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February 28, 2007

The Craft of Interviewing

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I'm all in favor of holding the feet of the mainstream media to the fire, and god bless the blogosphere for being there to keep pro journalism more honest than it would otherwise be. That said ...

Well, as someone who's worked in the media for decades I'm sometimes struck by how much civilians take for granted. Where design is concerned, for instance: Whether or not you like the end products, the people who sling together magazines, newspapers, and TV keep the glitzy graphics and the splashy designs comin' at you at a truly amazing clip. In my experience, the people creating these layouts, photos, infographics, and spinning whizzinesses are often as talented as the fine-art crowd, and are often ten times harder-working. If you don't think their work is impressive (like it or not), well, try keeping up with them.

And where the people who bring us our foreign news go ... They're often criticized (as they should be) for their politics, or are dumped-on for being lousy thinkers. No harm in that, of course. But why not give them their due too? These are people who lead seriously oddball lives. They travel more than investment bankers do, they work on impossible deadlines, and they're tossed into stories with little but notebooks, tape recorders, and guts to rely on.

The ones who cover danger zones amaze me the most. If I were to get a call from my boss in the middle of the night saying, "There's been an outbreak of guerilla fighting!", my response would be along the lines of, "Thanks for the warning! I'm locking myself in my basement!" Foreign correspondents aren't like that. Instead they respond by saying, "I'm on my way!"

I've known a number of foreign correspondents, and though I wouldn't pay a lot of attention to the thinking or to the politics of more than a couple of them they've all been remarkable creatures -- daring, crusty, full of bravado, and not unshrewd about human nature. Plus they all have great stories to tell.

It seems to me that another media type who doesn't get the respect he / she deserves is the interviewer. Lordy, I do love a good interview. Is there a more efficient way to convey the gist of someone's thinking, research, and personality? A well-done interview can inform, enlighten, and entertain; it can be charming or brain-opening or both.

The idea that interviewing is easy to do seems to me naive. Of course interviewing isn't brain surgery or bridge-building. Still, it isn't nothing either. I say this, by the way, as someone 1) who has done some professional interviewing, 2) who wasn't initially any good at it, and 3) who has learned a bit about how to be a better interviewer than I once was. I make no huge claims for myself, merely: I been there, I stank, and eventually I got less-bad.

One of the things I've learned is that there are many ways to be a good interviewer. A few examples: The attack dog (Bill O'Reilly). The fawning suckup (Barbara Walters). The curious oddball (Errol Morris). Now I don't actually like the work of these people much. But god knows they're gifted at what they do, and god knows they're effective at it too.

My own persona as an interviewer? Hmm, it's always hard to put labels on oneself, isn't it? But I do know that I'm most comfortable (and seem to perform best) when I think of myself as 1) performing a service for the reader, and 2) doing what I can to show the interviewee off.

Given this temperament, I've learned to choose people as subjects whom I admire and respect, and to use my conversations with them not to confront or challenge but to explore. I like yakking with people I admire and / or enjoy, in other words. I like showing off their brains, their reflections, their personalities, and their experiences. This probably means that you wouldn't want me interviewing Castro, Osama bin Laden, or Presidential candidates. I'd run from the tough questions that need to be put to such people. But I'm a sensible choice for interviewing thinkers and artists.

My batting average has in fact been pretty good. Artists seem to appreciate my interest and my knowledge, and philosophers catch on to the fact that underneath the golly-gee-whiz surface I'm pretty bright and can follow arguments. Despite my complete lack of credentials, I've even interviewed some scientists with good results.

A few did defeat me, though. I remember one brilliant astrophysicist in particular ... He seemed to feel that any attempt to translate the technicalities of his work into popular English would betray it. He was so terrified of how he and his work would come across that he stonewalled me completely. I tried every trick I had on him, and went down to total defeat. Still: Why so such people agree to be interviewed in the first place?

And most academics will drive me batshit with annoyance. Pedants!

Hmmm ... (Interviewing myself here ...) If I were to give a quick seminar in How To Be A Useful Interviewer ... OK, I'd speak along these lines:

  • Be willing to set aside your own point of view. Let go of your ego. You aren't the subject.

  • Don't interview anyone you aren't genuinely interested in talking to. In the middle of an interview you'll find that it's far easier to operate out of instinct than it is to impose conscious control, and genuine interest will carry you through those moments. If awkward silence does crop up, let your interviewee be the one to break it.

  • Learn how to ask questions that can't be answered with a simple yes or no.

  • Do your homework and then forget it.

  • Develop an interviewing persona and an interviewing process that suit you. In my own case, I like to come prepared yet act naive. I play the interested amateur, yet I try to have the necessary background at the ready, not to show off but to supply a safety net.

These are a few disordered musings prompted by time spent listening to podcasts from the Library of Economics and Liberty. Russ Roberts is the host of these shows, which consist of talks with economists, mostly of a free-market orientation. Roberts -- a prof at George Mason who is associated with the Hoover Institute -- is himself a free-market economist.

Since there are many ways to be a "good" interviewer, I'm hesitant to call Roberts a "bad" interviewer. After all, I'm enjoying his series. And a big part of being an interviewer is lining up interviewees, making the interviews happen, and then making them available.

(This reminds me of a crack a filmworld figure I knew once made when asked by an earnest student, "What makes a person a film director?" The kid was evidently expecting some key that would unlock the Great Meaning of It All. My friend's down-to-earth response: "A film director is someone who gets films made. Anything beyond that -- talent, flair -- is gravy.")

By these important criteria Roberts is doing a terrific job, and hats off to him for it. But he also may be the most ... peculiar interviewer I've ever listened to.

If I were to interview economists, I think I'd do what I could to set up their general point of view, to introduce the day's topic, and then to help my interviewee present his data and his thinking.

That isn't the Russ Roberts way. Darius Lakdawalla from the National Bureau of Economic Research has done research into obesity and food prices. His basic point is that our tendency in rich societies to pack on weight is related to the ever-lowering cost of food. Lakdawalla doesn't claim that lower costs are a full explanation for obesity, but he thinks that he has shown them to be a contributing factor.

You'd think that Russ Roberts would want to help Lakdawalla convey his ideas and his findings to listeners. But no. Obesity ... Choice ... Personal responsibility ... Roberts can barely keep himself in check throughout the talk. Scorn piles out of him. People are fat because they're choosing to eat ice cream rather than fruit salad, dammit. That means they must be happy with their choices! Why? Because these are the choices they made! End of discussion!!!

Incidentally, I suspect that Roberts would say that his scorn is intended not for unhappy fat people or for Lakdawalla's research, but for people who would like to make a public-policy issue out of obesity and who'd like to pass a lot of nanny-state laws. But since he doesn't make this clear, what it seems like he's doing is mocking people's bewilderment and concern about their waistlines and their health. It seems like he's being the usual free-market asshole, the kind of guy who says, "Well, they chose to eat the ice cream! They must be better off!" Not a graceful way to serve your interviewee, and also not an effective way to win the public over to your point of view. Russ Roberts seems to have as small a gift for converting people as Paul Krugman does.

In this lengthy interview, he talks at length with the very interesting Greg Mankiw about Pigovian taxes, more specifically the possibility of a carbon tax. Something about this topic brings out the worst in Roberts, who barely allows Mankiw to make his most basic points. Whatever it is that provokes Roberts' ire, he just can't let go of it. It's not Russ Roberts's style, I guess, to state once that he disagrees and then let the conversation move forward. No, he has to squabble over every inch. I didn't count words, but I had the strong impression that during this interview Roberts spent more time talking than Mankiw did. (Mankiw's fun and informative blog is here.)

Was it me or could I sense these interviewees feeling bewildered? Why was Roberts being so wordy and confrontational? Why was he behaving as though he was the real subject of the interview? I scribbled down some typical Russ Roberts interjections from just a few minutes of one interview:

  • "Correct."
  • "I think you're right."
  • "You have some interesting things to say about that."
  • "Granted."
  • "That's where we part company."
  • "Good idea."
  • "That's a start."
  • "I have no problem with that."
  • "That point's not what bothers me."

Grudging ... Judging ... Differing ... Putting his own opinion at the center of the conversation ... Subjecting what's being said to critique ... What does Russ Roberts imagine himself to be doing in these conversations?

As far as I can tell, he's setting himself up as the skeptical doubter, and then daring his interviewee to convince him. The only ones who get a free pass are those who are as convinced in their free-marketism as Roberts himself is. This conversation with Mike Munger is a pleasure, for instance. Munger talks amusingly (and convincingly) about a classic Public Choice theme: the ways competition works differently in the private sphere than it does in the government sphere. Roberts, by the way, is the kind of total-commitment libertarian for whom "privatize it" and "more choice is better" hold true always and everywhere.

Another winner: Stanley Engerman on slavery. I've always been a little indignant about the way so many discussions of slavery fixate on slavery in the U.S. What's the more general history of slavery? How about slavery in the rest of the world? And throughout the rest of history? Engerman fills in some of these blanks, and Roberts shows him off quite effectively.

My favorite talk so far has been this one with behaviorist Richard Thaler. Most of Roberts' interviewees do their best to be generous and cooperative, and as a consequence wind up sitting back and watching Roberts gas on. Thaler takes a different tack. He fights back right from the outset, and he finally manages to turn the tables. He accuses Roberts of being "unrealistic," and -- since Roberts seems determined to play the prof-correcting-a-student role -- plays prof right back at him. Thaler doesn't let Roberts get away with his usual "your arguments aren't good enough to convince me" game, telling Roberts essentially to quit being so dogmatic and grow up.

If Roberts seems infuriating and obtuse, it's partly because it's impossible to know what he intends or how he wants the listener to take him. I love the amateurishness of podcasts, which I find a relief after the slickness and the pushiness of conventional radio. Still, professionalism has its advantages; listening to a professional broadcast, you usually know how you're meant to take what's on offer. With amateurs ... Well, there are moments when Roberts seems like a genial, pleasant guy. And he's nothing if not intelligent and diligent. But there are other moments when he seems like a creature out of a '50s sci-fi movie: self-centered, egocentric, and robotic.

Which makes me wonder, not for the first time, about academics and about academic economists. What's up with them? Why do they so often seem so unreponsive to the basics of what it is to be human? Steve Sailer has ventured the thought that economists may tend strongly in the Aspie direction. Roberts would seem to be a case that lends strong support to that hunch.

(Quick intro to Asperger's Syndrome: Aspies lack empathy, have a hard time reading emotions, adore systems, tend to the rigid, and lack a gut-level instinct for the give-and-take of normal human interaction. They're emotionally tone-deaf. Learn more here.)

But perhaps I'm being unfair. Perhaps the I-critique-you thing is all in good fun; perhaps it's just academic / intellectual debate as it's usually carried on. If so, I'm reminded of yet another reason why I skedaddled out of academia.

Still, and all this said: I've enjoyed these conversations. I'll be listening to more of them. Isn't that a sign that, well, they're good?

You can subscribe to Russ Roberts' interviews here, or via the iTunes store.

The BBC's Melvyn Bragg is a master interviewer. Here's a fab radio series that he's been doing recently. Booknotes' Brian Lamb was certainly one strange creature, but I learned a lot from reading transcripts of the interviews that he did with authors. Please help yourself to the interviews that I (and other Blowhards) have done for this blog.



posted by Michael at February 28, 2007


I wonder how Russ Roberts would react to fielding this question hit back at him during an interview: How come so many hard-core libertarian economists end up teaching at state universities? Especially George Mason-- a relic of the LBJ/Nixon/Great Society years. Is this market failure, or success?

Conversely, socialists like J K Galbraith are invited to the most private of the private schools. Seems like the fate of either tends to belie their own beliefs.

Another irony is the sight of "classical liberals" teaching at church institutions, when the original classic liberals opposed the church almost as strongly as they did the state.

(Sorry to sidestep the core issue of interviewing in this post!)

Posted by: Reg C├Žsar on March 1, 2007 1:42 AM

I hope it doesn't seem silly to just send a mash note, but great post Michael!

Posted by: yahmdallah on March 1, 2007 9:49 AM

How come so many hard-core libertarian economists end up teaching at state universities? 1.) Public Universities are still involved in the Market Process. 2.) Many public universities are almost entirely privatey funded. For instance, the University of Michigan gets 90% of its funds from private sources. 3.) Some private universities, like Harvard, rely heavily on grants from Public Entities like the NIH. So, these waters are pretty muddy. 4.) The guy wants to teach, he did not create the system, he is simply trying to play within it. And, if he can get a good view from the inside of the State-Funded Beast, all the better.

Conversely, socialists like J K Galbraith are invited to the most private of the private schools. Galbraith was a socialist who lived in a beautiful home in a beautiful (and expensive) neighborhood. I remember seeing it in an interview he gave. At the time, he could have lived in Cambridge, which is nothing like it is now. My father went to MIT in the '60s and knew it as a shit-hole. Very Proletariat. Maybe TOO Proletariat for Galbraith.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on March 1, 2007 10:38 AM

But why not give them their due too? As you said, they are often criticized for their politics. And if you believe, as I do, that their politics have a real, and bad, effect on America, then why give them their due. Let me put it this way, knowing that some Computer Programmer is working 80 hour weeks at an isolating job that few understand to program Real-Time Medical Equipment, only for that piece of equipment to FAIL, would you give him his due? I don't think so.

One more example might be MTV. I am sure that many people put in long hours at MTV to put on glitzy and entertaining programming...but, many people feel that MTV is having a real effect on young Americans (for at least a generation). And this effect is almost entirely bad. Should we give them their due.

I am sorry to pick on just one sentence in your posting, but it got to me. Otherwise, great piece. I mean that.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on March 1, 2007 11:04 AM

Oh Michael, if only you followed your so convincingly put case and give their due to hard-working architects, no matter in what style they work...I migh've believed this article.

Posted by: Tat on March 1, 2007 11:35 AM

Reg -- "Economists and Life's Many Ironies," now there's a great topic for a blog posting ...

Yahmdallah -- Many thanks!

Ian -- Thanks for reading and commenting. I probably should have been clearer. By no means do I think we should hold back from criticizing. It's just that (in the case of foreign correspondents, for instance) they do an often heroic job of going and getting information from the front. Let's face it, good solid thinkers aren't also people who are likely to be bailing out of helicopters into the mountains of Afghanistan to talk with rebel leaders. We need both the info from the front and the responsible evaluation of it. My hunch is that we'll seldom get both of those things from any one person. As for MTV, etc ... Happy to join in your conversation about how it drags culture in the mud, etc. I just wouldn't accuse the designers of being responsible for this. That'd be the producers, owners, bosses, etc. The designers are just visually-talented people who are doing what they can to make a living using their talents in today's world, such as it is. And the work they do is often amazingly competent and effective.

Tat -- Happy to agree! I have lots of admiration for talented people who turn in competent jobs. Where much architecture is concerned, I think I feel about it like Ian does about MTV -- flashy, competent stuff, too bad it's what it is. My criticism's for the honchos, the stars, the editors and critics, not for the talented people in the system.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 1, 2007 11:50 AM

Jeez Tat, your one sentence eclipsed my entire entry.

Slow down for the rest of us.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on March 1, 2007 11:52 AM

...they do an often heroic job of going and getting information from the front.

I still can't agree. Though, I understand what you are saying. They still chose to go into these dangerous situations with their PC-Religion intact. We have front-lines right here in America (i.e. Camden, Detroit, West Baltimore, Compton, etc.) and we so rarely get an honest report from these areas. Their PC-Religion prevents them from such.

So, in my opinion, this is not heroic at all. Information is only valuable if it is accurate. If these reporters only choose to do certian stories, or only do it from a certian perspective, or only ask certian questions...then what is the point?

Again, it is very difficult work to program Real-Time Medical Equipment, but if it fails while your Mother is in surgery, no one is going to call that Highly Intelligent, Hard-Working Programmer heroic.

Remember, thee people are not interested in reporting obvious observable facts, that is what people like Steve Sailer do. They are interested in telling stories. Their is a HUGE difference.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on March 1, 2007 12:30 PM

God bless people like Sailer, but he isn't parachuting into the mountains of Afghanistan or spending his life tracking down behind-the-scenes scandals. He depends, as we all do, on other people to collect and deliver the information that we then mull over and try to make sense of.

Let me suggest an image: the reporters are like our sensory apparatus, out there picking up and passing along a lot of stuff. People like you, me and Sailer are like the evaluating brain, sifting and sorting through this huge mass of sensory data. A lot of garbage comes in, but that's just part of what sensory apparatus does -- shovels along a lot of data, some of it garbage, some of it valuable. And in any conscious organism it isn't up to the sensory apparatus to make sense of what it's delivering anyway, it's up to the evaluating brain to do that.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 1, 2007 12:54 PM

A good interviewer draws the subject out. What you remember is not so much any brilliant comment that the interviewer made; rather the unveiling, in the interviewee's own words, of what makes the interviewee tic. This takes time. And strangely, a neutral stance on the part of the interviewer. The neutrality of the interviewer seems to force many interviewees to reveal themselves. It's something like the urge to drop pebbles into the smooth surface of a pond. Irresistable. There was an interviewer at C-Span who was a master of this technique. Brian something (can't think of his last name).

Posted by: ricpic on March 1, 2007 1:05 PM

I guess you are right. Sailer has often said that the New York Times is the best News Source in America as long as you know how to read between the lines.

I guess I was focused on the "Hard Work" aspect, instead of the "Uniqueness". That is, if they didn't do it, then nobody would.

Thanks for stickin' with me.

Posted by: Ian Lewis on March 1, 2007 1:18 PM

Interesting post. I'm glad to see that someone else finds Brian Lamb's style puzzling. It often seems to me that he hasn't even seen the book (or books) of the authors he interviews until
interview time, and he jumps from serious and substantive questions to trivial or bizarre ones at lightning speed and with no logic that I can

A friend of mine argues that he's doing an "interviewer as everyman" kind of schtick, but I wonder . . .

I do give the guy a lot of credit for CSpan itself, which is in my opinion the best thing that's happened to the TV lineup since Philo
Farnsworth's day, but some of those interviews
are just unwatchable.


Posted by: Narr on March 1, 2007 1:20 PM

"A good interviewer draws the subject out."

Both ricpic and MB share this assumption. But academics care about exploring ideas and arguing about truth. I may find RR a bit Aspergy myself, but I don't see why we have to accept the notion that interviewing is a "performance art."

Roberts provides a real service -- an open, but biased look at how good academic argumentation proceeds. It's like a job talk at Chicago. You get to make your case, but it ain't going to be easy, and they'll call you on everything they think is wrong without regard to genteel notions of propriety.

Compared to most of the MSM interviewers, RR is an intellectual revelation. Sorry MB, this is where I part company with your aesthetic biases. If anything, there's not enough of academia for the general public to see.

Posted by: walton on March 1, 2007 2:22 PM

Ricpic -- But then how does an ambitious interviewer become a star? Because stardom is what life is all about, baby ...

Ian -- Apologies if I was being pedantic myself! Anyway, it's interesting, isn't it, the whole "how do we take this?" question? Like you say, there's a lot of good and interesting info in every issue of the NYTimes, even if a lot of nonsense needs to be shaken out of it first ...

Narr -- I only ever tried to watch Lamb once or twice, and found it so awkward I couldn't go on. And some of that comes through in the transcripts too. Still, he talked to a lot of interesting people at considerable length ... Anyway, a very mixed bag but one I appreciated. I'm sorry he isn't still doing it.

Walton -- I think *most* interviewing is best done in the spirit Ricpic set out, but I agree with you that there are numerous different kinds of worthwhile interviewing. The clashing-academics thing ... Not for me, but I can certainly understand that some people might enjoy it.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 1, 2007 3:28 PM

Terry Gross on NPR is a consistently good interviewer.

Orianna Fallaci in the 1970s was the queen of the interview, practically seducing her Big Man subjects like Kissinger into spilling more than they could have ever intended just to try to impress this Italian vixen.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on March 2, 2007 1:52 AM

Check out Milt Rosenberg in Chicago on things cultural, recent authors, etc;

also, I kind of like Hugh Hewitt, yes, on the right side of things - he knows how to get to it without seeming overly ideological...

Posted by: Doug Anderson on March 5, 2007 9:50 PM

Errol Morris is a great interviewer. Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control is his only work that I know well, but it's one of my favorite movies.

The thing he does really well is getting his subjects to talk for long periods without interruption. Probably some of that is being a good interviewer and part is being an editor with a great ear. A really good interviewer lets you hear how the subject talks, not just the ideas.

Posted by: Zach on March 10, 2007 11:47 AM

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