|Consider a recent interview
Lawrence O'Donnell conducted on MSNBC with the filmmaker and activist Michael
Moore. Mr. Moore spoke a total of 1,034 words, while Mr. O'Donnell—whose
job, after all, was to ask questions—spoke
almost as many: 900.
The host was so intent on both asking and answering questions that at one
point Mr. Moore said jokingly, "Thanks, Lawrence, for coming on the show
I happen to be a fan of Mr. O'Donnell. Yet like the interviews of many cable-TV
hosts, his often seem designed to showcase his own views rather than to draw
out interesting opinions from guests. Chris Matthews of MSNBC and Sean Hannity
of Fox News Channel do the same irritating thing, making it hard for guests to
get a word in edgewise.
During one interview with Mitt Romney, Mr. Hannity asked 10 questions, one
of which was 172 words long and lasted 51 seconds, while two others went on for
over 100 words. It was as if the host were filibustering his own guest.
Not long ago, television journalists preferred to pre-record interviews whenever
possible—still the norm on magazine programs such as CBS's "60 Minutes"—while
politicians and other newsmakers favored going live. That's because editing allows
reporters to clean up and even re-record questions to their advantage, while
making cuts that are sometimes to the guest's disadvantage. As Barbara Walters
once told me when I interviewed her about interviewing, "Whoever holds the
scissors ultimately controls the message."
Nowadays, cable news programs favor live interviews because they add immediacy
and are a natural byproduct of improved technology. This gives politicians and
other guests more power, while exposing interviewers' ineptitude.
Newsmakers have taken advantage of the live interview format to work in more
talking points and even to scold hosts when the questions are tough. In an interview
on CBS, Rick Santorum pounced on host Charlie Rose when Mr. Rose asked about
statements by a major campaign donor regarding contraception. "This is the
same gotcha politics that you get from the media," said Mr. Santorum, "and
I'm not going to play that game."
A telling sign of a poorly conducted interview is when reporters ask questions
and then supply possible answers, creating a multiple-choice quiz—which
might work in a classroom but usually flops on TV. Sports interviewers have come
to favor the non-question, in which the interviewee is simply asked to "talk," as
in, "Talk about that winning shot."
Interview questions should come quickly and cleanly. Yet on a recent broadcast
of CBS's "Face the Nation," Bob Schieffer began two questions of Newt
Gingrich with the extraneous phrase, "Let me ask you," and then he
asked consecutive questions of Ron Paul that began, "Let me ask you this
question." On CNN's "State of the Union," Candy Crowley asked
six questions during one program that all began with forms of "Let me ask
. . ."
The best interviewers do their homework, put their own opinions aside, keep
questions brief, and listen closely for possible follow-ups. Live interviews
are among the few elements in journalism not significantly affected by technology;
they can't be replaced by blogs or tweets. But TV hosts too often fall short.
Fox analyst Brit Hume, a frequent contributor on Bill O'Reilly's program,
joked about what it's like being interviewed on cable TV. Noting that he had
driven to Florida while listening to the audio version of Mr. O'Reilly's book, "Killing
Lincoln," Mr. Hume quipped to Mr. O'Reilly that it was just like being on
his show: "You talked and I listened."
(c) Peter Funt. This column orginally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.