Writing Workshop Lesson 10: Fat Questions
To get to the meat in an interview, you have to ask fat questions. That requires some prep time beforehand and it also takes some moxie and good sense of timing. You don't want to jump in with the prickliest query right away. You work up to it, sometimes gently, sometimes forcefully. But you never, ever leave without asking what you're there to ask.
When I ask students for names of great interviewers, I get the list of the usual suspects: Oprah, Larry King, Barbara Walters. They're wrong, of course. Those are three of the worst interviewers in the biz.
Oprah seems too interested these days in what she has to say, not in what her subjects are saying. And she is so syrupy and obsequious with other celebrities that she practically apologizes for asking them anything (examples are her recent empty exchanges of air kisses with Jennifer Aniston, Tom Cruise and Maria Shriver).
Larry King? Mister "I never prepare"? He doesn't read the books or see the movies and he's proud of doing it cold every night. Often, like old Joe Franklin of local Manhattan TV in the 1960s and '70s, King jumps wildly from topic to topic, seemingly unaware of who's sitting across from him in that Lite-Brite studio. (A writer-friend was on his show a few years ago and reports that King has terrible breath and a rather audible flatulence problem. Poor old bird.)
And Baba? Dear Baba. Her movie star interviews are such heavily scripted affairs, orchestrated by powerful flaks who pre-screen every word that will be uttered, that when someone in the interview chair dares to offer an honest or surprisingly candid answer, Babs looks like a bunny in headlights. If you want to see a daily orgy of "we won't go there" interview techniques, watch Baba and the other gals on The View.
Among my choices for mainstream media interviewers to study: Charlie Rose (the PBS guy at the big round table), Howard Stern (love him/hate him, he asks questions nobody else would dare to), Mike Wallace and everyone else on 60 Minutes except Lesley Stahl (lose the shiny wig!).
Linda Ellerbee tells a great story about being part of First Lady Betty Ford's press contingent in the '70s. FLOTUS appeared one day with an announcement about some drug-prevention initiative. Polite questions were asked and answered. Then, with Mrs. Ford ready to step down from the mike, Ellerbee took a shot and asked, "Has anyone in your family ever smoked pot?" (Or something close to that...I can't locate the exact question.) With the White House flak shooting a "don't answer that" look at the First Lady, she stepped right up and said, "Yes," and then elaborated with a candid story about her then teen-age kids and their experiments with substances. It made big headlines the next day and went a long way toward humanizing both the First Family and the First Lady's interest in drug prevention. She would later found the Betty Ford Center, where Ellerbee overcame her own problems with alcohol (as Ellerbee has written in her autobiography). It was a fat question that Ellerbee asked that day. Maybe not polite. But there was nothing wrong with asking it in that press conference and it was certainly brave of the First Lady to answer it honestly.
Can you imagine anyone in the WH press corps these days daring to ask about the Bush kids' problems with substances? They'd be marched to the Rose Garden and shot at dawn.
Check out this piece from the Poynter Institute about asking questions of the president.
Now, here's a short assignment: If you could question any of today's major newsmakers--the prez or anyone else considered a world leader; a famous author or athlete; a rock or movie star; a billionaire such as Bill Gates or even Oprah; or anyone else whose name we'd recognize--what "fat questions" would you want to ask? Post your questions in comments here.
I love reading your posts. I've never had more creative students!