great dies, just like when a person we consider evil dies, we don’t do ourselves, let alone them justice, if we don’t stretch to understand the full measure of the man or woman. But an interviewer doesn’t always have the juice by themselves to look in both directions. Sometimes, they need help. But the fact the Mr. Ghomeshi knew he wanted to explore Mr. Mandela’s other side, and that he sought out Cornell West to help him do it gets him mass props from this interviewer.