“60 Minutes'” Best and Worst Interviewers: Scott Pelley/Steve Kroft and Katie Couric

— Richard E. Vatz

Towson University is going to be honored by having Scott Pelley as Commencement speaker later this month.

The reason this columnist is so pleased is that Scott Pelley is one of the best — and maybe the best — interviewers on serious news shows in mainstream television. “60 Minutes'” Pelleyan colleague Steve Kroft is also superb. Katie Couric, no fool, is, nonetheless, out of her league when she interviews serious newsmakers. She, of course, will soon be replaced by Mr. Pelley as anchor of the CBS Evening News.

I have been teaching the craft of interviewing for decades as part of my courses in Communication Studies at Towson. I have stressed the need for follow-up questions which reflect the interviewer’s keeping his or her eye on the interviewing ball. Any interviewer can ask good initial questions, but keeping the interviewee focused on points-in-question is an art. As critical as follow-up questions are, it is important to emphasize that an interviewer should not press repeatedly for an unanswered response, so as to have his/her interviewing technique become the story.

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I shall not list in this blog all of the good and bad interviewers on mainstay television news (I shall say that Howard Kurtz is usually excellent, Christiane Amanpour is excellent really without exception, and Barbara Walters is almost always terrible — she cannot ask a follow-up to save her life, but she has prided herself on that very talent). The paradox is that bad interviewers often get some of the best interviewees because they (the interviewers) do not pose a genuine threat of unmasking a sophisticated interviewee.

“60 Minutes,” good in the past (some of Ed Bradley’s interviews still serve as models for my classes), has two standouts in Pelley and Kroft and several additional excellent interviewers currently. They also have the aforementioned Katie Couric who, again, is bright but seemingly just out of her element. They also have Andy Rooney who was once good, but is now so lacking in valuable new insights as to be an embarrassment.

Ms. Couric interviewed Defense Secretary Robert Gates tonight. There was a lack of well-thought-out questions, but there was a simply awful moment as well. Secretary Gates said that President Obama’s decision to allow the Navy Seals to kill Osama bin Laden was one of the most “courageous” acts he had witnessed by a president due to the uncertainty, consequences and risks of the attack. Interviewer Couric never asks why it was “courageous” since avoiding the action could have destroyed the president’s credibility if it were known that he missed such an opportunity. Ordering the attack showed the president has a good mind, not that he has guts. Just a seriously deficient interview all around.

Mr. Pelley’s exquisite interview in 2008 of George Piro, the FBI agent who himself interviewed with an agenda Saddam Hussein, and his other interviews, such as that of Lara Logan, have been models of how to conduct an interview. I went through the Piro and Logan interviews with my classes, and none of us could find a major missing probe or a moment of tastelessness.

The skilled practice of interviewing significant people is complicated and requires a multitude of rhetorical skills as well as great preparation.

Scott Pelley, Towson’s College of Fine Arts and Communication Commencement speaker, is one of the very best, and Towson University, which has not had an abundance of exquisite choices, has now made a perfect choice.

Richard E. Vatz teaches an advanced class of Media Criticism at Towson University

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