The dying interview

I’m not the first to comment on this – and I’m sure I won’t be the last. But when watching a preview for an ABC New Primetime, I was amazed that the hottest story was one of two blonde burglars – the Barbie Bandits – who stole money from a bank earlier this year.

They didn’t plan things very well – they were caught pretty quickly. They were both 19. There’s not much to the story, from what I gather – just that they were blonde with a debutante attitude and too few brain cells.

No, I wasn’t amazed about the burglars. I was amazed that this was the hottest story. The lead. The most important thing on the program and, from the way they were advertising it, the most important thing this week.

And it wasn’t just a slow news day – this is a heavily hyped interview.

Just a week or so ago, two networks were frantically fighting to secure what could be a big ratings boost – a once in a lifetime interview that transcended all demographics, one that would single-handedly result in more viewers than any other show in that time slot. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were thrown around, until finally the interviewee’s party couldn’t agree to a price and announced that the interview would be for free – a perfect example of great public relations and a altruistic heart.

That person? Paris Hilton.

What happened to the real interviews?

Are they still on? Do big time decision makers and important Americans still get interviewed by prime time network reporters? Or am I just missing all of this – so bogged down in the hundreds of network and cable choices that, even though we only get four channels, we miss the biggest interviews, their listings buried deep in the quagmire along with Shaq’s fat camp show and the seven hundredth new “flashy lights and intense music” game show?

Seriously, I can’t tell you the last time someone that made a difference in the world was interviewed during prime time network television. If it’s happened, I’ve missed it. Instead, it seems to be tabloid star after tabloid star, bandied across the circuit, telling their stories of woe, or joy, or whatever it is they experience throughout their often-dreamed-about but never-to-be-believed lives.

Two years ago, I read both Walter Cronkite’s autobiography and the biography of Edward R. Murrow. What struck me was the distinguished air both reporters took on as they would interview the most important people of their time – right there on network television, during prime time, taking no prisoners, pulling no punches, etc.

I’m sure during their day they had to interview their fair share of flighty Hollywood stars and rumored debutantes. We only remember the most memorable subjects. But there had to be weeks – months – worth of drivel. They had to mail it in sometimes. I wouldn’t be surprised to see an interview of Lindbergh’s nanny’s cousin aimed at grabbing dirt on the baby-napping scandal. Or an expose of Shirley Temple’s fortress of cuteness.

Or maybe they didn’t – maybe times were so different that we took a more respectable view of fame. Maybe petty scandals didn’t drive public opinion as much as they do today. Regardless of what bad interviews they did, Cronkite and Murrow and all of their contemporaries balanced out the fluff with well-timed exclusive interviews that didn’t just make waves – they changed policies and caused massive reforms throughout the nation.

There are several reasons these interviews have gone by the wayside. First of all, the viewing public isn’t locked in on three or four channels anymore. Now, they’ve got hundreds of stations vying for their attention.

Maybe the Internet and the long tail of instant information have spoiled us to the art of the meaningful interview. We’ve spent so long gazing at the unattainable that we don’t bother to understand – or even care – about the people that are truly changing the world. We don’t need to watch those interviews. Those people don’t have exclusivity anywhere – their stories are being told to everyone, everywhere, for free through a million different avenues. Would Diana Spencer’s sons have even been interviewed if it wasn’t for Diana’s tabloid following, the tenth anniversary of her death, or their relative silence throughout the past several years?

Difference-makers are boring now. They’re black type on white background, columns of figures alongside the colorful tapestry of American fame. We want the secrets that come along with fleeting notoriety and wealth. We want to hear the gory details of the most trivial scandal.

Am I harking back to a day of golden television interviews that I never really got to experience?

Let’s be honest – even if the nation’s attention was ripped away from skinny social icons and twisted scandals, even if Edward R. Murrow came back from the dead and sent hard questions straight at someone that made worthy decisions on our daily lives, would anyone even care?

If we got what we thought was right, would we bother to even watch?

This was lovingly handwritten on July 8th, 2007