Come to Mama – interview wisdoms

This column/blog was written for Iraqi readers in June 2010 but after the first paragraph it applies for eternity

This entire political crisis about who is going to be the next prime minister might not have happened, had Iraq’s journalists not been so pessimistic or even defaitist from the beginning. The series of interviews with politicians in this newspaper proves that they are ready to speak, and even better, start volunteering to be interviewed as soon as some have crossed the waters. Although the media cannot replace the smoke-filled negotiation rooms where party leaders meet, they can at least help voters to decide whether it is time to go to the streets and demand something. Here is some unsollicited advice on interviewing techniques for hot countries.

It is a worldwide phenomenon: of all people it’s the journalists who think more than anyone else that politicians are unwilling to be interviewed – or only give interviews after their mandate is finished, when they have begun writing their memoires. Where this belief comes from, is a mystery. Politicians need the media in countries with more than 10,000 inhabitants.

So, when I’m training some would-be journalists in an ex-dictatorship or old democracy, my first advice – which is one that every seasoned interviewer will give them  –  is that you must have faith the other person will talk. Faith in getting answers is actually half the job! It applies to all humans, except the catatonics and deafmute blind, as well as those hit by a heatstroke who are temporarily mentally confused, until someone puts them in a cool bath. But the average Iraqi person has not erred so far from the usual human emotions that he cannot be played, and neither a party boss in Washington.

Having faith is, to be honest, just a matter of some basic knowledge of human nature and has nothing to do with the average despairing nature of the Iraqi. First of all, as a journalist you have to understand that people like to tell stories – as long as the stories are not about their prison life and other  experiences that stay in the brain as well as in the body as an open wound. People who have seen a lot of  life, always have stories, as well as people who lead interesting lives, from the talkative Baghdadi taxi driver to a  judge sweating away in the Special Tribunal under the lights of Al-Iraqiyya television.

Second, most people and especially politicians do have a pleasant dose of vanity in their blood stream: o, look how powerful or intelligent I am! Tell them indirectly that your arrival means that their “moment under the sun” has come, I always advice.

Third, not only the journalist is curious, the interviewee is also curious what the journalist knows, on the subject of the interview and more often than not, about persons they both know and love or hate.

Fourth, if a  person is not blessed with some sense of justice, you can always appeal to his sense of history (even Saddam didn’t like to disappoint his history teachers). Only utterly frustrated managers of some impossible projects don’t believe anymore they play a role in history.

Fifth, it is safe to assume that the journalist can appeal to people’s readiness to help others: “I need your help, brother, to get this story right.”

A small aside. In my opinion a deadly habit has grown in journalism worldwide, just to cut time and costs: the interview by telephone or email. Interviews by email should be prohibited by every editor in chief because in an email the question can be interpreted in so many different ways. After my first and only serious email interview fifteen years ago with a historian who gave me three pages of answers I hadn’t asked for, I swore I would never use email again.

Questions have a strange characteristic: the other person only hears the question he is expecting.  This also explains why some interviewees seem to fake bad hearing. “They are not answering the question”, people say then, while the interviewee is simply hearing another question than “the” question.  I personally am rarely in favor of not showing the questions that were asked. Questions can be unclear, too open, far away of what a person expects to be asked or just plain stupid.

Sometimes because of roadblocks, floodings, fuel shortages, vehicles bans, civil war or a broken leg, the telephone interview is the second-best solution. But it’s still nothing compared to going to the goldmine yourself, the see the interviewee in person in his own home, place of work, police cell or refugee tent. The so-called “body language” and what you read in the eyes, is so important that the best journalists don’t only type out the answers but also write down what the body and the eyes “said”.

Of course, the interviewee too “reads” the body language, the eyes and the tone of voice of the journalist. And beware: politicians and other people with responsibilities do this not only subconsciously. By sitting face to face to the journalist they are finding out whether he can handle complicated stories, is willing to work hard on the facts and to which side or social class the journalist belongs. Such things matter enormously.

All experienced journalists know that the first five to ten minutes of chit-chat with the interviewee are also decisive to get the answers right.  They know they have to be punctual, come even a little early to the appointment. This not only shows respect, it might also prevent  the interviewee from cleaning up his desk and stow away disturbing objects including remains of unhealthy food and non-islamic drinks, pictures and papers.

Almost everyone in Baghdad is lonely those days, even popular politicians and millionaires, because real friends are almost impossible to get by. The chatting might give the interviewee at least the impression the journalist would be a nice person to hang out with – and vice versa! I cannot stress enough how important this is, it is a real art!

What to chit-chat about? Well, if nothing comes to  mind, just exchange some fresh news I always suggest to colleagues. Also, I tell them to show parts of themselves. Tell the interviewee “O yes, you can wake me up too in the middle of the night for tomato soup!” or “Me too, I care a lot about the color of my ties”. Or if the politician to be interviewed is of the depressive kind, the journalist should share a few negative things,  like  “My wife blamed me for not getting pregnant, while she is the one who wants to sleep alone on the roof!”  or “Me too, I have lost all my fortune in a project with the American army.”   It is amazing but true that in a few minutes if not seconds interviewer and interviewee can discover what they have in common. The only exception: common health complaints. Before you know you are busy half an hour complaining and exchanging info on treatments for  overweight, high blood pressure, pain in the joints, headaches or sleeplessness. It is better to make remarks like “Nice shoes” or “What is that gorgeous perfume of yours?”

After more than eight repressive decades (under Saddam and the Brits, from 1918-2003) and four repressive centuries (of Ottoman rule, from 1534-1918), it is no wonder that journalists in Iraq feel basically the underdog and that  they like to finally, finally put some disgusting party hack or top official or top foreigner behind bars. But the much applauded agressive questioning (“Did you torture her to death or not?”) is not the way to get this done – or anything less spectacular for that matter. On the contrary! A journalist has to move the interviewee into “becoming a source”. For this, the journalist must stop being judgmental and realize he is not the cop putting the handcuffs on. It is what a friend of mine calls the “Come to mamma” approach, in other words: tell us, confess, but feel safe. It goes with motherly ominous phrases like “Mister X says the story has to get out there”.

If the approach works, the journalist still needs confirmation and should continue to ask “Do you know someone with the same information?” If asking is not enough, the journalist should beg, cry, implore, swear on his mother’s grave or whatever, or even promise to publish the facts only in a foreign newspaper or after six months. The journalist can also promise/threaten in a friendly way “to come back another time”, which means, as the interviewee knows, days or weeks of agony in party meetings, nightmares and a bad conscience. The journalist can also invite the interviewee to the headquarters of his newspaper, radio or television, “where we will give you a tour to show you how we are doing the impossible”, suggesting: sir, madam, you will  soon be a hero, like us. That’s the way to treat war criminals and less.


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