No hard questions -- we promise

Times Staff Writer

Whether the art of the interview is evolving or devolving is a matter of debate. What is not is its gradual mutation into another journalistic life form.

At the current pace, the traditional sit-down interview more concerned with ideas than personality may someday be as scarce as a California condor. The old method is increasingly seen as tedious, and the pictures -- moving or still -- stink.

But from the muck of the mainstream media has risen a more stylized interview that feeds the voracious modern appetite for gossip, entertainment and, perhaps most of all, brevity. Its reach stretches from the latest instant celebrity to the most established politician, who line up for the usually contrived, often quick-hit question-and-answer sessions that are now showcased in everything from prominent national magazines to late-night comedy shows.


The new interviewing tack may get rapped for shallowness, but it also garners high praise for spontaneity and provoking truly unexpected comments. Journalists, wearied by ever-growing restrictions sought by subjects and their publicists, like its measure of control.

And above all, gimmickry is king. Want to talk to Leonardo DiCaprio? Tag along grocery shopping. (Time magazine did.) Want to give the impression of intimacy with actor Mark Ruffalo? Take a ride together in a New York taxicab. (HBO did.) Want to see the “real” John Kerry? Meet at an Iowa pub for a beer. (GQ magazine did.)

“Nobody can sit through a regular interview anymore,” said Joel Stein, a humor columnist for Time who will begin writing for the Los Angeles Times early next year. “People have become so good at being interviewed, it’s rough getting something out of them that isn’t completely rehearsed or boring.”

Blame it all on the sax, Bill Clinton’s sax. The former president’s musical solo on “The Arsenio Hall Show” in 1992 blasted a hole through the wall that once separated news and entertainment. Then-candidate Clinton donned dark sunglasses and blew his way through “Heartbreak Hotel” -- a risky but humanizing ploy that is widely credited for reviving his campaign and landing him in the White House.

The move coincided with an explosive growth in entertainment news, particularly in television and the Internet. With so many major media -- print, radio, TV, the Web -- in competition for ever-narrowing attention spans, the traditional interview style and format had to find a new way to rise above the din and court an audience.

In recent years, print journalism in particular has become enamored of changing backdrops and integrating them into the story. Once it was standard practice to interview subjects in the office, in hotel rooms or on press junkets. But increasingly editors are encouraging reporters to set up interviews at places not directly related to the story that will energize its storytelling and visual effect.

For instance, Nancy Traver, a freelance writer and adjunct professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, met author Naomi Wolf at a children’s museum in Chicago to discuss a new book about motherhood.

In another case, Traver talked to an African American mother-daughter pair who’d written a new civil rights memoir at the first church that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had spoken at in Chicago.

“I try to select a location that’s going to open the source up, help them communicate their passion,” Traver said. “If you can weave that information into the story, you’re telling the reader a little something extra.”

Another -- some say more problematic -- way to gain notice is the “crossover” interview: a politician on an entertainment show. Movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger announced his gubernatorial candidacy on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” Needless to say, hard-hitting questions about political inexperience and his alleged inappropriate behavior around women didn’t come up.

Talk and comedy shows afford politicians the opportunity to present their fun or folksy side while receiving only softball questions. An often dry defense of policy is replaced by a humorous anecdote about a spouse while millions of voters, especially in the hard-to-reach 18-to-35 demographic, watch.

“Politicians correctly understand you don’t need to go to the mainstream media anymore,” said David T.Z. Mindich, author of “Tuned Out: Why Americans Under 40 Don’t Follow the News.” “And the old assumption that an interview has to follow standard journalistic practices is no longer a fair assumption. The culture is shifting away from that.”

Human side of politicians

Of course, the strategy can backfire, as it did this summer for Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry, who was eager to shake his stiff and aloof image by appearing on Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” After exchanges like the following, Kerry appeared as stiff as ever, displaying a frustrating inability to make -- or take -- a joke.

Stewart: Please refute if you will: Are you the No. 1 most liberal senator in the Senate?

Kerry: No.

Stewart: OK.

Kerry: You happy with that?

To Dana Stevens of online Slate magazine, Kerry was a “charm vacuum, forced to actually borrow mojo from the audience members. He was a desiccated husk, a tin man who really didn’t have a heart.”

President Bush is certainly no different in seeking out and attempting to exploit the interview of least resistance. He may not have much time for the White House press corps, but the president and first lady did make some for television psychologist Dr. Phil (as did Kerry and his wife, who appeared on the show a few days later). They didn’t talk about Iraq, but they did speak about corporal punishment.

Dr. Phil: Were ya’ll spankers? Did you spank them?

President Bush: Not really.

Laura Bush: Not very often.

George: Not really. We were “in your roomers.” You know, “Get to your room.”

Dr. Phil: Yeah, yeah.

Compared with the Kyoto Protocol, spanking may sound trivial, even absurd. But to many voters overwhelmed by the complexity and nuance of domestic and foreign policy, there may be ample comfort in knowing a candidate’s view on spanking. Voters may not understand the science of global warming, but they do know their own feelings on child discipline. Thus, if a politician is “right” about spanking, maybe he’s right about, say, holding firm on bilateral talks with North Korea too.

A politician’s appearance on a popular show or even in a fashion magazine is not necessarily a discouraging development for democracy, added Mindich, chair of journalism and mass communication at St. Michael’s College in Colchester, Vt.

“Why not have a beer with John Kerry for a story? If it infuses a dry story with passion, that’s a good thing,” Mindich said. “If the gimmick of getting a beer with Kerry leads voters to pursue more information about him, that’s positive.”

The danger is if these interviews represent the bulk of a voter’s experience with the candidate, said Nick Lasorsa, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. “When it no longer complements but substitutes for traditional journalism, that’s a big problem.”

Keeping it light

The high premium on “soft” news has led to the proliferation and retooling of one of journalism’s oldest interview methods -- the Q&A.; Once hard-hitting and lengthy, the question-and-answer of today -- prominent in such publications as Time, Newsweek and Esquire, to name but a few -- is shorter, punchier and fond of poking fun at its subject. Gone are ponderous inquiries into weighty matters. Instead, the columns of today are filled with conversational banter, reading in some cases like a sitcom script.

With so much competition, publicists and other image handlers of celebrities and politicians alike often place restrictions upon the interview. They frequently request questions beforehand or try to set certain potentially embarrassing topics off-limits. Some outlets, desperate for access, concede.

Others, like Deborah Solomon, who writes a question-and-answer column for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, do not. “I don’t negotiate,” said Solomon, whose sharp-edged probing of such luminaries as William F. Buckley, Elizabeth Edwards and Robert Rauschenberg have become a popular feature of the magazine. “Some people view the Q&A; as a news feature. I don’t. I view it as a debate.”

The race to tack new bells and whistles onto the traditional interview has already achieved a self-mocking status. Stein stars in a regular series of HBO shorts in which he interviews celebrities from a Manhattan phone booth.

Funny enough, but the audience sees only Stein the entire time and only hears the attention-hungry celebrity. Guests have included Will Smith, Wesley Snipes and Goldie Hawn, who typically call from home or their hotel room, eager to plug their latest projects.

“I thought it was a really stupid idea,” said Stein, who once went grocery shopping with Leonardo DiCaprio for a story. “The thought of putting my face on television during a conversation with Mira Sorvino instead of hers.... Well, I’m not a television executive, but my instinct would be to go the other way on that one.”

At least until the shorts get better known, the celebrities aren’t in on the joke either.

“Mockery, camp, all that,” Stein added, “it’s really just a disguised version of love.”