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Home > Winter 2001

REVIEW: Interview

March 2001 Community College Journalist

Published: Tuesday, February 20, 2001

By Claudia Dreifus
Seven Stories Press, 1999
632 Broadway, 7th Floor,
New York, NY 10012
ISBN 1-888363-42-8 (alk. Paper)
$16.95 paperback

By Robert R. Mercer
Cypress College

The question and answer interview, the staple of television and Playboy Magazine, appears to have little respect among "serious journalists."

The Q&A is dismissed by some print journalism professors as "mere transcribing." One successful former newspaper editor and university professor explained she had never taught it. "I didn’t want them getting the idea that was good." She explained that, too often, it was a series of questions followed by answers, but without any follow-up questions.

This reviewer agreed with her until reading "Interview," Claudia Dreifus’ book containing 25 Q&A interviews. Subjects include: The Dalai Lama, Kareem Abul-Jabbar, Barney Frank, Cokie Roberts, Arthur Miller and Gloria Steinem.

Dreifus, a long-time New York Times Magazine and Playboy interviewer, and Clyde Haberman, New York Times city editor, would agree many abuse the Q&A format. Dreifus and Haberman, who wrote the foreword, argue Q&A can be taught and practiced as an effective format. In fact, the foreword and introduction are a complete lesson plan and readily adapts to a PowerPoint presentation.

Haberman acknowledges the abuse Q&A has taken from TV personalities "thinking they are at least as interesting as their subjects." The result of this "preening and pomposity" results in "questions that are either excessively combative or totally inane." Ringo Starr agreed with Dreifus that effective Q&A is similar to drumming. "You stay in the background and people think you haven’t done much."

She discusses the philosophy and psychology of interviewing. She writes the interviewer takes into a room not only the tape recorder, research file cards and a list of questions, but their curiosity. "How have you changed the world—how has the world changed you?"

Interviewing is an intimate business, she writes, requiring charisma and humaneness. She writes there is an "unspoken sexual element" to interviewing. "Like love making, interviewing requires attention, involvement, time—a willingness on the part of both the subject and the interviewer to go with the moment."

Of course, the follow-up question is the key to any effective interview.

Interviewing is a case of garbage in, garbage out. The interesting interview has an interesting subject who is open, literate and honest, she writes. If a one is not engaged by a subject, bail out of the assignment.

Dreifus pays homage to that great 20th Century interviewer, Studs Terkel, along with Oriana Fallaci, whose stories carry a hint of paparazzi. In both cases, these interviewers have radio and TV backgrounds. Using the tape recorder is natural for them. Dreifus gives detailed instructions for using a tape recorder, including buying the Radio Shack service warranty.

She quotes Gay Talese’s attack on the tape recorder as having "inspired laziness on the part of young journalists, and deafened them…. What is being lost, in my opinion, is the art of listening."

Dreifus disagrees, contending the tape recorder permits journalists to listen. "There are no taking-notes distractions, no pens to run out of ink." She adds, "I think this enhances listening."

Based upon this book, this reviewer introduced the tape record into the Journalism 101 curriculum. This includes demonstrating the proper method for using a lavaliere microphone in a sit-down interview and using a micro-cassette recorder to support a reporter’s notebook in a run-and-gun situation.

In two exercises, the students write from their interview notes then rewrite using the tape. In the end, they understand just how difficult an accurate quote is to record with pen and paper.

Ultimately, for staffers in the student media, it means having been able to repel two accusations of having misquoted an administration official.

Because this reviewer teaches in a convergence newsroom where all stories may be used by any medium, a quality tape recording is available for radio, TV or streaming on the web.

The bulk of "Interview," however, is the interviews Dreifus has produced over two decades. Dreifus’ interview with Cokie Roberts, Nina Totenberg and Linda Wertheimer displays the versatility of using a tape recorder, plus it is a great read for young journalists about the blatant discrimination in the newsrooms during those "good old days." It offers a personal history of National Public Radio.

The women, radio journalists intimate with tape, warn Dreifus her tape recorder will yield a jumble of voices. Instead, we hear, as we read, a conversation. The women will often follow each other up, eliminating the sometimes annoying pattern of question/answer, question/answer, question…. Can pen and pencil replicate with accuracy such repartee.

Of course, readers of Studs Terkel know that close editing can eliminate the questions and create the smooth monologue such as dominates his books, including "Working."

After reading this book, this reviewer, whose professional career focused on magazines, still prefers teaching salient feature or summary leads to beginners, leaving Q&A for advanced students. However, the book’s foreword and introduction alone make it worth the price for instructors rewriting curriculum for a convergence world. Plus, there are 25 very interesting interviews.

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