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After a high-profile or particularly controversial interview on my show, “Midweek Politics with David Pakman,” the most common email to me starts: “Why didn’t you ask (insert question here)?”
Depending on the tone and details of the email, including whether the sender has threatened never to listen to my show again or insulted me personally, I’ll respond with a simple but honest explanation.
There are countless reasons why certain questions don’t get asked during interviews. The most interesting one to me has been the omission of questions or entire topics at the request of the interviewee.
To discuss those situations, it’s necessary to introduce a common character in the world of booking guests known as the “handler,” who is an often-despised and much-needed individual by the production teams of radio and television programs. Handlers come in many types and are gatekeepers to the interviewee – publicists, managers, secretaries, even spouses. They will make the interview happen, while simultaneously acting as if mountains must be moved for their client to agree to talk to you.
In addition to their role in scheduling the interview, they will sometimes choose to exert pressure so that certain topics are – or more often, are not – mentioned during the interview. Some handlers, usually those working with the highest profile individuals, say that without a pre-submitted list of questions, there will be no interview.
I’ve never agreed to submit a list of questions, but am glad to provide a list of general topics to be covered – that’s only logical.
The political handler, working for an elected official, will often attempt to make controversial topics off-limits, and is often quite direct about it. Do not be confused: Handlers will attempt to make the interview as boring, colorless and even mind-numbing as possible, all in the interests of preventing any level of controversy – that same controversy I try to create with every guest on Midweek Politics.
The language employed by political handlers ranges from “Topic A on your list is somewhat older news; I’d be glad to suggest an alternative (and far less interesting) question” … to “Senator Doe will not address Issue B. Don’t ask about it or we won’t do another interview with you.”
With the celebrity/CEO/non-elected government official, the requests can be far different, from insisting that a certain catchphrase or brand name must be mentioned a certain number of times during the interview (I agree to mention a current project at the start and end of the interview), to asking that past romantic relationships not be brought up.
When these requests are made – and I insist, mostly to myself, that they are only requests – a decision must be made, either by me or my producer, weighing the possibilities. Those usually are:
* Option A: Agreeing to stay away from the topic in question, and actually staying away from it. This is the easiest, and leads to the most uninteresting interview.
* Option B: Refusing to stay away from the topic, and giving a reason why. This sometimes works.
* Option C: Agreeing to stay away from the topic in question, but then asking about it anyway during the interview. This is the riskiest option, as well as the most interesting.
The top interviewers on national television and radio programs are more likely to succeed with option B without losing the interview, and less likely to face negative repercussions for option C.
As a young and relatively unknown interviewer, I need to pick my battles. In situations where offending the guest or being on poor terms with their staff would negatively affect the future of my program, or where there was a legitimate reason to avoid a certain topic – for example, an ongoing legal case – I’ve been conciliatory.
On the other hand, with politicians unlikely to return to my program, regardless of what I ask, I’ll go with Options B or C. The same goes for guests for whom the publicity of offending them would actually be better than getting along fine in a boring interview.
Before an interview with a music producer whose works from the last 25 years most readers would recognize, I was asked to stay away from questions about their personal politics. Normally, asking about a music producer’s personal politics wouldn’t be interesting.
However, this individual was on the show for putting out an overtly political song just before a national election; that is, his politics were the single and sole premise for the interview. Avoiding that topic would have been irresponsible and yielded incredibly boring radio.
Hilariously enough, the handler’s suggested replacement question was “where would you like to see American music go in the future?” I can’t imagine a more softball, pointless question to waste on what at best would be a five-minute interview.
David Pakman, host of “Midweek Politics with David Pakman,” writes a monthly column. If your newspaper or website is interested in running the column, contact us.