Miller told me he usually doesn’t do much research on his subjects. He credits his general knowledge for getting him through many interviews. Sometimes he’ll just read his subject’s Wikipedia profile to prepare. Still, he says, “I try to come off as someone completely knowledgeable.” He reads The Economist and checks Google News reflexively at work. He has e-mail alerts for keywords related to his idiosyncratic interests: rocker “Peter Doherty,” “Chinese credit,” and “world economy 2016” (interestingly, he told me early last year that he was convinced there will be a global economic collapse in eight years).
Miller can offer his subjects something the mainstream media often can’t: a chance to archive their words in the eternal Wiki-vault. Miller’s association with Wikipedia appealed to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, and one of Israel’s leading papers, Yedioth Aharonoth, lauded Shimon Peres for being the first leader to grant an interview to someone it described as a “senior” Wikipedia editor. Miller has other advantages: he has no professional duty to the public as surrogate or watchdog, and he isn’t trying to sell a product. He also doesn’t have an editor to contend with. This freedom can give his interviews, at their best, a disarming authenticity. They’re unpolished and earnest, if sometimes rambling. Miller tends to think of his work more as a personal art project than journalism. He may share a sense of curiosity with many professionals, but he doesn’t identify with them. In fact, he views the mainstream press with a bit of contempt. “The whole neutral media thing is just crap,” he told me during a short tirade. But he certainly doesn’t consider his work a substitute. “Someone who sits there and blogs about something will never replace a professional class,” he said.
When I asked Gay Talese what it was like to be interviewed by Miller, he told me Miller was polite and professional, but not distinguished in any way. Memoirist Augusten Burroughs, whom Miller also interviewed, praised him in an e-mail: “He has the mind of a lawyer. Which is to say, he’s extremely logical.”
In person, Miller possesses the self-assurance of a prosecutor and the practiced nonchalance of an arriviste. He dropped names as though he had a tick, and made it sound like he was chummy with many of his subjects. Maybe it’s true: on a blog he started this summer, he mentions that Ingrid Newkirk sent him a box of vegan food.
Miller’s work feels like a bit of a throwback to a time when Oriana Fallaci published long transcripts of her interviews in book form and David Frost broadcast a six-hour sit-down with Richard Nixon. Not that Miller is in their league as an interviewer, but there is something refreshing about the oral-history-like nature of his work. Bite-sized clips of recycled talking points dominate today’s media, but Miller strives in his interviews, however imperfectly, to be transparent and complete. He lets the subject’s voice come through. He gives the public his raw materials. He’s a conduit, without straining to be something more.