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Feet to the Fire

Matt Lauer knows how to make a candidate talk

  • Grades: 3–5, 6–8, 9–12

By Chris Johnson
Scholastic Kids Press Corps

Today Show anchor Matt Lauer recently spent a day on the campaign trail with Republican Candidate and Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. He sat down with Scholastic Kid Reporter Chris Johnson to talk about his experience and pass on some tips about how to cover an election campaign.

CHRIS: What is the difference between interviewing a political candidate and an actor?

LAUER: You have to do a lot more homework interviewing a political candidate. No question about it. Actor interviews are pretty much personality-driven. You know, what you're really trying to do is get a little information out about a movie or a book or something like that or a record, if it's a singer, and then you try to just have fun.

A political candidate, in a perfect world, you want to make news. You want to find out how he or she stands on an issue, you want to press them a little bit on that issue, you want to find out how they might vary from the other candidates on that issue, and then you want to really drive home something that people just don't know about that person that might impact the way they vote.

CHRIS: What do you enjoy about reporting on political events?

LAUER: I like politics most, Chris, because it's what affects the most people. When we do a political interview and we interview a politician, that person, if they're elected, is going to be in a position to impact all of our lives. So if you're going to interview the President of the United States, for example, the most powerful person in the world, I like the fact that you're dealing with someone that's going to shape the way the world looks and how it looks for the next four to eight years. So it has a lot more impact than any other kind of interview.

CHRIS: How do you prepare yourself for a daylong interview with somebody?

NBC Today Show anchor Matt Lauer in his office at Rockefeller Center in New York City with Scholastic Kid Reporter Chris Johnson. (Photo by Suzanne Freeman)

LAUER: You know, one of the good things about the job, Chris, is that you don't have to study every day as if it's a new subject because if you do what you're supposed to do-if you read newspapers every day, if you watch the news, if you check out the wires on the computer every day-you're fairly well up on these subjects. So it's not like you're looking at them for the first time every time you're about to do an interview.

[To prepare] I look at the candidate's record on certain things. I look back at some of the statements he's said over the past couple months. I look at the polls, and I look at what people are saying about him.

One of the great things about my job-and I don't think enough people talk about this-is that a really good interview is based on listening. I mean, sure, you have to ask questions, but if you're really not spending enough time listening to the answers that people give you, then your interview won't go in unusual directions. So the biggest preparation you can have for an interview like that is to just relax. And listen. And that way, you'll be able to ask fairly intelligent follow-up questions just by listening to the answers.

CHRIS: How do you handle political candidates when they don't answer your questions?

LAUER: You try and gently at first, forcefully later on, go back and ask follow-up questions. Don't be afraid to say, "Excuse me, you didn't answer my question. With all due respect, Governor, you didn't answer my question." It doesn't help anybody and it certainly doesn't help me if I ask a question and someone doesn't answer it. If you truly want an answer, stay at it until you get some kind of a satisfactory response.

CHRIS: What makes this election for president more exciting than previous ones?

LAUER: It's an open campaign. In other words there's no incumbent running, which is more exciting. It opens the field to a lot of other candidates, so I think that makes it exciting. What makes it important is that I think we're facing a difficult situation in Iraq and with our national security and with our relations with other countries. So with all national elections which are important, I think this takes on even more significance just because we're living in very tense times.

CHRIS: Do you have trouble keeping your opinions to yourself when you do interviews?

LAUER: I don't really have trouble with it. I've been doing this for a long time. I know the rules, and the rules are that we're supposed to be impartial observers and it's very important that we [journalists] are. Our job is to ask difficult questions of both parties, all candidates, and let the audience draw their own conclusions, not to draw the conclusion for the audience.

CHRIS: What advice can you give a young reporter like myself who will be covering a major election?

LAUER: I guess the best advice I could give you is to think about the questions that really matter to your friends when they become of age to vote, to your parents, to typical people out there who want to find out about these candidates. Find out how they stand on education. Find out what's important to them. Find out what's shaped their lives. You know, ask them about their heroes. Who's the most important person in their lives? That's a really good way to get a handle on a personality.

ELECTION 2008

Scholastic Kid Reporters are on the campaign trail. Keep up with the latest election news in this special report.

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  • Subjects:
    Social Studies, Democracy, Journalism, Elections and Voting, Politics, The Presidency
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Scholastic Kids Press Corps

The Scholastic Kids Press Corps is a team of 32 student reporters who report "news for kids, by kids." Sports, politics, and entertainment are among the topics they cover.