Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘women

A Stumble at the Gate

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Horses at Gate

Jay Carney, former White House press secretary, showed why the transition from government to private business spokesperson isn’t always a smooth one.

Carney was interviewed by CBS This Morning in response to a New York Times article by reporter Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld about “dystopian” working conditions at Amazon. The report talked of employees in tears after meetings or at their desks. And although Kantor spoke about some of the positive aspects of the company, including its innovation, she defended the reports that Amazon’s culture encouraged employees to tear apart each other’s ideas in a effort to create an atmosphere of “unreasonably high” standards.

Carney told the anchor desk that he has held the job of corporate spokesperson at Amazon for five months. But he said neither he, nor Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos or many of the other people with whom he works recognized the company portrayed in Kantor and Streitfeld’s report. That mirrored the language in an Amazon press release but was not a firm enough rebuttal of the allegations for anchors Gayle King and Clarissa Ward.

Carney stumbled often as he defended Amazon’s role and history as an innovator. When Ward and King pressed him on whether the allegations were true, Carney essentially said that employees who didn’t like the culture at Amazon were free to leave, noting that the attrition rate for the company was similar to the attrition rate for other large American companies.

When King specifically addressed a charge in the NYT story that Amazon does not offer maternity leave to its women, Carney admitted that there was no maternity leave but justified that by the fact that 80% of US companies also do not provide it.

When Carney was a White House spokesperson, his responses were crisp because government spokespeople tend to be limited by government officials in what they can say. Saying too little or just enough in press conferences is the rule of the day because it reduces the amount of backtracking or embarrassment if they’re wrong later. As a corporate spokesperson, the crisis communication goal is to try to get ahead of the story and smash as much defense into an answer as possible, no matter the question. Several times, the anchors tried to stop Carney from the all too common corporate defense ramble.

But the message itself was a problem. Parents may recognize Carney’s responses to Amazon’s issues with attrition and maternity leave in conversations they have with their kids. “Everybody else is doing it”, is not a justification for a company that constantly claims to hold itself to a higher standard.

Jay Carney was the 29th White House press secretary. He served in that position from September 2005 until November 2008, and he was a regular contributor in the “roundtable” segment of ABC News’ This Week with George Stephanopoulos. But as this CBS This Morning interview shows, some skills are not as transferable as they seem.

This was Q

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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?

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November 1, 2014 at 05:05

An Impossible Question

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I am listening to Terry Gross’ interview with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.  Terry asked her, did she think she would be as successful as she was if she had had children?

I want to talk about the question for a minute, then about Justice Sotomayor’s response.  The question asks the interviewee to speculate on an alternative reality that doesn’t exist and because it doesn’t exist, no answer is possible.  It’s the kind of question most interviewers, most of the time avoid like the plague.  Rather than asking the interviewee to relate an anecdote based on personal experience or share a fact based on professional training, “What if” questions make the interviewee address a decision about a ship that has long since sailed.  And although their process might be valuable to a listener facing a similar choice, it asks something that is to some extent unfair.

Justice Sotomayor paused a long moment. In fact, the pause was so long that Terry realized she couldn’t answer it because, as they both simultaneously acknowledged, it was “an impossible question.”  It is a question in the current tortuous vein for women, “Can you have it all?”  Justice Sotomayor noted that there have been two women on the court who did have children.  So she said she would like to think that she would have been just as successful with children as she has been without them.  Her logic caused Terry to acknowledge and admit, “Exactly.” [NOTE: When I first wrote this post, I seem to remember hearing in the interview an audio response of “Of course”.  But now the audio is “exactly” so I have changed it to that].

But she also reinterpreted Terry’s question, saying “Can women have it all?” is the wrong question, and substituting it with “What makes you happy as a person?”  Success, she inferred, was dependent on what a person has the will and drive to do regardless of circumstances.  And she was totally gracious with the rest of her response, which led Terry to move on to a different question about her earlier work in a District Attorney’s office.

Sometimes, an interviewer comes up with a list of questions, and they all look good.  Then, they cut the list down to what they think are the best questions.  But sometimes, the don’t realize that there’s still a klunker among them.  A question that, if they were to hear someone else ask it, they might think to themselves, “That’s an impossible question.  How could anybody ever answer that?”  A question that attempts to group groups, not by desire and capability but societal expectations.  Is it a question that puts interviewees in a box or gives them the chance to bust up the box?

And the ultimate test of the question is, would it have been asked of a man?  You can hear Justice Sotomayor’s hesitation after the question is asked here at about 32:04.

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January 14, 2014 at 11:40

Speaking of the Life they Lost Because of It …

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In researching the last post, I remembered and was reminded of this from the Iranian election protests of 2009. I wonder if one of the only reasons why mainstream journalism picked up her story was because her death was captured on social media and citizen journalists. Yet in four years, I have not heard this woman’s name mentioned again. I can only hope work is going on in her name. Her name is and was Neda Agha-Soltan:

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July 13, 2013 at 22:24

Splitting the Baby

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This is about how reportage and interviewing connect. And this reference to King Solomon points to one of storytelling’s ancient problems.

I’ve just listened to Malala Yousafzai speak boldly against the Taliban attack on her last October. Their shooting of her may have been in line with their religious and political priorities to keep women subjugated according to their interpretation of Islam. But it backfired severely in a world that is becoming more intolerant of any culture that suppresses any part of its population that could be helping to lift it instead. As I listened to BBC reporters interview three ten year old girls; two in a Pakistani school for girls, and one making mud bricks at a family home though, I thought about the responsibility of journalism.

Journalism says the truth must be visible for all to see and verify, even if that means exposing the people with the most to lose to the people who want most to insure they lose it. Those two girls, identified by their real names, are in danger now, as far as I can tell. The third, making mud bricks, far from a school and other girls, is no threat to religious fundamentalism.

Should the girls in school be afraid for their lives? That’s a lot to ask of ten year olds. But the adults should certainly be. The world has rallied around Malala Yousafzai and has made her into a symbol of the emancipation of girls and women from radical sects and muslim extremists. Take note however, that on Pakistani social media, Ms. Yousafzai is being criticized for being a “Drama Queen” and reflecting unfavorably upon Islam. These things said about an innocent women who took a bullet to her head after she dared to speak out about the right of girls to go to school. So even if these groups don’t dominate Pakistan – the country with the highest percentage of girls not in school – their views certainly seem to.

Does that make Pakistan a pyrrah? It’s a debatable questions, especially if its citizens are looking at Octomom, or Girls Gone Wild videos and asking themselves, “Is this what Western freedom does to women?” But it doesn’t justify murder or torture. It doesn’t mean that they then have the right to rape and kill and mutilate females who refuse the polar opposite mold.  And an equally important question for this post; does that mean Western media should point out girls trying to attain both personal freedom and national pride despite these practitioners of tribalism only to be raped or killed or mutilated into subjugation? The amazing thing about political freedom is the right of choice. As stupid and demeaning as a behavior may be, a free society allows it as long as it isn’t doing harm to yourself or someone else, and as long as it isn’t so revolting that people eventually can’t stand it anymore. But the threshold for revulsion can be high in free societies.

I will forever be torn over journalism’s ironic necessity to tell the story with full attribution and disclosure of someone who, more than anything, needs anonymity to survive. I understand without it, anyone can claim any set of circumstances is true, and thus, manipulate an audience without proper facts. I understand a cause celeb can bring many people out of the shadows and give their own experience voice. And I understand that some people tell their stories while accepting their fate that they may become martyrs for their causes. But in many cases, our need to be exactly sure of who these people are only puts huge fluorescent targets on their backs, with their only comfort being that the fickle West might remember their cause even if it doesn’t remember the life they lost because of it.

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July 13, 2013 at 21:54