The Obama Interviews: Who Did it Best?

Does who is doing the asking change what is being said?

Jack Shafer does not think much of the presidential interview, calling it the “most overrated get in all of journalism.” When you deconstruct it, it’s easy to see the interview as little more than a prestige-building exercise. The org that snags the interview gets bragging rights. The president gets a chance to promote his carefully considered, carefully framed views to an audience selected in accordance with his communication team’s strategy. This appears to be the thinking behind the president’s recent, sometimes surprising spate of interviews, targeted toward a younger, social-media savvy demographic.

“It’s great for me,” he says at the end of his January 22 interview with YouTube “creators” Hank Green, GloZell Green and Bethany Mota, “because more and more there are audiences that get turned off by the traditional news shows, or the traditional debates, so for me to be able to reach your audiences and just hopefully give them a sense of — that what we do here in Washington, what the government does actually matters, and makes a difference in their lives. I hope this has been useful.”

But what does the audience get out of this carefully choreographed pas de deux? Has anything changed in giving new or social media enterprises their chance with the president? Has creative disruption disrupted the pro-forma nature of the thing?

What you see at first glance when looking at BuzzFeed’s and Vox’s sit-downs with the president is what you always see:  white men who speak in the mannered tones that are a product of their upbringing and education. Compare this to the president’s three YouTube interviewers, two of whom were women of color. Even the in situ reproduction of the YouTubers’ sets inside the White House provides a refreshing departure from traditional flag and fireplace or staid charcoal gray backgrounds. More than the others, the production quality of Vox’s videos (which garnered a combined total of 130,161 views according to the YouTube count) — from its background music to the extreme in-profile closeups — proselytizes the seriousness of its endeavor.

It is hard to fault an organization less than a year old, one that needs to establish credibility in its explainer-driven mission, for choosing to take this tone. We would have liked, however, for that component to have made more of an impact. Charts and graphs that complement the president’s policy points appear on the screen as he speaks. Some are useful, but most become lost in visual noise, or are themselves a part of that noise. “Technology, which brings the world to us,” says the president in response to a question on polarization. He spreads his hands as he speaks, and in that space, four lime-green boxes appear. They squish together as the president draws his hands together, then stack vertically in time to the president saying “narrow our point of view.” It’s a distraction that contributes nothing in the way of insight.

In a reflection of BuzzFeed’s dual identity as informer and entertainer, BuzzFeed Motion Pictures produced a short of the president being just like us — goofing off in front of the mirror,  making a sketch of the first lady, sinking imaginary baskets — to accompany the videos of the interview. Unsurprisingly, the view count for the short dominated: 24,022,441 Facebook views and counting, to the combined total of 1,641,295 Facebook views the interview videos garnered.

If the early lesson from the BuzzFeed and Vox interviews is that the presidential interview is an innovation-proof format, owed to a combination of the impenetrable interview skills of a master politician and the pull for media organizations to revert to tradition in the face of such an [optically] monumental moment, the questions become the place to look for insight.

You could see in them a reflection of each brand’s mission. Vox said as much in its introduction, that it was seeking from the president his “theory of America’s political and policy problems,” going with broad, technocratic questions that are Vox’s bailiwick. BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith cleverly winnowed his questions from the narrow to the self-referentially specific, as when he mentioned a BuzzFeed report on how Staples is trying to avoid paying for employee healthcare, in a question on the Affordable Care Act.  It was a great move for an organization that has put so much money and effort into its news operation. Even though BuzzFeed made a big do about polling its audience for questions, it appears that only a few — a question on felony convictions for marijuana users, one on the ACA and gender reassignment surgery —  made the cut. The YouTube interviewers, whose model relies on maintaining an intimate, familiar connection with users, often brought their audience’s interests and experiences into questions on issues as diverse as college affordability and industry insiders hired to be government regulators.

There was some overlapping questions among all three, but the YouTube questions provided enough of a departure to remind us that the information needs of media organizations are not always consistent with those of the public at large. While Vox and BuzzFeed asked the president questions on the nuances of campaign and political strategy, Bethany Mota asked why younger people should be interested in politics at all. It is an answer we all struggle to deliver.