Friday night the College welcomed NPR radio host Terry Gross to Marshall Auditorium for a discussion of her interview techniques and a look back at some of the best and most challenging interviews of her long public radio career. Gross, the host of NPR’s Fresh Air, has interviewed authors, world leaders, movie stars and musicians–both famous and less so–so she had a lot of material to draw on.
Walking out onstage dressed all in black, save for a bright purple blazer, the diminutive, white-haired Gross began her talk by answering the biggest question people have for her: What does she look like? “You’re thinking, ‘She can’t be that short,'” she said, laughing. But it was a rare moment in our multimedia-heavy, tweet-every-camera-phone-picture culture in which we can still be surprised by the appearance of a person that we’ve had a daily, intimate relationship with. (Perhaps surprises like that are only possible with radio personalities these days.)
In her two-hour talk with Haverford students and community members, Gross squared being a self-proclaimed “coward” with having the guts to ask Lynne Cheney, wife of the former Vice President, about her feelings on the Bush administration’s stance on gay marriage four separate times in one interview while being stonewalled. Gross told the audience that she has two different sets of rules for her artist guests and her political ones. The actors, authors, musicians and visual artists she interviews are told from the beginning that if she asks something that’s too personal, to let her know and they don’t have to answer it. That part of the interview will be edited out. She acknowledged that that policy sounds like “bad journalism,” but “I see it as part of my job to help them say honestly, clearly and concisely what they want to say,” said Gross. She’s trying to facilitate storytelling and draw out interesting biographical details that will help illuminate their artistic sensibilities.
But politicians and others in positions of power don’t get the same deference. “I want to get them off their talking points,” she said. Gross played a very uncomfortable clip in which she asks Mrs. Cheney again and again about her gay daughter and her party’s line on gay marriage. Cheney avoids the question, repeats her stance on The Defense of Marriage Act (“I’m against it because I think marriage is a state’s issue.”) and finally snips at Gross and refuses to talk any further. Despite some mail that called her “disrespectful,” Gross stands by that interview. “I wanted to know why she was so reluctant to talk about it,” she says. Furthermore, “If journalists stop asking questions to powerful people because it makes them uncomfortable, think about all the questions we wouldn’t have answers to.”
Gross played other clips from Fresh Air, too: George Clooney talking about his struggle with back pain after an on-set injury; Kiss’ Gene Simmons obnoxiously propositioning her on-air; Hustler publisher Larry Flynt paying her “the best compliment I’ve ever received;” Bill O’Reilly screaming and ranting about her perceived liberal bias and cutting the interview short; and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog doing a spot-on imitation of the O’Reilly interview. (On the latter two interviews ending with their subjects telling her that she should quit radio, she laughs, saying, “America’s dirtiest sock puppet and Bill O’Reilly both told me to get out of the business, and I survived.”)
The very composed host got ruffled only once, in discussing Vic Chesnutt’s final interview weeks before his suicide. “Hadn’t he just told us a couple of weeks ago that he wasn’t ready to die?” she said sadly, trying to find the right words. “Sometimes the people I’m interviewing are maybe not sure what’s in their hearts. Or sometimes it changes.”
Before a lively Q&A session with audience members (many of whom seemed to be aspiring journalists themselves), Gross took a moment to to talk about something she never talks about on NPR: herself. She told the audience about starting out as a teacher (a job she says she was unsuited to and was happily fired from after six weeks) before finding her way to public radio. And though, in her own words, she sounded like “a feminist Minnie Mouse” in a 1974 clip from her first radio job, Women Power, she has grown in her almost 40-year career to be the “national treasure” that one audience member declared her.
Don’t think she’s got a big head about it, though. She knows just how famous she is, as evidenced by the letter she closed her talk with. “Dear Mr. Gross,” it begins. “We are delighted to inform you of your nomination for man of the year.”