Opinion

THE ART OF THE INTERVIEW

These days, amid so many interviews and encounters with leaders who have so much power and influence – Putin, Trump, López Obrador, Bukele even tennis star Rafael Nadal – it is important to consider the role of the interviewer.

Should I listen patiently, allowing the person to talk and push the conversation toward historical or current events? Or do I have the moral obligation to confront the powerful, to demand a real accounting, to challenge their statements and correct their lies or half-truths.

Our jobs as journalists requires us to challenge and confront the powerful. That’s what journalism does. That is our role in society, aside from informing with veracity.

The famous Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci saw her interviews with the powerful as war. Sometimes the subject won, sometimes she won. But she always left parts of her soul and skin on the floor. “I never feel, and will never feel, like a cold recorder of what I hear and see,” she wrote in her book, Interview With History. “With each professional experience I leave behind strips of my soul. I participate with the person I am listening to, and consider whether the issue affects me personally or whether I should take a position (which in fact I do, always based on a precise moral selection)”.

I started to reread Fallaci after watching a Fox News forum in South Carolina. Donald Trump lied again and said he won the 2020 presidential elections. That is not true. He lost the electoral vote, the popular vote and dozens of legal challenges. But the moderator did not challenge the lie, did not stop him or correct him. That is not journalism.

And neither is the lengthy talk that dictator Vladimir Putin gave to Tucker Carlson in Moscow. Carlson did not ask Putin about political prisoners in Russia or human rights activist Aleksei Navalny, who died in a Russian prison just days later. Carlson’s questions were so weak, and allowed such long monologues by the Russian leader, that even Putin complained. “To be honest, I believed (Carlson) was going to act aggressively and ask hard questions,” he said after the interview. “Frankly, I got no satisfaction from that interview.”

No two interviews are the same. Each interview has a different DNA, from the way it’s arranged to the place where it’s held, the body language and the rhythm of the questions. If the subject replies with long speeches, you lost control of the conversation. It stops being an interview and becomes propaganda.

But the fundamental part is that the journalist confront the power. The ideology or political party of the person interviewed does not matter. All politicians and dictators have a weak point, something to explain, but (almost) all give up at the second or third question. That’s why, when there’s a rare opportunity to interview someone very powerful or famous, it must not be wasted.

I have two rules for when I have that opportunity. First, I prepare my questions based on the assumption that no one else will ask them –that it is my responsibility to ask them – and second that I will never see this person ever again. There is nothing worse than interviewing someone simply in the hope of having access to the person in the future. Those interviews are condemned to fail, and cast a shadow on the reputation of the interviewer.

I recently watched an interview of tennis star Rafael Nadal by the extraordinary and inquisitive Spanish journalist Ana Pastor. And boy did she take advantage of the opportunity! Staying far from the typical questions about his injuries, possible retirement and perennial competition with Novak Djokovic, she put him on new grounds. Nadal seemed uncomfortable answering questions about feminism and his contract with the tennis federation in Saudi Arabia, where the government has been accused, among other things, of murdering journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A column published in the newspaper El País after the interview called it “the end of a myth.” And all because of her tough and pertinent questions.

Interviews are an art, imperfect and almost never mastered. I have done thousands of interviews in my career – a few with truly powerful people – and one question is always left unasked. That is inevitable, especially when you have little time. But the important part is to understand that our job is to ask tough questions, not to praise the subjects or become a channel for their messages.

“I don’t understand power,” wrote Fallaci, who went through an unjust Islamophobic period before she died. Her guiding principle, as a journalist and as an interviewer, was disobedience. “For me, to be a journalist means to be disobedient,” she once told a colleague.

Exactly. To challenge and question authority and authoritarians, first you have to disobey them. Do not accept the rules, the norm, and do not accept everything they say. That is the only way in which an interview with someone who is powerful can make a mark and promote change. The rest is blah blah blah.

PS. It’s bad to publish the telephone numbers of journalists – like AMLO did with a New York Times correspondent – just because you don’t like their questions. It puts at risk the privacy and security of the journalists and their team. Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists. Forty-three have been murdered during the current six-year presidential term alone.

By Jorge Ramos Ávalos

Image by: Wikimedia

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Jorge Ramos has been the anchorman for Noticiero Univision since 1986. He writes a weekly column for more than 40 newspapers in the United States and Latin America, and provides daily radio commentary for the Radio Univision network. Ramos also hosts Al Punto, Univision’s weekly public affairs program offering analysis of the week’s top stories, and Fusion’s AMERICA with Jorge Ramos, a news program geared towards young adults. Ramos has won eight Emmy awards and is the author of ten books, most recently, STRANGER - The Challenge of a Latino Immigrant in the Trump Era.

A survey conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center found that Ramos is the second most recognized Latino leader in the country. Latino Leaders magazine chose him as one of “The Ten Most Admired Latinos” and “101 Top Leaders of the Latino Community in the U.S.”

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