ADVICE ON CONDUCTING INTERVIEWS
There's a premise in journalism that I think overrides it all, and that is the premise that the truth is hidden. That it's not on the surface, or the first time you look at something, the first time you talk to somebody, that you're going to get the answers. And in fact, you often have to go back to people. I think it's just our job to dig below the surface. And the thing I am, even having done it over 20 years, repeatedly reminded of——go back. Once you've interviewed somebody, don't hesitate to say, "Can I come back?" That should be at the bottom of your list of questions. Even if you're not sure why you're coming back. Don't be shy about taking people's time……people in government or any place. I think they like to talk. And exploit that human strength and human weakness.
GETTING HELP WITH YOUR INTERVIEW
Well, I think often you're the aggressor as a reporter, but it's important stylistically to not be aggressive. To not come in self-assured, not come in in an impolite way. I think it's really important to deal in a civilized way with people. And if you come in and say, "Look, I'm working on this and I'm not sure where I'm going, I'm not sure what the answers are, I have a lot of questions, I need your help," basically. And I think, on that human level, it's like the person trying to carry four arms of groceries when you're coming out of the grocery store, if you just say to somebody, "Could you help me," you'll get that. And I think there is a tradition there, people say, "Well, Ok, I'll help" or "I'll try to help," but to come in and say "I understand you did X and Y and where's the money and where's the secret bank account," just doesn't work. Even with somebody you're going to have to write something very negative about, or somebody who's going to be permanently hostile to what you're doing.
QUOTES AND THE TRUTH
What's the standard? What are we trying to do? What's the mission? And I say the mission is to describe things as they really are. And that has to be what's on our minds. And if you know that something is going on, and you can't get anyone to say it on the record, I would say you still have an obligation to find some way to get it into your newspaper, or on television or on radio. An interesting phenomenon has captured people in the media I think……one of the things that's happened in the media is, if I quote the president of the United States accurately, and it turns out he's lying, it's not my fault. It's the president's fault. President lied, Woodward the reporter just got snookered. If I say the following happened, and it's according to unnamed sources, it's according to well-informed officials, or according to sources I have, turns out to be true, all hell will break loose on Woodward's head. So we've got this idea that you take yourself off the hook by putting it on the record. I disagree. I think the standard is, "Is it really true?" And I would feel, in fact, just as badly having quoted somebody saying something that's untrue. But in journalism, there's a feeling of, "Oh, we can wash our hands of that because the official lied." I think it's our job to check.
People will lie about the simplest things. And just yesterday I was working on a story, and some senior official in the White House, I would ask what somebody was doing, and I knew what that person was doing that night, and he said he didn't know. And I said, "C'mon. I know you know because you're in charge of that person's schedule and it's the following." And he felt terribly embarrassed. And I really kind of slammed him up against the wall and said, "Don't try to duck on something. Don't say you don't know when you do, please."
Well, often, interestingly enough, the professionally trained, experienced public relations people will give you the best information. They know it does not help the institution they're serving or the individual they're serving to lie. That it's gonna come back and bite them in the rear end. I recently worked on a book on the military, and the military has a professional core of public relations specialists in all of the services. And I found them generally excellent. They would often say, "I'm not gonna tell you" or "I can't find out" or "I don't know" or "I won't tell you" but they didn't lie.
HOW MUCH TIME SHOULD YOU PUT INTO A STORY?
Well, it's not just passion to work long hours. I think it's practical. If I worked ten hours on a story, I now know basically what the story is, I know who to talk to, I know what I know, and more importantly, I know what I don't know. Or have a good idea. If I spend two more hours on this story, I probably can double the quality of information I have. So the last hour you spend on anything is so much more valuable than the first. And if you're interested in high-quality stories, and they've assigned you to spend two days on a story, you spend part of one of your own nights, I think you can make the story two times as complete, sometimes 10 times as complete, and sometimes 100 times better.
ADVICE YOU CAN'T GET IN SCHOOL
What I think you can't learn in school is simply what a great job it is to be a reporter and a journalist. That you come to work each day and you may be assigned one beat or one area but essentially your job is "deal with what's interesting." Deal with what's important. Cope with presenting in a coherent way, events. And what people are talking about and gossiping about or dealing with in their lives, is exactly what your job is. When you're a lawyer, and a doctor, for instance, you have clients and patients for instance who have uninteresting cases and uninteresting diseases. But you still have to deal with it. By and large, in journalism, the uninteresting, the routine, gets set aside. You deal with the extraordinary. You deal with the interesting cases. So all of our clients are, by and large, dealing with nonroutine things. Dealing with interesting diseases if you will.