Some stories are best covered in conventional news reports, because they are simple, visual and lend themselves to brevity.
Other stories are best covered in interviews, because they are complex, not especially visual, and resistant to packaging in two-minute parcels.
The war on terrorism falls into the latter category.
As a result, the interviewer, more than the reporter in the field or the anchorman behind the desk or the pundit in the clouds, is playing the most important role in informing Americans about the war on terror. Some interviewers, of course, do it better than others. One man, in my view, does it better than anyone else. And he does not do it conventionally. He is not even a journalist. In fact, when he's not interviewing someone about the conduct of the war, he's probably telling a penis joke.
But this is a column about what happens when he's not telling a penis joke — or complaining about his health or trying to hawk merchandise that his brother's company manufactures or calling a colleague a "bald-headed geek" or a "fat stooge" or bragging about his young son's erudition. When he is not doing any of this, he is conducting the most enlightening interviews to be heard anywhere, in any medium, on the war on terrorism. He is radio talk show host Don Imus.
What is so unconventional about him are not the particular skills he brings to interviewing, but the traits that he lacks: polish, agenda and ego.
Polish: Imus the interviewer is not smooth, not glib, not a master of the pointless segue; sometimes he will stumble over a question and sometimes he will change the drift of it before reaching the end and sometimes he will hop from one topic to the next as whimsically as a frog changing lily pads. But more than any other interviewer on either television or radio today, Imus will ask the right question, not the question the well-prepared journalist would ask, but the question the well-informed layman would ask.
And Imus will let his guest answer the question at length. He will not interrupt unless the response is unclear, will not hurry the response to fit in a commercial. In fact, one of the many reasons that his interviews are so good is that they are so long. Content rules; the other demands of a nationally-syndicated radio program have to work their way around it.
Agenda: Imus has one. He has said on his program time and again that he is in favor of swift, decisive and perhaps even excessive military action in Afghanistan. But seldom is his agenda apparent in his interviews, and when he talks to someone with whom he disagrees, he seems more interested in understanding the guest's position than in challenging it.
Ego: Imus seems to have one of the larger ones in a business that is noted for the self-regard of its denizens. But his ego intrudes in his interviews no more than does his agenda. When he does not know something, he admits it; when he does not understand something, he asks his guest to explain it. He knows that the star of any question-and-answer session should be the person providing the latter, not the former, and his willingness to subordinate himself to the information he presents is the height of professionalism and public service.
There are, of course, other good interviewers on the air today. I happen to work for a network that employs several of them, and every other network, radio and television, has its share of people whose interviewers serve the public to one extent or another.
But there is a unique quality to the Imus interview, the everyman nature of the man conducting it ensuring that every man — and woman — who pays attention to it will be far better informed for the experience. Others should learn from him: the more polished to be more natural, the more agenda-driven to pipe down, the more ego-riddled to talk less, listen more.
And then, when the penis jokes start, you can switch over to a Peter Frampton twin-spin on the K-LITE.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .
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