Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘President

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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Written by Interviewer

October 12, 2015 at 22:59

The “N” Word on Google Maps

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Google Maps

As a journalist, people are always trying to get your attention.  A perennial candidate wants an interview everytime they run for everything from Congressman to dogcatcher.  A citizen wants to tell you about how a conspiracy by the DMV is keeping him and only him from getting his license.

There are lots of stories that don’t make the news director’s radar and not for the lack of trying by the people pitching them.  But other stories are so over the top true that you assume everybody must know about them.  Sort of like when you see a flipped over car on fire on the freeway; surely somebody has called 911.  So you don’t need to, right?

Somebody sent me an email with a link to a story that reported that Google Maps is currently having a naming problem with the residence of the President.  Specifically, if you type the “N” word (ending with “a” instead of “er”), the White House and the area surrounding it in Washington, D.C. appear.  This was as of 8 p.m. PST on May 19th.

What kind of story would this be to tell?  News?  Public information?  For some, it certainly seems to be entertainment.  How much attention should something like this get?  How did it happen?  What is being done to fix it?  And who are the proud, God-sent, shining examples of humanity who did it?

It would be nice if somebody told me this is just some unfortunate mistake.  That this isn’t really from the company that pledges to “Do No Evil” even if they do sell out protestors in authoritarian regimes.  That it’s some kind of terrible joke.  TMZ says its no joke.

Burning car, flipped, in the middle of the freeway.

Has anybody called or are there just too many of them for people to bother?

Written by Interviewer

May 20, 2015 at 10:17

Fer it before he wuz agin it

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Jeb Bush

Jeb Bush told Megyn Kelly on Fox News that he, along with many people in the Senate in 2001, would’ve done exactly what his brother, former President Bush did when confronted with 911; pursue a course of war.  That was certainly a clear answer.  But later, Mr. Bush, while being interviewed by Sean Hannity, said he didn’t understand the question as it was posed by Ms. Kelly, called it a” hypothetical” and said he didn’t know what he would’ve done.

Perhaps supporters of the war who are also Bush’s supporters put pressure on him to recant.  But his follow up is one of those things that make you go, hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm …

But before it looks like this is bagging on Jeb Bush, consider:
– Theantimedia.org said Rand Paul was against the Drug War before he was for it
– The New American says General Norman Schwartzkopf was against the 1991 Gulf War before he was for it
– Twitchy.com says John Kerry was for the Iraq war before he was against it
– Fox News says former Senator and Presidential candidate John Edwards was for the war in Iraq before he was against it.
– The Daily Kos says Mitt Romney was for the Vietnam War before he was against it.
– Outside the Beltway says Senator John McCain was for trading taliban prisoners for Army Sgt. Beau Bergdahl before he was against it
– Wizbangblog says former President Bill Clinton was for the war in Iraq before he was against it.
– Politicususa.com says Paul Ryan was for the war in Syria before he was against it
– Foreign Policy magazine says President Obama says he was against the authorization for the war before he was for it
– Politicalwire.com says former Vice President Dick Cheney was against the Iraq was before he was for it …

… and on and on.

Clearly, Mr. Bush doesn’t want to throw his brother under the bus for the 12-year Iraq War.  But you don’t hear Republicans speaking of George W. with the same reverence of Ronald Reagan.  That says something about how party faithful on the right see the Bush Doctrine.

The larger point is politicians change their minds for their own reasons like all of the rest of us.  Except when we do it, it isn’t necessarily a judgement on our character or mental faculties.  It won’t necessarily destroy our lives or give people license to judge us for the rest of our lives because we were human.

Interviewers need to bring up inconsistencies like this during subsequent interviews.  To not is to deny constituents, whether they’re listening to business leaders or politicians, the opportunity to truly understand their thought process.  And once recants like this are being discussed, the interviewer needs to press the question to the edge of journalistic decorum.

Exactly Who Are They Talking To?

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Polyglot

When I hear a political speech in English from a foreign politician or diplomat, I always wonder what is the intention of the message?  Who are they really talking to and what do they really want?  I mean, if the President of the United States intentionally speaks directly to the citizens of a foreign country through an interpreter, he is talking to them, not Americans.  When this happens, it’s usually to rally the people by talking around an oppressive regime or somehow repair a damaged American image.

Likewise, when I hear a foreign leader or representative speaking English when English is not one of their official languages, I conclude they are are not talking to their own people, they’re talking to Americans.  And then I wonder why?  There are plenty of examples of press conferences where someone from country X is talking to the world media, but the language they use is that of their own people.  Their own media doesn’t have to interpret.

But when they speak in English, the message is very different.  It’s directed to American politicans who direct America’s money and military and influence.  Or it’s directed at the American people who can be a soft touch for broad themes they’ve mined from our history like liberty or here recently, collective fear.  “This is not just a threat to us”, they like to say as if to say, “Support us if you know what’s good for you.”

Listeners need to listen close to what foreign leaders are saying or warning when they choose to speak in English.  It’s going to be significant to US foreign policy eventually.  At the same time, the dynamics of political speech aren’t that deep.  It’s just human interaction.  The level may be different but content and context aren’t much different.  Think of office cubicles with nuclear weapons and you’ve pretty much summed up the mundaneness of how people try to coerce each other on the geopolitical stage.

Written by Interviewer

January 13, 2015 at 06:35

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.

Not Light on Depth

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Asteroid

In the middle of editing this most recent interview, I had to stop to write this post.  I’ve done a few dozen interviews now, and I’m starting to notice a pattern. Many of the people I talk to, whether they’re famous or up and coming, are surprised that I actually know something about who they are or what they do.  And that surprises me.  And for the people reading this post or listening to my interviews, it should surprise you.  Why?  Because if you’re interested in what I have to say, or what they have to say, it means. you expect me to be able to tell you something, and something not pat or cliche’ish, but something unusual, valuable, useful or unique.  And that’s stuff I can only get from taking the time to do the research.  It’s what gives the conversation credibility to convey.  And apparently, a lot of frustrated interviewees are interviewed by a lot of interviewers that don’t do that.

Russell Hitchcock of Air Supply said his partner Graham Russell has gotten up in the middle of lazy interviews and left because the interviewer started out with a question like, “So, what kind of music do you guy perform?”  Haitian V said essentially the same thing.  He told me he expected to be pissed off at me  because he expected that I was like other interviews he’d done where the interviewer hadn’t taken the time to learn anything about him, his life or his work.

I just wonder where else this happens in society and culture.  I remember that scene in “Armageddon” where the Jason Issacs character is trying to discredit a bad opinion from another presidential advisor on how to save the Earth from the asteroid collision, and says, “As the presidents’ chief scientific advisor, we were at MIT together.  And, in a situation like this, you – you really don’t wanna take the advice from a man who got a C minus in astrophysics.”

Just makes me wonder sometimes how may other C minus students are there out there running things.  I can certainly think of a few.  But my interviews will never be light on depth.