Tricks of the Trade With Mary Katharine Ham

Today’s Tricks of the Trade interview is with The Daily Caller‘s Mary Katharine Ham. Credentials: She’s a video journalist for The Daily Caller. Before that, she worked at The Weekly Standard and  the Washington Examiner. Her video blog series, “HamNation”, won a Golden Dot award for Best Vlog of 2006 from the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet and her HamNation video, “Sopranos DC”, was voted “Video Of The Year” in the 2007 Weblog Awards. She appears regularly on FNC’s “The O’Reilly Factor.”

1. Favorite Interview Technique To stop talking and wait for people to fill in the silence. Admittedly, this is a better technique for features than for pressers. That could get awkward in the East Room.

2. Most Compelling Question You’ve Ever Asked You can be the judge on compelling, but one of my personal favorites was asking former Sec. of Education Margaret Spellings about “Battlestar Galactica,” for sheer silliness. Her press secretary looked frightened, but points for a solid answer.

Me: “In ‘Battlestar Galactica, the whole government and much of the nation is wiped out in an attack, which means the Secretary of Education must take charge and save humanity from murderous, intelligent, alien robots. I’m just sayin’, if it came down to it, would you be ready for something like that?”
Sec. Spellings: “I am ready and willing to do battle with anyone who would limit opportunities for the schoolchildren of America.”

3. Best Self-Editing Approach “Oh, are we supposed to self-edit?” asked the compulsive tweeter.

4. What to Do When an Interview is Tanking To prevent high-stakes tanking, conduct interviews over phone or in person. I admire TV professionals who have to pull interviews out of the doldrums on live TV. In a more casual setting, you have more leeway, can have some dead time, and it’s not the end of the world. As mentioned, sometimes dead time will work in your favor. With political figures, an interview tanks when they won’t stop talking, so you have to interrupt. With normal people, an interview tanks when they won’t talk at all, so I sometimes revert to talking about casual, common interests to put them at ease or wait for them to fill the silence.

5. Approaching Lawmakers and Other “Important” People In approaching “important people,” I always try to be friendly and normal and not carry anything sharp.

6. Most Surprising Thing to Happen During an Interview…

I tried to interview Justice Breyer for some fluffy Read Across America event at the Supreme Court once and was escorted off the elevator by the elbow by his security. I also interviewed Richard Petty one time and was astonished to find that he looks exactly like he does on all the airbrushed T-shirts. [Petty is a former NASCAR driver.]

7. Advice From an Editor You’ve Never Forgotten “Mary Katharine, it’d be helpful if we could get this a little closer to the deadline. You’re turning things in entirely too early.” Actually, a good piece of advice that comes from William Faulkner, but I never heard from an editor: “In writing, you must kill your darlings.” A writer’s pen can become seduced by the sound of its own scribblings. (Didja see what I did there with the alliteration?! Ha.)

8. Piece of Advice for Budding Journalists We are lucky to come of age in a media world in which it matters who we are. More than ever, readers have the ability to be their own editors and pick which individual writers, reporters, and commentators they trust. This opens a world of opportunity and peril for young writers. As a rule of thumb, if you wouldn’t say it in public in front of 100 people, don’t say it on an online forum that can be accessed by thousands of people. Just because Facebook, Twitter, & listservs are filled with friends doesn’t mean they aren’t (or couldn’t easily become) public. Also, Twitter specifically is a great way to expose yourself to people who disagree with you and check your own assumptions. Admittedly, not everyone uses it for that, but for a journalist, it can be extremely useful.