Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Art of the Interview

One of the unintended consequences of our move to L.A. has been that I’ve become an avid podcast listener. At the same time, mainly because of the election, I have also started watching Charlie Rose, Meet the Press and a number of other news (and opinion) shows. I have thus begun to be much more critical of interviewers and their styles, and I have also realized just how hard a job it is.

The granddaddy of interviewers working today, in my mind, is Charlie Rose. The guy is simply unflappable. See his recent interview of the slimy T. Boone Pickens for 60 Minutes or any of his shows on the economic meltdown. Or check how deftly he handles guests as disparate as Jay-Z and Antonin Scalia:

And, my absolute favorite of his interviews, Neil Young:

I think what I love most about Charlie Rose is that he elegantly guides each of his guests to explain themselves in terms that are clear, concise and, most of the time, flattering to themselves. I have yet to see him make anyone look like a fool.

On the other side of the “fool” coin, there’s Katie Couric. Now I never thought much of Couric as an interviewer or personality, and her reporting always seemed stiff and wooden to me. Her interview with Sarah Palin, however, was a study in how to pin someone down and not let them deflect questions. Unlike Charlie Gibson, who came across as smug and condescending, Couric always prodded Palin along and gave her every opportunity to explain herself. It really made me take another look at her as an interviewer:

A lot of people hold up various NPR personalities as good interviewers, but aside from Robert Siegel no one blows my skirt up. Garrison Kieler is annoying and egotistical. Terry Gross is so biased and klunky in most of her interviews it’s sometimes embarrassing (although I still religiously listen to Fresh Air because of the caliber of the guests she pulls in. Ira Glass has gotten better over the years, but he inserts his own personality and viewpoint into ever interview. It’s the curse of NPR that they get people who are too decidedly liberal for their own good. This from a die-hard liberal…

And then there’s the inimitable Studs Terkel. He’s been in the news quite a bit lately because of his death a few weeks ago, and NPR has been running a lot of commentary on his life and work. More than any other interviewer I’ve seen or heard, Terkel embodies the joy of curiosity. He was an incredible interviewer because he was genuinely curious about people. He didn’t approach them with any preconceived point of view or agenda. He just marveled at how beautiful and mysterious people can be:

Oh, that everyone were so interested in those around them.


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