Steve Kroft Defends the Art of Asking Stupid Questions; ‘Sam Donaldson Made a Career Out of That’

kroft021709 Steve Kroft Defends the Art of Asking Stupid Questions; Sam Donaldson Made a Career Out of ThatOn Tuesday morning, Steve Kroft stood on the second floor of the W hotel on Lexington Avenue and poured himself a cup of coffee. A man walked by, recognized the 60 Minutes correspondent, and paused to congratulate him on a recent story from Pakistan. “That was really ballsy going in that cave,” said the well-wisher.

Mr. Kroft looked over his shoulder, raised an eyebrow, and accepted the congratulations. He had been worried at the time, he said, that the cave might collapse.

Speaking of collapse, Mr. Kroft had to go. It was time to talk about the state of the media.

On Tuesday morning, Steve Kroft stood on the second floor of the W hotel on Lexington Avenue and poured himself a cup of coffee. A man walked by, recognized the 60 Minutes correspondent, and paused to congratulate him on a recent story from Pakistan. “That was really ballsy going in that cave,” said the well-wisher.

Mr. Kroft looked over his shoulder, raised an eyebrow, and accepted the congratulations. He had been worried at the time, he said, that the cave might collapse.

Speaking of collapse, Mr. Kroft had to go. It was time to talk about the state of the media. A few minutes later, he was seated comfortably on a raised platform at the front of the W’s Forest Ballroom. To his left on the stage sat ABC’s Barbara Walters and, next to her, The New Yorker‘s Ken Auletta.

They had gathered to take part in a semi-regular series of morning media powwows sponsored by the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. The topic du jour: The Art of the Interview.

Mr. Auletta was moderating. What’s the dumbest question, he wanted to know, that you ever asked?

Mr. Kroft said that sometimes the dumbest questions get the best answers. The topic of stupid but effective questions made him think of Sam Donaldson, the longtime ABC News correspondent, who had announced his retirement the day before in an article in The Washington Post.

“Sam Donaldson made a career out of that, standing on the rope lines, yelling things at Ronald Reagan,” said Mr. Kroft. “Reagan would always answer something back to Sam. I think you’ve got to take chances sometimes and ask a goofy question… I think you’ve got be willing as an interviewer to ask the dumb question every now and then.”

Mr. Auletta asked Ms. Walters about her infamous “tree question.” Ms. Walters sighed. She’d told that story a million times, she said. But, okay, she’d tell it once more.

Ms. Walters said that years earlier she had been interviewing Katharine Hepburn. At one point during the interview, Ms. Hepburn said that she felt like an old tree. Ms. Walters followed up. What kind of tree?

Somewhere along the line “What kind of tree?” had grown into a “Baba Wawa” punch line. But Ms. Walters defended the question. “If somebody said ‘I’m like an old tree,’ wouldn’t you say, what kind of a tree?” she asked Mr. Kroft.

Mr. Kroft nodded and smiled.

“I rest my case,” said Ms. Walters.

She turned back and faced Mr. Auletta. “That’s your dumbest question,” she said to him.

The crowd laughed.

Eventually, like every media panel currently convened no matter what the ostensible subject, the conversation drifted towards the dire fate of the media. In ten years, Mr. Auletta asked the panelists, will even a single evening newscast exist on broadcast television?

Mr. Kroft gave a nod to the importance of cable news and said he was more worried about newspapers. Ms. Walters pondered the question. She said she was unsure about the evening. But the onetime host of the Today show said she had faith in the perpetual appeal of one genre of broadcast news.

The morning news shows, she felt confident, would survive.