What Wolf and You Can Learn from the Irish Press for the GOP Debate

At the GOP debate on Thursday will Wolf Blitzer ask Mitt, Newt, Rick or Ron any question with the tenaciousness we see on display in this video at a European Central Bank press-conference in Ireland?

I doubt it, but it could happen. It should happen. After all, Blitzer is an Emmy award-winning anchor for CNN and is also a recipient of the Peabody award for his Hurricane Katrina coverage, the Alfred I. duPont Award for his coverage of the tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia and an Edward R. Murrow Award for CNN’s September 11 coverage. Let’s hear his own words of advice to CNN iReporters (their citizen journalist program) on asking questions:

Q: What tips do you have for getting people to get comfortable and open up?

A: My rule of thumb is to be polite but firm in asking the questions and trying to make sure I get the answers.

Q: What is the one piece of advice you wish you were taught about interviewing that you had to learn on your own?

A: The most important thing is to listen to the answer and follow up when appropriate.

Why shouldn’t we expect Wolf to listen to the answers and follow up? After all, the man is paid two million dollars a year by CNN. We don’t expect it because the people who pay him and selected him for this moderator position don’t really want journalism. They want “content” and entertainment. He is incentivized by ratings, and the more entertaining the news the higher the ratings.

You will note how journalist Vincent Browne demands that the ECB representative explain why the ECB required the Irish people to bail out a bank’s uninsured creditors. In the video Browne says:

We have a tradition in Irish journalism that we pursue issues and that when somebody doesn’t we follow through on it and I hope that that tradition will be respected on this occasion. So could you answer the question?

Now Vincent never really gets an answer to the question, so was it good journalism? Did it get to the truth? Reveal something new? Create awareness of an issue or problem? Some of this depends on what his goal was. In the US journalists are put off using this method in three ways.

1) It is called “gotcha journalism” and somehow, magically that makes the question invalid. Complaining about “gotcha journalism” gives the politician an excuse to not answer the question and turns the viewers ire on the mean journalist.

(Diane Sawyer asked George Bush the same question three times, but even though he refused to answer, she moved on. Why? She said studies showed that the sympathy of the viewer shifted from the journalist to the subject after the same question was asked three times. She didn’t want to be seen as the “pesky media” hounding the poor President.)

2) The legitimate suggestion that this combative style doesn’t necessarily lead to the truth or more information.

If someone is trained to deal with this kind of journalist they can turn it around easily. If the journalist doesn’t naturally use this style it can fail (see John King’s question to Newt about his “open marriage” the other night.) There are styles that combine solid follow through with politeness. It doesn’t always make interesting TV, but it can reveal more when the politician’s guard is down. This is what we could hope for from Wolf, but he won’t because of number 3:

3) Outside punishment for asking tough questions or follow ups, and internal self censorship. They choose to maintain the idea that, “We are all friends here, I’ll see you at the next party.” In celebrity journalism the bigger the star the more say they have on who is doing the interview. Do you think John King will get invited back? Did you know that when an ABC reporter asked Cheney a tough question they were kicked off the VPs plane?

When I watch the debates I focus on the moderators and broadcast journalists as much as the candidates. I’m observing how an exercise in informing people has become an opportunity for entertainment and wondering, “What I can do about this? What can we do about this?

I used to think that journalism was about getting to the truth, helping educate and give people a chance to question people to see what they are thinking and doing. (I also used to think Sandra Bullock would date me if I wrote her a really funny fan letter.) If this seems odd to you sophisticated media watchers it’s because I was, and still am, idealistic and because I do know some real journalists whom I admire greatly.

While I lament the failure of most of our broadcast journalists, I’ve chosen to help regular people do some the work that journalists don’t feel they can anymore. Sometimes this work involves helping journalists do their job, sometimes it involves helping people act as citizen journalists. Other times it involves helping people talk to the media so their story is clear.

If you are going to watch this next GOP debate, instead of a drinking game triggered by the words of the candidates I’d like you to look at the premises, and questions of the moderators. And instead of thinking about asking your questions of Presidential candidates, think about asking other people in positions of power and control. Maybe you want to ask questions of an “education reformer” who is coming to your town talking about sucking up public dollars for private schools. Perhaps you want to question why Golden Gate Park’s natural grass soccer fields are going to be torn out and replaced with seven acres of concrete, astroturf and rubber tire crumbs. We can’t have Wolf’s access, but we don’t need it for these kind of issues.

The good news is that not everyone is aswell trained in evasion as Newt and Mitt. And you don’t have to be a browbeating questioner like Vincent.

What it takes to do this kind of work is some research up front so you can ask real questions and an understanding of how they are likely to respond so that you can dig deeper. I’m not of the mind that you shouldn’t ask a question that you don’t know the answer to (like the lawyers always say you are supposed to do with witnesses on the stand), but I do think that most people only have one level of answer prepared. If you are not worried about getting invited back, if your salary isn’t based on being entertaining and you don’t worry about hanging out at the same parties, citizen journalists can help get to a lot of truth.

I’ve worked with people going to a town halls or other event to ask questions. I’ve also worked with the people who have to answer those questions. I’ve found it helps to know what each side thinks and operates. When I work with people going into town halls I help them understand why modern broadcast journalists ask or don’t ask certain questions, but how they crave someone asking those questions. (BTW, if you are an organization that has members going into a town hall or event and want to prep them using 24th century media techniques, contact me. I have a special non-profit quatloo rate.)

I will tell you a secret. Lots of journalists, for all their moaning about bloggers and questioning of citizen journalists, will happily use the questions that they pose as a jumping off point for their classic, “He said She said” stories. You have provided them with a side of the story that they should provide, but they don’t want to be seen as “choosing sides.” You are doing them, and the community, a huge favor. It’s just too bad nobody will pay you 2 million dollars a year to do it.

Cross posted at FireDogLake

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