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Putting the Temp in Tempo/The Master Interviewer

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Putting the Temp in Tempo

The Tempo section of the Chicago Tribune has just been torn apart. What didn't look broken to the outside eye is being fixed regardless.

Seven of Tempo's 12 writers are being transferred to other parts of the paper: Ron Grossman, Jon Anderson, Paul Galloway, Connie Lauerman, Lynn Van Matre, Barbara Sullivan, and Genevieve Buck. Their replacements are no one in particular. Instead the Tribune will rotate in five writers at a time who will write for Tempo for four months and then rotate out.

This measure deals head-on with a chronic resentment within the Tribune, which is that Tempo writers regard their jobs as tenured professorships, publish no more than a serious scholar should, and leave only to retire. There's a lot of envy and naivete in that perception. At any rate, from now on they'll be more like adjuncts hired by the semester (though one editor was heard comparing the four-month tour to a "sabbatical," a respite from the hurly-burly of real journalism).

Though the editors responsible for the changes insist age has nothing to do with them, we don't believe it. Tempo had a graying staff; the average age of the deposed writers must be somewhere in the 50s. And though the editors claim nothing punitive is intended, we don't buy that, either. Once an editor becomes bored with a writer's voice or suspicious of his work ethic, nothing he does is likely to redeem him.

Editor Howard Tyner praised Tempo to the skies when he lifted James Warren last winter from editor of the section to editor of the Washington bureau. In retrospect it wasn't the section he admired but Warren, his own discovery, for holding Tempo together by inspiration until Tyner could rescue the operation with a bulldozer.

"That it was destabilizing is taken for granted. Of course it was destabilizing," says Tyner, contemplating the uprooting and clearing. "If you get into a situation of throwing the whole thing up for grabs, there are a lot more people who are destabilized." Here Tyner referred to a brutally simple proposal of his own: to post a notice that all 12 of Tempo's writing jobs had been declared open and anyone on the paper could apply. Imagine this approach being taken to the editorial board, or to the sports section, or to any part of the paper that valued continuity and content.

"That was an option," Tyner told us. "One of many. But you know it wasn't chosen." It succumbed to a strategy offered by deputy managing editor Ann Marie Lipinski, which shines mostly by comparison.

Every four months, or three times a year, Tempo editor Rick Kogan will get to break in five new writers. Unless you believe that crack newspaper talent needs no time to adjust to the differences in space, tone, and pace posed by a feature section such as Tempo, you may believe, as we do, that Kogan will more than have his hands full. "It's not without some trepidation that I look forward to young, talented people coming into Tempo," Kogan offered. "Whether the most talented writer-reporters in America can immediately start churning out 50-inch feature stories of quality is an experiment that I am interested to see."

The reaction of Galloway was more straightforward. "I'm extremely angry and extremely hurt. . . . In my 11 years at Tempo this was the best staff we had, and that's why it's so stunning that they wanted to break it up with this kind of massive change, without any warning. But our leaders are brilliant and compassionate people, and I'm sure they know what they're doing."

No doubt other writers can be found to do the sort of long, reflective features that distinguish Tempo. Giving them a chance is commendable. Giving them a chance for four months and then running them off is sort of weird. "It may prove it needs to be a little longer," said Tyner. "I think it's an experiment, an attempt to introduce different people and different styles and different approaches."

We put two questions to Owen Youngman, the deputy managing editor for features. What if a reporter wants to apply to Tempo and her editor refuses to cut her loose? "I don't think there's any chance of that," said Youngman. "This idea has the support of all of those editors."

(Right. Editors are often delighted to lose their best reporters for extended periods.)

And what if a Tempo newcomer turns out to be sensational? Does he or she get to stay?

"That's not the idea," Youngman said. "That would defeat the purpose of making opportunities to write for this section more widely available."

(Could this idea spread? Will Royko be next to step aside to give someone else a turn?)

Where will the Tempo Seven wind up? A few might disappear into a new rewrite bank the Tribune's thinking of creating, to bring livelier writing to the front pages and Metro section. Rewrite affects different newsmen in different ways. Some appreciate the anonymous yeomanship. To others it's living hell.

The Master Interviewer

In Studs Terkel's hands the interview comes close to God. That's some triumph over an invention of the devil, an intellectual amusement in which ego duels with cunning and no pure truth is said by either.

Terkel's interviews celebrate humanity, exalting its common folk and presenting its uncommon at their plainest. He's just finished another book, Coming of Age, an anthology of boisterous old people. And HighBridge Company, based in Saint Paul, Minnesota, has released Four Decades With Studs Terkel, a 12-hour package of audiocassettes that offers highlights of his daily WFMT interviews since the 1950s.

We decided to ask Terkel about the art of the interview. He is, after all, not simply a force of nature. He's a craftsman.

"First of all, I read the book," he said. That sets him apart right there. He reads the books of his radio guests, marks them up, stays up till two or three in the morning finishing them. Which is why, he went on, "I'm trying to avoid books to some extent. Because they kill me."

Reading the book is to some interviewers step one in setting an author up for the kill. Terkel wouldn't dream of it. You don't do adversarial interviews? we asked him.

"No," said Terkel. Points of view he doesn't respect he doesn't offer. He went on, "Take a good issue--capital punishment. I was on the high school debating team in McKinley High School, 1926-'27. I was a negative and affirmative, both sides, on capital punishment. Well, I want to know nothing about 'Is it good or bad?' Bullshit. You know it doesn't stop capital crimes. It never did. It has no effect whatsoever. What it does is give us a feeling of some vengeance. Now I understand the person whose dear one was killed, the feeling of you want to kill that person, you want to behead that son of a bitch. But the rest of the community! It's like war.

"There's a guy in The Good War--a wonderful guy, Paul Edwards. He remembers in Abilene during the war, he says, when somebody in the town was killed, and the people are mourning and they're saying we've got to stop those sons of bitches. You know goddamn well the family that lost the kid genuinely was grief stricken. The others--it's part of that whole righteous thing. Justifying war itself. I'm coming back to capital punishment. So why the hell am I going to have a guy on, a Buckley or whoever it might be, who's going to debate? I did that as a high school kid! I'm too old for that nonsense!"

We told Terkel we'd never conducted an interview in our life that wasn't, at some level, adversarial. We might be interviewing our best friend. But if there weren't an element of conquer-or-be-conquered, it would be just a conversation.

"Well, sometimes you gotta go around," Terkel allowed. "Suppose someone stops in the middle of a sentence. Why did that someone stop in the middle of a sentence? There's a hurt there. You're not going to say, 'Why did you stop?' Later on, come back to whatever that thought was. You'll find very often black people laugh at a moment when they're describing humiliation. 'So I went to the bar, and they wouldn't serve me. Ha, ha, ha.' Or 'I taught this white kid how to work, and then I got fired.' And he starts laughing. Why the laugh there? Why'd the person shift subjects here? Why'd the person raise his voice there? And yet you store that, and you go on. You don't come right at it. So that's a form of guile."

You've got to stay alert, we said.

"You listen, simple as that," Terkel said. He prescribed "a sort of empathy and knowledge, together with guile--all of that--to evoke whatever." Then he said, "Here's one you're going to get a kick out of. Here's the bad side of me."

A quarter century ago Terkel was writing Hard Times, his oral history of the Depression. Among his subjects was "Eileen Barth," a social worker of the era. Her reminiscence concluded with this:

"I'll never forget one of the first families I visited. The father was a railroad man who had lost his job. I was told by my supervisor that I really had to see the poverty. If the family needed clothing, I was to investigate how much clothing they had at hand. So I looked into this man's closet--(pauses, it becomes difficult)--he was a tall, gray-haired man, though not terribly old. He let me look in the closet--he was so insulted. (She weeps angrily.) He said, 'Why are you doing this?' I remember his feeling of humiliation . . . this terrible humiliation. (She can't continue. After a pause, she resumes.) He said, "I really haven't anything to hide, but if you really must look into it . . . ' I could see he was very proud. He was so deeply humiliated. And I was too."

Says Terkel today, as he recalls hearing this story for the first time, "Well, I'm saying, 'This is great!' [He cackles.] 'I gotta get that goddamned interview!' Of course it was moving! But to me, my God, that fit! Just before another guy in the book, about the WPA and his humiliation. It fit right there! It was what I wanted, even though it was she, and even though she was deeply, deeply moved--as I was!

"But it didn't matter. I gotta get that goddamned thing. So that's part of it. That's part of it. That's guile, in a way."

In a very loving way. "Eileen Barth" is Terkel's wife.

To interview is to finagle. Studs is one of us.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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