Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Ego

Kill Your Darlings

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Hand Holding Knife

A programming genius I know is helping me crunch data that I’ve  been collecting for this book I’m writing about the public radio pledge drive.  The plan is that tranche A, after it’s washed and tumble dried, will be a template for tranche B; using one as a control for the other to find patterns that aren’t obvious.

I know a little about spreadsheets, and that’s how I gave my programmer friend the data I’d gathered.  But they weren’t exactly in love with it.  “You need to reformat this”, they said.  “Otherwise, I need to write a whole language subset (whatever that means) before you can see this data the way you want to see it.”  In other words, they didn’t like my spreadsheet.

I like to think I’m a smart person.  I like to think I’ve been around enough to know a little about a lot, but that little bit I know is really good.  Turns out, spreadsheets are high school level data collection to graduate level people writing programming in languages like Perl.  So, here I am, reformatting my spreadsheet in a way that my programming friend’s program can better search it, parce it, slice and dice it.

And you know, their way is better.

There isn’t as much ambiguity.  There’s much more consistency.  And I’m finding mistakes, not in the original data, but how I notated it.  It’s like when writers are taught to read their copy backwards as a way to catch mistakes because reading it forward makes it too easy to miss them.  Rearranging my twenty columns into their three is a brutal exercise in utility.  But it’s exactly the kind of brute force utilitarianism that a programming language needs to create elegant results.

“Kill your darlings” is what editors tell writers too in love with what they’re written.

I can tell you, programmers are even worse.

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Written by Interviewer

June 25, 2016 at 07:34

Paying it Forward

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I was the media manager for a non profit in Salt Lake called One World Everybody Eats from 2005 to 2010.  OWEE is a successful pay-what-you-can community kitchen that prepared gourmet vegetarian, meat and vegan main courses, appetizers, soups, salads & desserts.  As a board member, one of the perks was that I got to eat free, which I seldom did.  None of us did very often.

The kitchen relied on volunteers and plainly speaking, some volunteers were simply better than others.  I understand a volunteer is gift.  But the work they do is directly linked to the passion with which they do it.  And a volunteer with a bad attitude, a hidden agenda or an ego complex in tow is not a gift.  Sometimes, we had to work with volunteers for awhile to really see where they were.  Sometimes, weak starters finished strong.  Sometimes, the consistent were consistent throughout.  Sometimes, a volunteer who couldn’t or wouldn’t do A did B like a champion.  But the biggest disappointment were those who make the biggest promises in the beginning but failed by choice.

Suprisingly, this is something research bore out with volunteers and customers.  Jude Higgins is an anthropologist for the University of Utah.  She was smitten by our PWYC model.  So much so, she investigated the social engineering behind how these type of kitchens work.  It led to a research project that found among other findings, that the people who tended to do the most talking about how they resonated with the concept were most likely to be the ones who tried to game the system somehow.  Their rationale: “Because I am so much like you, you should give me a pass to enjoy benefits not reserved for me.”  In both cases, those customers and those volunteers thought that because they had known the founder since the start, that they were on her level and therefore knew what she knew, had the same scars she had, the same sleepless nights, the same legal responsibilities, the same fears, the same to-the-bitter-end commitment, the same deep in-your-bones passion.

They did not.

Specifically, some customers would go through the line, pile their plates with food and pay nothing.  Meanwhile, some volunteers conflated their good work on project X as an entitlement to behave poorly when we did or did not give them project Y.  In other cases, when we called them on their behavior, they were indignant.  “How dare you question me” is a summary of what we often heard both from big eaters and volunteers who felt we were too stupid to truly appreciate their commitment or capabilities.  After awhile, we started to get the feeling that these people were never troubled by the condemnation of others since evidence of their poor performance was probably something they had long since learned to live with.

The volunteers without the egos were the ones who went on to start their own kitchens, manage their own volunteers and otherwise, shine.  We followed their progress with joy and pride.  The ones with the egos left us convincing themselves that they were smarter than we would ever be and we would always be assholes.  We didn’t keep up on their progress.

One World Everybody Eats continues to thrive and it continues to rely on volunteers.  What we started in Salt Lake 10 years ago has grown to nearly 100 community kitchens all over the country. I think there are even a few internationally.  In September 2004, we received our 501c3 and we were off.  I ocassionaly get an email from Denise Ceretta (the founder) telling me they miss me and it makes me feel wonderful that my work helped One World get to where it is.  We had some amazing times, like when Rush Limbaugh apologized for insulting us and we subsequently sent him a box of our Everything Cookie.  But that’s another story.

I learned a lot about leadership at One World by learning a lot about volunteers.

Crosstalk

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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.

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