Sean Penn-El Chapo Was Just the Latest: 12 Famous Interviews That Made History


The interview is one of the most basic cornerstones of journalism. Throughout history, they have opened eyes, opened worlds, shaken empires and solidified movements. Here are some of those.

1. Bridget O’Donnel (1849)

In the late 1840s, news of mass starvation and deaths were coming out of Ireland. English newspapers dispatched reporters to Ireland to see if the stories were true. A reporter for the London Illustrated News found Bridget O’Donnel in 1849. In what is believed to be the first newspaper interview, readers learned that O'Donnel had been cheated out of her crops, her 13-year-old son had died and she was worried she was going to lose her newborn baby too. Her story put a face on the horrors of the Great Famine for Londoners who, before then, could not believe the stories they had heard could possibly be true.

2. Horace Greeley Interviews Brigham Young (1859)

Horace Greeley was the first media star. As the owner, publisher and columnist of the New York Tribune newspaper, he was one of the most famous men in America. Noting the expansion of the West and the economic opportunities it presented, Greeley famously advised, "Go West, young man." In 1859, Greeley traveled across the continent to see the West for himself, writing dispatches for the Tribune. In Salt Lake City, he conducted a two-hour interview with Mormon leader Brigham Young, the first newspaper interview Young had given, and what some consider the first formal newspaper interview published in a United States newspaper.

3. Variety Interviews Al Capone (1931)

American journalists have always been fascinated by crime kingpins -- Sean Penn wasn't the first. In 1931, a wave of violent crime movies celebrating the lives of gangsters -- "Little Caesar," "Public Enemy" and "Scarface" -- were setting box office records, thrilling audiences and alarming conservative critics who began calling for a morals code in movies. Variety reporter Lou Greenspan caught up with gangster Al Capone, who was the inspiration for those films, to get his review. Capone wasn't impressed with them.

The interview, by the way, was recreated in an episode of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” in 2014.

4. H.G. Wells Interviews Joseph Stalin (1934)

Not many people know that the science fiction author of "War of the Worlds" and "The Time Machine" was also an essayist and journalist. In 1934, London's The New Statesman and Nation sent Wells to Moscow for a three-hour interview with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The result was a fascinating philosophical debate between Communism, espoused by Stalin (obviously), and democratic liberalism  (Wells). The interview was so popular it became a separately published pamphlet in both Europe and the United States.

5. Alex Haley Interviews Malcolm X (1963)

Alex Haley, who later gained fame as the author of "Roots," created the Playboy Interview when he pitched publisher Hugh Hefner for a no-holds-barred talk with Miles Davis in 1962. Hefner liked it so much the Interview became a regular feature, becoming quite influential. One of Haley's big gets was Malcolm X, the controversial leader of the Black Muslims. The interview gave the magazine's largely white readership an insight to Malcolm X's agenda. Haley interviewed Malcolm X several more times and eventually ghost-wrote "The Autobiography of Malcolm X."

6. Robert Penn Warren Interviews Martin Luther King Jr. (1964)

On March 18, 1964, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren ("All the King's Men") sat down with Martin Luther King Jr. in King's offices in Atlanta to interview him for what would become Warren's 1965 book "Who Speaks for the Negro?", which became a seminal work in the history of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and serves as a powerful oral history of an all-important struggle.

7. The Frost/Nixon Interviews (1977)

Richard Nixon left public life in disgrace as a fallout of the Watergate scandal, becoming the first U.S. president to resign from office. He had spent more than two years out of the public eye, refusing all interviews, until British TV journalist and talk show host David Frost came calling with an open checkbook (U.S. journalists refuse to pay for interviews). Nixon's staff saw the interview as an opportunity for the disgraced president to restore his reputation with the public, and assumed that Frost would be easily outwitted. Instead, Frost cornered Nixon into admissions that would support the widespread conclusion that he had obstructed justice. The four-part interview (clip here) was seen by 45 million people, and has inspired a stage play and film.

8. Johnny Carson on '60 Minutes' (1979)

Although he came into American homes every weeknight on "The Tonight Show" and was considered one of the most famous entertainment figures in the United States, Johnny Carson was a famously private person, never granting interviews. One of the only times he ever granted an interview was to Mike Wallace for a piece that ran on "60 Minutes." The nation saw a side of Carson they had never seen, as he talked about alcohol abuse, his marital troubles and other events in his private life.

9. Hugh Grant Appears on 'The Tonight Show' (1995)

After Johnny Carson retired, Jay Leno beat out David Letterman for the right to succeed Carson as host of NBC's "Tonight Show." A bitter Letterman went to CBS to start his own show, which consistently beat Leno in the ratings. Then on 27 June 1995, Hugh Grant, then one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, was arrested for hiring a prostitute. Grant was dating actress Elizabeth Hurley at the time, and his career and his relationship was in jeopardy. Two weeks later, he appeared on "The Tonight Show," where he apologized to Jay Leno and America for his actions. It was one of the most-watched "Tonight Show" episodes ever, and it permanently made Leno the No. 1 rating leader over Letterman. 

10. Martin Bashir Interviews Princess Diana (1995)

British TV journalist Martin Bashir, who would later famously interview Michael Jackson and become a co-host of ABC's "Nightline," scored a big coup for the BBC: Diana’s first solo press interview — made possible by keeping her meeting with Bashir secret from Buckingham Palace. She took the opportunity to address the tensions within her marriage, her struggles with postpartum depression and bulimia, and the fact that she had had an affair with her riding instructor. 

When Princess Diana admitted on British TV that she had been unfaithful to Prince Charles, it “plunged the monarchy into the greatest crisis since the Abdication,” the Daily Mail said, referencing King Edward VIII’s 1936 abandonment of his throne to marry divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson.

11. Katie Couric Interviews Sarah Palin (2008)

The Republican vice presidential running mate to John McCain seemed woefully unprepared when she sat down with CBS News anchor Katie Couric. Sarah Palin's stumbles were instant fodder for Tina Fey and Amy Pohler on "Saturday Night Live," and may have killed her political career.

12. Sean Penn Interviews El Chapo (2015)

Three months after drug kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman escaped from prison, he met actor Sean Penn for a secret interview in the Mexican jungle. The interview led to El Chapo's recapture in January 2016, as the Mexican government had been tracking Penn, who was working for Rolling Stone magazine. Penn, who has covered the war in Iraq and the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, has been taking heat, but it's what journalists do: getting the story from controversial newsmakers.



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