May 9, 2011

When Steve Kroft interviewed President Obama last week about the raid on Osama bin Laden’s headquarters in Pakistan, the “60 Minutes” veteran violated many of the guidelines that we teach about how to conduct an interview. And it worked.

Why? Kroft kept the questions short and constantly mixed up the types of questions he asked to alternately seek facts, emotion and insight.

Kroft told me that when he sat down with the President, he had, in his hands, a list of 62 questions that he might ask. “We wanted to do the interview in three sections; the raid and the planning, the Situation Room and Pakistan. I knew I was not going to get through all of the questions,” Kroft told me by phone on Monday.

I teach journalists that there are three kinds of questions:

  • The Objective (or Closed-Ended) Question: This type of question usually results in a “yes” or “no” answer. The objective question is used when you are searching for facts not opinions. Sometimes the objective question poses a choice, such as, “Do you mean X or do you mean Y?” The objective question seldom is the type that journalists use to elicit memorable quotes or soundbites.
  • The Subjective (or Open-Ended) Question: This type of question seeks a thought, opinion, feeling or emotion. The question often begins with word “how” or “why.” This question is the one that produces the most memorable soundbites.
  • The Non-Question Question: Kroft sometimes repeats words that the President just said as a way of asking for clarity or emphasis. This is more of a statement than a question. The non-question question is a signal to the subject to keep going, similar to saying, “That is really interesting, tell us more about that.”

Kroft told me “there were almost no outtakes from this interview. We aired almost everything we shot. We only cut out five minutes, not even that much, in editing.”

He said he consulted with others before drafting a list of questions. Then “I got up at 5 o’clock Wednesday morning and went through all of them again. I was very cognizant of eliminating questions that would lead to long answers.”

How the interview progressed

The story opened quickly, assuming any reasonable person watching would be familiar with the basic facts of bin Laden’s death. That was a great decision.

Kroft gets right to the interview with, interestingly, an objective (or closed-ended) question. Not what journalists might expect.

STEVE KROFT: Mr. President, was this the most satisfying week of your presidency?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, it was certainly one of the most satisfying weeks not only for my presidency but I think for the United States since I’ve been president. Obviously, bin Laden had been not only a symbol of terrorism but a mass murderer who had eluded justice for so long and so many families who have been affected I think had given up hope. And for us to be able to definitively say, “We got the man who caused thousands of deaths here in the United States” was something that I think all of us were profoundly grateful to be a part of.

I would have expected a subjective question to work best at the beginning of the interview. I might have asked the question, “How satisfying was this week?” But Kroft’s question was better than mine. His question would reveal any hint of gloating.

Kroft told me he carefully chose the word “satisfied” for the first question. “I played around with a couple of other words — ‘happy’ for example, but it brought up ‘celebration,’ which didn’t seem right to me, so I settled on ‘satisfying.’ “

Kroft’s second question was also closed-ended:

KROFT: Was the decision to launch this attack the most difficult decision that you’ve made as Commander-In-Chief?

Kroft is aware he used a lot of closed-ended questions, and he did it on purpose because of time pressures and because of how this President answers questions.

“I have interviewed him before and you don’t want to ask him open-ended questions — you get long answers,” he said.

Kroft explained, “It is difficult to interrupt the President — it is not something I particularly like to do. The thing about this president is he will give you his thought process if you ask him about it. He will explain the complexities that weigh on his mind.”

A little later, Kroft asked a “double-barreled” question, two questions at once that can allow the interviewee to escape the first question and choose the second one.

KROFT: How much of it was gut instinct? Did you have personal feelings about whether… he was there?

Notice that the first part of that question, the subjective part, produced a quote, a soundbite when the President responded:

OBAMA: The thing about gut instinct is if it works, then you think, “Boy, I had good instincts.” If it doesn’t, then you’re gonna be running back in your mind all the things that told you maybe you shouldn’t have done it. Obviously I had enough of an instinct that we could be right, that it was worth doing.

Kroft used several other double-barreled questions, some a bit indirect that could have been more direct:

KROFT: When the CIA first brought this information to you…

OBAMA: Right.

KROFT: …what was your reaction? Was there a sense of excitement? Did this look promising from the very beginning?

The last part of the question is the useful part. I would have asked it as a closed-ended question, “When the CIA first approached you with information, how promising did that information seem to be?”

Then, I would have followed up with, “What was your reaction when you saw what the CIA had?”

Here is another example of how a double-barreled question allowed the President to escape without a direct answer. Kroft asked:

KROFT: Did you have to suppress the urge to tell someone? Did you wanna tell somebody? Did you wanna tell Michelle? Did you tell Michelle?

But the President never said whether he told his wife. The President chose to respond to the first question over the more interesting last one, a danger when asking multiple questions at once.

Kroft followed with single, direct questions, all in the perfect order to build our understanding of the sequence of events:

KROFT: When was that when you set that plan in motion?

KROFT: How actively where you involved in that process?

KROFT: Were you surprised when they came to you with this compound right in the middle of sort of the military center of Pakistan?

The objective questions were the right tool because Kroft was trying to get facts, not opinions, in this part of the interview. This information will not generate a quote or soundbite in anybody’s story but will be important copy or narrative text:

KROFT: Do you have any idea how long he was there?

OBAMA: We know he was there at least five years.

KROFT: Five years?

OBAMA: Yeah.

The value of short questions

Even when he asks double-barreled questions, Kroft’s questions are short, 15 words or less.

That brevity makes this interview so watchable.

“I probably wrote the questions longer, but the good thing about writing your own questions is you know the material,” Kroft told me. “I had to keep moving. I was so cognizant of the clock.”

Kroft also know the interview is not about him. Less confident interviewers have a habit of asking long-winded questions to make themselves look informed and commanding. Kroft is authoritative.

Look at this quick, open-ended question that produced an answer which made its way into newscasts around the world.

KROFT: This was your decision whether to proceed or not and how to proceed. What was the most difficult part of that decision?

OBAMA: The most difficult part is always the fact that you’re sending guys into harm’s way. And there are a lot of things that could go wrong. I mean there’re a lot of moving parts here. So my biggest concern was if I’m sending those guys in and Murphy’s Law applies and somethin’ happens, can we still get our guys out?

So that’s point number one. These guys are going in, you know, the darkness of night. And they don’t know what they’re gonna find there. They don’t know if the building is rigged. They don’t know if, you know, there are explosives that are triggered by a particular door opening. So huge risks that these guys are taking. And so my number one concern was, if I send them in, can I get them out?

Not every question is perfect. This one missed the mark:

KROFT: It’s been reported that there was some resistance from advisors and planners who disagreed with the commando raid approach. Was it difficult for you to overcome that?

Of course, the President is going to say “no.” Anything but a “no” would make him look like he has a divided circle of advisors.

A different closed-ended question might have elicited better information, like “What did you say to your closest advisors who told you they didn’t want you to approve this raid?” Or an open-ended question could have worked: “Your closest advisors were reported to be divided about this raid. How important was it to have unanimous agreement on something so important?”

Kroft asked a great question about how past failures shaped this mission but without providing long background in the question.

KROFT: How much did some of the past failures, like the Iran hostage rescue attempt, how did that weigh on you?

He had to assume that people watching this interview knew something about history. It could be a risky assumption, in some cases, so journalists have to know their audiences.

By using short, punchy questions, Kroft added an urgency to the part of the interview where the President talks about watching and listening to the actual raid. Look at the length of these questions:

KROFT: I want to go to the Situation Room. What was the mood?

KROFT: Were you nervous?

KROFT: What could you see?

KROFT: Right. And that went on for a long time? Could you hear gunfire?

KROFT: Flashes?

A nice mixture of objective and subjective questions, facts and feelings. About the release of those bin Laden death photos, Kroft didn’t re-state the debate. He just asked the question that people wanted answered:

KROFT: Why haven’t you released them?

Later, Kroft tried a non-question question.

KROFT: There are people in Pakistan, for example, who say, “Look, this is all a lie. This is another American trick. Osama’s not dead.”

Kroft needed to gather another fact about the burial. So he used a closed-ended question:

KROFT: Was it your decision to bury him at sea?

One of Kroft’s craftiest questions came late in the piece. It sounds innocent enough, but the answer could have generated headlines:

KROFT: Is this the first time that you’ve ever ordered someone killed?

The direct question gets at a key issue about the raid, was this a “kill mission” or could it have been a “capture mission”? It was the most sobering moment of the piece, set up by a simply worded question.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, keep in mind that, you know, every time I make a decision about launching a missile, every time I make a decision about sending troops into battle, you know, I understand that this will result in people being killed. And that is a sobering fact. But it is one that comes with the job.

While I spend a lot of time talking with journalists about how they open their stories, the “60 Minutes” interview is more remarkable for the way the piece ended.

Kroft moved toward the final soundbite with a statement, so the President was not backed into a corner and offered a remarkable ending:

KROFT: This was one man. This is somebody who has cast a shadow, has been cast a shadow in this place, in the White House for almost…a decade.

OBAMA: As nervous as I was about this whole process, the one thing I didn’t lose sleep over was the possibility of taking bin Laden out. Justice was done. And I think that anyone who would question that the perpetrator of mass murder on American soil didn’t deserve what he got needs to have their head examined.

“We put that at the end because I thought it had a real sense of finality. I thought it was the strongest answer,” Kroft told me. “I was interested in whether he had moral thoughts about it.”

Again, the subjective answer proves to be the most memorable answer in the interview.

The “60 Minutes” interview was laser-focused. Kroft didn’t swerve off into politics and only lightly treaded into international affairs regarding Pakistan. Those issues will find their place in other shows at other times. This interview was about the decision-making process that led to an historic capture.

Nearly 14 million people tuned in as the interview began, (even more viewers watched the second half of the interview), making “60 Minutes” the most watched program of the night.

CBS and Kroft proved that skill can turn a straightforward interview with a politician into great TV if you ask the right questions and let the person answer.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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