It's conventional chattering-class wisdom to say that Terry Gross of Fresh Air is a "great interviewer." In the early days I think that wisdom originated to some significant extent in male-listener fascination with the sound of her voice. But a broadcast I just heard was not only a reminder that she is, in fact, truly a great interviewer but also a demonstration of what that means in practice.
The broadcast in question was her 43-minute session yesterday with Ayers, the person presented by GOP campaigners as Barack Obama's closest and most influential friend. Ayers himself came across, inevitably, as a more complex character than the campaign caricature: more sympathetic in some ways, not necessarily in others. But much of what Ayers "reveals" comes out precisely because of the way Gross posed and sequenced the questions. If he had just been parked in front of the microphone by someone who said, "Well, how can you hold your head up?" or "So, tell us about Barack Obama," the results would have been much duller.
At the most obvious level, Terry Gross succeeds in this interview simply by avoiding the two most common, and laziest, styles of today's broadcast interviewers: surplus aggressiveness, long ago made familiar by Mike Wallace and now lampooned by Stephen Colbert; and lapdogism, most recently on display in Greta Van Susteren's sessions with Sarah Palin and the default mode of Larry King Live. Both of these extremes reflect the confusion of toughness of manner -- do you interrupt, are you scowling, are you borderline impolite -- with toughness of inquiry, which is something altogether different and can happen under the most polite and civil auspices.