Nobody Gives Good Interview Anymore

There was a time before cable news channels. A time when network news programs like 60 minutes reined supreme. It was the golden age of the interview, before the proliferation of cable news pundits whose interviews dissolve into barking cacophonies of accusations. The world we live in is not much of an exaggeration from the one in which James Franco's impudent Dave Skylark scores an exclusive sit-down with Kim Jong Un.

In our cable wasteland, we're served a buffet of low-hanging fruit. Reality TV stars and rich men who have cheated on their wives used to be a guilty pleasure, an amusing aside to fill the gaps between a coveted sit-down with a head of state, or an author of some work that was shaking up the social consciousness.

Not only has the quality of guests dropped in the last, say fifteen years, now one is hard-pressed to see an interviewer take the guest to task with serious questions. Instead of either backing a cantankerous subject into a corner until they break as did Richard Nixon in his one on one with Robert Frost, or lulling a flighty personality into a state of vulnerable revelations, most appearances are carefully coordinated marketing tools.

That's not to say that TV appearances and the the sit down interview format hasn't always been used by the subject as good publicity (no one would appear unless they thought it was good for them). What used to count as a seismic event on the journalism landscape, now is replicated ad nausea with a journalistic facade.

Perhaps no one person did more to establish an interview style that became a standard than Mike Wallace. From his earliest days on CBS sparring with Ayn Rand to his seasoned conversations with Louis Farakhan, Wallace developed a technique of questioning that was simultaneously tough and unfiltered; while confrontational, he was never disrespectful.

This was the style that characterized 60 Minutes and colleagues including Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters. While most of their subjects were newsworthy individuals, the distribution was a diverse spectrum of statesmen, celebrities, murder suspects, witnesses to history, etc. Meanwhile it was the style of other programs such as the news format in which Larry King presented guests, along with the rise of daytime talk shows that parlayed the format into info-tainment.

Celebrities visited the The Tonight Show while authors and politicians were the domain of network news specials. The Larry King style of interview differed greatly from the traditional Mike Wallace school of questioning in an important way. Whereas Wallace was a newsman, Larry King's style was to let the guests, almost all entertainers, ramble on with little guidance and almost completely unchallenged. It was no different than an appearance on The Dick Cavet Show except it was presented in a news format.

Since then isn't just the format that's changed for better or for worse, but also the very criteria for who gets to be a "news-maker..."

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