A great interview is one of the journalist’s most powerful tools. It can be informative, entertaining, thoughtful. For the next five weeks, the Columbia Journalism Review and MaximumFun.org will broadcast conversations with some of the world’s greatest interviewers. Hosted by NPR’s Jesse Thorn, the podcast, called The Turnaround, will examine the science and art of journalism.
Jesse Thorn: You’ve had every kind of broadcast journalism job. But I want to start with morning news because it is the thing that, when I see, I feel least like I could do that.
Katie Couric: Really?
Jesse: I can read a teleprompter. I can write some copy. But to do 12 things in one morning is profoundly daunting to me. So when you went from being a reporter to being in the anchor chair on a morning news show, what was that like for you?
Katie: Well, it was very exciting because I am a real generalist. I always say that I’m five miles wide and half an inch deep. I’m very interested in a lot of different topics, and for me, morning television really kind of fed all those different curiosities. There were mornings where we had very intense, super-serious news stories to cover. And there were other mornings where you got a real smorgasbord of content. It was a lot of fun for me.
It was pretty daunting to occupy a seat on a show that was such an institution, and had such a rich history, and was really a part of people’s daily routine. It was a very big stage and a lot of pressure. But I remember sort of feeling like, I’m just going to be who I am and let the chips fall where they may. Because, even back then, before authenticity became such a buzz word, I think people responded to someone who seemed to be their authentic self on television.
Jesse: It seems like it would be hard to fake it for that long every day. That’s a long time to be on TV being phony, you know what I mean?
Katie: Yeah, you’re right. But I also think, if I didn’t know something, I didn’t pretend like I knew it. If I wasn’t a super expert on sports and I was sitting next to Bryant Gumbel, one of the most knowledgeable people on the planet when it comes to sports, I wouldn’t pretend like I did.
You have a lot of down moments in morning television, where people do get to know you. People used to come up to me all the time and say, “I feel like I know you.” And I’d say, “Well you kind of do.” You’ve seen me in serious news situations. You’ve seen me in lighter moments.
I’ve had to share personal experiences, like when my husband died, or my daughters were both born when I was the co-anchor of the Today Show, my sister passed away from pancreatic cancer. And so people do get to know you. It was always kind of a balancing act. You want people to feel as if they know you, and you want to have an intimate relationship, but you don’t want it to be too intimate. You don’t want to be TMI all the time, and talking about yourself all the time. So it was always this kind of delicate balance for me.
On getting the most out of an interview
Jesse: What’s a time that you were doing one of those five-minute interviews and you got something that was so unexpected that it completely redirected that final three minutes?
Katie: I’ve done so many different interviews throughout the course of my career. I guess the one that comes to mind is probably when I interviewed Sarah Palin. We were walking and I asked her about what sort of magazines and newspapers she regularly reads that helped establish her worldview before she was tapped [as John McCain’s vice presidential candidate].
I was interested in exploring how people become so ideologically entrenched in a point of view, and what has shaped that point of view—whether it was William F. Buckley, or even the Bible—what it was that kind of made her adopt a certain political ideology. That got a lot of attention, that question and her response, because I think, honestly, she was just sort of sick of me, and had had it with me, and kind of was trying to brush me off.
That was not an anticipated answer, and I tried to push her a little bit, and to get specific about if she could name a newspaper or magazine that she felt had shaped her worldview. I think her annoyance made people think that it was less that she was annoyed with me, but couldn’t answer the question properly. I think she could have. I just don’t know why, to this day, she chose to answer the way she did. But I can think of countless times where I’ve had to listen and then take an interview in a different direction. It happened on a regular basis too numerous for me to even articulate right now.
Jesse: There has to be a certain intensity on morning television, particularly, a certain kind of vibrancy. How do you get that when they’ve literally just sat down in front of you?
When I’m talking to someone, I want them to feel—and I feel—that they’re the only person on planet earth in that moment in time.
Katie: I think people can sense a genuine interest and curiosity from the interviewer. I know when I’m talking to someone, I want them to feel—and I feel—that they’re the only person on planet earth in that moment in time, that I am completely locked in, to them, what they want to talk about, what they’re interested in, and that I approach them with respectful curiosity, that I’m genuinely interested in what they have to say.
I really work hard to not ask every question they’ve been asked at some entertainment junket. I try to ask questions that are thoughtful, that will be illuminating, that will reveal something about themselves that maybe they wouldn’t have revealed normally. I put a lot of thought into the conversation I have with people, but I think the key is that, that no matter who it is, whether it’s an actor or a writer or a politician, [or a] CEO, that I know sort of what they’re interested in, and that I key into that.
I think every interview requires a different kind of tone and a different skill set, because the goal is different. The goal of talking to a movie star is different than the goal you might have holding a politician’s feet to the fire. So I think you have to get into the right headspace before you sit down with these people to get the most out of the interview.
Tricks of the trade
Jesse: When you’re on live television—especially when you’re on live television in a situation where you have four minutes or seven minutes—you’re really taking a risk anytime you ask a question that you don’t know the answer to.
Katie: I think you also have to think about how open ended are the questions. The empathy that allows you to be a good interviewer is also the empathy that’s required when preparing for a good interview. You have to kind of put yourself in that person’s shoes and think about what the response might be. Once you have a little bit of experience, you know the sort of overly-broad, open-ended, uber-philosophical question that’s going to require a lot of explanation. And you try to avoid those, and try to think of something that you can more narrowly broach or target.
You have to kind of put yourself in that person’s shoes and think about what the response might be.
But there are a lot of tricks, too. You can politely interrupt somebody and move on. A lot of this is a delicate verbal dance that you have to do with people, and some of the tricks of the trade are, like, [as if listening to an interview subject] mm hm, mm hm. You can urge people on. I used to tell people when they sat down, “Hey, if you see me with my finger kind of giving you a rap, that means you need to speed it up, or we’re almost out of time,” because that’s helpful to people. They want to get out what they want to say. So there are a lot of visual and verbal cues you can employ that help move an interview subject along. You don’t want to ask questions that that require long expansive answers. And of course you want to avoid those yes or no questions. That’s kind of journalism 101.
Jesse: What are the physical things that you do besides going mm hm, mm hm, or giving somebody the wrap-it-up sign when you’re sitting across from them in one of those director’s chairs?
Katie: If somebody has a high emotional intelligence, I think you can do a lot with your eyes. You can kind of urge them on, or you can kind of look at your paper, and that’s a visual cue that maybe they’re losing you a little bit, or you’re going to move on to a different topic. Some are subtle, and some aren’t so subtle, like, you know, acting like I’m hanging myself in the middle of a question, [laughs] putting on a noose and [makes sound of noose cutting air off], hopefully off-camera…
Jesse: Are you embarrassed to ask anything of people?
Katie: Yeah, there’s some lines I won’t cross, some personal things that I won’t ask. On a case-by-case basis, there are times where I won’t go there. I am embarrassed to ask people some questions, and I think there is a way to ask uncomfortable questions in a respectful way. I just did a documentary on transgender individuals, and I knew there was a lot of misinformation, ignorance, among the general population, including me, about gender identity issues. I asked an older couple, and they were just so nice—Kate and Linda Rohr—and Kate Rohr had gender confirmation surgery when she was 70 years old. I talked to them a little bit about sex. You know, how does that work? You’re still in love with Kate, and yet when you consider yourself a heterosexual woman, do you think of yourself as a lesbian now? Like, help me understand this.
That was potentially a really awkward exchange, but I knew going in they had a willingness to talk openly and honestly about this, that they knew I was coming from a good place of seeking to understand myself and help other people gain greater understanding. So in that situation, it was OK. It was appropriate.
Now there are other settings where I never in a million years would ask questions like that. So it just really depends on what’s going on, and sometimes I do say to people, I’d like to ask you about blank; would you feel comfortable with that? Sometimes they’ll say, “No, I don’t want to go there,” and sometimes they’ll be like, “Sure,” and they’ll appreciate the heads up.
At this point in my career—and I’m so sick of being called a veteran journalist. I’m like, stop calling me a veteran journalist—but, I’ve done so many interviews, it’s very hard to generalize because each one has a very specific outcome and tone. When I interviewed David Duke, and asked him about some of the comments he had made about Jews, that’s a very different interview than if I’m interviewing someone who lost a loved one on 9/11. There is an appropriateness, an appropriate kind of intensity when you’re really challenging somebody who you find morally repugnant, and a very different intensity when you’re there to help someone share their story that may be excruciatingly painful. So every human interaction in my professional life has required kind of a certain tonality that you need to be cognizant of going in.
Jesse: it can be difficult to open yourself up to your own ignorance publicly.
Katie: We could all use a little more humility. I think the older I get, the more I realize there’s so much I don’t know, and so much I never will know. A really helpful device for storytelling, if you want to say, in journalism in general, is to take people on that journey of learning. Right? And if you’re their proxy, which I’ve always tried to be my entire career, be very mindful of people listening.
The highest compliment someone can give me is: “You always ask the question I want to ask,” or “I always have a question, and the next thing you know, you’re asking that question that I have.” That to me is just profoundly gratifying.
We could all use a little more humility. I think the older I get, the more I realize there’s so much I don’t know, and so much I never will know.
On difficult interview subjects
Jesse: You did 20 squajillion interviews. Which of them were the ones that made your stomach turn? Was it presidents, or movie stars, or walking into a town and not knowing anyone and knowing you were going to have to bother people on the street, or what?
Katie: The latter never bothered me because I’m the kind of person who could come up to anyone and start talking. I don’t have a shy bone in my body. I would say, for me, it was when you’re interviewing someone who has deep expertise in a topic, and there’s just no way you’re going to be able to compete with that expertise, but you are in a position of having to challenge that person. That is the kind of thing that would get my stomach in knots. Or someone who is particularly pugnacious, like Ross Perot, who sort of would would be condescending and patronizing to me if I asked a question that was challenging. I remember he’d say, [impersonating Perot’s voice] “Katie, Katie, Katie” you know, and kind of barked back at me that way. Or Yasser Arafat, who if I had to challenge, would be like, [impersonating Arafat’s voice] “Who told you that?” And suddenly you’re like, “Oh shit,” I have to come up with how I came to that question, why I asked it, all this background on what motivated that question. That’s very hard, because no matter how much you study—if you go through the FDA manual about pesticides when you’re interviewing the head of the FDA—dollars to donuts, they’re going to know more about a certain subject than you are. So it’s how do you push back when they can just basically bowl you over with their facts and information?
Jesse: How do you push back when they can boil you over with their facts and information, he said, carefully asking for an example?
Katie: [laughs] I think you just have to continue to challenge. A lot of times they won’t answer a question. It took me a while to have the confidence to say, “I’m sorry, Senator, but you just didn’t answer my question,” and just kind of call a spade a spade, or go at it in a different kind of way until you finally give up.
I had a very uncomfortable interview with Colin Powell once, following, I think it was the anniversary of 9/11, and it was after the invasion of Iraq, talking about sort of what what was the rationale for invading Iraq, and this Sunni-Shia divide, and if it was going to basically disintegrate into a civil war, and why is the United States doing that. He was just getting increasingly angry at me. And I think it’s because I was raising all the things that he was concerned about, to be honest with you. He was seeing his own kind of questioning reflected back at him. And I adore Colin Powell. I think he’s a great person, and a great American, and I remember he got up and he said, “Ms. Couric.” And I thought, “Oh God, he is pissed.” And that was just very uncomfortable.
I remember asking Laura Bush about how she felt about Roe v. Wade, and whether or not it should be overturned. And she said she thought that the number of abortions should be reduced. I said, “That’s not mutually exclusive. Do you believe Roe v. Wade should be overturned?” She said, “I think the number of abortions should be reduced.” I went at it another time, and she finally said, “I believe, I don’t think Roe v. Wade should be overturned.” This was before the inauguration for President Bush, and I know that he was angry and didn’t think it was an appropriate question, and let the president of NBC know that. But I just kept at her until she answered it. Some people would say it was badgering, and other people would say it was respectful inquisition.
On going on a date with Larry King
Jesse: When I was talking with Larry King, one of the things that struck me about him—I imagine you probably met Larry King at a gala banquet at some point, but—
Katie: I had a date with Larry King, Jesse.
Jesse: What? like a romance date?
Katie: Well I wouldn’t say it was super romantic, but yes, it was a date date.
Jesse: Oh man. That’s awesome!
Katie: I’m going to save it for my book, man. I’m going to save it for my book.
Jesse: AHHHHH, give me a break! Oh, gee whiz. OK. I’ll let you do it, out of respect to you and your book contract.
Katie: Thank you.