Let’s talk about the media and how all of them are absolutely terrible at their jobs. Modern-day journalists and I may differ on what the actual job of a journalist is so allow me to lay it out for you. The journalists’ job is to find the truth, and deliver it to people in an engaging way. But, as we all probably know by now, that currently isn’t happening at least when it comes to the mainstream. Over the course of the election, I’ve noticed a couple of very specific tones about Donald Trump and a distinct shortage of a third tone. One tone is that of, “Donald Trump is a raging racist misogynist fascist who will destroy the White House and rename it the Trump House,” and a tone of downplaying certain things that Trump has said which contradicts later things he said. One of which, I believe, is the product of the other. Since the media went completely ass over tea-kettle in regards to Trump and trotted out the standard slanders, they are very wary about criticizing Trump at all. And they wonder why people believe Trump over the media, they made their own bed when they didn’t just keep crying wolf, but cried bear.
Journalists have become, simply put, spineless or arrogant. The reason I put it like that is because I’ve also seen a trend of the media either being incredibly soft with candidates, or they shove spears up their asses and demand they say it’s a comfortable fit. The third tone I was talking about was one of calm, rational criticism while sticking to the point in question. I think the art of the interview has been lost on the journalists we have found ourselves with, so I’ll attempt to give them another lesson until they start listening. Interviewers have to walk a very fine line between forcing the candidate to walk out of the room, and simply lobbing opportunities for a scripted speech at them. For example, you should never start a question with, “Excuse me candidate X, how do you feel about…” because that simply opens up the floodgates where candidates can say whatever they “feel” about something, and since you’ve given them plausible deniability on a delightful silver platter in regards to their positions, they will take advantage of it. Just to show you what I mean, here is Chris Matthews interviewing Hillary Clinton:
So as you can see, Chris Matthews does a very good job of not keeping Hillary on the point. He sort of feigns it by repeating the question over and over, but he allows it to go. She tells him that she is a progressive democrat, how she’s totally not a socialist, etc. Plus, right off the bat Matthews decides directly after Hillary Clinton says, “Well…” to tell her that she is completely free to not answer the question if she doesn’t want to. What kind of interviewer does that? Clinton is perfectly aware that she doesn’t have to answer the question, in fact, she didn’t answer his question, feigned an answer, and then Matthews answered it for her, which for the record, was also not an answer to his original question.
Now, had I been the interviewer in this segment I would have done things differently. First off, I would have said, “I’m going to help you out here,” as Chris Matthews did to attempt to put Clinton at ease, framing it as a kind of assistance so she can distinguish herself from Senator Sanders. What I wouldn’t have done was give her an path to dodge right at the beginning. I would have waited for her answer and stuck to the point, remaining calm and collected exactly like Matthews doesn’t do by saying, “I’m asking YOU, what’s the difference, how’s that different than a socialist, last question.” None of that works. Interrupting someone mid-answer in order to say they aren’t answering the question makes YOU look just as frantic as the person attempting to dodge your question.
The proper thing to do, in my view at least, is to let Hillary finish her little irrelevant diatribe and then say something along the lines of, “Forgive me for saying so, but you didn’t answer the question I actually asked you so allow me to rephrase it. What is one policy that Democrats generally oppose that Socialists generally support, or is there a lot of overlap between the two?” Now, hindsight is always 20/20 regarding these things, but I think that would’ve been a much more appropriate follow-up. However, there are problems with this approach too because sometimes interviewees will simply keep talking and talking and talking and talking to run out the clock so they can leave the interview relatively scrape free. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairman of the DNC, refused to answer this question on two occasions and used the exact same dodge each time:
All of us know the answer to this question, right? Why do you think they have a difficult time answering it? The answer (that they are refusing to say) is that there isn’t much difference at all, if any difference. Or, they don’t want to alienate center-left voters. So, my alternative follow-up would require both of them to either name a specific policy difference, or admit that there is a lot of bleed between Democrats and Socialists. Unless they just refuse to answer the question again. I do have to give Chris Matthews credit where credit is due with coming up with that question, if he is the one that did it. But he just sucks with his delivery. If you look more frantic than your interviewee does, then you’re doing it wrong. You might understand by now why I refer to interviewing as an art. It is the practice of successfully handing someone some rope, and seeing what they do with it. They can decide to tie a lasso and rightfully wring your neck with it, build a hammock, or hang themselves. On the other hand, the interviewer can snatch it away from them and tie the noose and say, let me hang myself for you Mrs. Clinton.
Presenting that rope is a very tough gig and isn’t something to be taken lightly considering it’s where opinions and information are extracted from someone face to face. The spineless personality, and the arrogant abrasive personality, are not excellent temperaments to have when interviewing people. This is why I tend to listen to independent journalists as opposed to ones beholden to “networks,” or at least I try to. Because, generally, they probably won’t get another interview with this important person, and are trying to extract and expose as much as they can about their opinions within that time.
What one shouldn’t do is take the tone of Chris Matthews, or Bill O’Reilly with his classic, “COME ON.” Our humble interviewer should simply calmly restate the question should someone not have an answer to it, dodges it, or refuses to answer it entirely. This is what I think interviewers fail to do with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. They leave things much too open-ended for them to just ramble on and on and on and on (ad segmentitum). It is perfectly fine to bring up a contradiction in a candidate’s statements and press them on it. It is also perfectly fine to take a candidate to task for their answer, let’s watch this disaster that is Chuck Todd’s interview with Donald Trump. Starting with the Obamacare mandate question:
If I were the interviewer in this case I would be absolutely awestruck at how Trump tries not to call what he wants to do a mandate. He says, “Call it whatever you want but people are not going to die on the streets.” Why not just say, “If I can call it whatever I want would it be fair to call it a mandate?” Do not allow candidates to toss around this vagueness in your interview. Chuck Todd, effectively, has to explain what the mandate actually is to Trump before he gives a definitive answer. Stumping the Trump is the easiest thing to do in the world, all you need to do is ask him specifics, and not allow him to dance around the issue which he routinely does. I suppose Donald Trump doesn’t know that it is already against the law for hospitals to not treat people with an actual medical emergency. Specifically the “Emergency Medical Treatment & Labor Act.” This is why it’s important for journalists to be up-to-date on the information regarding the topics they are discussing with someone.
Now, to exemplify this vagueness I will play Trump’s answer about his 2002 Iraq War comments in this interview to show how he takes multiple contradictory opinions on the same thing, and Chuck Todd just lets it go:
Trump has taken multiple different positions. First, he doesn’t even know what was in his head and what he meant. Second, looking back the correct way of doing it was probably not going in. Third, he thinks they maybe did the right thing in going in. Fourth, he wasn’t exactly thrilled. What is this nonsense? Todd just lets it go afterwards. Trump is going to take advantage of that. If someone brings up the fact that he said he thinks they did the right thing with going in, and did a good job, he’ll call them a liar and reference the fact that he said “looking back the correct way of doing it was probably not going in.” This is how candidates operate. Pin them down, force them to either take one position or make them say that they don’t know. Don’t allow them to say multiple contradictory things and act as if it’s a completely coherent answer. That’s what politicians hide behind. They cower behind plausible deniability so that they can be, essentially, critique-proof to the American people. Maybe Trump was referring to Bush Sr. some of the time and Bush Jr. other times during the clip; he used a lot of the word “maybe” and “probably.” Those are are two words in which he hides himself. So what’s his position? Whichever one he wants at the present time. That’s how Trump coasts along seemingly unscathed.
If you leave an interview not knowing the definitive answer to a question you asked your interviewee, then you have failed at your job as a journalist. One definitive answer is more valuable than fifty vague ones. So when someone says, “My position on Obamacare is that I don’t like it,” that isn’t good enough. Interviewers need to ask, “why.” Why don’t you like Obamacare and be could you please be specific? That is the crucial question. Anyone can spout off a superficial opinion on anything; it’s the interviewers job to get to the nitty-gritty. It’s their job to get to reasoning behind said position to set-up critique from others. That’s what I see lacking in journalism today. Everyone is very critical of contradictions, and not much interested in fleshing out the reasoning that interviewees have in regards to their views. Anybody can cry hypocrisy. Someone could find something I said at 17 years old that I disagree with now. What journalist’s should be doing is focusing on the “why” and “how” questions when all they seem to care about is the “what.” This hinders the average citizen’s information consumption capabilities.
It’s very difficult to lay out basic ground rules for interviewing someone since it varies so much from person to person depending on who you’re interviewing and what the topic is. But I will attempt to lay out some basic rules for journalists who, ultimately, won’t take my advice and keep setting up interviews that are either filled with meaningless platitudes or unnecessary belligerence:
1. Be respectful, yet stern. Provide a comfortable atmosphere, but don’t allow the person you are interviewing to mistake that for weakness. Wrap the steel block that is your question in a pillowcase.
2. Don’t be weak willed in the face of an unstable guest. If they start throwing a hissy-fit that means you are doing your job as an interviewer correctly. Unless of course you asked them a loaded question like, “When did you stop shooting children in the face?”
3. Don’t ask loaded questions. That one is obvious. Make sure that they have a reasonable answer available to them. In that way, they are forced to either state their actual detailed position (which might cost them in some way), or cop out with a reasonable answer that doesn’t line up with their original stance. You can tell a lot about someone depending on what they do there. For example, “When did you stop shooting children in the face, or have you never shot a child before?” Granted it’s an extreme and stupid question, but if they flounder in the face of this question without taking the obvious reasonable route then you’ve got yourself a lead.
4. DO NOT GO OVER THE QUESTIONS WITH YOUR INTERVIEWEE BEFOREHAND! General topic is fine.
5. One concrete answer is worth more than any number of meaningless vague crap answers.
Since journalists will never take my advice and follow exactly zero of these rules, perhaps it can assist you, dear reader, in analyzing not whether an interviewer is terrible at their job, but precisely how they are terrible at it.