What's a good interview? Answer is in the questions

ROGER SIMON

February 14, 1993|By ROGER SIMON

Since it is now clear that Bill Clinton is going to spend more time taking questions from you than taking questions from me, I thought I would share some interviewing tips with you.

What's that? Why do you need tips from me?

Hey, good question. See? You're learning already.

But I have picked up a few journalistic tricks over the years that you might be able to use.

For one thing, if you zip in your snotty questions early, like you just did to me, the subject of your interview may get defensive and clam up.

So next time Bill Clinton comes to your town (or your McDonald's or your house) you may want to put him at ease with a few softball questions first:

GOOD EXAMPLE:

Q: How are you and Hillary and Chelsea getting along in the White House?

BAD EXAMPLE:

Q: So, have you heard from Gennifer Flowers since the inauguration?

If you want an excellent example of the way not to conduct an interview, go back and watch Oprah's interview with Michael Jackson last week.

Yes, it was compelling TV. And, yes, Oprah Winfrey is a professional interviewer. But she was terrible with Michael Jackson.

Why? Because she broke the first rule of interviewing.

FIRST RULE OF INTERVIEWING: Don't be awed by the awesome.

If you are star-struck and nervous, as Oprah was, you will end up breaking the second rule of interviewing.

SECOND RULE OF INTERVIEWING: Listen to the answers, dummy!

Here is a good example: Oprah is nervously running down her list of printed questions and she asks Michael Jackson if he really tried to buy the bones of the Elephant Man.

No, Jackson says, though the Elephant Man does "remind me of me."

He does? The Elephant Man was grotesquely deformed. Michael Jackson is not grotesquely deformed. (Although he obviously has a fixation with his looks.) So why does the Elephant Man remind Michael Jackson of himself?

And had you been doing the interview, you would have said: "Whoa, Michael, do you see yourself as some kind of sideshow freak or what?"

And you would have asked that question because you were listening to the answers.

Which gets us to the third rule of interviewing.

THIRD RULE OF INTERVIEWING: The follow-up question is the key to the good interview.

That's because with a follow-up you are interacting with the interview subject. You ask a question, he answers, you react with a follow-up question, he reacts with follow-up answer, and pretty soon you have something that resembles a normal conversation.

If you want to write out your questions in advance, that's fine. But always listen to the answers and be ready to ask a pertinent follow-up.

GOOD EXAMPLE:

Clinton: "For three years I managed a Little Rock bar that featured exotic dancers, and then I decided to run for governor."

You: "You managed exotic dancers? Did you pay them Social Security?"

BAD EXAMPLE:

Clinton: "For three years I managed a Little Rock bar that featured exotic dancers and then I decided to run for governor."

You: "What's your favorite color?"

The fourth rule of good interviewing is one that Oprah also botched.

FOURTH RULE OF INTERVIEWING: The only dumb question is the one you don't ask.

What do you really want to know about Michael Jackson?

You want to know if he is gay.

Oh, I know you hate yourself for wanting to know and it's entirely his business and not yours. But you want to know, anyway.

Did Oprah ask him? No. She chickened out. She asked him if he was a virgin.

Hey, Oprah, listen up: We don't care if he had sex. We want to know what kind.

A few days later, I watched Bill O'Reilly, the host of "Inside Edition," interview La Toya Jackson.

"Is Michael gay?" he asked her.

"No," she said. "Would it matter?"

"Not to me," he said. "I'm just trying to get information out."

OK, so Bill O'Reilly is a tasteless sleazeball who asks questions that are none of his business.

But what did you think journalism was all about?

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