Empty Interviews

PUBLISHED: April 9, 2012

Electronic news media have made enormous strides when it comes to speed, volume and diversity, but technology has not improved everything in the information marketplace.

There are more live interviews on television than ever before, but the content is remarkably weak, due primarily to the personal agendas and sloppy efforts of interviewers. This is regrettable, because interviews remain a distinctive feature of electronic journalism and, when done well, provide content that significantly supplements our understanding of issues and individuals.

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 tonight."

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.

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