I agree with the relatively few Beltway media pundits (like Slate's Jack Shafer) who think the coverage of Tim Russert's death was overblown. But that doesn't mean the late NBC newsman's legacy isn't worth discussing. I wasn't a big fan, but I respected Russert for one main reason: He was one of the few high-profile network media figures who asked questions and then actually listened to the answers.
This is rare among people whose job is to publicly interview other people, whether on Meet the Press, on radio, or on stage at Town Hall. You would think professional interviewers would be good listeners, but that's not always — or even often — the case. Are MSNBC's Chris Matthews or Fox's Bill O'Reilly or radio talker Don Imus paid for their listening skills? Were ABC's George Stephanopoulos and Charlie Gibson trying to learn anything in that "despicable" presidential debate they ran last April?
Media folks on the Q side of the Q&A often treat guests like pinatas, or they ask booby-tapped questions they hope will prove the equivalent of an exploding cigar.
Russert often seemed interested in his guests' answers, and this showed when he provided political analysis outside of Meet the Press. Not only did he do his homework for his interviews, he'd later refer to nuggets and nuances he'd gained in talking to his interview subjects. In short, he seemed to learned something from these interviews and was genuinely enthusiastic about that.
Maybe I'm setting the bar too low in these days of Katie Couric, who calibrates her interviews to the level of Special Olympics participants. She often sounds like she's trying to insulate herself from having to know anything, her guests from having to say anything, and her audience from hearing anything. Sadly, Dan Rather understates it when he says they're "dumbing it down" at CBS.
Having been on both sides of the microphone and notepad, I can appreciate that the Q&A is a difficult form, especially when it has to be both informative and entertaining. The process of interviewing for print doesn't have to look pretty — most reporters conduct interviews with all the grace of detective Columbo. But when interviews are themselves the entertainment or content, it's different.
Not all media are as willing to sacrifice sizzle as, say, public television's News Hour, whose strength (substance) is also its weakness (dull interviews and dull guests). But great listeners can make a difference with Q&As. PBS's Bill Moyers and NPR's Terry Gross and Diane Rehm are especially good. In Seattle, three terrific interviewers come immediately to mind: the Seattle Channel's C.R. Douglas and Eric Liu, and my colleague and pal Steve Scher at KUOW-FM's Weekday.
The things they have in common are that they not only ask great questions, they listen and engage interviewees in conversation. Neither Q nor A knows quite where the interview is going. That element of mystery helps move the chat beyond talking points and sound bites. A good interview keeps the interviewee a bit off balance but also steers things in a direction where everyone learns something new. The best interviewers aren't bloviators or gotcha guys but people who are genuinely curious, and infectiously so. Russert had this quality: His interest in the nuts and bolts of politics was catching.
I'd almost list PBS's Charlie Rose in the great interviewer category. It's fine for interviewers to have egos, but Rose often gives me the feeling that he'd rather be interviewing himself. He interrupts his guests, tossing in his own knowledge on a subject or finishing their sentences. Such is the frustration of always being the bridesmaid and never the bride. At least he doesn't have O'Reilly's old habit of telling his guests to "shut up."
Not everyone agrees with me. In fact, humorist/candidate/author Kinky Friedman recently wrote in Texas Monthly why he love loves lovesO'Reilly:
For my money, in spite of his sometimes obnoxious style, Bill is one of the two best interviewers on TV today (the other is Don Imus). The job of a journalist is not to be totally, antiseptically objective; it involves the sacred task of getting at the truth. When you're dealing with politics and politicians, this can be a tedious and daunting endeavor. My heart has always been with the truth-seekers and the truth-tellers and the people with good BS meters. I believe Bill scores highly in all these categories.
Friedman seems to think interviews should be a kind of torture, like waterboarding. That explains why watching the The O'Reilly Factor is like peering into the inner workings of Guantanamo: It is a kind of Inquisition in which guests are often frog-marched toward accepted O'Reilly orthodoxy, or burned for heresy.
Friedman is not alone in thinking of interviews this way. In my personal experience, there was the British novelist Patrick O'Brian, famed for his series of sea stories of the Napoleonic era. I interviewed him twice on stage for Arts and Lectures, once in Portland, once in Seattle. He was a notoriously tough interview and could be both courtly and waspish. The experience was more intimidating because he'd announced to The New York Times that "question and answer is uncivilized."
The Q&A form is contrived. It's a ritualized form of extracting information in a way that's supposed to be entertaining to a bunch of eavesdroppers. It can be a little bit like performing a public autopsy on a live subject, or a boxing match.
I survived my interviews with O'Brian because he was so beloved by his fans that they adored his every utterance, the way his fictional hero, captain Jack Aubrey, forever told the anecdote of once hearing the great Lord Nelson say, "Pass the salt." The trick was to get O'Brian talking. If he didn't like a question, he would simply sit in silence, a very effective form of passive resistance in front of a live audience.
Few of us follow politics with the kind of adoration for practitioners that we reserve for favorite "cult" writers, so interrogation skills are necessary. The basics can be learned, but not the character that makes a good listener and ignites inquiring minds. With the death of Tim Russert, the networks have lost a good listener they can ill afford to lose.