Bethany McLean on Microsoft: “The Story Almost Did Me In”

Bethany McLean—and the first ever Rewrite Q&A! She discusses how she reported her article and tells the guys how she found sources inside of Microsoft, how she landed interviews with the likes of Bill Gates, and why she rarely records her interviews.

.. Burt Helm: This is a massive company and a sensitive story. It’s not like you can just phone up the board and get a bunch of candid interviews about the search. So how do you start a story like this?

Bethany McLean: This was honestly one of the hardest stories I’ve ever done, if not the hardest, for a couple of reasons. First of all, Microsoft people don’t talk. And second, I’m just not a technology reporter. I’d never written about Microsoft before. I frankly didn’t even understand their business when I started. If you would ask me what Microsoft’s business was, I would have been like, “Computers?” It was enormous amount of work to get up to speed.

.. It wasn’t just about the board and about the difficulties in finding a CEO, it became really about Ballmer’s legacy, about what actually happened inside Microsoft, about the feud between him and Gates. It became a much richer human interest story as I worked on it.

.. Because after years of working in business journalism, I have enough sources who know things that I can call them up — in this case it was investors — and say, “Do you have somebody I can talk to about Microsoft, who can just help me really understand it?”

.. They may not be willing to state to you on the record or to be quoted, but they can steer you in the right direction and give you a good overview of what the story actually is, and then you try to work your way in from there.

.. Analysts and institutional investors, that sort of thing — they are a source that people who haven’t been business journalists sometimes overlook. Those people can then offer a roadmap. Then you can read the 10-K, and the terms are familiar. That’s how I usually start.

.. the most sensitive question you could possibly ask: “Are Gates and Ballmer really having a feud?”

Max Chafkin: How do you get to that question?

Bethany McLean: I generally start with questions about the business. That offers a way into conversations that shows that you’re serious and you’re not just trying to write a hatchet job or a personality play. And I never do that as a pretext—it’s genuine. My stories always have kind of a business backbone to them. The analytical backdrop helps explain the human nature part of the story.

.. Burt Helm: By doing that you meet them on the topics they care about. ..

.. People may not talk to you about their feelings about Steve Ballmer, but they may talk to you about their feelings about what Steve Ballmer did or didn’t do for Microsoft. Because the company matters a lot to a lot of people, right?

.. Burt Helm: I was fascinated by the part of the story where Ballmer says, “The low point of my career as CEO was Longhorn.” But Longhorn, of course, was the thing Bill Gates ran.

Bethany McLean: Right. It’s a confessional, but it’s a confessional with an edge.

.. Burt Helm: How far in your reporting were you when you got these guys to be so candid?

Bethany McLean: You have to be a long way in. I genuinely believe that there is no way to get people to open up to you if you don’t know a lot already. I mean if you know the story already and you can say, “Well, this is what I know,” people are far more likely to say, “Well, that’s right or that’s wrong.” If you don’t even know enough to ask the questions, there’s no way people are going to help you.

.. If Ballmer had picked up the phone the first time I tried to get to him, I probably wouldn’t have asked as good of questions as I did by the time I did.

.. I have this basic rule about investigative journalism that people are either inclined to talk to you or they’re not. If they’re really inclined not to talk to you they’re really not going to. The little bit of wiggle room is knowing a little bit more. The people in the middle of the road can be convinced to talk to you because you know something.

Max Chafkin: I’m imagining spending hours trying to craft the perfect email to Ballmer. It sounds like you’re more fatalistic about the result.

Bethany McLean: Well, I spent an enormous amount of time on the email and I tried to be as thoughtful as I could be, but I am somewhat fatalistic about the result.

.. I feel like I am always dead honest. I would never say, “Well, of course, you’re going to like the story if you talk.” The absolute worst thing for me would be for anybody to say they were misled. I genuinely want to understand your point of view—I like nuance, I’m not a black-and-white person. I want to paint an accurate, nuanced picture of what actually happened rather than this black-and-white, good-guy-bad-guy thing. That tends to dominate when people don’t give their side of the story.

..  So I say instead, “I’ll do my best to be fair whether you talk to me or not. But if you talk to me, I think it’s going to help. I think then there won’t be any surprises for you and I think I’ll understand where you’re coming from.

.. Max Chafkin: Tell us about Microsoft’s PR. They’re probably not super-jazzed about a story about how the Microsoft board is having a difficult time replacing its CEO.

.. Bethany McLean: I did. At first they were very nonresponsive. They became slowly more responsive over time as I tried to show that I was serious about doing a nuanced and fair piece. I think that they were great example of how to do PR in the sense that they realized the story was going to happen, and what made the most sense was to cooperate, because the new CEO Satya Nadella has a great story. They realized what was in their interests, and they did it. There was total fair play. I never felt like I was lied to. I think that it was actually sort of a model example of how to do PR in a weird way.

.. a lot of detail that ended up being cut because we had this whole other story to write as well. So in the end, I think it was indisputably the right thing for them to do.

.. Max Chafkin: It kind of gives you a sense that the power dynamics are a little bit confused. I mean just the fact that they’re putting the CEO and the founder together in the room…

Bethany McLean: But you can learn a lot from that. Why would you ever say no to that? It was a) the opportunity to meet Bill Gates and b) the opportunity to watch him and Nadella together, and see what they say and what they don’t. I thought it was fascinating.

.. Still, it was very scripted, right? I had half an hour and so you have to be really careful with your questions. Gates is incredibly media-trained at this point. He knows how to give the non-answer and he knows how to keep the non-answer short so he doesn’t ramble. I knew he was going to be a hard guy to get anything out of.

The most interesting moment to me in the interview actually came when I started asking well, “Who’s in charge, what happens if you disagree?” Gates gave this example and the language is in the story where he says, “Well, if I want X number of people on a team and Satya doesn’t want it, I bet I’ll get it—but it’s his decision.” To me, that was one of those things that a very close reader of the story would be like, hmm, that’s interesting.

But I also thought that Nadella knows how to work with Bill Gates. He really does. He knows how to manage this guy. It was fascinating to see that —to watch him differ when it was better to differ and not differ when it wasn’t. He’s a guy who knows how to manage people, which I think is a compliment. I don’t think that’s an insult.

.. Bethany McLean: I try to be general but pointed with questions so that I try not to have an idea in my mind of what the answer might be. I try to start out with questions that are business-oriented, I guess, so that people see that I know and care about the business aspect of it. You just get a feel for people and what they want to talk about, and then you try to move in the direction that they want to talk about. I don’t tape my interviews anymore for various reasons, but I used to tape them and I would listen to myself and listen to the number of times I interrupted.

I try really hard not to say anything. I feel like the less I say in an interview, the better.

.. Max Chafkin: Why don’t you tape interviews?

Bethany McLean: I don’t tape them because once I started doing serious investigative work where you had to beg people to talk to you, the last thing you want to do is sit down and be like, “By the way, can I turn on tape recorder now?” Even over the phone—when you live in Chicago you have to tell people you’re taping them. So if you really work to get somebody to talk to and then the first thing you say is, “Can I turn on my tape recorder?” It’s off-putting.

.. Max Chafkin: So how do you take notes? Do you have a classic reporter’s notebook?

Bethany McLean: My pad is bigger than a reporter’s notebook because it’s easier for me on a bigger sheet of paper. I’ve developed my own forms of shorthand so that words people say a lot can be notated with just a symbol.

Burt Helm: So what’s an example in this one?

Bethany McLean: So Microsoft might be M or board of directors might be BD just so that I can very quickly note.

.. Max Chafkin: You have half an hour with Bill Gates and Nadella and you’re not going to tape that? Come on!

Bethany McLean: So that’s an example of a really bad call on my part. Had the Microsoft PR guy not taped the interview, I would have been in trouble because they talk fast. They were both lightning fast and I would not have gotten down half of what they said. So it was actually one of those moments where I was like, this needs to be a flexible strategy. If the Microsoft PR guy hadn’t taped it and sent me the transcript of the interview, I would have had a quarter of it.

.. I wrote a story with Bill Cohan for Vanity Fair on Jamie Dimon and JPMorgan and Bill taped all his interviews, and I was struck by the quality of his quotes versus mine. He had more context and sort of rhythm in his quotes than I did.

.. Max Chafkin: I thought you were going to say he was bogged down with all these hours of tape and I knew I’d made the right decision.

Bethany McLean: No, no. He’s actually got a great system where he pays to have people transcribe them and that’s when I was like, you know, maybe I need to change that. But then every time I think about being on the phone with somebody and say, it feels incredibly awkward. Maybe I’m overly sensitive. I don’t know.

.. Max Chafkin: I think it’s all about your ability to—for me, anyway, to connect with the person. Sometimes I find taking notes can be obtrusive because it forces you to scribble extra hard when they say something sensitive.

Bethany McLean: Here’s the weird thing that’s made me anti-taping. I actually can’t stay with the interview when I’m not taking notes. If I’m taking notes, my focus is right there. I guess the other way I think about it, there are some people in a story that you want to quote at length and in this case, with Gates and Nadella, I should have taped. But in most cases, especially when you’re doing a long form story where nobody is on the record and you’re going to talk to a hundred people for 7,000 words story, or maybe not a hundred but 30 or 40, you’re not going to quote most of them. So wouldn’t you rather not even take the risk of them giving you filtered information?

But I’m also meticulous about going back to people and saying, even on background, here is the quote I want to use from you, here’s how I got it done. Is this what you think you said? So I check.

.. Bethany McLean: In my experience there’s not a lot of use in pestering people who don’t get back to you unless you have something new to add. So if somebody doesn’t return a call or doesn’t return an email, I’m probably not going to try again unless I have some new fact. And generally I’d say it took two or three conversations when they did speak, maybe.

.. My first book, I worked with a guy name Peter Elkind, who I think is the best investigative journalist I know. Peter would literally call people 20 times until they call back and that worked, actually. I think you have to be true to yourself when you’re a reporter, as well as true to the story. I just can’t hound people unless I have something new to ask.

You have to play to your strengths and I think my strengths are that actually I’m genuine. But I can’t call 20 times, I just can’t do that. I grew up in the Midwest.

.. Bethany McLean: I don’t think that I have the typical DNA of an investigative journalist. But I often think two things shape my view of the world. I was a math major. I have this analytical backbone where if things don’t make sense to me, I will keep going until I figure out why it doesn’t make sense, what the missing dot is. I can’t stand things that aren’t logical. I don’t think I’d be aggressive enough to keep calling somebody over say, hearing that they had an affair. But if there’s a missing dot in A to C, I’ve got to find B. I just can’t stand it otherwise.

Burt Helm: What were the missing dots in this story that got you going?

Bethany McLean: Figuring out what Gates’s influence on the company was even after he left was this whole missing piece. Once you realize the guy was there until 2008, you’re like, wait, Ballmer’s tenure is a little more complicated, isn’t it?

.. The other thing that shapes my view is that I got burned earlier in my career at Fortune by just writing the stories that people brought to me. I did a column called Companies to Watch, where I was supposed to pick three stocks every two weeks. The idea was to find stocks that were going to double or triple or quadruple in value in the next six months. There was no shortage of people who would come by Fortune and pitch these stories, and I would write them up only to watch as the stocks usually went in exactly the opposite direction.

I got tired of feeling suckered. I got tired of feeling like I was putting things out there that weren’t true. So I think I became a lot more skeptical. I realized I had to ask questions and dig a little more to figure out the story, because what you’re handed on a silver platter is rarely true.

.. Bethany McLean: Completely. A great source of mine had a great line about the financial crisis. He said it’s a mixture of self-delusion, venality, and a little bit of outright corruption. It basically applies to almost any story of business gone wrong. People believe their own bullshit. They really do. They’re not trying to lie; this is the world as they see it. That mixture is to me what makes this stuff so interesting.

.. I always feel like structure is the hardest part of a story. Once you find the right structure, the writing tends to flow. When you’re in the wrong structure, you can’t make the writing work. The only way I know it’s wrong is that I can’t write and it feels trapped somehow.

.. My editor, Doug Stumpf, said, “You don’t understand who Nadella is and why he matters unless you’ve read the Ballmer stuff first.” So Doug actually switched it. You don’t care about Satya Nadella and why he was a different CEO unless you saw how hardcore and tough and perhaps destructive the Microsoft culture had been beforehand.

.. Do you outline or do you just start writing?

.. Bethany McLean: What do you think, given that I told you I was a math major? I outline. I always view writing as sort of sculpture—that I’m carving something out of a lump of clay. For me to start writing, I have to have that lump of clay. The lump of clay is an outline with every conceivable thing I might want to include in every section.

.. Max Chafkin: Like quotes?

Bethany McLean: Like quotes. Sometimes it will be paragraphs of an interview with somebody. It might be like a 30,000 word giant lump that is not English. It’s just fragments of ideas here and there, and then I slowly sort of start figuring out what I think. I sort of whittle away basically.

..  I also think I don’t think in details, I think in chunks. So for me to get the flow of a story I have to think in terms of big picture ideas to find the flow of the story, I can’t think from sentence to sentence. And then to manage the anxiety about losing something or not remembering something, I have to fill in the chunks with every single bit of detail I might possibly want to include. Then I figure out over time—well, what’s the best detail? What really makes this point? Sometimes I end up feeling like the chunk doesn’t go here or the chunk actually doesn’t belong in the story at all, but I have to start there. I’m not sure it’s very efficient.

.. Bethany McLean: The way we all think is really, really weird. Part of being a writer, I think, is letting go of your inner fact-checker and finding the flow of the narrative.

.. Max Chafkin: Your “inner fact-checker” meaning, what?

Bethany McLean: I mean not being so beholden to the facts that you’re afraid to find a narrative. Writing is about two things, finding the structure, and finding the words. I feel like people get in their own way. But you may need to let go a little to find the narrative. I can’t both be worried about the words and the narrative at once.

.. Bethany McLean: When Bryan Burrough and I worked together on the story on SAC Capital. I sent Doug, my editor, my note file for a section instead of the final draft.

.. Bethany McLean: I was like seriously, you guys, you didn’t even think that that she might have sent the wrong file?

.. Bethany McLean: I think the two most normalizing experiences for me were watching other writers who I thought were better writers — and who I still think are better writers than I could ever be — turning things in that don’t work. Some stories are really hard and it’s an art, not a science. Even the people who have been doing this for decades can’t make it work sometimes and get it wrong.

.. Bethany McLean: No, but the Microsoft story almost did me in.

Burt Helm: Really?

Bethany McLean: Yeah. It was really stressful, because there were periods of time where I thought, “I’m not getting anywhere. No one is calling me back. I’m not going to be able to pull this together.” There are a couple of paragraphs in the story about the state of Microsoft’s business. It took me a month of reporting to be able to write those paragraphs about the cloud and how disruptive it was to Microsoft’s business, because I was starting from square one. I didn’t understand.

..  when I write about finance I generally feel like I’m two steps ahead of whomever I’m talking to. I know exactly how to take apart what they’re saying and think about what the next question should be. On technology, I felt like I was missing every third word.

 

In Conversation: Terry Gross

The Fresh Air host on the art of the Q&A, the guest that most surprised her, and how she salvages a tanking interview.

You’ve been interviewing people for more than 40 years. What do you think that’s taught you about yourself?
That’s hard. I’m not exactly sure I can enumerate what I’ve learned. It’s like you’re slowly being changed every day by doing this job. I have learned, though, that everybody is insecure and everybody is troubled. Even incredibly talented people have deep insecurities. Maybe this is perverse, but I find that idea comforting. It helps me cope with my own stuff.

.. I’m probably just revealing my own neuroses here, but it sure seems that when people are presented with two pieces of information — one negative and one positive — the negative one almost always gets a lot more attention.  
That’s exactly my problem.

So if somebody said to you, “Fresh Air is my favorite thing to listen to,” and then said, “Well, yesterday’s show wasn’t the best.”
Stop right there. I would totally dismiss the “favorite thing to listen to” part. I’d think that was just their way of cushioning the blow that yesterday’s show was terrible. They’d just come up with a false opening to be nice about how bad yesterday’s show was.

..  Do you have to be weird to be the kind of interviewer you are?
You don’t have to be weird. I think what you have to do is really believe, as I do, that the interview serves a function.

.. What’s the function?

.. John Updike on this. In his memoir, Self-Consciousness, which I really love, he said he wanted to use his life as “a specimen life, representative in its odd uniqueness of all the oddly unique lives in this world.” That’s kind of how I see interviews. When you’re talking to an artist, you can get insight into the sensibility that created his or her art and into the life that shaped that sensibility. I love making those connections. I think we all feel very alone. I don’t mean that we don’t have friends or lovers but that deep at our core we all have loneliness.

.. And want connection. 
Yeah, we want connection and sometimes when you’re talking to an interviewer who you trust, you can speak in a way that’s different than the way you talk to friends. You can reveal more. Not always, but sometimes.

.. But if I am aware of allegations, I can’t not ask about them. And in that circumstance, the guest is unlikely to tell me the truth and we’re all likely to be very uncomfortable and feel as if something is going unsaid. So rather than create that situation, I’d prefer to just not do the interview.

.. Along those lines, did you have any qualms about interviewing Woody Allen? 
That interview was before the allegations that he’d abused his daughter. But I did ask him about Soon-Yi. .. I didn’t want to just say, “So, you married your daughter?” I kind of asked around it. I knew that he doesn’t talk about it or at least he didn’t at the time, so I just did this question about if he thinks it’s fair to judge somebody’s work based on their life. Needless to say, he didn’t think it was.

.. People think when you interview that you talk a lot. Actually, I listen a lot. I talk very little. Listening sounds like it should be easy, but it’s not, because while I’m listening, I’m also thinking ahead. I’m thinking, Is this an interesting answer? If I was editing this answer what would I be editing out and what would I be keeping in? Because if I’m going to ask a follow-up question, I need to know if the listeners have heard what I’m following up on. So I’m thinking all that, and I’m also thinking, Is this interesting enough to follow up? If so, what is the follow-up? Or is this something I should just say, “Time to move onto another subject.” I’m also thinking, What’s that word on the tip of my tongue? And then I’m thinking, Oh, my producer laughed. That’s good. Or, My producer looks bored, that’s not good.

.. I started doing interviews because I had initially wanted to be a writer and by the time I was in college, I gave up on that. Then there was this kind of creative void that I had no idea how to fill.

.. But as somebody who’s shy, radio gave me an opportunity to engage with people in a forthright way without it being about me. Once I had a microphone, “Why would you talk to me?” became “Now I have a reason to talk to you and you have a reason to talk to me. So let’s talk.”

.. maybe people who knew me could trust me to keep a confidence. And I do think people thought of me as somebody who played fair. The other thing that prepared me to be an interviewer was being an English major.  When you’re reading fiction, you’re becoming the narrator of the story.

.. It’s an act of empathy. 
Yeah, you’re imagining living that person’s life and that’s part of what you do when you interview somebody. Part of the preparation is thinking, What’s it like to be this person? And then when you’re talking to the person it’s like, Wow, that person lived through that? Let me make some calculations about what that could be like, and ask them questions based off of how I’d feel if that happened to me.

.. I think what changed their minds about my job — and made them realize it was an actual thing — was when I was still in Buffalo at WBFOIn the early ’70s, after a mercifully short stint as a public school teacher in Buffalo, Gross was able to land a job at the city’s WBFO station, where she produced programs on public and women’s affairs, as well as the arts. Chief among them was a three-hour daily magazine program, This Is Radio, and the feminist-focused Womanpower.. [NPR’s] All Things Considered ..  was a new show back then, and it went on the road to develop stories that had a local angle — I did one of those stories when it came to Buffalo. Having a story that aired on a national show and that my parents could hear — that made them think, Oh, her work exists! 

.. Once they realized I hosted a show and earned a genuine salary, they were thrilled but in terms of answering your question — I committed, you know? I wanted it so badly that I just devoted myself to it.

.. And you were determined to hold on to it. 
You could criticize me, you could insult me, you could mock me — it was all right, just let me keep doing the job. Because I was an English major, I loved to read and dissect what was being said and why it was being said and think about the language being used. Interviewing fit so many of my needs.

.. when you interviewed Quentin Tarantino around the time of Django Unchained.
I really wanted to know his position on cinematic violence! When that movie came out, the Sandy Hook shooting had just happened, and Django Unchained was this incredibly violent movie — Quentin Tarantino’s stylized kind of violence .. It’s kind of glorying in the violence. And I wanted to know if that violence read differently after all those children were killed by a gun. [Tarantino] interpreted that, I think, as meaning, “It’s your fault, Quentin Tarantino.” Which I didn’t mean at all. It disappointed me that he got testy about it and took it as moral judgment of his movie, as opposed to an opportunity to reflect on an issue that was staring us in the face.

.. People are always projecting things. They’re hearing things that weren’t said or projecting meaning that was not intended and, perhaps, not even implied. I’ve gotten both insults and compliments for interviews I’ve never done. What can you do? There’s no way of controlling what people think. I do have a bullshit detector and it’s something I’ll use, but I do think I try and be empathetic to everyone I interview regardless of their politics.

.. Can empathy be learned?
I’m not so sure. I think you can learn to be a better listener and to focus better, but some people are just naturally not attuned to others. Even if they’re listening, they’re not picking up on the emotional meanings. I don’t know that you can teach emotional understanding.

.. I wish I could’ve asked my parents more about how they felt about dying. It’s the kind of question I ask guests, but my parents would wave me away if I tried to talk about that subject with them. I think they were trying to spare me, but also that maybe they didn’t have the language to talk about death. I don’t know. They were children of Eastern European immigrants who grew up without the language of psychology and philosophy. My father, I’m not sure he ever read a novel. There’s a certain kind of introspective language he might not have had access to.

.. How do you feel about dying?
I’m not afraid of it. What I’m afraid of is pain. I’m really afraid of suffering. I’m afraid of being trapped in a hospital incapacitated.

.. But the prospect of not existing isn’t scary to you.
No, it’s not. I also don’t believe in a literal heaven and hell. I don’t think that there’s going be an accounting and I’m going to be sent to a place where I’m burning in flames.

.. Unless it hurts. 
Then I’d be very afraid.

.. one of the things I’ve learned how to do on the air is make people stop talking. Some people can go on for seven minutes without a breath. At some point, you have to interrupt them and explain, “This is radio. We need to take breaks. We have to have, say, two-minute answers, or else we’re only going to be able to ask about three questions.”

.. Are there any similar ways in which your job bleeds into your daily interactions? 
Well, it’s made talking to people easier. I used to be really shy and now I feel like I can talk to anybody. I know I can ask questions that will help me find common ground. I can navigate to the place where me and another person can have a real conversation.

.. Sometimes I feel like people want the experience of being interviewed. But off the air, I like to be not the interviewer. I want to engage with the person I’m talking to on an equal level.

.. What I like is to have a genuine back-and-forth: Here’s how you feel, here’s how I feel. Here’s my reaction to you, here’s your reaction to me. That’s as opposed to just “tell me more about you.” In an interview, I like to hang back. It’s not about me. If I made the interviews about me, we’d be talking about the book I read that day, because that’s how I spend all my time — preparing for the show.

.. So I had to buy a car — this was the ’70s and or maybe the early ’80s — and I wanted to hear the car’s radio and make sure the speakers were good. So I was trying out a car and I tuned into WHYY, where Fresh Air was then a local show that I hosted, and the guy who’s selling me the car says, “Oh, I know that station. You know that lady in the afternoon? That really annoying lady?” And I said, “Oh, uh, that’s me.” And he smacked his head and went, “I’m never gonna be able to sell you the car now.”

.. I used to think of myself as nondescript. Outside of being short, I’m not the kind of person who is visually memorable. I don’t mean to disparage myself, but some people are striking because they’re so beautiful or they’re so tall and I’m short — it’s easy to not notice me. To be noticed when you don’t think of yourself as being noticeable is a little spooky.

.. You’ve said before, in various places, that all the prep time your job requires means you’re not the best at cultivating friendships. But I wonder if talking with people every day for Fresh Air satisfies some of the needs you might otherwise have for emotional connection. 

.. Have you learned any reliable tricks over the years for how to salvage an interview that’s tanking? 
Sometimes if somebody’s like a little too low-key, I find myself maybe talking faster to compensate, Like, Match me up here! Match me louder and faster!

.. Does that actually work?
[Laughs] No, I don’t think so. What I’m really trying to do is find the person’s comfort zone. Some people are great on craft — the process of writing, the process of making the film. Some people are great on anecdote. Some people are great on biography, their personal story. So I’ll just keep looking for that spot.

..  I can’t argue that every interview I do is interesting. Sometimes we don’t run interviews because they’re boring or confusing. You don’t want to hurt the interviewee’s feelings but your first responsibility is to offer something interesting to your audience.

.. my job has had a bad effect on me physically. I’m either reading, screening something, listening to something, or talking to someone. It’s a sedentary life. I’m proof that you can hurt yourself by sitting and reading. I have back issues. Sitting’s also probably not good for your heart. I don’t have heart problems but when people talk about, like, aerobic exercise, I just stare at them blankly: “I’m sorry, what?”

.. I don’t have children. I can’t say that was a sacrifice. I didn’t feel called to have children. I know I’ve missed out on something special but I couldn’t possibly have done my job and be a parent. The show is premised on me preparing at night for the next day’s interview. Doing that with children would’ve made me a terrible mother. When I was growing up it was unheard of to not have children and if you didn’t have children, it meant that there was something physically wrong with you. The women in my neighborhood were full-time mothers and that’s not the life I wanted. So I went completely in the opposite direction and I’m not sorry. I made a choice about what I wanted and I’m glad I did.

Confessor. Feminist. Adult. What the Hell Happened to Howard Stern?

Scattered among the gleefully vulgar mainstays are now intimate exchanges that have made Mr. Stern one of the most deft interviewers in the business.

“Today, if you go on a TV talk show and give a great six or seven minutes, people will link to it, if it’s incredible,” said Lewis Kay, who oversees media for Tracy Morgan, Amy Poehler and others. “But if you kill on Stern, it moves the needle.”

.. “Aside from the fact that millions of people hear you, the cross section of who hears you is what blew me away,” said Ike Barinholtz, an actor and comedian who has appeared on the show three times since 2014. “When you have a head of a movie studio in Los Angeles and a New York City police officer both tell you that it was good when you made fun of Ronnie the Limo Driver,” — Mr. Stern’s chauffeur and an on-air regular — “you know you’re dealing with a special entity.”

 .. Conan O’Brien described himself on the show as “somewhat medicated” in a discussion about his low-level depression.
.. Mr. Stern explained to her: “I used to say bad things about everyone. I was angry, quite frankly. I was an angry young man.”
.. Friends and fans attribute Mr. Stern’s evolution in large part to his marriage, in 2008, to Beth Ostrosky Stern, a former model who not only has left him lovestruck, but turned him into an animal rescue advocate.
.. “Being a judge on ‘America’s Got Talent’ said to him, ‘You are deserving, you are legitimate.’ I think it is one reason Howard said to himself, ‘O.K., people really do like me. People really respect me.’ And maybe that chip on his shoulder is gone.”
.. Therapy has also been key. For years, Mr. Stern was in four-times-a-week psychoanalysis, as he frequently reminds listeners. (He’s since cut back.) Not only has this given him a modicum of inner peace, it has provided him with a set of tools that he uses on guests the way a well-equipped safecracker opens a vault.
.. Most of the time, though, Mr. Stern probes exactly where you would if you had the nerve.
.. These in-depth interviews are also strategic, as Mr. Stern has intuited that outrageousness won’t suffice on satellite radio, a realm without limits, and therefore a place where nothing is outrageous.

The Evolution of David Brooks

But I’ve really become disillusioned—not completely—but halfway disillusioned with neuroscience. Ten years ago, I thought that was going to teach us a lot about who we are. And it does, a little. It teaches you the importance of emotion, how the amygdala is involved in everything. But I don’t think neuroscience has taught us anything that George Eliot didn’t already know. It doesn’t at all solve the problem of meaning. So I felt I had to go back to the Soloveitchiks or the Niebuhrs or George Eliot or Dostoyevsky, who didn’t have fMRI machines but were pretty good observers of human nature.

.. One of my callings is to represent a certain moderate Republican Whig political philosophy, and the other is to try to shift the conversation more in a moral and theological direction.

.. Universities and a lot of institutions became very amoral because they didn’t know what to say. We became such a diverse society that it became hard to know what to say without insulting somebody. And then we became a very individualistic society. If there’s something I’ve been frustrated with, it’s our excessively individualistic society. That’s led to a belief that everyone should come up with their own values and no one should judge each other. That destroys moral conversation and becomes just a question of feelings.

.. The 1960s and 1970s were a great age of social individualism from the left. The 1980s and 1990s were a great age of economic individualism from the right. And as a result, we eviscerated a lot of things that we held in common.

.. Some people pray at shul or at church or mosque, or in the woods. I pray by writing.

.. Writers tended to be narcissistic, and they were bad to the people around them

.. when I went to The New York Times 13 years ago for the first time by how many shy and socially awkward people there were. I remember thinking, interviewing is a social activity, but it’s structured. So if you’re awkward, you know how to do it, but it’s not like hanging out at a party.

.. I think our problem is too much freedom. The great challenge for me is tying myself down, and that involves maritally, that involves defining what I’m doing with the column. The thing I have not done is tie myself to a community.

.. sin is when you get your loves out of order—if a friend confides in you and you blab his secret at a dinner party, you’re putting your love of popularity above your love of friendship, and that’s wrong, that’s a sin.

.. In 1970, people were asked, would you mind if your son or daughter married outside your party? Five percent would mind. Now, 40 percent would mind.

.. Obama’s a writer more than he is a politician, and that personal aloofness hurt his performance

.. I think Hillary Clinton will be the next president. My normal rule is, people vote for order.