Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Art of the Interview

Mike Wallace died yesterday.

He was 93 years old so his death, while sad for his survivors, cannot be considered either unexpected or tragic. But his loss is considerable for anyone who appreciates the art of the interview.

In a career that spanned seven decades, Wallace interviewed just about everybody who was anybody — presidents, kings, newsmakers of all kinds. I suppose most of his interviews were conducted in his work for CBS' 60 Minutes. He did some interviewing as a staffer for the University of Michigan's student newspaper, but a lot of the work he did in his youth would be better classified as entertainment.

He did some announcing, even some acting, on radio in the 1940s and hosted some game shows in the 1950s. The latter is not as unusual as it might seem today. In those days, newscasters, as they were called, did it all. In addition to announcing, they did commercials and hosted game shows.

And that generated most of Wallace's income for awhile.

But it was his interview work in the late 1950s and early 1960s that led to his job with 60 Minutes.

In that capacity, he really did interview just about everyone, all the movers and shakers of the late 20th century, but he did say about six years ago that he regretted the one that got away — former first lady Pat Nixon.

I have conducted many interviews in my life, and I can assure anyone who has never done one that it is much more difficult than it may appear. Most people who get interviewed tend to feel that they are somehow doing the interviewer a huge favor by sitting down and answering a few questions, which really puts the interviewer at a disadvantage.

There are some interview subjects who do not think that they are above the likes of any interviewer, but they are rare (and, my experience is, the bigger they are, the more likely it is that they will feel this way).

I've seen more than one interviewer come away with a poor interview because the subject seized the psychological high ground. It takes someone with confidence in himself and the validity of his questions to walk into an interview setting and treat his subjects as equals — and be treated as an equal in return. That was the amazing thing about Mike Wallace.

I share little tricks with my students, and I hope those tricks will help them conduct better interviews, but I often wonder if being a great interviewer isn't one of those things one is born with, sort of like when Stan Musial was hired to coach batting.

Musial was one of the greatest hitters ever to play baseball, but no one, not even Musial himself, could teach his unorthodox batting stance to others. It worked for him. It didn't work for anyone else.

Similarly, I wouldn't encourage young reporters to emulate Wallace — except, perhaps, to study the kinds of questions he asked. He always tried to develop a rapport with his interviewees, but he was tough, and he got right to the point. Sometimes it got him in trouble. Most of the time, it got him great stories.

Broadcasting isn't what it used to be. Wallace's death is a reminder that the practitioners of high–quality broadcasting are just about gone now.

"There simply hasn't been another broadcast journalist with that much talent," said 60 Minutes' executive producer Jeff Fager. That's pretty high praise coming from the chairman of CBS News, a network news division that has been graced by the presence of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Daniel Schorr — and many, many more.

Rest in peace, Mike Wallace.

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