by Dave Lieber
Dallas Morning News columnist
Like you, I have many books on my shelf about writing. One that I loved when I was starting out 40 years ago is about the art of the interview. It’s a dying art. These days, I don’t get to do many interviews. My sources usually don’t want to meet me. They won’t invite me to their office. They don’t want to look me in the eye.
Today, more likely, I will hear the following: “Send us your questions in writing.” They want to answer my emailed questions by committee and, of course, with lawyerly review. Usually, a couple of days later, I get a boilerplate reply, often right on deadline, which goes something like this:
“AT&T acknowledges this error and apologizes to the customer. Our values are not reflected in
how we handled this incident. We are sending our employees back for retraining. We thank you for pointing this out.”
Using the above example, only once in a dozen years of covering AT&T – which I consider to be America’s worst mega company – did I get invited to AT&T offices for an actual interview.
Who invited me? Randall Stevenson, the CEO/Chairman/President/Grand Poobah of the megacorp. Mr. CEO invited me to his office earlier this year to show how concerned he is about customer service. I previously wrote – in error, he said – that he didn’t care about his customers.
For this rare in-person meeting, I returned to my roots as an interviewer. Unlike his minions, the CEO did not ask for my questions in writing. But he did begin the interview with these unforgettable words:
“I called your publisher to talk about you. I’ve never called a publisher before.”
The interview was probably a mistake on his part. My initial story was positive about him and it served him well. I painted a human face on a corporate villain.
But a second column — one in which I showed that he didn’t believe he had the authority to stop the scourge of robocalls – turned out to be a PR disaster for him. Consumers Union saw the story, checked with the Federal Communications Commission and verified that the CEO was wrong. He could stop robocalls – if he wanted.
How did the FCC handle this? FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler appointed the CEO to head an emergency Strike Force group to fix the problem of spam phone calls. He gave him two months. That’s an extra – and probably unwanted second job – for one of the world’s most powerful CEOs. All because he invited me to a sit-down. Even his dozens of flacks know it’s simpler to say, “Send us your questions in writing.”
Interviews pay off in new information, sources and more story ideas. The death of the interview fits into the larger problem of newsrooms where reporters don’t feel the need to step outside. Email is easier. Phones work. Why go out?
I force myself to go out. I try to get interviews. I want to return to olden days when I look sources in the eye, see how they react to my questions and learn new questions to ask based on previous answers.
For the most part, those days are over. I’m sad about that, along with everything else that is happening to journalism.
Dave Lieber is The Watchdog investigative columnist for The Dallas Morning News. DaveLieber.org @DaveLieber.