Tuesday, October 25, 2005

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!


Blogger Tyler said...

I'd probably ask Bush what his justification for the war is now that his original reason was shot down and does he believe in the the great Truman phrase "The Buck Stops Here" and does he accept personal responsibility for the deaths of not only the American soldiers but also the Iraqi citizens.

4:49 PM  
Anonymous Hillary said...

To President Bush -
"Mr President, can the man behind the curtain come out and answer these questions for you?"

5:44 PM  
Anonymous John said...

Sounds like the Prez needs to call a press conference.

I'd ask him: What were your thoughts when you first heard that the American death toll in Iraq reached 2,000 today?

5:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd ask Pope Benedict, who wants to ban homosexuals from the clergy, "Have you had any past experience with gay priests that has led you to call them "intrinsically disabled"? What makes you think so?

And what are your thoughts on how banning them altogether would affect the other problem of how few young seminarians there are?"

6:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In that last post, it should be "intrinsically disordered."

6:23 PM  
Blogger beche-la-mer said...

If we are talking about interviewers who can ask fat questions, I would nominate Australia's Andrew Denton. (http://www.abc.net.au/tv/enoughrope/)
He even made headlines in the US last year (or the year before?) when he actually got Lisa-Marie Presley to talk about her family and the price of fame.

As to interview questions, I'd like to ask the future king of Australia (Prince Charles) exactly why he considers that his birth gives him a right to be our head of state.

8:13 PM  
Anonymous Max said...

Second article of the Australian Constitution:

2. The provisions of this Act referring to the Queen shall extend to Her Majesty's heirs and successors in the sovereignty of the United Kingdom.

8:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To Bill Clinton:

Did Monica swallow?

9:05 PM  
Blogger Red River said...

To date, the prez has met with most of the families of soldiers who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as those who have been maimed.

And I have heard they have asked a lot of questions, some he could not answer.

9:06 PM  
Anonymous Matt said...

The President has been used a lot and as much as I don't want to use him, I just gotta.

"Georgie, didn't your mother ever tell you money doesn't grow on trees?"

If not Bush, then I'd like to ask Mtv, "What does the M stand for again?"

11:05 PM  
Blogger Rand said...

After warming up to it as you've described, I'd ask Ben Bernanke, Bush's nomination to succeed Alan Greenspan the following question. "We have historically low savings rates, high federal deficits and massive debt, a War on Terror, Natural Disasters, high energy prices, and froth in the real estate market. Some are even now saying our economy is driven by creditor nations like China buying our debt. Will our economy continue to be sustainable and what are you going to do to make that happen?"

11:44 PM  
Blogger Cold Potato said...

Dear President Bush, can you please elaborate on how you claim to be pro-education yet be pro-religion at the cost of education? Can you please explain why you have bypassed the set checks and balances of established government (meant to make sure that no one branch of government can become too powerful) on multiple occasions, including the Terri Schaivo incident and the Patriot Act.

1:28 AM  
Blogger beche-la-mer said...

max said:

"Second article of the Australian Constitution:

2. The provisions of this Act referring to the Queen shall extend to Her Majesty's heirs and successors in the sovereignty of the United Kingdom."

Yeah, that's why he can, but I want to know why he thinks that is right and fair and should not be changed.

1:41 AM  
Anonymous High Guy said...

Since Georgie Boy seems to be the flavor, here is my choice

So in those Conversations with God, how high were u?

2:28 AM  
Blogger hannah said...

I think I'd like to ask Tony Blair something along the lines of:

"So given that you are ostensibly the leader of the Labour party and thus, assumedly, committed to providing equality in all things for all people, and expanding the state system in order that no one is left uncared for, could you please explain your ideas to change the state school system so radically that it resembles the elitist private system, and why you are restricting freedom so heavily under the Prevention of Terrorism Act?"

7:50 AM  
Anonymous Ang said...

George Bush: Many Americans are now ashamed of their country--they blame you--who do you blame?

America has had a few rather crappy presidents, though few seem to have ilicited the hateful reactions you have--how does it feel to have more than half the country hate you?

8:01 AM  
Blogger Truly said...

I have to take issue with the inclusion of Charlie Rose--unless never letting your subject get a word in edgewise counts as "interviewing". What a pompous bore! I can never sit through a complete show, even when he has on people I find interesting. We never get to hear what THEY have to say.

8:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, truly, you should try watching a few more Charlie Rose shows sometime. I adore his interviews! He is just never interested in "surface" questions, so he takes a little set-up time.

11:12 AM  
Anonymous Alex Bensky said...

Lucy Lawless:

"Listen, any chance you'd go out with me?"

1:56 PM  
Anonymous Dr. Bear said...

To Jerry Lewis, Bono, Pat Robertson, or anyone else asking me to donate money to a cause (worthy or otherwise):

What percentage of your salary did you contribute to this cause in the last year? Would you be willing to disclose your tax return to verify that?

3:30 PM  
Blogger Kevin said...

To GW Bush: You have stated that your invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq were due to the will of God. Does God intend you to have a third term, and if not, do you consider any of His goals achievable by the end of your term in office? If not, do you plan to admit failing God's Will?

Do you consider your daughters to be responsible citizens, Mister President?

- The Unshaven.

3:41 PM  
Blogger Kevin said...

If anyone's looking for some superb examples of Fat Questions, interesting journalism and a political situation with strikingly terrifying parallels to now, I recommend reading Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis. It's about a mad journalist called Spider Jerusalem in an unspecified future, and slowly grows into a terrifying grudge-match between the psychotic Man of Truth and a President who came into office purely to screw with humanity. - The Unshaven.

3:46 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

I'd ask Nicole Kidman if Tom is gay.
(Yes, I'm shallow!)

7:00 PM  
Anonymous Andey said...

I'd ask Tom if Nicole is...
(I'm bored and tired)

8:23 PM  
Anonymous Bryan said...

I would ask Harriet Myers to explain the notion of implied power under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution.

9:07 PM  
Blogger SuperHolmie said...

I'd add Bob Costas to the list of great interviewers.

Also, I guess I am strange because I don't want to know anything political or serious from anyone famous. People get asked that kind of stuff all the time... and the interviewers get the same canned answers. So:

Bush- I'd like to know why he insists on mispronouncing nuclear. I'd like to know how he writes his speeches. Does he ever use a pen. What kind of pen. Does he ever go shopping. What does he buy his kids for their birthdays. Does he prefer a certain scent of soap. Does he ever send jokes via email. What kind of ringtone does his cellphone have. What really pisses him off. Are his sheets monogrammed with the White House seal. Does he use Post-Its.

Oprah- At what point did she feel herself shift from compassionate woman to egotistical bitch. What's with the diamond ring on her pinky that best friend Gayle also wears. Why does she have so many dogs. Why do celebrities always have dogs. Does she take any kind of prescription medication. Why won't she get married to Stedman already. Is her skin pockmarked with cellulite under the expensive clothes she wears. Does she have her own exclusive bathroom at Harpo that no one else is allowed to use. Does she ever say fuck or cocksucker or any other really inappropriate word. How does she fire people. How does she HIRE people, for that matter.

I'd also like to interview David Sedaris or David Rakoff, but I've already written too much here. Got to grade papers.

9:10 PM  
Blogger G. Brooke said...

Mr. President, you have said that "Intelligent Design" ought to be taught, alongside of evolution, in science classes. My question is this:

Would you please describe "Intelligent Design" as you understand it?

9:58 PM  
Blogger Gene said...

Principal curbs kids' Internet activity in New Jersey. I saw no mention of a similar request of the teachers.

10:10 PM  
Anonymous Celeste said...

I loved when Jay Leno asked Hugh Grant, "What were you thinking?" after he got arrested for prostitution.

I'd love to ask Laura Bush what she thinks of her mother-in-law.

I'd like to ask Dave Chappelle if he is okay.

Mostly I want to sit down with the Pharmacists for Life and ask them SINCE WHEN is it any business of theirs what a doctor prescribes to a patient.

8:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd ask Tom DeLay why he's such a son-of-a-bitch. Maybe he'd finally take that unbreakable, defiant smirk off his face.

10:52 AM  
Blogger Charlie Gordon said...

I would ask those who oppose any intervention in Iraq if they would be willing to meet with the tens of thousands of individuals who would have been imprisoned and/or murdered in Iraq during the past 2 years and explain to them why America should have stayed out of their country and allowed them to die rather than give them a shot at liberty and self rule.

11:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd like to add Terry Gross of Fresh Air (NPR) as an excellent interviewer.

1:02 PM  
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