The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Oprah proved she is greatest celebrity interviewer of all time. All journalists can learn from her.

Oprah Winfrey, right, combined a compassionate demeanor with relentless follow-up questioning of Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, at left, and her husband, Prince Harry. (Joe Pugliese/Harpo Productions/Reuters)
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Gayle King used the word “perfection” to describe the royal interview heard round the world Sunday night.

Since she’s one of Oprah Winfrey’s best friends, her over-the-top praise on “CBS This Morning” may have come off as less than an objective analysis.

But she got it right.

And many of the 17 million who found themselves riveted by this royal Super Bowl, as Harry and Meghan spilled enough tea to fill up the Atlantic Ocean, would have had to agree.

With her relentless follow-up questions, compassionate demeanor and focused skill in eliciting bombshell after bombshell, Oprah proved herself the best celebrity interviewer ever. This may not have been much in dispute, after her interviews with Michael Jackson, Kim Kardashian and Barack Obama, among many others.

This, still, was clearly one of the biggest interviews of her life. Fully prepared for it, she delivered.

I was entertained by the admiring Twitter exchange Sunday night between two hard-nosed New York City journalism professors who are normally highly critical of the mainstream media.

“That was the best interview I have ever watched,” wrote New York University’s Jay Rosen.

“Great, but not quite Frost/Nixon level for me,” responded Bill Grueskin of Columbia University.

But David Frost’s televised grilling of the disgraced former president was back in 1977, so by this reckoning the royal interview might have been the best televised sit-down in the past four decades.

What made it so good?

Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan, spoke with Oprah Winfrey about turning away from life as senior royals in a wide-ranging interview that aired on March 7. (Video: The Washington Post)

Oprah best displayed her interviewing chops by relentlessly circling back to emotional or newsmaking comments like a heat-seeking missile.

Not much was allowed to simply disappear in a flurry of words, as happens far too often in interviews. Oprah did not let the couple get away with general hints or diplomatic niceties.

Once the chum was in the water, she always went back to find it. And in so doing, she delivered a master class in using follow-up questions to clarify, to get the specifics, to nail down the news.

Yet, unlike many an aggressive interviewer, she didn’t make the classic error of interrupting at the wrong time. She was able to let silence gather. She didn’t jump in to ruin a dramatic moment. It paid off time after time.

Which is why the Daily Mail was forced into a headline that was crammed like a clown car with irresistible news nuggets: “Meghan claims she was suicidal when 5 months pregnant, Kate made HER cry, and Royals refused to make Archie a prince because they were worried about how ‘dark’ he would be, as Harry reveals their new baby will be a girl.”

When Meghan mentioned having mental health problems, Oprah wasn’t about to leave it at that. She pressed her for more: Was she really having suicidal ideation? That generated a response from Meghan that left little ambiguity:

“I was ashamed to have to admit it to Harry. I knew that if I didn’t say it, I would do it. I just didn’t want to be alive anymore.”

And when Meghan said someone within the royal family or “the institution” had raised questions about what the children of a mixed-race couple would look like, Oprah was not about to let that drift by.

She made the issue explicit in a follow-up question:

“They were concerned that if he were too brown, that that would be a problem?” Oprah asked, both incredulous and utterly direct.

“I wasn’t able to follow up with why . . . but that — if that’s the assumption you’re making, I think that feels like a pretty safe one,” Meghan responded.

When Oprah took her victory lap on “CBS This Morning” on Monday, she was still producing news, as she beamed in remotely, wearing a vibrant sky-blue sweater and looking the tiniest bit smug.

With people across the globe speculating about just who it was who spoke to Harry about his children’s potential skin tone, she removed one of the most likely suspects: Prince Philip, Harry’s 99-year-old grandfather, who has a history of offensive comments.

“It was not his grandmother nor his grandfather,” Oprah said, relaying what Harry told her in a portion of their conversation that was not aired. Who exactly did make those comments was one of the few things Oprah was unable to pin down. Harry made it clear, in response to her questions, that this was a boundary he would not cross over.

There was little more to wish for from this interview. Oprah wrung from it every tidbit of news and every gasp of emotion.

Sportswriter Richard Deitsch made an apt comparison from the hoops world: “Oprah during this interview has been like Jordan closing out the Jazz in 1998.”

By the end, my only remaining desire — probably futile — was for Oprah’s next power play: a sit-down with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to talk about the murder of my colleague Jamal Khashoggi.

But who knows? After Sunday night, anything seems possible for the Queen, and I don’t mean the one in Buckingham Palace.

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