The Art of Getting People to Talk Who’d Rather Not
By Jerry Lubenow
One of the many rewards of working in a Newsweek Bureau, which I did for 25 years in Detroit, Atlanta, San Francisco, and London, was the opportunity to work with editors and writers in New York, the vast majority of whom were smart, intellectually challenging, and a pleasure to work with. A handful of others, whose understanding of America and the world was best captured by Saul Steinberg’s iconic New Yorker cover*, often made assembling a rough first draft of history much more of a chore than it needed to be.
I once spent a week in Canada interviewing young men who had fled America to avoid the Vietnam Draft. To a man, they said America’s role in the war had so embittered them and they found life in Canada so much more satisfying that they would never return regardless of the outcome of the conflict.
This was, naturally, a major element in the story I filed. Not so in the edited version read back to me late Friday, where their desire to remain in Canada was magically transformed into a longing to go home. Asked whence this information had come, the writer patiently explained, “I don’t believe them when they say they won’t come back.” I tried arguing, but it was clear my reporting did not trump his instinct.
Old Tech: Having been hired by Newsweek in 1965, most of my experiences stem from the horse and buggy days before cell phones, satellites, portable computers, Twitter, Facebook and a 24-hour news cycle. It may be hard to imagine a news organization functioning in such circumstances, but there were distinct advantages to working in a land-line only world.
One advantage was being able to focus on whatever it was we were working on without being interrupted by editors and writers with nagging, not infrequently inane or clueless, ideas and questions. The three hour time difference between New York and San Francisco meant that, except in extreme emergencies, on most days we would arrive at work just as the folks in New York were going to lunch. Given the length of our mutual lunches and their work day in a more leisurely era, often they would get back from lunch just as we were heading for Vanessi’s, and then going home about the time we got back from lunch. As a result, we could frequently get through an entire day without ever having to deal with New York.
Quick Call: When New York did call or telex, it usually involved an urgent request for us to get in touch with someone who did not wish to be gotten in touch with and to do it posthaste. New York assumed we in the bureaus knew and could instantly interview anyone of any news value, from the Governor of California to the Chairman of the Black Panthers, from a Silicon Valley CEO to the latest counter culture guru. And, with the exception of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst when she was kidnapped and held captive by the Symbionese Liberation Army in 1974, we usually could.
We benefitted mightily from the fact that Newsweek’s prestige was such that most people in the news were willing to talk or be talked into talking to Newsweek. Often the path to difficult interviews was smoothed by New York editors promising a cover story if the individual agreed to be interviewed.
As a result of one of such arrangement, I drove to Carmel in 1985 to interview Clint Eastwood. I had seen only a few Eastwood films, including Pale Rider, his most recent effort and the one that had people taking him more seriously as a director and actor. Told on Friday that I was to meet Eastwood Monday morning, I devoted my weekend watching his movies.
Hanging Out: I spent the next four days with Eastwood, jogging in Carmel, going to a birthday party thrown by old high school friends, and finding him intelligent, engaging, and unassuming. After writing all day Friday and a good chunk of Friday night, I learned the story had been knocked off the cover by breaking news. I don’t know if anyone in New York ever told Clint what happened, but I hadn’t made the deal, so it wasn’t my job to bear the bad news.
One of my most challenging interviews was with Steve Jobs in 1985, two days after he left Apple Computer, and one day after Apple threatened to sue him for departing with five key employees. I had interviewed Jobs before, but that was in headier, less complicated times. Jobs was willing to talk to us, but his lawyer insisted we meet to establish ground rules. So technology reporter Michael Rogers and I drove to Woodside to work out terms.
No Tape: As soon as we sit down in Jobs’ mansion, it’s clear the lawyer thinks an interview is the worst idea he’s ever heard. We begin to negotiate ground rules and the lawyer offers a simple idea, “No tape recorders. You guys can just jot down a few things.”
I try to explain that we can’t write that fast and, in the interest of accuracy with such an important issue, tape recorders will provide an error-free
transcript.The lawyer shakes his head. He’s not worried about an accurate transcript. Facing a lawsuit by a Fortune 500 company, he doesn’t want any transcript at all.
“Okay,” I say, “no tape recorders. What if we bring a court reporter?” Eager to get rid of us the harried attorney shrugs, “Okay, fine. We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
Shady Job: Bright and early the next morning, we arrive with our court reporter, and a servant shows us through Job’s elegant mansion out onto a manicured lawn shaded by a large Coast Oak. When Jobs and his attorney appear, they find us sitting next to an officious looking court reporter setting up her keyboard on a little metal stand.
The lawyer goes into shock, realizing he has managed to turn the interview into something approaching a deposition. Jobs stands stiffly at his lawyer’s side, across from Michael, the court reporter, and me. The lawyer says he really has to advise his client that this is a terrible idea, and he really should not do it.
The lawyer looks at me imploringly. I look at him and say nothing. “We can’t do something like this under uncontrolled conditions,” the lawyer says to me. I say nothing.
The lawyer looks at Jobs, and says, “This is just a bad, bad idea.” Jobs looks at me and fidgets. I look at Jobs and nod slightly, indicating sympathy with his plight rather than agreement with his lawyer.
The lawyer, nonplussed by the lack of any reply or opposition, begins to repeat himself, his words tumbling over one another: bad idea, uncontrolled conditions, potential evidence, really not advisable. He seems unable to stop talking. This goes on for an unbearably long time-Jobs fidgeting, his lawyer babbling, Michael and I serenely unresponsive, the court reporter hunched over her machine.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Jobs finally says “Let’s just do it.” The lawyer smacks his head.
“Alright,” I say, turning to the court reporter, “Are you ready?”
Jerry Lubenow joined Newsweek in 1965 as a summer intern in the Detroit Bureau, transferred as a correspondent to the Atlanta Bureau that fall, became San Francisco Bureau Chief in 1969, went to London as bureau chief in 1987 and left in 1989.
*Steinberg drew a cartoon U.S. map showing a glorious New York City and beyond the Hudson a vast empty plain with small rocky humps for the western mountains, a scattering of city and state names, the Pacific and Japan on the far horizon.