Behind the Scenes at an Interview With 3 Powerful Women

BY Judy Woodruff  March 9, 2011 at 8:09 PM EST

People often ask me if I like doing television interviews. They follow up with: Are they hard to do?

My answer is that I love doing them, and that every single one is a challenge. As a reporter, I want to make sure I have my facts straight, stay focused on what’s important in the limited time we have, and put the person I’m interviewing at ease so they’ll speak freely. Even when someone has to be “pushed” to share information, I’ve found it’s more productive to first make them comfortable with the conversation.

So after a guest is booked for the program, I depend on the NewsHour’s hard-working staff to help me with research and, sometimes, ideas for questions. In the end, the questions are all mine, but I figure the more brains engaged in the effort, the better the result. Preparation can take anywhere from under an hour for an interview scheduled very late in the day — often about breaking news — to several hours, which is the norm, to several days for interviews booked well in advance.

Most interviews we do on the NewsHour are with one or two people, occasionally more. And most are done in our studio in Arlington, Va., just across the Potomac River from Washington.

But often we go to where the guest is — as in a reporting trip on the road — or just into D.C., to the U.S. Capitol, for example, to interview a senator. So it was when I received a call from the global poverty-fighting organization, CARE, last week, asking if I’d be interested in interviewing CARE’s president, Dr. Helene Gayle, former first lady Laura Bush and Melinda Gates of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, around the observance of International Women’s Day. They wanted to discuss their shared concern for global programs that aid women and children. Because the issue is front and center right now, amidst serious talk of cutting U.S. foreign assistance, and because of who these women are, the NewsHour said yes. And we’re planning follow-up discussions on the NewsHour this week for more views on the issue of the budget and foreign aid.

Over the next few days after the offer, there were scores of e-mails and phone calls to make arrangements and a flurry of documents sent to me from the NewsHour’s crack research team. In fact the research kept coming right up until I left to do the interview Wednesday afternoon. We had decided to “share” the shooting of the interview with Bloomberg News, where I also do a monthly “conversation” show on television. That meant, using four camera crews, I’d prepare for a NewsHour length interview of 10 minutes, followed by a 22-minute interview for the Bloomberg program.

This caused a little anxiety on both sides because every news organization is accustomed to operating in its own way. For example, the NewsHour now uses high-definition video for everything we do, while Bloomberg television is still on the verge of starting that transition. So cameras had to adjust the “framing” of their shot to suit the needs of each program.

We videotaped in an art gallery adjacent to the hotel where Mrs. Bush was staying, and set up three dining room-type chairs in a row, facing the chair where I would sit. My main “production” suggestion was to rearrange the chairs slightly so that the women could easily see each other. Surrounding the four chairs were a forest of lights on stands, and on the floor, dozens of cables.

Dr. Gayle arrived first and had a warm greeting. As CEO of CARE, hosting its national conference this week in Washington, she was on a tight schedule. Soon, Mrs. Bush and Melinda Gates walked in together with smiles on their faces — they had been having a private meeting next door. Each of the three had staff assistants with them, who held briefcases and handbags. We moved quickly, to put microphones on jackets and to make sure there was a glass of water under each chair with a tea bag over the top, to keep any dust out!

We didn’t have much time for casual conversation, so after a few brief preliminaries I asked Mrs. Bush how President Bush is and she said “he’s great, staying busy,” while Melinda Gates described how her 8-year-old daughter insisted on a ride around the house on her dad’s back last weekend, distracting me for a moment as I tried to imagine this scene involving the one of the world’s richest men.

But soon, after the cameras synced up their videodiscs, one camera operator gave the signal, “we’re rolling,” and off we went. The first question went to Mrs. Bush. You can read the full transcript now and watch the video later this evening here on the NewsHour’s website.

Exactly 10 minutes later, I thanked Mrs. Bush, Melinda Gates and Dr. Gayle, while my NewsHour producer, George Griffin, retrieved a disc from each camera and ran out the door to get back to our studio to ensure the interview would make air a few hours later. With him gone, and new discs in each camera, we each sipped some water, and I launched into a second interview, thanking Laura Bush, Melinda Gates and Helene Gayle, for talking with me. Same topic, new beginning. This time, the first question went to Dr. Gayle.

When all was done, Gayle had to rush back to her conference; Gates had to leave right away for an appointment, and Mrs. Bush taped a special message in another part of the gallery for the Burmese dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi.

I ran out the door to return to the NewsHour offices after being reassured by phone that all seemed OK, no technical glitches.

All in a day’s work.

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Editor’s Note: For the record, the Gates Foundation is an underwriter of NewsHour global health coverage.