In the dwindling days his presidency, Barack Obama has granted facetime to a smattering of outside-the-Beltway personalities and a few ascendent digital news outlets. His selection can appear haphazard — selfies with BuzzFeed one day, riffing on comedy with podcaster Marc Maron the next. So how’d they land their interviews?
That’s the question political reporter and documentarian Patrick Gavin is trying to answer over the next 500 days. Every day until the next presidential inauguration, Gavin plans to upload one video to his YouTube channel that chronicles his attempt to score a sit-down with the commander in chief. Taken as a whole, he’s hoping the videos provide a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the process of landing the biggest get in journalism.
The style and subject of this series isn’t far afield from Gavin’s previous work. In recent years, Gavin has devoted himself to scrutinizing the confluence of media and politics: As a reporter for Politico, he watched as celebrities parachuted into the capital for the weekend of the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. After leaving Politico, he went on to make a documentary that casts the dinner as a money-making bacchanal masquerading as a celebration of journalism.
Here the reporter-turned-video blogger explains why he devoted himself to interviewing the president and tells us what he’ll ask Obama, given the chance.
Why did you decide to do this? What gave you the idea?
Like everyone and their mother, I’d been toying with this idea (still am) of doing a podcast and thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to document what it’s like to actually get the interview, instead of just airing the final interview? Marc Maron’s interview with the president happened right around the same time and I kind of put the two together.
You’ve done a lot of work chronicling the way the media interacts with politics, starting at Politico’s Click, moving to “Nerd Prom” and now this. What about that intersection is particularly interesting to you?
I have this weird relationship with the two: I can’t help the fact that I have an innate interest in the two (and have since I was a kid), but I also have this other side that is really turned off by how work gets done in Washington. It feels very elite and clubby. A lot of what I’m interested in doing now is trying to pull back the curtain on that atmosphere. “Nerd Prom” tried to take ordinary Americans into Washington’s wildest week, and this process will try to show viewers the sausage-making behind what is a somewhat routine process (i.e. getting an interview with the president).
You made a distinction between “getting” an interview and “earning one” in your pitch to interview the president. What’s the difference?
I don’t think getting an interview with the president should be easy. It should be hard. You have to earn it. I have an enormous amount of respect for the office, and I also have a lot of respect for the other White House correspondents who work hard to get their interview requests filled, too (if they’re lucky). I don’t think that me starting a YouTube series means I’m somehow entitled to an interview. If the process works as it should — meaning I do my work and put in the time — I’d probably argue that I’d deserve an interview with the president at exactly the 500th day.
If you do get an interview with the president, what will you ask him?
As I’ll probably mention in an upcoming video, I’m actually not interested in talking policy or horserace politics. The working title for my podcast is “This is Off Topic,” meaning the only rule is: We can’t talk about the politics of the day. I’d rather get to know interview subjects as humans and individuals, with various ambitions, egos and values. I’m not interested in talking about what’s going down on Capitol Hill with regards to H.R. 815-whatever. Someone else can do that (and they do).
Much has been made of the Obama administration’s decision to grant interviews to personalities outside the traditional media sphere — YouTube creators, comedians and podcasters, for example. What do you think of that strategy? Did it inform your decision to try to interview the president?
I don’t know that it informed my decision, but it certainly makes me feel that just because all I have to offer is my YouTube channel, that that’s not necessarily a disadvantage. I totally get why this White House has sought alternative ways to get its message out. I also understand why it drives White House correspondents crazy.
Five-hundred days is a long time to be making videos. Do you have a plan to monetize the channel, or otherwise feed yourself?
I’m definitely not going to monetize the channel. I don’t want earning an interview with the president to become a business opportunity. If people want to support it individually, I could conceive of entertaining that idea, but the whole thing would have to be transparent. And I’m just not even close to having the luxury of thinking about that yet. I need to build an audience first.
Do you have a plan for the next 500 days sketched out?
A little bit and, at the same time, not at all. I have some ideas for regular, recurring features that could help flesh this out but I think much of it will be spontaneous — which I think makes for a better series anyway.
What are some of the hallmarks of the presidential interview? What makes a good interview with the president? A bad one?
Everyone kind of has the same questions for the president — which I get — so the good interviews really come down to how you ask the question. Take for instance Andrea Mitchell’s interview Friday with Hillary Clinton. Instead of asking, say, “Are you frustrated with the state of your campaign?” she went this route: “I think back to 2008, you were in the coffee shop in New Hampshire, and people really saw a different side of you. Perhaps you felt that it might be slipping away after what happened in Iowa. Do you think back about that and do you worry about that this could be happening again, that what happened with your email has created so much controversy that you could be losing this opportunity a second time?” I loved that question. So good.
One pet peeve I have is when people say, “Finally, before I go, I have to ask…” and then they save the question they really want to ask for the end. Like: “What’s up with your dad jeans?” or “What’s on your iPod?” You just get the impression that the entire interview leading up to that had just been a way to butter them up for the final silly question.
If you get an interview before 500 days expires, will you wind down the channel?
No, I’ll probably just move on to the Pope.