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How to Interview Like Tim Russert

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by Michelle Hiskey, Jun 16, 2008.

  1. This is from a Poynter column....

    Tim Russert, "Meet the Press" moderator and NBC Washington bureau chief, was plugged in to Washington, D.C. But it was his interviewing style and his detailed knowledge and preparation that made him a standard for political journalism.

    Great journalists ask short questions. They are open-ended questions that cannot be answered with a yes or no. They provoke thoughts, opinions, feelings, explanations and emotions from the interviewee.

    Too many pundits ask long, complex, multi-pronged questions to show how smart and connected they are. Not Russert. His questions were short and direct.

    Let's take one of his interviews http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24445166and examine how he asked questions of Sen. Barack Obama on May 4, 2008. It was a vitally important interview for Obama, who was staring the Rev. Jeremiah Wright mess in the face. The first question Russert asked was short, to-the-point and open-ended:

    MR. RUSSERT: On Friday you said, "It's been a rough couple of weeks." An understatement. What has the controversy over Reverend Jeremiah Wright done to your campaign?

    The follow-up question was direct -- a yes or no closed-ended question followed by a second open-ended question. The purpose was to establish a fact and then use that fact to get a more in-depth answer.

    MR. RUSSERT: You're still a member of the church?
    SEN. OBAMA: I am.
    MR. RUSSERT: Why do you think he re-emerged?

    Russert often confronted his guests with comments from the past by showing videotapes of their previous statements. He would then hone in and hammer the subject with a question like this one:

    MR. RUSSERT: What happened in those five weeks? Because you already knew, prior to the March speech, that he had suggested the U.S. government created the AIDS virus; you knew he went to Libya with Louis Farrakhan; you knew about his hate speech on September 11th, about the chickens coming home to roost and other things. What did you learn in those five weeks that you didn't know in March?

    And read this exchange, which speaks to what may have been on the minds of many who watched the Rev. Wright saga unfold. Pay attention to the set-up and then the tee off:

    MR. RUSSERT: When you announced your candidacy back in February of '07 in Springfield ...
    SEN. OBAMA: Mm-hmm.
    MR. RUSSERT: ... the same place Abraham Lincoln announced his candidacy -- and we're showing it there on the screen -- Reverend Wright was going to give the invocation, he was disinvited. He told The New York Times that you said to him, "You get kind of rough in the sermons, so we decided it's best for you not to be out there in public." And you cited a 'Rolling Stone' interview ...
    SEN. OBAMA: Right.
    MR. RUSSERT: ... where he said that one of the essential facts about the U.S. is, "We believe in white supremacy and black inferiority and believe it more than we believe in God." Now, that is so contrary to a speech I heard you gave yesterday about one nation, one people.
    SEN. OBAMA: Right.
    MR. RUSSERT: So you knew in '07 ...
    SEN. OBAMA: Right.
    MR. RUSSERT: ... "This guy's a problem. I have to keep him out of the spotlight involving my campaign."
    SEN. OBAMA: Right. Sure.
    MR. RUSSERT: Why didn't you just say then, "You know, Reverend, we're going on different paths because this country does not believe in white supremacy and black inferiority."

    I suspect a lot will be written about Russert's savvy, his work ethic and his connections in political circles. As a journalist, I will miss Tim Russert's dedication to asking great questions that generate light and not just heat.
  2. friend of the friendless

    friend of the friendless Active Member

    Ms Hiskey

    What do you think John Sawatsky would make of TR's MTP interview technique?

    I suspect that he'd like some of it, other stuff less so. I think it was a perfect fit for the format -- and getting quotes to build a newspaper story or feature is different than live TV.

    YD&OHS, etc
  3. It would be great to have John answer that.
    I think Russert did a great job with focused statements and direct questions. He avoided the run-on question. And the non-question. See Larry King.

    Russert had little leeway for error on live TV. The print interviewer has a much easier task -- agree?
  4. friend of the friendless

    friend of the friendless Active Member

    Ms Hiskey,

    "The print interviewer has a much easier task -- agree?"

    Closed question.

    How is the print interviewer's task easier?

    The difference, I suppose, is dead air works better in print than on-air. Re-asks, second tries, scatter-gun Qs, editing out lame As, all provide a safety net.

    YD&OHS, etc
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