As a print reporter, I can usually get away with long, rambling questions that start out heading one direction, take a few detours down blind alleys of irrelevance, and end up somewhere else entirely. I can be conversational, even to a fault. I can interrupt without appearing too rude. I can even ask the proverbial stupid question with impunity — since I’m both interviewer and the writer, and your question isn’t the story anyway.
But broadcast Q & A’s — especially “live” interviews — have a completely different dynamic. You want your questions to be short, but you also need to establish a context for the viewer. You want to let the guest have his say, but you also want to keep him off his talking points. You want to be prepared, but also allow the interview go wherever it leads.
That was my thought process last weekend, when C-SPAN asked me and Roll Call’s Steven T. Dennis to interview Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., for its signature “Newsmakers” show:
This was my first appearance on C-SPAN, a sort of rite of passage for Washington reporters. (And frankly, I wasn’t their first choice for the Van Hollen interview.) I’ve been watching C-SPAN since I was in college, and I like to think C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb has been an influence on my career.
Lamb’s interviewing style,especially on shows like “Booknotes” and “Q & A,” was straightforward and non-confrontational: “Where were you born?” “Who are your parents?” “Why did you write this book?” “Who do you admire?” Those may seem like simple questions, but sometimes those are the most revealing (e.g. Roger Mudd: “Why do you want to be president?”).
At the other extreme is the late Tim Russert, of NBC’s “Meet the Press.” His well-prepared questions and follow-ups were meticulously designed to probe every inconsistency, ferret out hypocrisy and demonstrate a candidate’s thoughtfulness and mastery of the issues. I have all the respect in the world for Russert — and my Sunday mornings aren’t the same without him — but I tend think a good interview should be more conversation than cross-examination.
I tried, with varying degrees of success, to pin down Van Hollen on who’s lobbying the “supercommittee,” the closed-door negotiations, where he’s willing to compromise and whether President Obama is responsible for the state of the economy. Alas, I don’t think the interview made much news.
Next time, perhaps, I’ll bring just a little more of the Russert.