We’ve been waiting weeks now to pick the brain of The Weekly Standard/The Daily Caller‘s Matt Labash for our Tricks of the Trade interview. Credentials: His qualifications for answering these questions? They are many. But he wrote Fly Fishing With Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys. In his advice column, Labash, an avid fly fisherman, has addressed everything from mail order brides, served as a wedding planner and unabashedly la-bashed Oprah and her best friend Gayle for fly fishing in Yosemite. “Good God in heaven, is nothing sacred?” he asked. “I saw the same picture on Field & Stream’s Fly Talk blog. And not since they made us watch a slide show of partial-birth abortions at my Operation Rescue Father’s Day picnic have I been so disturbed by an image.”
1. Favorite Interview Technique I generally lead off with “Why do you hate the Jews?” Most of the time they don’t hate the Jews (though once, when I asked it, a country singer’s wife surprised me by saying: “Do you want just one reason?”) But most find the question so disturbing that they’ll often gratefully answer whatever I ask next. Which is why my follow-up question is usually, “What are you running from?”
2. Most Compelling Question You’ve Ever Asked The Jews question isn’t good enough for you? Pass. At the risk of sounding like a tool, my job isn’t to ask compelling questions that stand on their own as beautifully-constructed gems. Maybe if you work in TV, you have to be more aware of that. My job is to elicit compelling answers. Which oftentimes result from the most carelessly formed questions. Mainly, I just try to make people relax and trust me. So that when they start opening a vein, they don’t even notice they’re doing so.
3. Best Self-Editing Approach Self-editing? What’s that? That’s what we have editors for. My aim is to get away with whatever I can. If they want to stop me, that’s their business. Actually, I read everything I write, right down to grocery lists, many, many times before turning something in. Oftentimes, I’ll do so aloud. It helps you hear the dead spots in your sentences.
4. What to do When an Interview is Tanking Order drinks. And plenty of them. This isn’t to condone drinking, though I do. But drinking isn’t just for quieting the voices and making the hurt stop. If properly employed, it can be a useful tool in the journalism toolkit. When people drink, they relax. When they relax, they talk freely. When they talk freely, you get better material, write better stories, get promoted, and win prestigious awards. Bourbon is your friend. So is the tape recorder, in case you have too much of it.
5. Approaching Lawmakers and other “Important People” Be interested and ever curious, but don’t suck up to them. They’re used to being sucked up to. Most people in their world are sycophants. If they come to view you as a peer, or at least not as a sycophant, you’ll get better stuff. At the same time, don’t come off like Truth’s Avenger. If you want to be Robert Redford as Bob Woodward in the movie in your head, that’s up to you. But don’t punish your subjects with your delusions. No matter the shell you’re trying to crack, at heart, these are just flesh-and-blood human beings. So even though you’re a journalist, pretend to be one, too.
6. Most Surprising Thing to Happen During an Interview…
Most Surprising: I once spent a good many days covering a porn convention, so I can’t really go into all the surprising details during this one interview. There was a lot of self-gratification, though – and not by me. The second most surprising thing happened once in Little Rock. I was interviewing “Sweet Connie” Hamzy, an infamous rock’n’roll groupie. We were sitting in her living room, which was a monument to all the stars she’d bedded backstage, and there were lots of them. Women, too. I asked Connie how old she was, and she said, “How old do you think I am?” She then lifted up her shirt, and bared her breasts. I suppose she wanted me to study them like the age rings on a white oak or something. I guessed 38, just to be polite. She was quite a bit older than that at the time. Though her breasts very well may have been younger.
7. Advice From An Editor You’ve Never Forgotten “Stay gold, Ponyboy.” Or maybe that was Ralph Macchio’s advice from “The Outsiders.” I get my editor confused with him sometimes. He’s a very Macchio like figure in my life.
8. Piece of Advice for Budding Journalists All the stuff you hear in J-school and workshops and the like about the need to be a multi-media, multi-platform, multi-whatever-the-technology-fetish-of-the-moment is? Ignore it. Just try to find good stories and tell them as skillfully as you can. The rest will work itself out. Or not. You might be unemployed and wear a bathrobe all day while subsisting on a diet of pudding cups and cat food. But at least you’ll like yourself better than if your claim to fame is being your newsroom’s most prolific Tweeter.