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Tips From Tim Russert
Interview by Ellie Bosies, Alexandra Conway, and Molly Wienberg
Scholastic Student Reporters

Scholastic Student Reporters talk to Tim Russert. (Photo by Suzanne Freeman)
He conducts some of the toughest interviews in American politics, and recently went head-to-head with President George W. Bush in the Oval Office at the White House. He tried to be just as tough as an interviewee when three Scholastic Student Reporters cornered him in the NBC work area in Manchester, New Hampshire, while covering the primaries there. He ended up giving up some of his best interviewing secrets, which the reporters are sharing with Scholastic News Online readers.

But first, about Russert. Known as one of the most aggressive and well-read reporters on the air today, Russert is the managing editor and moderator of Meet the Press. He is also a political analyst for NBC Nightly News and the Today program. He anchors The Tim Russert Show, a weekly interview program on CNBC, and is a contributing anchor for MSNBC. Russert also serves as senior vice president and Washington bureau chief of NBC News.

Russert joined NBC News in 1984. In April 1985, he supervised the live broadcasts of the Today program from Rome, negotiating and arranging an appearance by Pope John Paul II, a first for American television. In 1986 and 1987, Russert led NBC News weeklong broadcasts from South America, Australia, and China.

In 2001, Washingtonian Magazine named Russert the best and most influential journalist in Washington, D.C., describing Meet the Press as "the most interesting and important hour on television." Russert has moderated numerous gubernatorial, U.S. Senate, and presidential primary candidate debates.

The hard-nosed journalist is also a parent. In 1995, the National Father's Day Committee named him "Father of the Year," Parents magazine honored him as "Dream Dad" in 1998, and in 2001 the National Fatherhood Initiative also recognized him as "Father of the Year."

Before Scholastic Student Reporters could ask him questions, he tried to turn the tables and interview them.

Russert: Where are you from?
SN: Manchester.

Russert: What grade are you in?
SN: Fifth.

Russert: What's your favorite subject?
SN: Reading.
SN: Math.
SN: I like a lot of subjects. I like math and writing and grammar.

Russert: You know what my favorite was? Recess. Loved it.
(Scholastic Student Reporters finally jump in while Russert is thinking about recess. He has a dreamy look on his face!)

SN: What are good questions to ask the candidates?
Russert: What are their plans for our country? What are you going to do about social security? What are you going to do about Iraq? Then you have to have a follow-up, too, because they'll say, "Oh, I'm going to preserve social security." But what's the follow-up? How are you going to do that, and how are you going to pay for it? If they don't want to say, if they want to say, "We'll have a strong defense and we'll preserve social security and we'll cut taxes," then you say, "How are you going to do all that?" That's like saying you're going to buy a new house, a new car, have free candy for everybody on the same income. Doesn't add up. You have to say, "I'm sorry, Senator, that doesn't add up."

SN: If you meet somebody that you don't have questions prepared for, what do you do?
Russert: Well, you have to be prepared. Every day I read six newspapers; I watch all the television news shows. So you're prepared every day, even though I have a show on Sunday morning. You never know when you're going to need it. You can't just wing it. You know how it is in class if you just wait till the end and try to cram for an exam? It doesn't work. If you go to class every day and you do your homework every day and you participate every day, you're up to speed all the time.

Did you ever have surprise quizzes in class? You're ready for those. So now every day I wake up and say, "If I'm in New Hampshire, and I come across Senator Kerry or Governor Dean, this is what I'm going to ask them." That's what you have to think as a reporter. "If I see the mayor today, this is what I'm going to ask him." Because you never know when you're going to see the mayor. Preparation is everything—everything!

SN: What if we don't know who we might run into?
Russert: Well, if you're a reporter and you're doing a school newspaper, what's the big issue in your school?

SN: The menu in the cafeteria.
Russert: So, you know if you see the principal, or if you have an opportunity where they say, "Okay, does anyone have any comments about the cafeteria menu?" you're prepared. "I'd like to know why they have sloppy joes every other day!" Right? That's what I do, because I prepare. [Meet the Press] is a one-hour show—I prepare for a three-hour show.

Now, when someone gives you an answer, don't go to your next question—listen. Be prepared and listen, because they may say something and you may say, "Wait a minute . . . that doesn't make sense." So you do the follow-up question, sometimes a third follow-up question. Sometimes they keep saying no, bobbing and weaving, but the people watching know whether they're evading you or not. You don't have to lean over and choke them and say, "You're lying!" because if you do that, then the audience thinks that you're a bully and your guest is very sympathetic. But if you say three times, "I'm sorry, Senator, but I've asked you the question three times and you haven't answered," everybody goes, "Oh, they're ducking."

SN: Who was the most interesting person you've met yet?
Russert: Pope John Paul II. Very interesting. And uh, who else? I've met Gorbachev, Castro, all the Presidents, Bush, Clinton, Nixon.

SN: Have they asked any interesting questions of you?
Russert: Well, they give me answers, but I remember I asked President Clinton if he would allow North Korea to build a nuclear bomb and he said, "No." There were headlines all over in the middle of the interview. There were headlines all around the world—the computers were beeping like crazy. In the middle of the interview we went to a break and he asked to come back to the question because he wanted to make sure the world understood what he said. Because when the President says something, it can really affect world policy.

SN: And out of all those interesting people you've met, who was the most interesting?
Russert: I think Michael Jordan. I interviewed Michael Jordan. Who would you like to interview?

SN: Orlando Bloom!
Russert: Ohhh! Lord of the Rings, huh? Orlando, huh? And what would your first question be?

SN: Just how is it acting and being famous, being so . . .
Russert: . . . cute?! You see, that's not reporting. That's flirting! You can't do that. That's violating all the rules of being a good journalist. You've got to ask tough questions. Say, "Did you pay your taxes, Mr. Orlando Bloom?" Who would you like to interview?

SN: George Bush.
Russert: And who would you like to interview?

SN: Er . . . you stumped me.
Russert: I stumped you on that question? That's an easy one. Next question: Out of all the candidates here, who would you like to interview? Did you interview Governor Dean and John Kerry?

SN: Yeah.
Russert: Who was the nicest?

SN: Wes Clark. John Kerry was really nice too.
Russert: What about Governor Dean? Did he scream for you?

SN: No!
Russert: That's a joke. All right. Am I off the hot seat?

SN: No. What's the most interesting presidential race you've covered?
Russert: 2000. It went on for 37 days after the election, right? You don't remember this, you were too little, but I remember on election night 2000 the computers went wrong in projecting the states, and I had a little white dry erase board and I kept writing on it. The day before the election, the Today show said, "What can we look for tomorrow?" and I said "Florida, Florida, Florida," and it turned out to be Florida, Florida, Florida. That was the state that was so pivotal.

On election night I kept marking off the states that were being won by the different candidates, and everybody thought it was so funny that I was using this board, but it was easy to watch because they understood it. So, besides preparation, keep it simple. What good is it if you know something and you can't explain it to the viewers. You're in the business of explaining things. And use simple techniques. Never mind the razzle-dazzle glitz. Save that for Hollywood. Save that for Orlando.

SN: Will you use your white board this year?
Russert: It's back! Get ready.