Delicate Art of the Interview: Civility vs. Tenacity

As Election Day draws ever closer, the volume and intensity of our listeners' e-mail and phone calls here at NPR have escalated.

At the ombudsman's office, we've been deluged with communications accusing NPR of bashing the Bush administration – whether it's the president, vice president Dick Cheney, or political strategist Karl Rove.

Meanwhile, an equally ardent battalion of listeners has been assailing NPR every day for its liberal bias and its uncritical reporting on the Democratic party's candidates in this fall's campaign.

Added to those two polarized posses are the many correspondents who denounce our show hosts for being either too deferential in their interviews with politicians or being far too tough, in effect, violating the traditions of NPR-style civilized discourse.

Dissecting an NPR interview

One NPR host, whose interviewing style has been a frequent target of these e-mails, is Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep. At age 38, Inskeep has already worked at NPR for a decade, covering politics, transportation, and the Pentagon, among other subjects. As a host, he's omnipresent – not only conducting interviews with guests and NPR reporters but also traveling around the world from Iraq to Africa to New Orleans to produce original pieces.

As to the critics, here's what an Iowa listener, wrote:

"I would like to comment on Steve Inskeep's interview with Sen. Rick Santorum this morning. I am an independent and really have little knowledge of the race in Pennsylvania. I was astounded at Mr. Inskeep's interview technique, specifically the blatant sarcasm with which he spoke on several occasions. He could have used a more professional tone and probably received more information from Sen. Santorum. Yes, I agree interviewers should follow up on questions, however not with such sarcastic comments. In my opinion, this interview could be held as an example of the biased journalism that some accuse NPR of producing. Please keep personal bias out of reporting. You are giving critics fuel for the fire."

So, this week, I decided to dissect the interview with the benefit of the written script and 20-20 hindsight. I invited Inskeep to join me, and the two of us listened together to his 7 minute and 46 second interview with Santorum, who — according to polls — was trailing in his bid for re-election to the U. S. Senate from Pennsylvania. It was a little after 8 a.m., and Inskeep had already been on the job for more than five hours.

Most of that interview, which aired Oct. 25, focused on Santorum's views of what he calls the "evil of Islamic fascism" and his belief that Iran has been fomenting much of the violence in Iraq.

Given the proximity of the election and the importance of Iraq as a campaign issue, Inskeep told me he was trying to delineate Santorum's relationship to President Bush — showing "how closely he mirrors the president and how much he's distancing himself."

Tenacity or Incivility?

As we listened, there were two junctures when Inskeep and Santorum seemed to get into a rhetorical debate. The first instance came after Santorum said that there might have to be a "different government structure in Iraq" and called it a "partition."

Inskeep: "You're willing to talk about a breakup of Iraq now?"
Sen. Santorum: "I'm not willing to talk about the breakup of Iraq. I think what we're talking about …"
Inskeep: "Didn't you say ‘partition,' just a minute ago?"
Sen. Santorum: "Yes. Partition means different things to different people. I don't think anyone is talking about a breakup of Iraq into different countries. I think what we're talking about is a much looser confederation than what we originally envisioned."

After that exchange, Santorum twice asks Inskeep: "Is that a shock to you?" And Inskeep asks him — without eliciting an answer — whether Santorum has only recently come to that conclusion about partitioning Iraq.

Later, the two quibble over whether Santorum has said that sectarian violence in Iraq is on the rise and that the U. S. needs to revise its strategy based on the escalation.

As Inskeep and I replayed the interview in the quietude of my office, I listened very carefully for signs of sarcasm or intimations of skepticism. What I heard was Inskeep working hard to keep Santorum focused on the central issues of the discussion — his position on Iraq relative to the Bush administration at a critical juncture in the campaign and whether political expediency was a factor in Santorum's views on the war.

Inskeep said he appreciated Santorum's aggressive interviewing style. "He's combative but not evasive," Inskeep said. "He engages your questions head-on. I appreciate that."

The Santorum staff, on the other hand, felt more like the NPR listener from Iowa. Santorum's press secretary, Virginia Davis, wrote in an e-mail that she had consulted with the Senator's staff and "the overwhelming feeling was that we were disappointed with the clear bias of the host."

But Congressman Rahm Emanuel, the Democrat from Illinois, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, offered another perspective. Inskeep interviewed him on Oct. 17, and their talk was another target of listeners' complaints. Sara Feinberg, the Committee spokeswoman, said Emanuel "felt very good about the interview. He appreciates Steve's interviewing tactics. He's a tough interviewer."

How an NPR Host Rates His Interview

As I assess the Santorum interview, Inskeep did his best to keep the Senator focused on the questions. At several junctures, Inskeep tried to rephrase Santorum's answers to make sure that he understood and that he could communicate that to Morning Edition's listeners.

The art of conducting a broadcast interview in contrast to an interview for a newspaper is as different as acting on Broadway – where every miscue is obvious to the audience — versus acting in a movie, where each scene can be reshot to perfection. In the time allotted to a radio interview, the interaction between host and interviewee is on display for the listeners.

A newspaper reader, on the other hand, rarely gets a candid glimpse of a print reporter's tone and style. Thus, an emotionally charged interview – confined to the printed page — may lose its electricity without the voices of the participants.

At NPR, where civilized discourse is one of the network's cherished goals, it's not always possible to strike a perfect balance between the often competing goals of civility and the pursuit of responsive answers to pertinent questions.

After hearing the Santorum interview, I asked Inskeep how he would rate it on a scale of 1 to 10 — 1 signifying an easygoing, uncontroversial interview, and 10 representing the most tense, pugnacious exchange. He wavered — at first, rating it a 4 and, then, after further discussion, elevating it to somewhere between a 5 and 6.

From my review of the tape and the transcript, I detected no sarcasm or bias — only a single-minded effort to elicit answers to important questions about the conduct of the war in Iraq and Santorum's recommended course of action to deal with the changing conditions on the ground. Perhaps some listeners may have interpreted one of Inskeep's trademark "hmms" or his seeming surprise at Santorum's thoughts on partition as signs of skepticism.

Inskeep argues — and I agree with him — that the core purpose of an interview is to get answers to important questions.

Especially at this time of year, it's the media's role to ask the questions that elicit answers that will enable voters to make informed decisions at the polls. That may mean a reporter or a host like Inskeep has to persist in a line of questioning even when it makes a candidate uncomfortable.

What some listeners may hear as incivility or rudeness may simply be the product of a broadcast journalist making a tenacious effort to steer an experienced politician toward providing responsive answers instead of reading from a scripted playbook of party messages. That quest for depth may result in some tempestuous, argumentative discussions, but that — in my opinion — is what fuels a democratic government.

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