You learn something about human behaviour every day. As part of my work, I have been transcribing a series of interviews conducted by a journalist from an online magazine. The questions are generally boring in the extreme and the interviewer has the most mind-numbing monotone. And yet, I am often jolted out of the dreariness of it all by the revealing quality of the answers. Most of these interviews are conducted in Middle Eastern states with tight censorship laws and harsh repercussions. I began to wonder, why then do all these people, mostly very successful business people and academicians, feel the urge to divulge information that could be considered sensitive in their restrictive societies?
The answer is simpler than you think and it’s something reporters have known since… well since there have been reporters. There is a basic design and flow to an interview. When an interviewer ask a question, the interviewee responds. Then the answer runs to a natural halt. The expectation is that the interviewer will now ask another question. If the interviewer stays quiet for a few moments past the natural break in conversation, the interviewee is usually rather rattled and begins to speak again, to fill in what seems like like an uncomfortable silence. The interviewer has thrown them off their rhythm. They will begin to second guess themselves, wondering why the conversation did not continue to flow as expected. This is a brilliant, brutally simple tactic that reporters would do well to follow.
The interviewer in my headphones isn’t a particularly clever specimen, though he seems to think so. He has a certain native cunning that he deploys in his interview tactic. When he doesn’t dazzle himself with his special French brilliance, he can lead his subjects up unexpected roads. In the ultimate analysis he is a smart reporter, because he has ended up mining information that he had no inkling of and his subject had originally had no intention of sharing. I have heard people moan about repressive policies before pulling themselves up short, the interview version of looking over your shoulder for the secret police. It’s fascinating how much repressed anger there is in oppressive societies.
Now let’s look at the real media, the demigods on our TV screens. Today’s news media seems to be a 24/7 whirl of spin and opinion, mostly delivered in crowing tones or loud arguments. In the US, there are unfathomably stupid people on TV, like the death’s head who lords it over Fox and Friends. I must admit I never bothered to learn his name, because I’ve only ever seen him on the TV sets of hotel lobbies, as I’ve waited for breakfast. He’s a real catch, that one and he has an equally foolish female co-anchor. The perfect matched set of fools.
Then there are the screaming hosts who bludgeon their guests with loud voices and strong words, as if they were blunt instruments of torture known only to the incredibly stupid. I have no idea why anyone listens to them, when they obviously have never listened to themselves. Into this category must fall people like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. And in India, the host with the most, Mr.Arnab Goswami. They seem to consider themselves very smart, savvy and well-informed. None of which they are by the way. And finesse in interviewing? They wouldn’t recognize finesse if it jumped up and bit their noses. Consequently, an hour spent watching them is torture to your eyes, ears and brains. They shout over their guests and cut off people who disagree with them (which in my opinion, should be everyone on earth except themselves). Entering O’Reilly’s self-proclaimed ‘no spin zone’ is like sticking your head in the toilet while flushing it, to hear the sea’s roar. Such is Fox News, or as Jon Stewart so aptly calls it ‘Bullshit Mountain”. The Hannitys and O’Reillys of this world never descend its Olympian heights to indulge in a moment of retrospection.
This brings us to Jon Stewart, the king of ‘fake news’. To many hundreds of thousands, it’s the only news outlet they have. Stewart uses his commanding intellect to suss out explanations even from the outstandingly unreckonable. Watch his interviews of Bill O’Reilly to understand what I mean. With normal people of normal intelligence, Stewart never ceases to amaze. He took a show that was at best lukewarm, with Craig Kilborn in the seat, and over the years offered up a smorgasbord of experiences. It was all done with an understated cleverness and a stunning lack of screaming. For some a wink and a nudge will suffice where others may bring out the Howitzers.
Stewart’s greatest legacy is in the hordes of hosts he has nurtured on the Daily Show. Look at the selection who grace our late nights these days. There is the irepressibly formidable wit of Stephen Colbert, the fake angry conservative. We have the fruity tones of John Oliver, holding a very funny reflecting mirror to America and its inconsistencies. There’s the maniacally funny world view of the crazy Indian, Asif Mandvi. For years we got to enjoy the hyperbolic shenanigans of the world’s funniest Canadians, the inimitable Jason Jones and Samantha Bee.And lately we learned gorgeous can be funny too, thanks to the talented Ms.Jessica Williams. Not to mention that the hugely successful Steve Carell forged his comedy mettle on the Daily Show. There have been many others, but these names top the list.
If you do nothing else in the interest of understanding the American media, watch Stewart’s interview with the uber conservative commentator, Bill Kristol. Stewart led Kristol up so many convoluted pathways of the mind, that Kristol ultimately admitted that government healthcare (provided to American vets) was the best in the world. The look on Kristol’s face as he realised what he had said? Priceless. He had definitely stepped in the doodie. It must be mentioned that Kristol’s original point was to discredit the idea of Obama’s initial push for a national health care system. Kristol was trying to argue that this would make the American health care system as lousy as in a third world country, like say, umm Canada or the UK. Don’t believe me? Here is the link to the segment.
Finesse, that is what Stewart deployed so powerfully in that segment. Finesse, something a lot more reporters could use to actually coax real information out of their interviewees. Barbara Walters, had it in spades. So did Oprah Winfrey. Sadly, they didn’t really interview people to find out the answers to the great questions of our time. They interviewed plenty of important people but they did it to extract drama and tears, not answers to serious questions. The ones we look to, to do the kind of serious journalistic reporting, like the hosts of CNN shows, Anderson Cooper, Wolf Blitzer et al, will often start with the best intentions but often they will let the interviewee run the show. When an interviewee blatantly goes off topic, they will let them run on, rather than lead them back on track. These are Journalism 101 rules folks, not string theory.
Which brings me back to my original point, if you give a person enough rope, they will eventually hang themselves.