I'm Mad as Hell

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and I can't do a thing about it

Where is the new Ted Koppel?

Every once in a while you know you are going to say or write something that will get you into trouble. I’m afraid this is one of those instances. Some of you will disagree with me. Some of you may even be mad at me for what I’m about to write about.

After 40 years of paying close attention to television news and current affairs I’m afraid I have to report that the art of the great interview is dying.

I am amazed at the lack of interviewing talent that exists on network TV and radio in both Canada and the United States. In fact, I will go further. I am astounded at the lousy interviewers that inhabit our airwaves today.

Pretty much everyone agrees that Ted Koppel was a great interviewer when he hosted Nightline at ABC. In my mind he was the best interviewer I have ever seen or heard. His interviews were always focused. He asked the questions the audience wanted answered. He never competed with his guests. He was fearless, never backing away from asking the tough questions. He always did his homework. He was an even better listener than he was a talker. He never failed to follow up when a guest said something that needed follow up. In short, he was an interviewing god. Every television and radio host should be forced to watch a thousand hours of Ted’s work so they can see how it should be done.

There have been other great interviewers. Edward R. Murrow was a pioneer on television. The hosts of 60 Minutes have distinguished themselves. I am sure I am missing many, many great broadcasters from the golden ages of TV and radio. But who stands out today? Name somebody? When I asked friends and colleagues this question most were stumped. One said Charlie Rose. Are you kidding? He never asks a tough question. He spends most of his time trying to look smart and in the process talks about things no audience member knows or cares about. His interviews are about Charlie Rose, not his guests. Another mentioned Bill Moyers. Still another friend said Farid Zakaria; interesting names, but not a real interview “star” among them. More interesting still is that not a single Canadian broadcaster came up on anyone’s list.

Heck, Canada is the country that produced Barbara Frum and Patrick Watson. They were both icons of the interview, fearless questioners who put the audience first in their attempts to get to the heart of a story. So what is happening here in the great white north?

For most of my lifetime the CBC, especially CBC radio has distinguished itself with excellent hosts and interviewers. I already mentioned Barbara Frum but Michael Enright, Marylou Finley and Linden MacIntyre stand out as broadcasters. They dominated the national radio scene when they were on Sunday Morning and As It Happens. Many people loved Peter Gzowski. I didn’t. I thought his interviews were about Peter. I would call him a great radio personality not an especially good interviewer. I once heard him compare himself to Nobel Laureate I.B. Singer when he was interviewing him. I also heard him tell Annie Lennox that he had never heard of her and then ask her why she was a guest on his show.

Michael Enright is still doing a fine job hosting on Sunday mornings. Linden MacIntyre is still doing great work on The Fifth Estate but where is the new crop of talent? The CBC claims they want younger viewers but most of their young talent is not up to the task. For sure George Stroumboulopoulos is glib and personable but does anyone expect great insight or fierce journalism from George? I think not. Jian Ghomeshi always sounds like he is reading his questions from a script. He doesn’t listen to his guests. I know this because there is seldom follow up when a guest says something surprising. As far as the journalists are concerned, Peter Mansbridge is obviously a news reader when he interviews. There is seldom the feeling of a discussion and far too often he goes into Charlie Rose mode, trying to show how smart he is and forgetting that there’s an audience watching. The only time Anna Maria Tremonti surprises is when she asks another inane question that is far off topic. The Current is everything that’s wrong with CBC radio today, simplistic stories, bad guests, poor questions, I can’t think of anything that’s good about the show.

So who do I like? I think Steve Paikin at TV Ontario is the best interviewer in Canada today. I think he could be a little tougher; it upsets me when he starts a tough question with “some people say” or “some people think” as if it is not his question, but on the whole he is more engaged and more informed than anyone I see or hear today. He also brings one more big plus to his interviews: he seems genuinely excited to be there. You can be both entertained and informed by a Steve Paikin interview, a rare combination these days.

While I’ve got your attention I want to mention some former broadcasters who seldom get their due and one radio host who deserves to be lauded for his fine work. Norm Perry was the real deal when he hosted Canada AM. He was always prepared and the story always came first. He never got the attention he deserved.

I worked for two years with Larry Solway. Most of you don’t know who he is but let me assure you, I never worked with a better interviewer. He was tough, honest, smart and always thoroughly prepared.

I was lucky enough to do work with Valerie Pringle on a show for Vision TV. She was amazing. Her depth of knowledge and understanding of the issues was almost superhuman given the circumstances. She never failed to make a bad interview work and a good interview better.

Finally I want to give kudos to Bob McCown. He is hidden away on sports radio and television but he is the consummate broadcaster. He knows how to get to the nub of a story as well as anyone in the business and perhaps more important he understands that his job is to both entertain and inform.

Interviewing is a fine art. I hope the folks who run TV and radio in this country appreciate the difficulty and complexity it entails and look more critically at what they have and as important what they don’t have. If they do we may yet see more Ted Koppels and Barbara Frums on our airwaves in the future.

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11 Responses

  1. hannah says:

    Jon Stewart. Sorry I can’t come up with anyone Canadian. But Jon Stewart’s interviewing on the Daily Show, some of which is more akin to skewering, is brilliant.

  2. Lon says:

    Until we restore truth to where it belongs… to where it actually matters and can move us more deeply than all the techniques of cliched, cheaply-produced, celebrity-filled drama… then rest assured, Howard, you will be writing more of these kinds of pieces.

  3. Steve Paikin says:

    Howard: I’m truly honoured to read that last post of yours. I’m not sure anyone would agree with your assessment of my interviewing skills, my parents included. But I’m grateful, not only for the kudos, but also for the constructive criticism. Thank you.

  4. Alex says:

    Bill Maher, the McCowan of political entertainment. Except for those shallow 1×1 celebrity fawnings, he doesn’t hide behind hypocritical politeness to go for the jugular. And he gets interesting answers which is the measure of good interviewing.

  5. stuSib says:

    I think Steve Paikin should head up CNN.

  6. Brad says:

    Well said across the board.

    People who knew me well growing up, are shocked to find out I mostly listen to Bob McCown’s show when commuting (I was a passionate CBC radio listener back in the 80s and 90s when that was far from a cool thing for a young man, and likewise I have never had more than a tepid interest in pro sports).

    As I’ve tried to explain, at least McCown understands reporting, interviews, and stories – and execution is far more important than source material. That’s what most people don’t get when they talk (or search) for a great interviewer or host. It’s not about finding someone with an underlying magic charisma – it’s about finding people who understand how to relay information to best engage an audience.

  7. James Wicks says:

    Barbara Walters once told me, you’re not doing your job as an interviewer if you’re listening to yourself talk instead of listening to the answers.

    With respect to Ms. Walters, I believe that being a great listener is only one ingredient that helps makes up a great interviewer. Having support from management that encourages and fosters great interviews is absolutely instrumental.

    The trouble, as I see it, is that television is at a crossroads in much the same way as the horse and buggy was when the automobile was introduced. Television, for the most part, has not changed since it was introduced in the mid-20th century, issues of quality aside.

    The shiny new invention that threatens the television horse and buggy is Internet/Mobile communications. In this new age of ‘anyone can do it, anytime from anywhere’ communications, where does that leave great interviewers, thoughtful analysis, and so forth?

    During my time as Anchor, Reporter and Managing Editor, some of it at CBC, I have interviewed many of the world leaders, newsmakers and names in the news. And yet for all my effort to ask thoughtful, probing questions, my father – one of the unsung pioneers of CBC – used to say to me, “that one was good, but you’re no Lloyd McInnis.”

    To my dad, Lloyd McInnis, WAS journalism, and CBC journalism at its best.

    I had the privilege of working alongside Steve Paikin at CBC Toronto. We were both practitioners of television journalism, striving to be the best that we could be by doing our job the best that we could.

    Steve and I, and others, were also the products of the great visionaries who hired us. Unfortunately, many of those same visionaries are no longer in the business.

    The great interviewers are still out there somewhere, and they’re still asking great questions by listening. The question is, is any one else listening, too.

    • hlbtoo says:

      Jim…I would hope that the cream would rise to the top no matter what changes occur in the way the audience watches TV…but for that to happen the people in charge have to be able to recognize quality when they see it. I have seen no evidence that broadcast execs in the 21st century understand anything about TV other than the bottom line. TV is now run by accountants who have no idea about quality and creativity.

      • James Wicks says:

        You are absolutely correct, no argument here.

        You were instrumental in my career, to which I am eternally grateful. I miss working with you, and for you. Given the opportunity, I would do so again in a New York minute.

        CBC, and for that matter, television in general, needs good people like you.

        Best,
        J

  8. James Wicks says:

    btw – The future is now.
    Check this out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nPomCvOBaPk&feature=player_embedded#at=52

    And, at :50 seconds in, listen for what Ryan has termed this new form of journalism.

    Folks, the field isn’t changing – it’s changed.

    Best,
    J

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