…And Now a Few Words from the Hosts

They have well-earned reputations as two of the toughest interviewers in town. Both celebrate big milestones this year. And as we found out, Emily Rooney and Jim Braude prove just as provocative when they’re the ones fielding the questions.

Compared with what you’re used to getting from other local TV news, watching Jim Braude on NECN or Emily Rooney on WGBH is a bit like opening the oven after it’s been on for a while: The heat smacks you right in the face. The two are among the city’s most unrelenting interviewers, happy to pepper their respective guests with questions and then grill them thoroughly if the answers lack the appropriate zest. And at a time when Boston media in general is growing meeker—the Globe and the Herald seem to be shrinking with each passing day, Natalie Jacobson is off the air, and once mighty WRKO is practically dead—that doggedness never fails to provide a welcome shock to the system.

Rooney, who this year celebrates her 10th anniversary as host of WGBH’s Greater Boston, is an Emmy winner who once worked as the executive producer of ABC World News Tonight. Braude served as a Cambridge city councilor before leaving politics for NECN, where he, too, won an Emmy. He marks his fifth anniversary with the cable station this month, and also cohosts a daily talk-radio show on WTKK with Herald columnist Margery Eagan. But though their backgrounds are different, when it comes to their profession Rooney and Braude are mirror images: aggressive and unapologetic hosts who’ve earned reputations as two of Boston’s most feared (and surprisingly funny) interlocutors. And when they’re on the other side of the table, as we discovered, they can take it as well as they dole it out.

I’ve been on both your shows, and it’s not easy. Do you realize how direct you two are? It can be intimidating.

Emily Rooney: I think I’m a lot sweeter than Jim.

Jim Braude: I think you are, too.

I think we’re all in agreement on that. But when you’re trying to get information out of people, and maybe you have someone on the show who isn’t used to that style, do you ever consider easing up on the waterboarding?

Braude: If you can’t defend your position on an issue, you shouldn’t talk about it. That’s the bottom line. I’m not empathetic. If someone is unprepared or can’t make their case, my attitude is: Bury them.

Rooney: I try to balance the discussion, but it doesn’t always work. I’m constantly getting admonished, “Emily, you’re supposed to be objective.” Where’s that in my job description? [To Braude:] I’m much evener than you are.

Braude: I don’t agree with that at all. While everybody knows what my opinion is, I think I’m incredibly fair to both sides. My view is that when you do what we do, having to hide your opinion is almost disingenuous. The notion that [PBS journalist] Jim Lehrer—and I know he’s wildly talented—does not vote because it’s allegedly going to affect his ability to be objective is the most embarrassing pronouncement by a serious newsperson. What? Because if we don’t vote, we do our jobs better? That is insane.

Rooney: There are a lot of people who feel that way.

Since you bring it up, why don’t you both clear up any questions about what your politics might be.

Braude: My default is set to the liberal side of the spectrum. However, probably because I actually believe in things like big government, when things like the Big Dig go awry, I don’t think anyone can rip through politicians better than I can.

Rooney: People think they know my political positions better than they do.

So what are they?

Rooney: I’m constantly being accused of being one thing or the other, of being liberal or being conservative.

Right, and I’m still confused.

Rooney: I’m both. [Pause.] I’m bi.

All right, that’s funny, so we’ll let it stand at that.

Braude: That’s what you’re supposed to do. That’s what makes for a good interview—timing. You know what the most important thing in interviews is? Flow. And when you get to the entertainment aspect of our jobs, that’s really important.

Rooney: One of the most frustrating things is when you get somebody who doesn’t have a sense of timing. We had [Suffolk County District Attorney] Dan Conley on. He had it all down and packaged. One question, and he’s off to the races.

Braude: There is nothing worse than talking-points stuff. [To Rooney:] You do much less interrupting than me. I can’t control myself. I get a decent amount of e-mails from viewers saying that it’s disrespectful.

Does that bother you?

Braude: I’m incredibly thick-skinned. But it doesn’t mean I don’t take it to heart. And I do try. I’m a work in progress, I hope.

So is the industry you’re in. Emily, you’ve been at WGBH for a decade. What’s been the biggest change in TV news during that time?

Rooney: There’s virtually no enterprise reporting anymore. I mean, there’s Team 5 at Channel 5, but otherwise it’s become [re-reporting stories] out of the newspaper. It’s just nothing. I turn on the 11 o’clock news and I’m thinking, I don’t care about any of these things.

Do you think that affects the viewers? Because it seems to me that Fox 25 is doing really well with these light little nuggets.

Braude: Sadly, I think Fox is giving the people what they want. That’s not to disparage some of those anchors who know they’re quasi-entertainers, which is perfectly fine if that’s what the goal is. And there are alternatives. I mean, there is NECN—and I’m not just saying this because I happen to draw a paycheck there. They do straight news and they do long-form news, too. You don’t have to do it in 42 seconds. You can actually explore it until the story is told.

Rooney: One of the questions that Natalie Jacobson used to ask is “Are we giving them what they want?” We stopped doing news in a certain style. Why? I would argue it’s largely because it costs a lot of money to do news the way it was done in the ’70s and ’80s. Who decided that wasn’t what viewers wanted anymore? It was the news people, not the consumer.

Braude: Well, I have to say I think we’re giving the people exactly what they want. As somebody who does three hours of talk radio every day for a living, I can tell you, people intellectually connect to the nightmares like the Big Dig. The visceral connections are to the things that are lighter and of arguably less significance. I think the goal when people plop themselves in front of the TV is to be distracted, rather than informed.

What about you guys? Isn’t there an element of that in what you do, too? And shouldn’t there be?

Rooney: My biggest fear in the world is boring people.

Braude: It really is the question of what comes first. In both our cases, I’m convinced what comes first is that you want to i
nform and maybe even educate.

Emily said a lot of television news now is taken from the newspapers. Tell the truth: Did either of you read the Romney series in the Globe from beginning to end?

Braude: I read the Seamus portion.

Rooney: Me, too.

But neither of you read every word?

That’s the beauty of it. In a 7-million-word series, the only thing anybody will remember is him strapping the family’s Irish setter to the roof for a 12-hour trip.

Rooney: As a dog lover, I found that jumped out at me right away.

He’s like our very own Michael Vick. Changing topics: Howie Carr seems finally headed to WTKK, filling Don Imus’s time slot. Is that good for the station?

Rooney: It may be. I’m not a big fan of Howie Carr. I was a fan of Don Imus. I like Jay Severin. I like Michael Graham. I don’t think any of those guys, in their hearts, are mean-spirited. I think Howie is. I think his viciousness is genuine.

Braude: Full disclosure: Margery and I wanted the job so badly. When our bosses told us [that they hired Carr], my response was “You know how much we wanted it.” But if I were them, I probably would have hired him, too. Not because I’m convinced he will do better than we would have, because I would argue that we’re better for morning radio than he may be. However, it’s the end of WRKO [Carr’s previous station]; it’s great for Jay Severin, because there’s no competition now. And it ends the career of the least-talented talk-show host in American history, Tom Finneran.

Rooney: The question is, what does it do for ’TKK in the morning? Because is that where I’m going to go? I was an Imus junkie.

Braude: Well, so was I. A huge fan.

Rooney: For a lot of reasons. I really enjoyed the repartee, and I enjoyed the interviews. I liked the whole shtick.

But doesn’t Carr bring a built-in audience with him?

Rooney: What built-in audience? They’re not going to be up at 6 in the morning.

So, Jim, are you and Margery and Howie going to rumble when he starts? I think there should be a cage match.

Braude: No. [Pause.] Well, maybe.

I read something from a few years ago concerning you, Jim, where somebody had taken you to task for reading advertisements on your radio show.

Braude: [Looking at Rooney:] Yeah—her.

Right, on Emily’s show. At the time, you hadn’t been on the air all that long, and you defended yourself by saying you’re not exactly a journalist. Do you feel you’re a journalist now?

Braude: Not exactly. I’m in that never-never land, floating. I don’t mean that in a self-deprecating way. Obviously, talk radio—I don’t know what that is, but it surely is not straight journalism. I hope this doesn’t sound totally self-serving, though I’m sure it will: If I were a straight reporter, I would never be doing commercials. But the truth is, nobody loves free stuff as much as I do. It’s quite alluring.

Rooney: I am still uneasy about the commercial thing. I understand why ’TKK wants the likes of Jim Braude, Mike Barnicle, and Margery Eagan to read them, but Margery is still a columnist for the Herald. I would argue she would have the right to back out of that. You just don’t know when you’re going to have to [report] about something, then suddenly you’ve been pushing their product.

I would like to say that Emily’s point is ridiculous, but it’s not. There is some merit to that. And this is not a full defense, and I can’t speak for everyone, but Margery and I at least are conscious of when something from an advertiser is offered—trying to look into the future and say, “Is this something that may create a conflict?” But you’re right. If it turns out some product is defrauding consumers, we’re in a tough spot.

I want to talk about Natalie again for a minute. It’s been almost two months since she stepped down from Channel 5. What have Boston viewers lost?

She’s unbelievably smart. She has huge institutional memory, which is missing from virtually every media outlet in Boston. Plus, I have to say, in the era of the news babe, she is a news babe. She is a gorgeous 60-plus-year-old woman—which, frankly, doesn’t hurt. And I don’t think she would mind having that said.

What did you think of the way her departure was covered? In the newspapers, it seemed kind of pushed aside.

Rooney: I thought it was perfect. There was none of this protracted “I’m leaving in six months and oh my God.” There were none of the endless Boston magazine articles, either. Yeah. I hate those.

Braude: You know what was also great, in our newsroom? Before her closing statement, there was the steam pipe explosion in New York City. People were watching their TVs but continuing to do their work. There was a lot of action. But the second Natalie stared into the camera at, whatever it was, 6:21 or something to say goodbye? Not a sound.

Rooney: I was over at my tennis club. Same thing.

Braude: I was actually working while she was at her tennis club.