Breaking the Ice: An In-Depth Look at Oriana Fallaci’s Interview Techniques

In the following essay, Santo L. Arico examines the techniques that he believes make Oriana Fallaci an effective and engaging interviewer.
Oriana Fallaci's interview with Colonel Gheddafi in 1979

In the following essay, Santo L. Arico examines the techniques that he believes make Oriana Fallaci an effective and engaging interviewer.

by Santo L. Arico

Although Oriana Fallaci is recognized as an accomplished author of three novels and five works of nonfiction, she is best known today as a political interviewer. Using her skills, she has not only exposed some of the world’s most powerful and intransigent political leaders but has also made history with them. She confronts her interviewees with no inhibitions but as their intellectual peer and social equal. She boldly interrogated Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Thieu about the corruption in South Vietnam’s regime during the Vietnam war and lured former Secretary of State Kissinger into describing himself as a lone gunslinger on a horse as he traveled around the world on diplomatic missions. After Fallaci printed her interview with Ali Bhutto, the Pakistani Prime Minister had so many adverse political repercussions that he begged her several times to retract her statements and to proclaim publically that she had fabricated the story. When Alvaro Cunhal openly admitted that his Portuguese Communist Party viewed national elections as a game, he severely set back the efforts of European Communism to prove its faith in the democratic process and to assume a shield of respectability. Her emotion laden questions to Haile Selassie on the poverty of his people caused him to recall angrily his Ethiopian ambassador from Italy.

Although Fallaci’s interview s have made her both respected and feared, her methods are not unique and innovative; they are traditional procedures that most professionals utilize. What makes her approach different is the degree of commitment and passion that she brings to journalism. Her work is not only the reflection of an acquired craft but also the expression of a personality. This unusual woman becomes her interview; the technique becomes a verbal projection of the person herself. The intensity of her line of questioning impregnates the colloquies with a dynamism that places them in a class of their own. Fallaci’s stock in trade techniques, as well as her originality, have been the study of several short articles. However, none of them has done justice to isolating her skills or emphasizing her uniqueness as an interviewer. Instead, they accentuate one aspect of a narrow segment of her discourses. The present analysis attempts to rectify this deficit and to discover the hidden force that motivates the interviewer.

Fallaci’s repertory of techniques seems endless and always reflects a fervent desire to discover the hidden truth in each figure that she encounters. Before every confrontation, she guesses where the person is most vulnerable and calculates her questions accordingly. Her flattering queries to Kissinger reflect her belief that his particular weakness is his vain and massive ego. “Dr. Kissinger, how do you explain the incredible movie-star status you enjoy; how do you explain the fact that you’re almost more famous and popular than a president? Have you a theory on this matter?” At this point, Kissinger made his disastrous cowboy statement, which became prime subject matter in the American press for months afterwards.

Another of her strong points is the thoroughness of her preparation before each of her interviews. Her preparedness sometimes catches her subject off guard and enables her to assume an advantageous stance. During her meeting with Kissinger, she brought out speeches and clippings in which President Thieu of South Vietnam challenged the American Secretary of State to tell the real reasons for their disagreeing on a peace treaty with North Vietnam. Kissinger’s response reflected his awkwardness: “Let me see it … Ah! No, I won’t answer him. I won’t pay any attention to this invitation.” Fallaci is also master of the old rope trick, giving people just enough line to hang themselves. To Ali Bhutto, she simply alluded to the antagonism that existed between him and Indira Ghandi. “You two really can’t stand each other, can you?” Bhutto then imprudently allowed his hatred to arouse a string of insulting remarks toward Ghandi and subsequently suffered humiliation when India retaliated by retracting the agreement to sign a peace treaty with his country.

In many of her exchanges Fallaci formulates inductive conclusions after listening to a speaker’s statements. According to former CIA Director William Colby, influential Italians taking bribes from his organization were regarded as good clients rather than corrupt officials. Fallaci then bitterly sums up the idea. “So you consider yourself the lawyer for Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in Italy.” In the same exchange, Colby admits that the FBI would arrest Fallaci if she were to finance American politicians in order to protect her interests in the U.S.A. She then states her own ending: ‘Fine. So I ought to report you, your ambassador, and your agents to the Italian police and have you arrested.” Occasionally, the writer’s summary statement also acts as a stimulus for further conversation. When Thieu expressed feelings of betrayal by American politicians, she both summarized and instigated: “In other words, Mr. President, you expected just what has happened.” Then, after Thieu completed his hypothesis, she again used the same technique and provoked a response that supplied additional information. “In other words, Mr. President, you think that Kissinger was about to sell Vietnam in the name of his world strategy.” After Thieu openly accused Nixon and Kissinger of bad judgment in dealing with North Vietnam, she varied the basic strategy by adding a simple question to her conclusion. “So, in your opinion, Nixon and Kissinger made a mistake. Mr. President, how do you explain the fact that they made a mistake?” When Golda Meir made it clear that Israel would not return captured Arab territory, Fallaci accurately grasped the heart of the question. “And so it’s obvious that you’ll never go back to your old borders.” When Kissinger compared himself to an adventurous cowboy leading a caravan into an isolated town, she again hit the nail tight on the head. “I see. You see yourself as a kind of Henry Fonda, unarmed and ready to fight with his fists for honest ideals. Alone, courageous …”

Techniques Vary

Fallaci’s techniques vary and change according to the particular set of circumstances. In the Kissinger talk, one tactic was to go from the general to the particular. First, she asked in broad terms what he would do after his term of office expired. Not receiving a satisfactory answer, she changed to a specific possibility. “Would you go back to teaching at Harvard?” During her Cunhal interview, she posed a sly question, acting as though she had inside information regarding his forthcoming dismissal as secretary of the Portuguese Communist Party. After he became emotionally involved in the game, he asked if it was due to his old age. Fallaci then continued to push the tactic to the limit, “No, no, because you are too arrogant. Too Stalinist. Because you cause Socialist newspapers to be shut down and organize lots of troubles for Communists in other countries.” Then, when she finally discloses the prank, her retort was one of bantering: “You really got scared, didn’t you?” At other times, she leads her victims on what seems to be a safari of irrelevant questions and then, when they least expect it, succeeds in obtaining the desired information. This method was particularly useful during her interview with Haile Selassi who had refused to discuss the coup that his two trusted advisors, Menghistu and Giramane Neway, had initiated. Both men died before Selassie could have had the pleasure of seeing them executed. After an attempted escape became impossible, Giramane shot his brother to prevent capture, then, he took his own life in prison before his scheduled day of execution. Selassie vengefully ordered their bodies to remain hanging from the gallows for eight days. In order to discuss this untouchable topic, Fallaci posed an apparently unrelated question: “Your majesty, if you don’t wish to speak about certain things, speak to me still about yourself. It is said that you love animals and babies very much. May I ask you if you love men as much?” He responded that he only respected men who were courageous and dignified. Then, she made her key statement. “The two protagonists in that coup d’etat had dignity your majesty. They had courage.” Selassie realized that he had been intellectually cornered and gave vent to his annoyance by angrily commanding her to refrain from her line of questioning. “That’s enough, that’s enough! Enough of it!” During the course of her exchange with the Ethiopian monarch, Selassie vehemently ordered her to change the subject at least six different times.

Part of Fallaci’s talent is an instinctive ability to adapt quickly to each situation and to perceive an advantageous direction after an unexpected and indiscreet disclosure. During her talk with the Shah of Iran, he revealed that he had not only had visions of the saints and prophets but had actually spoken to them. Fallaci profited from this revelation by making fun of him: “You mean you could shake hands with them?” After an affirmative response, she continued her sarcasm: “If I am there with you, can I seem them?” In the same interview, she noticed that the Shah’s profile communicated an expression of forlomness and thus composed an appropriate question: “Why are you so sad, Majesty? I may be wrong, but you always have such a sad and worried look.” Right before she met with Quadaffi, the Libyan dictator began to yell hysterically like a broken record for ten minutes straight that he was the Gospel and naturally intimidated the entire entourage. At a certain point, Fallaci, who almost never interrupts, boldly cut him off and put forth the appropriate punch line: “Stop! Stop! Do you believe in God?” Quadaffi: “Of course, why do you ask?” Fallaci: “Because I thought you were God.” During the course of their conversation, Quadaffi asserted that he was much loved by his people. Her response was appropriately provocative as she gestured to his battalion of bodyguards: “Colonel, if the masses love you so much, then why do you need so much protection?”

Fallaci skillfully uses all the techniques mentioned but is certainly not alone in that regard. Any good interviewer prepares well, adapts to different statements, summarizes the main idea in a concise conclusion, and tries to understand the personality of the subject before the actual confrontation. Fallaci’s originality is the emotional entanglement that takes place when she meets the other person. Her degree of involvement makes most exchanges seen on American television look tepid. Journalists in the United States appear far too objective and composed to rate a valid comparison. On CBS’s 60 Minutes, Fallaci, who has never understood the American insistence that all reporters remain impartial, said to Mike Wallace: “I hate objectivity, you know, I have told it many times, I do not believe in objectivity, I believe in what I see, what I hear and what I feel which is a kind of blasphemy …. especially for the American press.” When Wallace accused her of emotionalism and subjectivity, she did not deny it; indeed, she elaborated on what he perceived as peculiarities, “I don’t only put my opinion but my sentiment in it.” Consequently, every time the writer meets someone, she throws her entire being into the experience and takes a moral stance on every issue. When she met Golda Meir in Israel, she knew exactly where she stood on the Palestinian issue and immediately proposed that Arab terrorism would exist as long as there were Palestinian refugees. When the prime minister tried to assuage her concern, comparing this problem to the case of German and Czech refugees, who were homeless after World War II, Fallaci resisted and countered: “But the case of the Palestinian is different, Mrs. Meir . . . .” She suggested that Israel should allow them to return to their homeland or to create their own nation on the West Bank. When Meir explained that Jordan should welcome them into its territory, Fallaci found this idea unacceptable, “because they say they are Palestinians and that their home is in Palestine, not Jordan.” There is no interview in which she remains detached and objective; each one seems like a moral debate.

According to her admission to Robert Scheer, Fallaci meets with important people in order to understand the logistics of world decisions. “I do these interviews to understand the person, to study how power takes place.” This desire to perceive how leaders determine the destiny of all mankind turns her appointments into stalking sessions in which she holds her subjects accountable for all deeds and actions. Before seeing Alvaro Cunhal, she knew that the Communist Party had seized control in March 1975 of Republica, Portugal’s last free newspaper, and ignored the country’s mandate in favor of the Socialists. Therefore, she immediately brought him to task: “You can say whatever you wish, think whatever you wish: it is not licit to neutralize and to ignore a party that represents the greater majority of the people, that has won the elections.” When the ex-CIA Director William Colby agreed to receive her, there were no holds barred on the various activities of the agency. She condemned its desires to control other nations for selfish interests and denounced the harm done to genuine freedom in the process. “From Franco to Caetano, from Diem to Thieu, from Papadopulos to Pinochet. Without counting all the Fascist dictators in Latin America. Tortured Brazilians, for example. In this way, in the name of freedom, you became the supporters of all those who kill liberty from the other side.”

Takes Personal Stand

Fallaci takes such a strong stand on issues that she frequently expresses her sense of outrage by actually insulting or injecting elements of melodrama into the exchange. Her debate with Colby became so heated that she refrained from direct bombast only with difficulty and referred to him as a corruptor. “There is only one type more disgusting than the corrupt: the corruptor.’* Then, she accused him of plotting to overthrow’ governments throughout the world: “And under Johnson what knavery did you organize? Ah, yes: the overthrow of Papadopulos.” Finally, she bitterly equated him to a hard-line Stalinist: “If you had been born on the other side of the barricade, you would be a perfect Stalinist.” To the Ayatollah Khomeini, she hurled a pointed challenge: “Are you a fanatic?” When the Iranian leader smugly insulted her, stating that the chador was appropriate attire for proper young women and that, therefore, she had no need to wear it, she retaliated angrily by tearing the veil off, throwing it to the ground and shouting: “This is what I do with your stupid medieval rag!” He, in turn, stormed out of the room, only to hear her insultingly call after him: “Where do you go? Do you go to make pee-pee?” Fallaci’s tactic was next a lengthy sit-in demonstration until he swore on the Koran that he would again meet with her on the next day. Her use of dramatics was also evident during the time spent with Kissinger, when she used a pistol-to-the-headtype question. “Dr. Kissinger, if I were to put a pistol to your head and ask you to choose between having dinner with Thieu and having dinner with Le Duc Tho . . . whom would you choose?” During the Colby interview, Fallaci repeatedly alluded to his readiness to overthrow any possible Communist regime in Italy, just like the Allende-Pinochet experience in Chile and dramatized her statements by sarcastically challenging the notion that her country was his personal banana republic: “Mr. Colby, I am trying to get you to admit that Italy is an independent state, not a banana republic, not your colony!”

In his analysis of Fallaci’s techniques, Thomas Griffith spoke of trials of strength in which the writer stress tested her subjects. Right from the start, she placed continued pressure on the person and mercilessly persisted in her taxing pressure, until the point had been exhausted. In Portugal, the Communists could have managed to control the government after their loss in the 1975 elections, only if the military had given their support to this paradoxical condition. Thus, Fallaci asked Cunhal the loaded question whether his party had accomplished the manoeuvre alone or with the help of the military. “The Communists and no one else, or the Communists together with the military?” When Cunhal tried to dodge the question, she emphatically repeated it four more times until he answered. She continued to bombard Kissinger with questions on Vietnam and the impending peace agreement with the North to the point that he practically had to implore her to stop pursuing the topic: 1) “No, I don’t intend to argue about this”; 2) “That’s enough, I don’t want to talk anymore about Vietnam, I can’t allow myself to, at this time. Every word I say becomes news. At the end of November perhaps … Listen, why don’t we meet again at the end of November?”; 3) “I cannot answer that question.”; 4) “I cannot, I cannot… I do not wish to answer that question”; 5) “And don’t make me talk about Vietnam anymore, please”; 6) “But are we still talking about Vietnam?” Fallaci made use of this same persistence technique with William Colby, when he avoided revealing his plans in the event that the Communist Party were to win a majority in an Italian national election. 1) “Mr. Colby, what would you do, you Americans, if the Communists were to win the elections in Italy?” 2) “Mr. Colby, would you have a coup d’etat like in Chile?”; 3) “Answer me, Mr. Colby; another Chile?”; 4) “But I insist on the question which you don’t want to answer: what would the Americans do if the Communists were to win control of the government in Italy?”; 5) “Courage, Mr. Colby. Do you believe it would be legitimate for the United States to intervene in Italy with a Pinochet if the Communists were to gain control of the government?”

In her discussion with David Sanford. Fallaci was very clear about her efforts to badger and intimidate her subjects. “I know that I make psychological violence on them.” Thus, the questions she poses are intensely direct, personal and frequently provocative. To General Thieu, she offered a series of four consecutive brutal inquiries that took their toll on his emotional equilibrium: 1) “Here’s the first: What have you to say about the fact that you’re called an “American puppet” or the “man of the Americans”?; 2) “Question number two. What do you have to say to those who accuse you of being corrupt, the most corrupt man in Vietnam?”; 3) “And is it true that today you’re immensely rich, with bank accounts and houses in Switzerland, London, Paris, and Australia?”; 4) “Question number four. Aren’t you afraid of being killed? For instance, assassinated like President Diem?” Fallaci’s directness in no way resembles the Barbara Walters whammy number, made famous when she cunningly obliged Jimmy Carter to discuss whether he and Rosalyn slept in a single or double bed in the White House. No, Fallaci asked Golda Meir if she would ever give up Jerusalem, whether she would return the West Bank to Jordan and Gaza to Egypt, whether the Golan Heights would be permanently annexed, and whether the Sinai would become part of Israel. Fallaci’s technique has no place for the banal type of question that Barbara Walters asked Anwar Sadat: “What is your biggest thrill?”

She prefers to get right to the point, asking the Shah of Iran about attempts on his life: “Majesty, how many times have they tried to kill you?” She commented on the fear of his Iranian people toward him—“When I try to talk about you, here in Teheran, people lock themselves in a fearful silence. They don’t even dare pronounce your name. Majesty. Why is that?”

In Fallaci’s last question to Haile Selassie, she asked how he felt about death and his personal mortality. The query was particularly provocative, since the monarch disliked the word death and w-as petrified of dying. The emperor’s anger and frustration hysterically burst forth, as he ordered Fallaci to leave his presence at once and demanded to know who this woman was. “Death? death? Who is this woman? Where does she come from? What does she want from me?!? Away, enough, that’s it! That’s it!” Like Selassie, many people have wondered about Fallaci. Gloria Emerson refers to her as a “divine troublemaker ” Elizabeth Peer writes that she bullies, baits, charms “and harvests disclosures of stupefying indiscretion from statesmen who ought to know better.” David Sanford uses the term “surgical journalism” to explain how she dissects a person’s mind until she gets to the truth. In the Introduction to Interview with History, the writer herself tries to explain who she is. All of her motivation derives from her desire to understand the powerful and how they control our lives. She does every interview’ “with the hope of understanding in what way, by being in power or opposing it, those people determine our destiny.” She painstakingly inflicts a torturous preparation on herself before doing the same to the other person. “I went with a thousand feelings of rage, a thousand questions that before assailing them were assailing me.” Fallaci believes that our existence is controlled by a handful of individuals and calls this condition an “atrocious hypothesis.” According to the writer, world leaders are capable of changing the course of events by means of an idea, a discovery, a revolution, an assassination or even a simple gesture. In view of this overwhelming belief, she acts as the official representative of the cheated, the abused, the suspecting, the defiant, the insanely brave—all the people who say no to those who attempt to decide our destiny.

Once she succeeds in obtaining an appointment, Fallaci then becomes involved in the game of getting at the truth. “Once there, however, it became a game to reach the truth.” The truth that she has discovered in her interview’s is both harsh and revolutionary. According to the writer, all the selective criteria possible do not justify power. “Not even a selective criterion justified their power. Those who determine our destiny are not really better than ourselves; they are neither more intelligent nor stronger nor more enlightened than ourselves.” In order to discover the intricacies that actually produce decisions, Fallaci uses every professional interview skill possible. What makes her original, however, is the degree of conviction she injects into her work. “On every professional experience I leave shreds of my heart and soul.” Her passionate involvement renders each interview more than a document “for students of power and antipower.” Fallaci refuses to become a mechanical repeater of w hat has been seen or heard; she refuses to define herself as a journalistic doctor of anatomy or an impassive recorder of events. Each encounter becomes not only a power study but also a portrait of herself. “They are a strange mixture of my ideas, my temperament, my patience, all of these driving the questions.” This journalist certainly knows how to pose the questions. In addition, she adds something extra that provokes her subjects to openness and emotion. It is as though this woman has fallen in love with the interview- process even though she might hate the person in front of her. She seems to experience a sexual excitement as she succeeds in getting Kissinger on the record, in making a fool of the Shah of Iran, or in arousing the rage of the Lion of Judah Haile Selassie. In her own words, Fallaci says it all: “An interview is a love story for me. It’s a fight. It’s a coitus.”

SOURCE: “Breaking the Ice: An In-Depth Look at Oriana Fallaci’s Interview Techniques,” in Journalism Quarterly, Vol. 63, No. 3, Autumn 1986, pp. 587-93.


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