The Art of Elite Journalist’s Interviewing
Good journalists are capable of asking simple questions which can result in long answers. Scott Pelley, a journalist for the CBS News Magazine “60 Minutes” holds that a good question should not be more than six words. “Otherwise when you talked for thirty seconds, your interviewee would follow your step,” he added, “which is a common mistake.”
Another technique used often in interviewing is “What do you think of…?” It works for Mike Wallace every time, including the interview with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, which vexed British and Americans. It was difficult to interview Thatcher who had been well polished in all kinds of domestic political debates. Therefore, Mike thought about how to break her defense and reveal her true thoughts about Israeli Prime Minister.
“I asked her, ‘What do you think of Menachem Begin?’ At the first second, she said something like, ‘Whoa, what should I say?’ It’s obvious that Menachem Begin was a nerve-racking trouble for her.” Mike said, “Then I let her pause. I was very satisfied even though there was only one second.”
“If you are a good journalist, you know how to make your interviewee less defensive, because you know so much about him and the courtesy is less desirable here.” Mike explained.
In an interview with Luciano Pavarotti, the famous Italian opera tenor in 1993, Mike pierced Pavarotti’s protective armor with his sharpness. To achieve this, Mike brought out all the criticisms against Pavarotti.
“They said his voice was becoming weak. He was too fat. He was lazy. His voice was cracked and he was booed.” Mike recalled, “then I asked, ‘What are you afraid of?’ ‘Is the twilight of your career coming?’ He said, ‘Of course, they are right.’ Pavarotti talked about his fear and downward side. Under Mike’s pressure, he surrendered and revealed his weak side, producing an extraordinary effect.
There were also times when the interviewee tried to intimidate the interviewer. Mike remembered that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran tried to deter him by holding off in an interview.
“We were in a suite in Tehran and waited for a long time. We got a little angry about being left there.” Mike recalled. Mike, Robert Anderson, the producer and the whole team waited and waited, but there was no sign that Ahmadinejad would like to take the interview.
“We suspected that the whole room was wiretapped by Tehran authority. So I remembered that I started to talk to the chandelier instinctively.” Mike continued.
Talking to the chandelier is an old trick started in the cold war, which refers to talking to the wall when you found you were tapped so as to communicate with the local government. “Our visa will expire after three or four days. So we’d better order ticket flying back to New York.” It worked. “Half an hour later, it came that he would like to accept our interview.” Mike explained.
(From Heat and Light, China Renmin University Press. Translation: Li Li)