As writer and not a T.V. journalist, I have the luxury of being able to conduct an awkward interview. I can stumble over a stupid question, annoy my subject, gnaw on my pencil unattractively – and readers will never know.
But T.V. interviewing is another thing altogether. T.V. reporters have to ask their questions on camera, and the result is not always pretty, especially when it comes to the local news. (Reporter to murder victim’s family: “How do you feel?”)
Meanwhile, when it comes to national news, the problem with interviewing is the pressure on the celebrity journo to act the part – be the interview subject’s interrogator, best friend, sympathetic observer, etc. As a result, the interview ends up being about the interviewer.
Recently I found myself wincing when NBC’s Ann Curry started going on and on in an interview with Angelina Jolie about her (Ann Curry’s) relationship with her own mother. It’s not about YOU, Ann! Still, no one beats Diane Sawyer for cringe-worthy, self-focused interviews. Terry Gross of NPR she’s not.
As for national television news, the best interviewer remains Bill Moyers, because he asks good questions, follow ups what he learns with more questions and, in so doing, excavates gems from their deepest hiding places. Plus, Moyers always makes the interview about the information it reveals – not himself, not the soundbyte, just the dig. Moyers was in fine form with his recent PBS special, Buying the War, which examined American journalists’ complicity in the Bush Administration’s build-up to the Iraqi invasion.
There are scenes in this broadcast that young reporters should study in which Moyers questions some of the journalists who cheered on the war early on. In his polite Moyers way, he asked these pundits to detail their credentials in military strategy or Middle Eastern politics (they had none, of course). Yet he was always efficient and never righteous – precise rather than overbearing. He used old-school neutrality to disarm new-school brashness, calmly taking on the likes of ‘liberal hawk’ Peter Beinart, editor at large of the New Republic. We’ll never know what made Beinart so submissive in that encounter; I suspect it was a combination of respect for his elders and a fatalistic recognition that Moyers, for all his gentility, would not be deterred.