Television

09.07.13

David Frost and the Art of the Interview

Even in death, the British TV host was disparaged for not asking the tough question. But David Frum says those critics couldn’t see his subtle genius.

“You have to decide whether you like asking questions or whether you like giving answers.”

That was the advice a TV producer offered a friend of mine newly started in the industry. That advice seems old-fashioned in these days of the highly opinionated TV host. Jon Stewart, Rachel Maddow, Oprah Winfrey, Sean Hannity: Each in his or her own way plays both sides of the tennis net.

So perhaps what we were mourning in the passing of David Frost was the passing of a style of a TV era: the era of TV as a public forum, before it divided into dozens of Beirut-style mutually hostile enclaves.

This may explain why so much of the commentary about Frost’s life hinted (sometimes delicately, sometimes not so delicately) that this famed interviewer was less-than-spectacularly-successful at his job. Here’s John Podhoretz in the Weekly Standard reviewing Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon:

“The Frost interview [of Richard Nixon] ran for six hours over four nights, everybody in the world watched it, and no one ever gave it a second thought.”

Howard himself would not have disagreed: Frost’s acknowledged lightweightedness as an interviewer was the premise on which the movie was built.

I had the experience of being interviewed by Frost in the final years of his career, at Al Jazeera English. He wasn’t much interested in the interview. He had a series of questions for me, pretty obviously written for him by a segment producer. He dutifully worked his way through them. I replied with answers I’d delivered often before. Frost only lit up after the cameras shut down, when I asked him how much money he was making from the theatrical version of Frost/Nixon that had just opened in London.

But was he really so substance-free as represented?

Here’s Frost interviewing Yoko Ono in 1972.

Video screenshot

These celebrity interviewers show you what not to do in an interview.

A great interviewer, like a great cross-examiner, must know when not to attack, when to keep the subject talking, when to entice words rather than forcing them.

He asked no tough questions. He plied Ono with flattery. But he got her talking—and if you ever wanted to settle in your mind whether Ono was one of the most preposterous flakes of the 20th century, his clip contains the answer.

Frost asked Ono about her Film Number Four, a six-minute compilation of images of naked buttocks belonging to various semi-famous people. Ono self-praised the movie as a contribution to world peace.

Ono: “We wanted only intellectual bottoms.” (13:15)

Frost: “What’s the difference between an intellectual bottom and a silly bottom?”

Ono: “I think it shows. The vibrations and um ….”

His British colleagues disdained Frost because he so seldom—if ever—asked the tough question. British TV is famous for its confrontational interviewers: the Jeremy Paxman method, on display here in a clip from 1997. Paxman suspects that former British Home Secretary Michael Howard had interfered in an internal civil-service disciplinary matter. Paxman asks the same question a dozen times, culminating with the demand: “Mr. Howard, have you ever lied in any public statement?”

Paxman certainly gave Howard an uncomfortable night. But he failed to break his story. (When the full details of the matter emerged in a freedom-of-information inquiry eight years later, the facts proved so murky that it’s impossible to say even now exactly what happened.) Worse, by putting Howard on the defensive, he forestalled any possibility that Howard might have been lured into doing something much more interesting than denying any political intervention in the case: justifying it instead.

A great interviewer, like a great cross-examiner, must know when not to attack, when to keep the subject talking, when to entice words rather than forcing them.

I can’t find the clip on YouTube, but I remember well a talk that C-SPAN founder Brian Lamb once gave at the National Press Club. “Why do you always ask such softball questions?” asked someone in the audience. Unperturbed, Lamb said words to the effect: I get asked this question often. I’ll put a question to Bill Clinton or Newt Gingrich. Then I’ll hear from viewers, ‘Why didn’t you follow up? You let Clinton/Gingrich totally get away with evading the question.’ I want to tell them, ‘And if I asked a follow-up, do you think they would have evaded it a second time?’ And maybe they’d say, ‘Yes, but you could point out that they evaded the question!’ Which I could. But the viewer already noticed that the politician had evaded the question. What he’s worried about is that the guy down the street didn’t notice. And what I want viewers to realize is that the guy down the street is just as smart as they are, and noticed the same things they noticed.

My mother, Barbara Frum, was an interviewer of great fame in our native Canada. My sister Linda, who went on to great journalistic success of her own before switching to politics, once asked my mother: “What is the secret to a great interview?”

My mother answered in one sentence: “Ask short questions.”

It sounds simple, but it’s not easy. To ask short questions requires that the interviewer have formulated questions in advance. It requires that likely answers be anticipated, that elaborate “if/then” scenarios be war-gamed. It requires the mental discipline to compress thoughts into the fewest possible words. And—maybe above all—it requires the humility to see that the guest, not the host, must be the segment’s proper and only center of attention.

Rare qualities all. David Frost came closer than many to manifesting them. Ave atque vale.