News interviews: The good, the bad and the tactless
by BRIAN GRAVES Banner Staff Writer
Jun 04, 2014 | 693 views | 0 0 comments | 24 24 recommendations | email to a friend | print
I always look forward to my time with the Rotary Club of Cleveland.

(Quickly allow me to mention the affection I still hold for the good members of the Bradley Sunrise Rotary, with whom I got to spend several months.)

First of all, the Rotarians are all just plain good folks.

Friends, ready with a quick smile and handshake, and always there with a positive attitude about making the world a better place.

I can’t think of a Rotary meeting I have attended anywhere that did not add to my knowledge of the world around me.

Then, as I guess was bound to happen sooner or later, the presentation got perilously close to my own world.

When I read the Rotary website to see what the presentation would be for a recent meeting, the subject knocked me out of my chair.

“Dos and Dont’s of Speaking to the Press” was the topic at hand.

I am not a naive person. I totally understand there are people and businesses making quite a good living by teaching those who may have to, on occasion, face reporters like me about how to handle that situation.

Without a doubt, there are some rough-and-tumble journalists out there who go into a session with a “take-no-prisoners” attitude.

(The thought of Barbara Walters making people cry comes to mind, for some strange reason.)

Before the Rotary presentation began, the presenter asked if anyone in the room worked for the media.

My hand went up. It was the only one that went up. And there were mild, knowing chuckles from my good acquaintances in the room.

“Tell me if I say anything wrong,” the speaker requested.

I then began to hear a lesson in how to make my life semimiserable when I try to do my job.

To be fair, I appreciated that he told his audience to be honest, and not evasive.

But, when he used the phrase “control the interview,” I sort of shuttered.

The interviewer is the one who should be in control, acting like a moderator and being sure the same path is being followed by both interviewer and interviewee.

But, there are several different ways to interview people.

There is the “knock-the-door” down style of Mike Wallace on “60 Minutes” which is entertaining TV for sure, but it’s not really my style.

My preference is not to sit with a list of 40 questions and keep pummeling away as if I was working on a punching bag.

I like to record my interviews and make sure the subject knows I am doing so. It’s sort of my protection — I have exactly what was said, and in the proper context.

Another positive about taping the interview is it allows me not to just question the subject, but to have a conversation and not keep looking down for notes.

It makes for an eye-to-eye meeting without any distractions, and allows the talk to flow where it will, within the confines of the subject at hand.

Sometimes, I find I even say things that should be as “off the record” as some of the things the subject may request be put in that category.

But, having a conversation allows for a fuller picture of the issue to develop and widens the answer probabilities that might come from just question after question.

I have had to talk to people about things they just did not want to talk about, and those conversations can be very short and very tense.

I think that’s the most uncomfortable part of what I do, although it’s a necessary one.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when I see a reporter standing in front of a house fire, car crash or some other tragedy and they ask the subject, “How are you doing?” or “How are you feeling?”

I always wonder what in the world anyone expects the answer to be.

“Well, Bob. We just lost our house, my wife is seriously injured, can’t find the kids, I’m unemployed, don’t know how we’ll make it. Life just couldn’t be better! Will this be on TV tonight?”

Yeah. Right.

I’d probably give the reporter a few physically impossible suggestions he or she might do with their free time.

Thrusting a microphone or notepad in front of a grieving face just irritates the fire out of me. I can only imagine what I would do if I were in that position.

There is one exception to that rule, but I think a necessary one.

I do have this big, wide patriotic streak in me and I have covered a few military funerals — all were casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan.

If there was ever a subject I felt strongly about publicizing, it is the lives of those who sacrificed for our country.

Theirs are stories that must be, not should be, told and remembered.

However, I always make sure I find an appropriate way to send a request to the family and do the interview at a time and place where they are comfortable.

I have rarely been as mad as when I went to a presentation of the scaled-down, mobile Vietnam Memorial Wall that was being toured around the country a few years ago.

On this occasion, it was displayed at Fort Knox, Ky., and it could not have been a more moving ceremony.

After the speeches and music were concluded, people were allowed to go up and view the wall up close.

I noticed an older couple, on their knees, and they were doing what millions do at the Wall in Washington, D.C.

They had a piece of paper and were making an etching of a name which was inscribed.

I watched them hold hands and lean on each other for a moment.

Then, like a bull in a china shop, one of my “colleagues” barged into that extremely personal moment and started a barrage of questions.

I didn’t interrupt, like my profession says I should have. But, I did not hold back when I told the reporter in question just how sorry I found his actions to be, and I considered it totally unprofessional.

I can’t write about the subject of interviews without thanking the indomitable Nancy Casson, who interviewed me on her local television program some months ago and said something that made me feel very good.

Nancy has become one of my favorite people and she made the moments on air very comfortable.

During her introduction, she told her viewers, “If Brian asks to talk to you, don’t be scared.”

Well, I don’t think it’s my style that would scare anyone.

But, I am reminded of my favorite philosophy of journalism as intoned by the legendary Hugh Downs: “There is no such thing as an embarrassing question. There are only embarrassing answers.”