Tricks of the Trade With NJ’s Major Garrett

Today we debut a new feature that focuses on interview and writing techniques from journalists in our midst. They won’t always be seasoned like our first writer. But we do hope the feature will help share the best, worst and most surprising aspects of Washington journalism.

Our first interviewee is NJ congressional reporter Major Garrett. Credentials: He is formerly the chief White House Correspondent for Fox News where he worked for eight years. Before FNC, he was the White House Correspondent for CNN. And before that, he worked for TWT and U.S. News & World Report. His resume also includes The Houston Post, Las Vegas Review-Journal and Amarillo Globe-News. He has authored three books: The Enduring Revolution: The Inside Story of the Republican Ascendancy and Why It Will Continue (2006) ; The Enduring Revolution: How the Contract with America Continues to Shape the Nation (2005); and The 15 Biggest Lies in Politics (2000).

1. Favorite interview technique: Short questions and silence. The more words in a question the more escape hatches you create. Never, ever underestimate the power of suffocating silence. Resist the temptation to converse with your interview subject – especially if it is a tough interview. Silence tends to pry information out; conversation tends to bury it.

2. Most compelling question you’ve ever asked: I have no idea. I know many people remember when I asked President Obama “What took you so long?” about Iran. I know for a fact he remembered it and not favorably.

3. Best self-editing approach: I prefer to read what I want to say to myself in my mind before I write anything. I need to be able to hear my own voice in my head (so, yes, I hear voices). If it sounds slow, balky, clichéd or otherwise dim-witted in your head it will read thrice worse (Conan O’Brien now loves me in ways he never did before).

4. What to do when an interview is tanking? Interviews can tank for a lot of reasons. Print interviews and TV interviews both tank if all you’re getting is talking points. If this is happening, it’s because your questions are soft and you better tighten them up on the spot. If your subject doesn’t know anything, cut your losses and get out. If you’re subject is dug-in, flat-jawed, and beetle-browed hostile then return the favor. And don’t forget the prying power of silence.

5. Thoughts on approaching lawmakers and other “Important People”: Approach confidently and know exactly what you want. Just the same as in a bar.

6. Most surprising thing to happen during an interview…

This is a two-part answer that has nothing to do with Washington. I had to write an obituary in my first job (police reporter, Amarillo, Texas) about a young boy killed when a drunk driver ran over him as he rode his bike. I had to call the home and ask the mother and father to tell me about their son mere hours after he died. The most surprising thing was they agreed and I wrote a front-page story. The bigger surprise came some months later when I was in the police station and mother was there following up on the case and heard someone mention my name. She stopped in her tracks and tears began to fall as she told me how many friends and relatives she sent my story to as a way to help everyone deal with their grief. I’ve never forgotten the importance of quiet journalistic compassion and the power of journalism to tell a story and make a difference – even in the face of boundless tragedy.

7. Advice from an editor you’ve never forgotten: Nobody cares that you tried to get it right. Prove you cared by getting it right. A corollary: there isn’t an eraser (hey, I started in print in 1984) or a delete key big enough to fix an error in print. So don’t make one.

8. Wisdom for budding journalists: I’ve said it before: good journalism is hard, pain-staking work. Great journalism is back-breaking work. Don’t shirk from either and don’t fake either. In this era, you must write, report, shoot video, edit video, shoot stills and have at least a dim understanding of voice-over techniques. If you are a young journalist and can do all of these things you will be hired and you will rise. Will you have to do all of these things forever? Probably not. But you need to learn them and prove to anyone who wants to hire you that you can write/report a story, photograph a story, shoot a story, record a voice over on your video and cut a video package for their website. Learn all this now. Then remember this: not one of those techniques/capabilities matters if you aren’t careful enough to spell your subject’s name correctly and remember if it was a 3-alarm or 2-alarm fire and if the address was 2179 Beech Street or 2791 Beech Avenue. Get the basics correct. Always. If not, no one will believe you and you’ll be shooting video and writing ad copy for Biggly’s Bargain Basement.

Note to Readers: Have a Washington journalist you’d like us to interview for this? Tell us at FishbowlDC@mediabistro or write to me directly at Nominations are always anonymous.