You had to feel . . . NOT!

There are too many life-and-death things happening in the world to be concerned about trivial matters, but I love sports, and so I feel compelled to indulge my revulsion at too many broadcast interviews of athletes.

I sometimes conduct workshops in sportswriting and the craft of interviewing.

A cardinal sin in interviewing: instead of asking a direct question, the interviewer states the answer he is looking for, leaving the athlete an opportunity only to grunt, or lamely say, “Yes.”

Example: “You had to feel great when you made that catch in the seventh inning.”

This approach robs the athlete of a chance to tell his or her own story.

Instead, a reporter should ask: “Tell me what happened when you saw the ball come off the bat.” Now the athlete gets to communicate the experience. And the listener gets to feel it.

Why do so many interviewers cheat athletes and listeners out of feeling an experience? 1) they feel insecure and compelled to let the listener know how smart they are; and 2) they have adopted as models bad habits learned from elders in the business who have risen to high positions despite work that has been mediocre.

The latest version of this wrong-headedness oozed from my radio just this week.
A reporter previewing the football game between the University of MInnesota and the University of Michigan was interviewing the Minnesota quarterback, Philip Nelson, a sophomore who had started only a few games and who could still be considered a wide-eyed rookie.

The interviewer wanted to know how Nelson felt about playing at Michigan, in the biggest stadium in the country — 109,000 seats. Minnesota’s stadium seats only 50,000, and I doubt that Nelson ever played a high school game in front of as many as 5,000. But Nelson never had a chance to answer what was a very good question: the interviewer (as if he were the quarterback), instead of asking a question, laid out his own set of expectations, in great detail and at great length, leaving Nelson merely to agree with the interviewer’s premises and sound like a nonentity.

What I wanted was the raw feeling Nelson could have expressed if he had had to come up with his own answer. That would let us get to know him, instead of getting to know the interviewer.

Years ago I made a documentary film on the values in big-time college football, and the program was memorable, I believe, because it allowed players — without helmets obscuring their identity — to communicate their experiences and feelings.

A few years before that I interviewed the great athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who competed in the long jump at the University of Minnesota. After the meet, in a quiet moment when I caught her alone, I asked her to describe exactly what she felt from the moment her foot struck the take-off board.

She took a deep breath and said, with obvious delight, “No one has ever asked me that before.” She proceeded to explore her experience, moment to moment, and as she spoke she beamed with pleasure at having the chance to explain the passion she felt as she soared through the air.

Interviewers should understand and embrace the principle that they are not the story; the interviewee is. What we’re after is not good questions, but great answers.

I’ve been scrutinizing interviews since I broke into the business, always eager to learn from the best, and from the worst.

A final observation, from an example of the worst: During the Vietnam war a CBS News reporter covering combat was interviewing a an 18-year-old Marine whose buddy had just been shot and killed right in front of him. The reporter said, “How would you characterize your feelings when you saw him die?”

That young Marine may not even have known the meaning of the word characterize; if he did not, the very question may well have intimidated and inhibited him.

Why didn’t the reporter — instead of playing the sophisticate — simply say to the Marine: “Please tell me exactly what happened.” In that way, the Marine could have told his story, and his feelings would likely have become clear . . . and unforgettable.

31 thoughts on “You had to feel . . . NOT!

  1. Dennis Lang says:

    I wonder if it’s in the changing nature of journalism, rather than only the art of the interview, that digging for depth and personal insight is no longer prioritzed. This can and must be achieved in the format of documentary film or longer-form narratives, but not when Twitter becomes a primary information exchange and our attention span for an online read likely burns out at a few minutes and 150 words. Yup, loved reading the sportswriting greats: Talese, Smith, Broun…. Maybe they don’t exist because the audience for that type of reporting no longer exists.

  2. Dennis: Twitter culture? Let a thousand flowers bloom! BUT . . .
    in traditional media, it takes less time to ask a straight question than to pontificate a prefab answer.

  3. pm1956 says:

    I tend to think that you nailed it when you talked ab out the interviewer giving their own opinions, telling the audience just how smart/insightful, etc., they are.

    The job has switched from reporters to media personalities. People get hired in the position because they bring followers/viewers, not because of their interviewing skills.The medium has become the message, we care more about the package than about the content–or at least that is how the powers that be construct visual media today.

    1. Dennis Lang says:

      Okay, try this approach. Same result.
      Reporter: “Phillip. Nineteen years old. The Big House. ESPN. National audience. 110,000 avid fans, none of them on your side. Describe your emotions on the eve of the big game.”
      Phillip: “We’ve got a good game plan. We’re confident. Real good week of practice….”
      Reporter: “Thanks Phillip.”

  4. bertram jr. says:

    Sadly, the media has their narratives already established – they only seek the validation of them in their “reporting”.

    Hence, the complete ignoring of ‘knockout’ assaults by black youth on whites in major cities nationwide by mainstream media channels..

    Journalism? Yah, that’s long gone.

    1. Jim Leinfelder says:

      Coupla’ pull quotes for ya’, Bertram:

      “Authorities and psychologists say the concept has been around for decades — or longer — and it’s played mostly by impulsive teenage boys looking to impress their friends.


      “Paul Boxer, a psychology professor at Rutgers University who studies aggressive behavior, said Thursday the media stories may perpetuate the assaults, but most teens clearly aren’t unfeeling sociopaths.”

      Make an effort.

      Attacks Around US Probed for Link to Knockout Game
      NEW YORK November 21, 2013 (AP)
      By COLLEEN LONG Associated Press


      Share on email38 Comments
      Associated Press
      In New York, a 78-year-old woman strolling in her neighborhood was punched in the head by a stranger and tumbled to the ground. In Washington, a 32-year-old woman was swarmed by teenagers on bikes, and one clocked her in the face. In Jersey City, a 46-year-old man died after someone sucker-punched him and he struck his head on an iron fence.

      In each case, police are investigating whether the attacks are part of a violent game called “knockout,” where the object is to target unsuspecting pedestrians with the intention of knocking them out cold with one punch. Authorities and psychologists say the concept has been around for decades — or longer — and it’s played mostly by impulsive teenage boys looking to impress their friends.

      “It’s hard to excuse this behavior, there’s no purpose to this,” said Jeffrey Butts, a psychologist specializing in juvenile delinquency at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “When someone runs into a store and demands money, you can sort of understand why they’re doing it, desperation, whatever. But just hitting someone for the sheer thrill of seeing if you can knock someone out is just childish.”

      At least two deaths have been linked to the game this year and police have seen a recent spike in similar attacks.

      New York City police have deployed additional officers to city neighborhoods where at least seven attacks occurred in the past few weeks, including the assault on the 78-year-old woman. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said some are smacked, some are more seriously assaulted, and some harassed. The department’s hate crimes task force is investigating, because some attacks have been against Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn.

      In Washington, D.C., police were investigating two assaults in the past week, both of which resulted in minor injuries but not unconsciousness.

      One victim, Phoebe Connolly, of Brattleboro, Vt., said she was randomly punched in the face by a teenager while riding her bike during a work-related visit to Washington last Friday. Connolly, who is 32 and works with teenagers in her job, said the blow knocked her head to the side and bloodied her nose.

      “I don’t know what the goal was,” she said. “There wasn’t any attempt to take anything from me.”

      While some of those attacked have been white, and some suspected attackers black, experts said the incidents are more about preying on the seemingly helpless than race or religion.

      “It’s about someone who is seemingly helpless, and choosing that person to target,” Butts said.

      A recent media blitz about the game circulating on television stations and online isn’t helping, Connolly and experts said, especially because images are being repeatedly broadcast of victims in a dead fall, smacking the ground with a limp thud. The viral footage comes from older incidents: In one instance from 2012, 50-year-old Pittsburgh English teacher James Addlespurger was punched in the face and falls to the curb. The image was caught on surveillance cameras, and a 15-year-old was arrested.

      “The behavior of the sudden assault of someone who seems helpless has appealed to the idiotic impulsive quality of adolescence forever,” said Butts. “But there are now bragging rights beyond your immediate circle, when this is on television and online.”

      Paul Boxer, a psychology professor at Rutgers University who studies aggressive behavior, said Thursday the media stories may perpetuate the assaults, but most teens clearly aren’t unfeeling sociopaths.

  5. Erik Petersen says:

    Right, the rhetorical tic is for the reporter to say ‘tell us about… blobbedy blah blah’.

    And I hate that, its inspid to the point that’s its hard on the ears. But they’re doing it to risk manage these interview conversations, right? Get the obvious answer, don’t go down a tangent, fill your time box.

    As an advanced baseball guy I’d like to see more discussion of tradecraft. The cutter / cut fastball is new, having come prominent in the last 20 years. It took 10 years for me to figure out what the hell these guys were talking about, as no reporter ever asked what distinguished it from a slider.

    I’d like to be a contributing blogger here. What’s stopping that. You guys think you have an abundance of reliable contributors?

    1. Dennis Lang says:

      Actually, I thought commentary during the play-offs and series was pretty solid. TK on Twins telecasts, that were otherwise unwatchable, consistently insightful, even while withholding his true feelings toward the depth of the atrocity on the field.

    2. pm1956 says:

      I thought that TBS was much better than Fox in terms of analysis. After watching the NL playoffs on TBS, I thought that the Fox coverage of the World Series was pretty lame. And it wasn’t just that Tim McCarver has lost a couple of steps, either.

      1. Dennis Lang says:

        Not to distinguish between the two networks approach or execution and maybe you had to be true fan to begin with, but kudos to camera, editing, cut-aways, announcing in general able to sustain a tension line in many of these four-hour games, many of them in fact that could pivot on any pitch.

    1. PM says:

      did Fox jump the journalistic shark with a former Miss America as a ….what the hell is Gretchen Carlson anyway?

    1. It’d be one thing if boosterish/numbskull Q&As were the sole provenance of sports. But really, have you ever listened to business news interviews? One of the underlying problems is that news editors require reporters to cover the existing story line. A line of questioning outside the obvious and predictable answers … which athletes are tutored by their college/league to follow (“My hat’s off to Bupkiss U. They played us as tough as anyone we’ve faced. We had a full team effort today.”) … requires more time than 90 seconds after the game, or 4 minutes on camera with CNBC.

      Orthodoxy is a virtue in booster journalism.

  6. I’m with pm1956. The announcers are the story, with athletes as their backdrop. I think it really took off with ESPN. Chris Berman was the leader of the pack. I want announcers to shut up unless they truly have something worthwhile to say.

    Any of you listen to tv games prior to, say 1980? There are many moments of silence! The team is getting ready to huddle up. Nothing is going on. The defense is loosely gathering to make sure they’re all doing the same thing. Nothing to talk about. So stop yammering!

    Jon Gruden drives me nuts!! Shut up Jon!!! He seems focused on bragging about how right he is about everything football.

    Great interviewers/writers? In my younger days before Sports Illustrated became so synchophantic, I loved Frank DeFord and Gary Smith. Their stories were beautiful, full of passion and knowledge.

    1. PM says:

      I was once interviewed by Frank DeFord for an article……apparently nothing i said was interesting enough to make it into the SI piece. Another fleeting brush with fame…..

      1. Dennis Lang says:

        Hey PM–DeFord is one of the greats. A bit more for the readership out here in anonymity. What was the subject of the article? Come on. Don’t hold back. Interesting. Thanks.

        1. PM says:

          SI sent a bunch of its writers back to their alma maters to report on the state of football on the campus (in DeFord’s case, Princeton). One of my best friends was the captain of the cheerleading squad, and as a result, I was, from time to time (well, whenever i wanted to be) the Princeton Tiger mascot. Just by chance I was the mascot on the weekend that DeFord was on campus, he thought that the mascot’s eye view might be interesting and hence my (missed) shot at immortality…..

      1. Dennis Lang says:

        Yes, wasn’t that beautiful? Tony Canadeo the color man. Black and white Philco on a Sunday afternoon in the late fall. I guess today we would call this the “minimalist approach” allowing the game itself to speak. Nice.

  7. Minimalist is good.

    Although I like the accuracy of video review of ref calls and of plays, it takes a lot of time and the announcers feel that they Must fill every second of that time with the sound of their voices.

    Show the replay, explain the pertinent rules, then shut up and let us draw our own conclusions in the ensuing silence.


    1. Dennis Lang says:

      I’m a little mixed on the highly loquacious color commentators. For a student of the game watching, I think Gruden can be genuinely enlightening in his running analysis. On the other hand, although I haven’t been an avid Timberwolves follower, I think Jim Peterson is simply in love with his own voice often a distraction from the play-by-play guy.

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