How a Reporter Seeks Clarity Amid Confrontation

From a Times Insider column by Emmett Linder headlined “Seeking Clarity Amid Confrontation”:

“The Run-Up,” a New York Times podcast hosted by the politics reporter Astead W. Herndon, returned this month to try to make sense of the political divisions in the United States and the intricacies of the 2024 presidential election — no small tasks.

Last year, “The Run-Up” focused on grass-roots movements; Mr. Herndon interviewed voters on both sides of the aisle to help listeners think critically about the midterm elections. With the 2024 race looming, Mr. Herndon is using this season to explore the larger political establishment and how decision makers influence daily life in America.

But interviewing media-savvy figures, who often have an agenda to push, can be tricky, and conversations can become tense. On the most recent episode of “The Run-Up,” for example, Mr. Herndon spoke with Mike Lindell, the founder and chief executive of MyPillow and an ally of former President Donald J. Trump’s.

Mr. Lindell, an election denier, is being sued by the election equipment company Dominion Voting Systems over his assertions that Dominion’s machines helped to orchestrate election fraud during the 2020 presidential election. At times during the interview, Mr. Lindell yells and cuts off Mr. Herndon.

In an interview, Mr. Herndon explained his approach to these kinds of exchanges and how he keeps his cool under pressure.

How would you describe your interview style?

It depends on who I’m interviewing. I’m someone who wants to come in with a purpose and know why I’m talking to someone. You have to have a sense of mission. I’m a friendly, alert and respectful interviewer. I want to be a direct and active listener so that I am responding to someone in real time based on what I’m hearing and what I’m learning.

One of the things I love about audio is that we have a plan as to what we want to do in these interviews. But I’m also empowered to freestyle questions based on what I’m hearing.

I’m not trying to be the smartest person in the room or confrontational for confrontation’s sake. I am trying to get clarity. If I feel I’m not getting that clarity, I will push back, but I think it has to be earned.

During a recent episode, Mike Lindell sounded agitated when you asked him about voter fraud. What was going through your head?

I think he was agitated because we were pushing him for real answers. In that moment, I didn’t want to escalate the situation; I wanted to sift through that anger and bluster to hear whether he’s answering my question or not.

Particularly when it’s someone who is a political figure, I do not see anger as a thing that should scare me off, especially if I know that I’ve come to this interview respectfully seeking answers. As long as you’re engaging, there’s more opportunity to get that clarity. I’m not going to stoke the anger, but at the same time, I’m not going to be put off by it.

How do you prepare for interviews you think may become tense?

I learned this from reporting on crime when I was at The Boston Globe. I would get to a scene — a murder, a fire, some deeply emotional scene — and I would sit in the car for a minute and make sure that I was emotionally ready to step into it. I see this in the same way. When I am going to do something that might be difficult, it may get prickly, it may lead to something that can be tense, I want to make sure that I am not taking it personally. I want to make sure I’m not escalating, that I’ve centered myself.

How do you approach interviews with listeners in mind and get them to think critically and broadly about the election?

I don’t think we do our job if things feel smart; I think we do our job if things feel clear. That to me is the line we are always pushing for: How are we untangling a political system — that is not actually built for people to understand — in a tangible way? How are we clearing up the political decisions folks are making that are intended to be out of public view? That, to me, is the core of “The Run-Up.”

We try to start episodes from ground zero, so that we’re not assuming any knowledge. The question I was getting from friends while I was on the trail from 2018 to 2021 was, “Why are things moving in one direction, when it feels like people have been begging for it to move in the opposite direction?” I started our reporting process thinking, let’s help people understand why. We’re trying to live up to it.

Emmett Lindner has covered international protests, worked on live briefings and asked the tough questions about frozen reindeer meat for The Times.

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