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Conditional interviews in "fluff" stories

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by MU_was_not_so_hard, Oct 5, 2010.

  1. MU_was_not_so_hard

    MU_was_not_so_hard Active Member

    I'm not sure if this is me doing anything else but venting, so ignoring this thread won't offend me...

    Essentially, here's the gist: I was assigned a story from one of the papers I do a ton of work for on a comedian coming to town to play a local comedy club. Essentially, his agency makes it clear to me that they'll grant the interview on the condition that I a.) only get 10 minutes with the subject; and b.) I don't ask any questions about his personal life.

    The first is understandable, even though it's a phoner that was set up weeks in advance. So be it.

    The second, though, got under my skin a bit. No, I wasn't going to hammer the guy about his recent high-profile break-up, but at the same time, why does a 50k circ paper on the opposite side of the country really care about this sort of thing anyway?

    Whatever. I agree to the conditions, because, well, the story isn't Watergate and I'm not sure it's going to make much of a difference. Today, though, when the agency calls me, a couple things really piss me off. First, when his handler calls me at the predetermined time, immediately after I say hello (and before she says more than "Hi"), she "reminds" me of the conditions of the interview. Ok, that's annoying. I'm not a child, and the person on the other end of the phone sounds like she's reading these prompts off a card.

    Next, she makes it clear to me that she's going to be on the line the whole time to make sure I don't violate one of the conditions.

    Consider me peeved. I guess in my old days, I would have simply told the comedian thanks for calling, but I don't play games, etc., etc. Instead, I took a different direction. After a couple feeler questions, I go ahead and make it clear to him that while I respect his conditions for the interview, I'm curious as to why they are like that? Did he have a bad experience blending his professional and personal life? Did he slip up and say something that could get him sued?

    Here's the kicker: He uses his personal life almost exclusively as the source of his stand-up bits. So basically, he can say some horrible shit on stage about people in his life, but he won't say anything of substance to a reporter?

    He kind of laughed a bit -- not sure if it was directed at me or at the policy he/his agency set up -- and politely answered that he didn't want to get himself in trouble. I could tell he wanted to move on, and since I wasn't sure if this was his idea or someone else's, I moved on.

    Not sure what any of you cats think about this, but either way, thanks for letting me bitch.
  2. Shaggy

    Shaggy Guest

    It's funny--whenever conditions are put on the table from any over-the-top handlers, it just makes you want to break those conditions even more. That's the journalists in us.

    I was interviewing a pretty successful track and field athlete. Her husband was her handler, and he was WAY overprotective of her. She had never been implicated in any steroid controversy, but one of the "conditions" was that I was to not ask any question about performance enhancing drugs in the sport, to focus only on the upcoming event and her individual training. (I think this was in the midst of the BALCO shitstorm)

    I had to call the husband's cell phone, and she did the interview on speaker while, I'm sure, her husband was listening. Maybe he was just a raging jealous guy, I don't know. I do sound pretty manly over the phone.
  3. ringer

    ringer Member

    IMO, the only people who make rules like that are people with something to hide.

    And I agree: the control freaks are annoying. Is their client so stupid that he/she can't just reply "no comment?"
  4. reformedhack

    reformedhack Active Member

    Speaking as someone who has worked both sides of the street:

    It happens all the time, and increasingly more frequently as people rely less on traditional outlets to convey their message and more on their own ability to shape their image. It's only going to get worse over time, my friends.

    That said, you can't worry about this specific situation too much ... it's just the handler doing his/her job as instructed by the interviewee or, more likely, by the agency that manages the interviewee. It doesn't mean you have to honor the request ... you just have to be smart about how you circumvent it.

    Your approach -- asking about the conditions, considering how he makes his living -- was the smartest way to get it done. The other way is to get the softball questions out of the way, so you at least have enough material in your notebook, then dive into the hard stuff, handler be damned. The downside is that the handler surely will work with other celebrities in the future, and he/she surely will remember and freeze you or your publication out. You can't worry much about that, either, but you should keep it in the back of your mind.

    As you rightly noted, it's not Watergate. A feature on a comedian isn't worth torching bridges over. Either way, you owe it to your readers to mention in print that the subject set terms on the interview, lest you look out of touch for not addressing the subject.

    Shaggy is right, by the way: Setting conditions is the surest way to make sure questions are asked. Which is why, when I did P.R. once upon a time, I never set conditions. Honey vs. vinegar is always the best approach when you're in that position.
  5. albert77

    albert77 Well-Known Member

    I once landed an interview with Gregg Allman that was like that. This was back around 1988-89, when his career was at its lowest ebb and he was doing some kind of blues benefit show with B.B King in a small town nearby. The features editor at the time knew I was into the Brothers and offered me the story and I jumped on it.

    OK, at the appointed time I call the PR flack's number in New York and the first words out of his mouth are, "no questions about Duane and no questions about Cher." Actually, that was fine with me, because I figured that shit was old news anyhow, and I was more interested in what he was doing at that particular time.

    Turned out to be a really cool interview. Gregg was very talkative, and went on about how he was looking forward to playing with B.B., and how he was getting the Brothers back together, with Warren Haynes (whom I'd never heard of at that point) in a lead guitar spot. At the time, they'd already laid down some tracks in Florida for what would be their comeback album, at the same studio where they recorded Idlewild South. He laughed when I mentioned that I still have an original mint-condition copy of that record, on the Atco label. All in all, a very memorable interview.
  6. Ace

    Ace Well-Known Member

    I don't mind the "conditions" if they are basically a warning that So-and-So will end the interview if you bring them up. That's fair.

    So if you ask Mr. Comedian about his breakup or Gregg Allman about Cher and they go 'click' you were warned.

    I hate the hovering or the babysitting.

    If I say something stupid and the subject wants to end the interview, that's always his right.
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