“Like everything else, journalism suffers from the polite bug; a cringing need to appease.”
The greatest interview in the history of journalism did not happen. In 1965, Esquire editors sent the writer, Gay Talese, to interview Frank Sinatra, singer, actor, icon, but ole blue eyes, mercurial as ever, refused to be interviewed.
Reason: he had catarrh. Now, a cold may be ordinary to the ordinary person, but it is significant to Sinatra for whom form and function were one. After all, this was the man who had such a handle on life that he titled his biography ‘I did it my way’. As Talese wrote, ”Sinatra with a cold is Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel - only worse”.
Anyway, Talese arrived Los Angeles and waited and waited, hoping the crooner would, as they say, recover and reconsider. Meantime, the bills piled up. Finally, faced with the rotten option of returning without a story, Talese who had closely observed Sinatra all this while, decided to write his piece without the interview. The eventual profile, appropriately titled “Frank Sinatra has a cold” which ran in April 1966, remains a classic: ‘a work of rigorously faithful fact enlivened with the kind of vivid story telling that had previously been reserved for fiction’.
It was also the beginning of what became The new journalism, a method of writing fact like fiction, made famous by Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and the suicidal Hunter Thompson. And their best works, like Capote’s In Cold Blood, were products of rigorous interviews.
But interviews these days are just too lame. Like everything else, journalism suffers from the polite bug; a cringing need to appease.
Every effort is made not to rustle feathers. It used to be that the sole aim was to goad people into revealing some dark secrets, aspects of their character they rather we didn’t see. And no one, to my mind, was as good at this as the Italian journalist, Oriana Fallaci, whose interviews were memorable.
To this day, Henry Kissinger regrets the interview he granted her in which she described him as “cold, icier than eel”. She interviewed the Shah, asking “does it not bother you that your people are so scared of you?” Indira Gandhi, Gaddafi, Arafat, Golda Meir, Deng Xiaoping, all these men were lanced with her lacerating questions and their awkwardness published in the column she called ‘Interview with history’ which is also the title of an early memoir. Her interviews were battles of sorts and she loved the crusade, explaining “I have always looked on disobedience toward the oppressive as the only way to use the miracle of having been born”.
Oprah Winfrey said she started out reading Fallaci’s interviews, and look where it got her. ESPN’s John Sawatsky who has taken upon himself the job of returning the glory days of journalism interviews, lampooned America’s Mike Wallace of CBS’s 60 Minutes and CNN’s Larry King as examples to avoid. Sawatsky, who teaches a master-class in interviews, has a simple advice: ‘don’t ask yes or no questions, keep questions short and avoid charged words which can distract people’.
Nigerian journalists can certainly benefit from such a class. The quality of our interviews is atrocious to say the least. Reporters have forgotten – or never learnt – that a successful interview is the product of good research and one must keep the purpose in view all the time: that the interview is not an end in itself and the outcome would always depend on how it was conducted: that people do not easily volunteer crucial information and one must have a strategy: that sometimes, questions are asked not because they are important in themselves, but because of their potential to generate more critical questions: that interview is not ‘gisting’ and though a certain flow is required, awkward silences often lead to guests blurting out important information. And please stop beginning every interview with ‘May we meet you?’
Two things actually led to this piece. First, I came into the office during my time as a staff of the defunct NEXT newspaper, to find my colleague, the online guru, Chxta, harassing a reporter who just finished interviewing the inimitable Rita of the Koko Mansion fame.
For the benefit of the uninformed, Rita was the girl in D’Banj’s rested reality TV programme who minted such linguistic jewels as “we Nigerians, majority of us we do demons,” “EFCC are under yahoo yahoo boys” and “Nigeria not safety enough” all of which have now been immortalised on YouTube under ‘Kokolete murdered English’. Anyway, this star was on the NEXT premises for an interview which Chxta felt, fell below par: “You fall my hand,” he told the reporter again and again. “You fall my hand”.
The second spur was an interview I read in a newspaper called the NEWS STAR, with Bisi Ibidapo, a Nollywood actress who had apparently found a husband. After a couple of inane questions, the reporter went for it. “I guess your husband must have read about your affairs with all those men in the past…” to which the poor girl answered “we are all human beings and we all have our individual weaknesses”.
Next question: “In what circumstances did he propose to you?” Answer: “I don’t want to discuss this…”
“Really?” said the reporter. ‘Was he on top of you?”
A version of this article was previously published in NEXT.