Q&A: Ray Suarez on holding the powerful accountable

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.

This episode features Ray Suarez, a visiting professor at Amherst College and the former host of “Inside Story” on Al Jazeera America. An edited transcript is below.

 

THE FIRST INTERVIEW

Jesse Thorn: So, Ray, what was the first time that you ever interviewed somebody?

Ray Suarez: The real first time was for a school project in seventh grade. I had just gotten a tape recorder as a Christmas gift, and we were assigned to interview somebody. I interviewed my father, who was a barber, about barbering.

Jesse: Barbering?

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Ray: B-A-R-B-E-R-I-N-G. Barbering.

Jesse: How did you end up getting a tape recorder for your birthday? Is that what you asked for?

Ray: Yes. I was interested in recording things: the sounds of things, music, people talking. I thought it was interesting. I thought it was something that would be good for me to know how to do.

Jesse: How old were you at the time?

Ray: What was I then? 12, I guess.

Jesse: That is a very weird interest for a 12-year-old.

Ray: Yeah I guess. But cassette tape recorders were still pretty new, and it sounded like an exciting thing to be able to record things.

Jesse: What were you actually recording?

Ray: Traffic, my friends, a lot of music, and things off the radio, recording disc jockeys doing their work. I recorded a lot of different things.
 

Talking to people who don’t want to talk to you is a whole different [thing]. It’s almost so different that it’s a different discipline and a different craft altogether.

 

‘BOTHERING PEOPLE’

Jesse: Did you feel comfortable right from the start doing, this is the unkind way of putting it, the kind of bothering people that’s required for the job?

Ray: I had to learn. A lot of the reporting I did as a young guy, figuring out how to do it, involved people who expected to be interviewed: elected officials, police spokesman, fire department spokesman, people involved negotiating for unions during a municipal strike. So they know that that’s part of the game. They have a pretty good idea of what they’re going to tell you, and you have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to ask. There’s something almost formulaic about that. Talking to people who don’t want to talk to you is a whole different [thing]. It’s almost so different that it’s a different discipline and a different craft altogether.
 

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Jesse: How’s it different?

Ray: You have to convince the person on the other end of the transaction that you are operating on good faith. That you are not going to try to trap them or screw them or deal dishonestly with them. And that the whole thing will go better if you just talk to me. It’s an honest con, con being short for confidence. You are entering into a very intimate transaction. You’re walking into somebody’s living room. You’re walking in the alleyway between two houses and happening on people in their backyards. You’re talking to people who are coming out of funeral homes. These are not people who want to talk to you, and you have to present yourself to them, tell them who they are, and then get them to do the last thing they want to do in life, which is talk to you.

Jesse: Can you think of a time that you had to talk someone into talking to you?

Ray: The people who are the survivors, or loved ones, of criminals or crime victims, are very hard people to talk to, and have abundant reasons why they wouldn’t want to talk to you. But part of the job is that reporters, especially local reporters, end up talking to a lot of people like that. First they say, “No.” And the boss doesn’t buy “no.” You don’t go back and say, “Well I tried to talk to Mrs. So-and-so and Mr. So-and-So, and they just said no.” If you bring that answer back to the newsroom often enough, you are not going to have a great career I can promise you that. So you have to find a way, a set of approaches, a bag of tricks, to try to pierce that initial, “No” and not be jerky about it. Often you’re getting ready to talk to people who are at their worst. They can’t imagine life being worse than it is right now. And yet you’ve been given the assignment, the task, of talking to them. It’s not happy work. I think it does serve some social purpose, beyond just being ghoulish or feeding somebody’s interest at the other end of the radio in what went down.
 

You are entering into a very intimate transaction. You’re walking into somebody’s living room.

 

DIFFERENT APPROACHES

Jesse: Do you ask different kinds of stuff to somebody who is not used to being interviewed?

Ray: You bet. Because they don’t think of their lives in a way that they are prepared to immediately package it and make it digestible and transmittable right off the top of their head. When you’re interviewing someone who’s not used to being interviewed, you could really treat them badly and exploit them. You can make them sound stupid. You could make them sound incapable. I think that would be tremendously unfair. So sometimes you have to start and stop the interview. You have to give them a chance to compose themselves when they say, “Wait, wait. Can I start again?” If you’re a jerk, you bear in, tighten up the shot and just start barking at them. If you’re a moral person, and also someone who wants to get a good interview out of the process, you say, “No, no, no, no. Really. Just take a minute. We’ll stop, and we’ll start again.” People who are used to being interviewed and people who have a reason to be interviewed: They’re selling a book, they want you to believe what they told the jury, they’re running for office. They are very clear about what they want to accomplish in talking to you. People who are suddenly in your ambit and you’re getting something out of them, they have to be treated differently, just out of decency.
 
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PERSONAL POLITICS

Jesse: How do your own personal political beliefs or convictions shape the way that you talk to a politician, or think about talking to a politician?

Ray: Well, to a very large degree you have to set that aside because you work for your employer. If there is ever a Ray Suarez channel on some program offering, I suppose I can bring my own political convictions, or my ideas, or my pet notions into it. But you really have to set that aside to keep faith with your audience. They will not believe the things you say if you apparently are pulling on one side of the rope in the great tug of war of ideas. Once I had I had a problem with a senator here in Washington, and he said, “You were really unfair to me the last time we spoke.” I said, “Senator, I had to ask you those questions. How could I ask you anything else? What would be unfair to you is not making you defend those ideas. You were talking to over a million people. You’re there to explain that your ideas about this situation are good ones. That’s not unfair, to make you do that.”
 

INTERVIEW PREP

Jesse: Are there things that you write down or commit to memory before you start interviewing someone?

Ray: Yes. I go in with a single page with maybe 10 phrases written on it, which are either quotes from the person, quotes that are germane to the story that I’m trying to tell, or points that I need to hit in the interview to make sure that I’ve hit all the necessary things. They are not written questions. They’re more like mental prompts. So that if you get sidetracked and start talking about things that you didn’t necessarily intend, you’ll remember that you need this. A little bit of sound on this thing is part of what you set out to do before this interview started. It is a very old habit, and it’s served me very well.

Jesse: Can you give me an example from your memory of what kinds of things were written on a piece of paper for a particular interview?

Ray: You imagine an interview has an arc: a place where it starts in order to make sense, a middle passage where you’re really doing the work of grinding out the expository factual basis for it, and a way that it ends, beyond just saying, “OK. Thank you. Goodbye.” So there’s a hierarchy of ideas written down on the piece of paper. The things I have to get to at the top. The things I want to get to in the middle. Then, if there’s time, something that I might want to just keep in my hip pocket that might charm the person, or surprise them that I know that, or surprise them that I know that in a bad way. If you put that right at the top, then the person is guarded, unwilling to share, unwilling to talk for the rest of the interview. You got to put it at the end. Not as a way of sandbagging them but as a strategic question, so that you don’t have somebody who clams up and is becoming too careful. So if you’re interviewing, let’s say, the head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on immigration, there are certain things that are in today’s news, so you put a phrase in the top, “presidential proposal.” Then you’ll put, “border arrests.” A lot of kids have been showing up, and there’s a lot of concern about what the government is doing with the kids once they’re taken into custody. They’re just phrases that remind you of what it is you’re setting out to talk about. So that in the course of the interview you don’t get distracted.
 

LEVITY

Jesse: Do you ever smile and laugh when you’re interviewing a senator?

Ray: Rarely. Unless they lie so unconvincingly that I can’t stifle the smile and have to then move on to my devastating follow up question while smiling. [Laughs] It’s rare that a senator says anything that’s funny enough to elicit a laugh.

Jesse: Have you ever laughed in the face of a powerful interviewee?

Ray: Yeah, there have been times where I’ve said, “I can’t believe you just said that.” And usually that rocks them back on their heels a little bit and they reconsider a blatant, naked, pathetic, falsehood. And then they come back and restate for the record.

Jesse: Are you thinking of a time that that actually happened?

Ray: I have said to people, “Are you sure you want to say that? I can’t believe you just said that. Oh, excuse me, I think you just said…” and I repeat back to them what they just said. There are all kinds of ways of showing them where the boundary is and signaling to them that they just crossed it.
 

The Turnaround is available on MaximumFun.org. You can also subscribe on Apple Podcasts to get new episodes as they become available.

Photo credit: Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for The New Yorker

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.