By Joanna Talabani
I remember being a kid and watching Christiane Amanpour on CNN. I was enamored with her poise and her elegance. She went into the trenches of fire reporting on trouble in remote parts of the world. She had a funny last name like me, and she still worked her way to the top of a global news channel. While I was lacking the British accent, maybe there was room for me up there, too.
The days where I used to stand in front of the television with a hairbrush as a surrogate microphone mimicking her live coverage are (mostly) in the past. And while I would love to one day be able to thank her for giving me such a profound reverence for journalism at a young age, I don’t know that I could do so without fangirling.
See, whenever I meet someone I admire, I have a hard time taking off the “let me appease you” hat and putting on the “ask tough questions” hat. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact I’m a student and most conversations go like this:
Potential interviewee: Hello?
Me: Hi, my name is Joanna Talabani and I’m a student at DePaul University…
Potential Interviewee: *click*
Me: Hello, hello? Did we get disconnected?
So, when a conversation doesn’t go like that and someone actually gives me the time of day, I feel indebted. I owe them an easy interview, not to be interrogated. Of course, the journalist in me knows that isn’t true, but it’s hard to persuade the googly-eyed fan sometimes.
I recently interviewed someone whose mind I put on the highest pedestal. We’ll call this person “Joe Schmo.” Schmo is an amazing journalist in his own right, and very accomplished. I was intimidated when we were still just chatting over emails. He uses hard-to-pronounce words in his text lingo. “Um” and “like” aren’t in his vocabulary. They are very much, unfortunately, still apart of mine.
I praised Schmo and his talented prose before our interview came to fruition. As prepared as I was research-wise, I don’t know if I could have fully prepared for how I’d feel actually probing him. Don’t meet your heroes, they say. I get why that’s an adage now.
Schmo, as polished as he always is, wanted to know what I was going to ask him beforehand. All my journalistic training has told me never to release questions to the interviewee prior to talking. At best, it ruins the live energy and prompts them to give canned responses. At worst, it will be used to rehearse an effective dodge strategy.
So, did I do what all my journalist professors have advised me to do since the beginning of (college) time? I did and I didn’t.
My journalistic training has taught me to think for myself. I don’t take things for face value and I question everything. Including this steadfast rule about sharing questions. I sent Schmo a few sample questions to peruse before our interview. Why did I do that?
Because of whom Schmo is. He is not a politician I’m trying to nail. He isn’t a controversial public figure. He’s someone who was gracious enough to share some of his expertise with me as a student. And if having a few questions helps him maintain the polished demure image he’s known for, what’s the harm in that?
Here’s where I think there could be harm. If Schmo was someone I, or others, were very critical of. If Schmo was convicted of wrongdoing, corruption, or misconduct. If Schmo was an allegedly guilty party and not just someone who has anxiety about public speaking. But I’m not aiding the next Blagojevich in worming his way out of tough answers. And my journalistic training has taught me to be able to identify this kind of gray line.
For the record, Schmo was not the most pleasant person to interview. His ego could barely fit on the screen with him. He spoke disparagingly of other journalists. Now, reading those books of brilliance of his somehow don’t hit the same.
Schmo was just someone I admired, but it got me thinking back to my journalistic hero, Christiane Amanpour. Could I risk ruining the physical persona of my childhood dream? If the opportunity arose, would I opt to keep her shelved away as inspiration to reference in the back of my mind?
I realize that what she represents to me is too precious—not just a dream, but a culmination of that dream. I might want to share a cup of coffee, but interview her? I think I’ll pass.
You know how they say don’t meet your heroes? I’m fine with meeting them, just don’t ask me to interview them.