Well…Here’s the Worst that Could Happen

The one necessary aspect in all excellent pieces of journalism is interviews. With an interview, you, as a journalist, let the interviewee speak for themselves. They get the chance to explain their side of the story, while getting asked questions. The interview humanizes a story. Especially in television, it gives the viewer a chance to not only hear emotion, but to also see it from reactions on people’s faces and the goosebumps that ride of the arms of the interviewee. With each question, a different reaction has the chance to be seen. But, what if the interviewee doesn’t give you the chance to ask the questions? While watching 60 Minutes on CBS, there was an extra segment online discussing the greatest interview ‘walk-offs’ the show has ever had. I thought it was really interesting to look at this piece of journalism because it gives me the chance to see how ‘the best of the best,’ how the some of the greatest interviewers in the world have handled different conflicts when dealing with high profile figures during an interview that has gone south.

The piece itself is called:Losing it on 60 Minutes: the great “walk-offs”

In the piece, there were three specific instances that stuck out more than any of the others.

1. Leslie Stahl with the two heads of state (French president Nicolas Sarkozy and former Russian president Boris Yeltsin)

–> Both of these interviews caught my eye because of what put each head of state over the edge. It was their family. For Sarkozy, it was his wife and for Yeltsin, it was his mother. When dealing with these two people in political positions of power, they seemed to have every answer for issues dealing with other people. But when it came to questions about their personal life, they didn’t have the answers. And that is when Stahl had the story. The minute she got to talking with them and position herself to ask the tough question, while their guards were down, was when she showed why she was a journalist on 60 Minutes.

2. Steve Kroft with Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan

–> Moynihan decided to walk off after he was insulted, not by Kroft, but by him quoting the former CIA Director Robert Gates. Because of Kroft’s research, he was able (whether intentional or not) to frustrate a US Senator enough to get him to walk off the set. But, the best part about that interview was the smirk on Kroft’s face as his interviewee walked out on what he seemed to have thought was a tough question, but not one to elicit that kind of response.

3. Mike Wallace with Edward Teller (Father of the H-Bomb)

–> I will admit Wallace got lucky. Teller would have walked off,  if his fine motor skills were a little better. Because he couldn’t get the microphone off, he couldn’t just walk off, but Wallace was able to convince him to keep answering questions. He was committed to leaving the set, so he didn’t have to continue to answer the questions, but he did. Wallace persuaded Teller to finish the interview with his demeanor, showing him he was serious about continuing the interview. Wallace stayed strong. He wasn’t disrespectful. He didn’t lose control. Wallace ‘played it cool,’ using his experience to get Teller to finish the interview.

The bottom line is that all of these situations I have pointed out happened because of the interviewers. They could have all asked the major questions that everyone has already asked, but they chose not to. Each of them completed  tremendous amounts of research to understand everything there was to know about the subject, from their personal life to their professional career. But, that was not all they did to make their interviewees tick. It’s the fact that they were so personable. They made the people feel comfortable, even with the cameras and the lights on. They were able so easily and casually ‘get into the mind’ of the interviewee without them realizing it. The precision to each question asked in a specific order, with a certain tone of voice, with a gesture, allowed them to get inside their interviewees heads.

The journalists on 60 Minutes exemplify the total package. It is what makes the interviewers the best around. They combine experience and knowledge with their personality and their research to create an ideal interview by a journalist with tough questions eliciting both thoughts and feelings.

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