A lot has changed in the “big get” TV interview business since ABC’s Barbara Walters and “60 Minutes” correspondent Steve Kroft began.
While the personal approach used to work back in the day, both TV journalists said Tuesday that there are now plenty of handlers between interviewer and interviewee.
“Even murderers have agents and lawyers,” Walters told the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta during a panel attended by the likes of former New York Mayor Ed Koch, Sony chairman Howard Stringer and others of Manhattan’s media elite.
Everyone is now press-savvy, Walters said. Interview subjects now ask how many minutes they’ll get on air and other questions that used to be left unsaid. And, as Kroft mentioned, most people want to get on the air only to serve their purposes, like pushing a book or some other profit-making enterprise.
“It’s like landing an advertising account. You have to do a song and dance,” Kroft said. “It’s very distasteful.”
Neither network star was upbeat about the future of the broadcast evening newscasts. Kroft said that he thought the future of an evening newscast would be on cable.
“I don’t know if it’ll be on CBS or ABC or NBC,” Kroft said. “The medium seems to be losing steam.”
Walters went even further: “The only programs that will be here 10 years from now are the morning shows. Everything else you can TiVo or see on the Internet.”
Restrictions can stifle an interviewer
An interviewee’s press-savvyness sometimes extends to the questions that can be asked. Walters said that in her upcoming Oscar night program, she was told by actress Anne Hathaway’s press people that there would be no questions about her jailed ex-boyfriend.
“But you can say, ‘What kind of year has it been?’” Walters said. She said that she has walked out of interviews because of too many restrictions.
Walters said that it’s crucial for interviewers to do their homework and know more about their subjects than the people who are in front of the camera. Kroft said that it’s important to not only figure out the questions but also think ahead of time about possible answers. And he took issue with New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm’s oft-quoted article about how journalists betray their sources to do their job.
“The only thing you can promise them is to be fair,” Kroft said. “You talk about betrayal. I think your only responsibility is to the audience.”
Kroft said that Walters’ reputation is strong because she hasn’t burned too many people.
“I may lose that whole reputation being on ‘The View,’” Walters said of the daytime program she co-created. She said that “The View” co-hosts aren’t journalists, but they do ask lots of questions, sometimes to the annoyance of subjects. She pointed to the experience of former GOP presidential candidate John McCain, who was told by Joy Behar that he “lied.” Walters saw McCain two weeks ago in Washington and said she hoped to see him on “The View” again.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Not anytime soon,’” Walters said.
If you were a tree...
But Walters wanted to clear up any misconceptions about her reputation of making people cry. It isn’t on purpose, she said.
“It’s because I ask them about their childhood, especially when I ask them about their fathers,” Walters said. “It’s always the father.”
And she defended herself about her query to Katharine Hepburn about what kind of tree the actress was, saying that forever she’d be associated with that question. But Walters maintained that Hepburn brought it up first, saying on camera that she was “an old tree.” Nobody heard that but they sure did hear her follow-up, Walters said.
“If someone told you that they were a tree, wouldn’t you ask, ‘What kind of tree?’” she asked Auletta and the audience. “I rest my case.”
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Auletta got some ribbing from the ABC News legend by introducing her as “Babwa Wa-Wa,” channeling the late Gilda Radner’s impression on “Saturday Night Live.”
“Don’t do that,” Walters said. “I’m just amazed at you. I’m leaving.”
“You did that to (Walters’ former ABC News co-anchor) Harry Reasoner,” Auletta joked. “Don’t do that to me.”
Walters said she had initially been hurt by the impression but later decided it was no big deal. She even asked Radner to do it for her, in person.