Today’s “Tricks of the Trade” is with TWT Senior Opinion Writer Emily Miller. Credentials: She’s a former reporter for Human Events, where she often got in lawmakers’ faces for ambush reports, and previously wrote for Politics Daily. She’s also a former flack to ex-House Maj. Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).
1. Favorite Interview Technique: Take the elevator in the Capitol. Members and senators are less likely to be staffed, and they are, well, trapped. It’s where I caught Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) with high-priced defense lawyer Abbe Lowell right after asking for a continuance in his ethics trial because, he claimed, he couldn’t afford a lawyer.
2. Most Compelling Question You’ve Ever Asked: “What happened?”
3. Best Self-Editing Approach: To the chagrin of all my editors, I write long. Very long. A 500-word editorial is submitted as a book chapter. This FishbowlDC Q&A will need to be read after the jump. I have to trick myself to get closer to the column size. I open a second document with the same title and add “part 2.” Then I cut out all the paragraphs that I want to save for the second part in the series. (Shhh! Don’t tell me that there never is a “part 2” for news stories.)
4. What to do When an Interview is Tanking: I make a joke – it gets some people to let down their guard. The trouble is, a lot of politicians have no sense of humor. So when they don’t get the joke and I have to explain it, they are embarrassed and laugh harder. Then they are even more willing to show their good nature by continuing the interview. If an interview is tanking because the guy is simply parroting boring talking points, I just stop asking questions.
5. Approaching Lawmakers and other “Important People”: For goodness sakes, smile! I see reporters approaching politicians looking as if they are going to rip their heads off and eat their eyeballs for dinner. Other reporters ask how I can get picked on so often in press conferences. What they can’t see is that I’m smiling when I raise my hand. In a sea of frowns and grimaces, it’s human nature to pick the friendly face. Even cranky Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid likes a laugh; he calls on me all the time even though I’ve never written a single positive thing about him.
6. Most Surprising Thing to Happen During an Interview…
Most Surprising…Last summer, every major outlet was reporting with authority the 500-person celebrity guest list for Chelsea Clinton’s “wedding of the century.” (Kate Middleton getting hitched to Prince William made that title fall after only 10 months.) The guest list was too obvious, so I started calling the famous people to figure out who was attending. Most, like Steven Spielberg or Barbra Streisand, wouldn’t respond. Oprah’s spokesman paused a long time after I asked. Finally he confessed in a whisper that she hadn’t even been invited. Some powerful people’s feelings were hurt.
7. Advice From An Editor You’ve Never Forgotten: Three tied.
1. Carl Cannon, my editor at Politics Daily, told me “write about what you know.” It sounds simple, but a story just flows when you write about a topic that you know inside and out already. 2. My current editor Brett Decker always says “strong editorials are based on solid reporting.” Decker was trained by Bob Novak to report heavily to write the best opinion pieces. I use this advice every day so that my opinions are based on the news of the day and the facts. 3. My first job was a desk assistant at NBC News. The assignment editor sent me out in the middle of the night as the pool producer for Air Force One landing at Andrews. I was 22 and terrified about what I would do if the plane crashed. My editor said that “if anything happens, just stand in front of the camera and say exactly what you saw happen.” It’s still really that simple.
8. Piece of Advice for Budding Journalists: Report in person. In Washington, we have access to the most powerful people in the world. And we owe it to our readers to tell them what happens off-camera. Sit in the House and Senate press galleries and just watch how the lawmakers interact with each other out of C-SPAN’s camera range. As many Hill staff will attest, I just pop into their offices and hang out long enough to get a lead or insight. The Capitol carryout (House side) is packed with leadership aides around 1pm. I get my salad and a story idea there every day.