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The Best Ways to Ask Questions

The Best Ways to Ask Questions
Credit: Movies Geeks

Parsing the noun and verb of “interview.”

On a March day in 2002, Walter Cronkite, Mikhail Gorbachev, Iggy Pop, and Donald Trump were all in the same New York City studio, on West 15th Street. The reason? Each had an interview with Errol Morris.

For the 74th Academy Awards, Morris—a private investigator turned documentary filmmaker—interviewed dozens of people for a four-minute film about movies. Trump recalled “seeing King Kong try and conquer New York,” and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady claimed he had seen Braveheart 150 times. “I like Bad Lieutenant, which was sort of a dark, seamy side of the police,” says Ellen Thorton, herself a New York Police Department employee. “But I like Harvey Keitel.”

Morris also interviewed then-First Lady Laura Bush, whose aide provided Morris with a list of five questions and Bush’s scripted answers. “The first question the aide had provided for me was, ‘What’s your favorite movie?’ The sheet said The Wizard of Oz,” wrote Morris years later. “So I asked, incredulously, ‘Is The Wizard of Oz really your favorite movie?’”

One could argue that the sign an interview has been successful is when a reporter exits the dialogue with more information than he entered it with. By that measure, Morris was successful even before he’d asked Bush a question. But a single question has countless potential answers, from the brief and opaque to the long and winding. The Wizard of Oz satisfied the question, sure. But it didn’t satisfy Morris.

Nor did it satisfy his subject. The first lady’s favorite movie, she told Morris, was actually Giant, a Texas ranch drama and one of James Dean’s final films.

“I think an interview, properly considered, should be an investigation,” wrote Morris after he interviewed Bush. “You shouldn’t know what the interview will yield. Otherwise, why do it at all?”

An interview is often a journalist’s first creative act—the generation of raw material that will provide the substance of a story. And while interviews are a front line in a reporter’s fact-gathering efforts, that line can be a blurry one. Conversations have flexible boundaries that reporters and their subjects must negotiate together. The best journalists know that “interview” is both noun and verb; it’s a space that is painstakingly constructed through generative questions and active listening.

In 1992, Susan Orlean profiled 10-year-old Colin Duffy for Esquire magazine. Her story, “The American Man, Age 10,” is the product of a great deal of trust and collaboration between reporter and subject. Orlean doesn’t waste words describing her conversations with Colin. Rather, her sentences are richly layered with the products of those conversations. “If Colin Duffy and I were to get married, we would have matching superhero notebooks,” writes Orlean. She continues:

“We would eat pizza and candy for all of our meals. We wouldn't have sex, but we would have crushes on each other and, magically, babies would appear in our home. We would win the lottery and then buy land in Wyoming, where we would have one of every kind of cute animal.”

For reporters, time will always be precious. Orlean spent “a couple of weeks” with Colin to gather the material she used for her story. Most journalists have hours, if that. But time will always feel scarce in the presence of rewarding dialogue. Orlean’s profile shows her willingness to co-investigate Colin’s life patiently, in what time she had.

The audience’s time is also precious. In July, Fox News religion correspondent Lauren Green interviewed Reza Aslan, a scholar of religion and author of Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Green focused her questions on Aslan’s Muslim faith and his motives for writing about Christianity. The interview was later linked from, where it attracted more than 5 million views, under the headline “Is This the Most Embarrassing Interview Fox News Has Ever Done?”

The interview should certainly embarrass Green. During their exchange, she dismisses Aslan’s reasons for studying Jesus, asks the scholar to respond to criticism before explaining his research on his own terms, and suggests he keeps his own religious identity under wraps. “I believe that you’ve been on several programs and never disclosed that you’re a Muslim,” says Green—a statement Aslan promptly dismisses with evidence from his book. Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple dissected her interview tactics and criticized her approach as that of “an interviewer who hasn’t read the book in question.” Without accusing her of willful ignorance, Wemple says Green “shows no evidence of having read the book.”

The greater offense is this: Green’s questions leave little room for new information, which deprives her audience of the same. Just as Green is arguably free to choose her questions, so are we free to choose our channels. If journalists value our time, they will use their own to better inform us, rather than isolate us from new information.

Remember Morris’s advice. “You shouldn’t know what the interview will yield. Otherwise, why do it at all?” By repeatedly questioning Aslan’s faith and motives, Green suggested something like disbelief without evidence, a conclusion without an argument. Green had resources available to her—a book’s worth of material, 10 minutes with the author, time for her own background research. Instead, she disregarded her resources along with her viewers who, at worst, were left like Green herself, repeating the same question, never nearing an answer.