Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘interview

How Was I?

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pretty-please-eyes

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.

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December 27, 2016 at 07:03

Mine.

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Child Hugging Toy

This is a quickie.

And I may be way off about this.  If I am, somebody tell me.

Yesterday, KOIN Channel 6 did an exclusive interview with Donald Trump.  Later, KPTV Channel 12 referenced the interview and used video from it but didn’t identify the station that conducted it.

I’ve noticed that reporters and outlets, (whether broadcast or print), can be very protective of their work and their brand.  In a society of professionals like journalists, I’m not sure why that is.  But rarely do some outlets credit other outlets for stories they either break or conduct. And the times that I’ve called an outlet to follow up on information in a story of theirs, they share source contact information almost never.

Maybe, the case of yesterday’s pair of stories is a special case.  Perhaps, there is an internal agreement amongst stations that works with video in a pool the same way it works with audio.  FYI, when  a bunch of stations decide to air an event,  often one of them agrees to collect video and audio for all of them so all of them don’t have to duplicate the effort and expend those resources.  That’s called a “pool”.

Maybe it’s a selfish thing – “I had to work to get it, you work to get it”.  Or maybe it’s a mistrust that they won’t get credit from their competitive peers.  But if that was the case, nobody would ever again use anything from anywhere and claim proper “attribution” or “fair use”.

Legitimately, record company X could say, “Why, media outlet, should I let you use a snippet of a Prince song?  If you haven’t paid a royalty fee, you need to find some musician to create a Prince sound-a-like, and BTW, if it sounds too similar, expect to be sued.”  Or author X could say, “My article is fully copywrited and even if you properly attribute me as the author of its conclusions, but without my expressed and written permission, expect to be sued.”

Or maybe it’s a liability thing, as in, reporters don’t want any other reporter suffering from the outcomes of stories they uncover if those outcomes are bad.   Or perhaps reporters can be protective of their scoop like some researchers, who don’t necessarily want any other longhairs dinking around with their original conclusions.

Those two are kind of longshots.

Sometimes, I wish the society of professional journalists behaved more like a society.

P.S. Coincidentally, I found this article by NPR media critic David Folkenflik as I was researching my book about the public radio fund drive.  In it, he asks some of the same questions I ask about why media can be so insular.  I admit that the subjects of companies not giving each other credit and companies not letting reporters talk are not directly related, but in the areas of trust giving and trust getting, they are first cousins.

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May 8, 2016 at 03:18

Extruded Answer

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toothpaste

Kai Ryssdal of Marketplace was talking to Jeff Selingo, author of the book, “There is Life after College“.  He responded to a comment Mr. Selingo made about how, instead of recruiting seniors, businesses are now looking at sophmores so they can “try them out before they buy them.”

“That’s a little harsh”, Mr. Ryssdal responded.  And then, three seconds of silence which, in radio, is a least one and a half forevers.

You could feel Mr. Selingo being pulled through the tiny hole Mr. Ryssdal had formed around his incredulity over how colleges are being ruthlessly business-like.  Eventually, almost reluctantly it seemed, he replied.  This led me to two observations;

1.  I thought Marketplace was a business program that stared clear and cold eyed at business realities.  This surprises you, really?

2.  Again, the crushing weight of radio silence bent another human to its will.

I’ve talked about the host pause before, so no need to dwell on it here except to say, man, does it work.

 

 

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April 20, 2016 at 05:48

When Someone You’ve Interviewed Dies

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Microphone and Ribbon

Robert LeVoy Finicum died on Highway 395 late yesterday afternoon, somewhere between the towns of Burns and John Day, Oregon.  Mr. Finicum was the spokesperson for the occupiers at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.  Eight others were arrested.  As of yet, law enforcement has not given any details about what transpired on that highway.

This post was inspired by OPBs host of it’s midday news program, “Think Outloud”.  Dave Miller talked with Mr. Finicum twice in the last week about the standoff at the refuge.   This isn’t about the developments at the refuge.  Readers can find that in a number of other places, especially at the OPB website.

This is about when someone you’ve interviewed dies.  And of course, I can’t speak to what Mr. Miller may or may not be feeling in the wake of Mr. Finicum’s death.  But I can talk about my own experience and it has only happened to me once.  In 1980, I was stationed at Ft. Devens, MA, which was about 35 miles west of Boston via Route 2A.  I was a new Army Broadcaster and my first job was to operate the post’s closed circuit radio station, WFDB.  But I wasn’t content with playing the impressive collection of albums and 45s.  And when I found a 1976 Billboard Talent Directory, I knew what I was going to do.

I started calling promoters and agents of stars who were performing in Boston.  I told them I represented a military audience of several thousand (the number of active duty at Ft. Devens) and it worked.  In my year there, I interviewed A-listers of the day; Harry Chapin, Kenny Rogers, Bob James, Gladys Knight and Kool and the Gang.  Kool was a phone interview.  I talked to Mr. Rogers as part of a press pool in Manchester, N.H.  Mr. James and Ms. Knight and the Pips performed at the Berklee Performance Center in Boston.  I talked with Mr. Chapin on May 31, 1981.  He was performing at Chateau DeVille in Framingham.

Mr. Chapin, I remember, was clearly stoned.  But he was funny and warm and genuine.  Coming and going to the interview, I was singing every song of his in my head that I knew; Cats in the Cradle, Taxi, She’s Always Seventeen, W.O.L.D. and others.  I was thrilled to talk with him.  And I rushed back to edit and play our conversation on the cable radio station.  About eight years later, I loaned the tape to a co-worker at one of my broadcasting assignments and absent-mindedly forgot to get it back before I left the service.

Anyway, about six weeks later, on July 17, 1981, I heard that Harry Chapin had been killed when his little car pulled in front of a fast moving semi-tractor trailer on the Long Island Expressway.  I was stunned.  I’d grown up with his music.  Cats in the Cradle, especially, had a big effect on me and my Dad.  I think it’s a song many sons and fathers have in their minds whenever life changes their relationship.

Hearing about his death, it felt weird.  An interview is like a speed date.  It’s not like somebody you pass on the street or see everyday on the bus.  But it’s not like you’re exactly good friends either.  It’s somewhere in the middle.  You get to know people deeply and intimately, but quickly.  And just as quickly, you may never see them again.  It’s kind of a shock to think that you were just laughing at this person’s jokes, admiring (or being intimidated by) their work ethic, or noticing a tell or some personal mannerism that makes them uniquely them … something other people might not have noticed.

And then, they’re gone.

Mr. Chapin’s death changed how I looked at life.  I could die like that.  I could die at any time.  Everything I plan could go unfinished.  I might not die in my sleep or surrounded by loved ones or saving someone else’s life.   It made me ask harder questions like what should I be doing and how much shit will I put up with from others in my own life?

And his death changed how I would do interviews in the future.  I would not ask pedantic questions because every second with someone with a story to tell is a gift and every question needed to answer somebody’s else’s question.  I would tell them how much I admired whatever they excelled at but not gush because they get enough of that and they have to be somewhere else soon enough.  I would research the hell out of them so they knew I did my homework and could feel respected by the effort on my part.  And I would always try to remember to show my appreciation by saying “thank you” for their time.

Someone like Terry Gross or Charlie Rose has probably figured a way to ease themselves through the loss of someone they’ve come to know through a good, long talk.  Like I said, it’s only happened to me once.  I don’t know how many times it’s happened to Mr. Miller.

But every brutal goodbye is a rough one.

She’s More than That

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Card Tricks

Stephen Colbert, the new host of the Late Show, recently interviewed Malalla Yousafzai.

I’ve seen her in other interviews, most notably with Jon Stewart.  I remembered the story about how her brothers needed to mind her because she was a world famous activist and how they aggravated her because they ignored her.  I remebered the story of her being shot by the Taliban when she was 15 and how she had been advocating for girl’s and women’s rights since she was 11.  And although Ms. Yousafzai is supremely impressive in her work, I had a sinking feeling that Mr. Colbert’s interview would be a loose retreading of Mr. Stewart’s conversation.

As an interviewer, it can be a struggle to not ask the questions everybody asks.  When interviewing authors, for instance, promoters often send a list of questions.  I think that’s pitiful and ridiculous.  If an interviewer is interviewing an author but is too lazy to do the research to create some decent questions, they shouldn’t be wasting the guest’s time.

At the very least, it shows a lack of imagination.

But then, out of the blue, Stephen Colbert asked Ms. Yousafzai if she knew any card tricks and pulled out two decks of cards.  Apparently, she likes magic and knows how to do card tricks.  The Late Show did its due diligence and discovered that jewel in advance.  And he didn’t have to do much coaxing.  She picked up the cards, he made her laugh and she responded by doing a card trick that completely changed the  interaction between her and me, the viewer.

Suddenly, I didn’t see her as the world famous, UN addressing, Nobel Prize winning, Malalla Fund inspiring icon.  Suddenly, I saw her as a 17 young woman year old who could relax enough to have some fun and put one over on Stephen Colbert.

I have to thank Stephen Colbert for that.  He reminded me that the job of a good interviewer is to reveal a part of a guest that a listener or a viewer might not expect to see; a part of the guest the audience might not even know is there.  We can get so used to seeing people a certain way; a hero, a villain, a victim, a geek, an entrepreneur, we can forget they have layers. They have senses of humor and fears and joys and mischevious sides.

There are at least 141 references to that card trick online.  With so much at stake surrounding every little thing she does, how often does someone like Malalla Yousafzai get a chance to goof on somebody else?   So when a good interviewer lets them be a little less of what they’re known for and a little more of who they are, its great for all of us.

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October 20, 2015 at 14:52

TV Logistics of Interviewing the President

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Rose Garden

The interview between President Obama and Steve Croft of CBS News highlights some of the logistical issues when doing an interview with a high profile interviewee.

The interview was presented in at least two segments.  One segment was the portion that took place inside the White House.  In that interview, there are occasions when Mr. Croft’s face is predominant in the shot, times when Mr. Obama’s face is predominant and times when both men are in the shot.  Here, there is the luxury of at least two and maybe more cameras.  These cameras are on tripods and the room has excellent lighting and sound.  This arrangement gives the viewer a full, high quality view of the interchange between both people together and individually.

It also is the best situation for the editor who must later reduce the entire conversation to something that fits into the available broadcast time slot.  The reporter knows to re-ask questions if necessary, to ask the interviewee to repeat answers if needed or to get reaction shots (a look that implies the listener is concentrating on what the speaker is saying).  This is good for the editor because reaction shots not only help move the conversation forward in the natural back and forth way people expect, but they give the editor a chance to butt portions of the conversation together that might not have been together in the original talk.  This can help truncate the conversation or cover a mistakes.  In an indoor setting with those kind of resources, do overs are less of a big deal.

But the other segment of the interview took place along the walkway bordering the Rose Garden that leads to the President’s office.  Here, there was only one camera.  It was shoulder-mounted, or possibly on a body-pod.  The lighting and sound is not as good as it is inside.  The shot may not be as steady.  So the reporter and camera-operator need to use different techniques outside.

One of them is the classic walk and stop.  The President and Mr. Croft are chatting as they walk down the sidewalk toward the camera while the camera is also moving backwards.  At some point, Mr. Croft stops.  Mr. Obama then also stops and the camera-operator gets the chance to better frame the two of them while they continue to talk.  This is a technique reporters often use to take subtle control of the conversation.  You’ll see them use this slightly dramatic device a lot at the start of their stories as part of their lead in.

But one camera greatly limits how this portion of the interview can be edited later because there isn’t the flexibility that comes with video provided by other cameras.  And if you have an interviewee like the President who is being closely managed by a communications manager or other staff who probably want to get him inside, there may not be time to get the best shots that make the editing easy and seamless later.

This was clear during the outside portion.  You see the President and Mr. Croft standing together.  The shot was framed so that Mr. Obama’s right profile was facing the camera while Mr. Croft was to his left and almost centered.  In the next shot, the two men are at 45 degrees to each other and centered in the camera – a two shot.  In TV parlance, the abrupt scene change is called a jump-cut.  Since there was no second camera, there was no reaction shot, so the abrupt change couldn’t be hidden.  And its likely that the decision was made that the President would not be asked to repeat answers so the camera operator couldn’t get a shot that would make the editing easier and less jarring later.

I’ve spent many years behind a video camera, both in the studio and in the field, and as just as many in an edit bay.  When you’re shooting and you know you can’t get the shot you need, you’re not looking forward to the editing because you know it’s not going to look the way you want.  But sometimes, it just can’t be helped.

(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

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October 12, 2015 at 22:59

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.