SAN DIEGO – January 20, 2012 – Expecting another snoozefest Republican primary debate in South Carolina, candidate Newt Gingrich lit up CNN moderator John King after he objected to a question King asked about Gingrich’s ex-wife’s recent allegations about their marital problems. Gingrich’s fiery response lit up the audience and continues to circulate.
After the debate, King was asked by colleague Anderson Cooper whether he regretted asking the question. King defended his decision. Later, King said it’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.
“I understood that if I asked the question he (Gingrich) was not going to be happy with it, and he was going to turn on me… It was my judgment, my decision, and mine alone. If we’re going to deal with it, let’s deal with it up front.”
While his fellow panelists backed King up, others including former George W. Bush’s former press secretary Ari Fleischer and former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin took issue with the question.
This is far from the first instance during this Republican primary season where a candidate objected to a question. When Herman Cain was first asked about allegations of sexual harassment, he told a reporter, “Don’t even go there.” Cain then went on to say that the reporter should be sent a copy of the journalistic code of ethics.
Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain might not like the role of the media, but neither should question the media’s role in finding out the truth about a legitimate issue. This is by definition a reporter’s job. The public relies on members of the media to ask tough, sometimes unpleasant questions about unpleasant topics that reveal information the candidates may not choose to make public so that voters can make a decision on their choice for public office. Seeking the truth, as unsavory as it might be, is very much part of a journalist’s code of ethics. It’s in the job description.
The bigger problem is that in large part, journalists have completely lost control of interviews. Media training was virtually unknown ten years ago, but it is standard operating procedure for any elected official, business executive, sports or entertainment figure in the public eye today. Someone subjected to regular interviews can be effectively trained to parry virtually any questions like a skilled fencer, allowing them to take control and answer only the question he or she wants to answer, not necessarily the one being asked. Interviews become a parade of well-rehearsed sound bites.
In an interview in 2004 with the industry journal Columbia Journalism Review, well-respected journalist Bob Schieffer of CBS News said, “About all we interview any more are professional talkers.” It’s been less than a generation since most elected officials went from not even employing a press secretary to having media coaches who train them how to perform on camera and prepare their talking points.
This leaves journalists like King in the position of being put on the defensive if they try and do their jobs by asking tough questions or attempting to get at the truth through follow-up questioning. Schieffer explains, “You don’t want to appear rude even though the guest can be filibustering and killing time, and you can’t ask what you want.”
Also from the CJR article, Schieffer’s CBS colleague Steve Hartman says interviewers must be careful not to cut the guest off too soon or “you’re going to be perceived as someone who has a bias. Everyone is concerned about how they come across in this game.” Hence the reason King seemed contrite while attempting to “justify” his question to Gingrich.
In the overscripted world we now live in, journalists who try to ask follow-ups are on a very short leash. Rarely does a reporter ask more than one follow-up question. Schieffer says the limit is three questions, no matter how much of a stiff-arm you get from the interviewee. “You can’t ask a question four times. It’s obvious you’re not going to get an answer, and it becomes boring.”
Ted Koppel has long been considered a great interviewer during his time hosting ABC’s Nightline due to his persistence in asking follow-up questions. But this is a minor part of why he was successful. First, he actually listened to the original answer carefully before asking the follow-up. This is a product of being focused. Second, he didn’t try to compete with his guests by trying to seem smarter or out shout them.
Finally and most important, he was polite and granted his subject whether a celebrity or a ruthless dictator basic respect. Far too many interviewers put their attitude on display, which they think makes them seem “tough.” No, it makes you seem like a jerk, and it immediately causes the interview subject to brace for impact.
It’s also highly ineffective. The best interviewers disarm their subjects, get them to lower their guard and the next thing they know, they’re saying something they never had any intention of sharing.
The public needs to insist that journalists like King continue to do their job, and support them when they do. When a public figure refuses to answer a question, this imparts valuable information to the viewer. It’s critically important that viewers become educated on standard media training techniques and tactics, so that they can tell the difference between someone being badgered by a reporter with an agenda, versus the reporter getting stuck in the beaten zone by someone extremely well rehearsed.
What is dismaying is the overlay of timidity on display in the news business. It seems the only journalists who ask tough questions any more work for Harvey Levin and TMZ.com. As political and business leaders deftly evade answering legitimate questions, the audience needs to ask questions about their credibility.
Journalists are not supposed to simply be a human megaphone for someone’s message. Their role has been characterized as “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable” ever since muckracking journalist Finley Peter Dunne wrote those words as the fictional commentator Mr. Dooley over 100 years ago, ironically while mocking the power of the news media. When they fail to do so, they worsen the public’s perception of their professional standards. When we fail to support their efforts in doing so, we put our freedoms at risk.
FULL DISCLOSURE: My firm provides media training among its array of consulting services. This either makes me part of the problem, and/or in a position to know exactly what I’m writing about firsthand.
Read more about Newt Gingrich here:
Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is President/Owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego, California. Read more Media Migraine in the Communities at The Washington Times. Follow Gayle on Facebook and on Twitter @PRProSanDiego.
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