Interviewing the President

I have a dream that one day reporters will rise up and ask the kind of questions that regular folks do.

Imagine this. President George W. Bush wraps up his prepared remarks, turns from the camera lens to the White House press corps assembled before him and says, “And now I’ll be glad to answer some questions.”

A reporter, spruced up for prime time, pops up and says, “Mr. President, since we continue to police the world, how do you intend to maintain our military presence without reinstituting a draft?”

Another stands and delivers her question. “Mr. President, why did you block the reimportation of safer and inexpensive drugs from Canada which would have cut 40 to 60 percent off of the cost?”

A third reporter rises to inquire, ”President Bush, during the last four years, you have made thousands of decisions that have affected millions of lives. Please give three instances in which you came to realize you had made a wrong decision, and what you did to correct it. Thank you.”

This dream isn’t all that unrealistic. Those three questions were asked of President Bush last October, during the second Presidential debate with Sen. John Kerry. The questioners weren’t trained professionals, but voters from the state of Missouri.

Contrast their performance with the White House press corps’. The questions below are also verbatim. They’re taken from the transcript of the April 28 Presidential press conference.

“Mr. President, have you asked your ambassador to the U.N., Ambassador John Bolton, about allegations that he acted improperly to subordinates? Do you feel that these allegations warrant your personal intervention? And if they’re true, do you feel that they should disqualify him from holding the post, sir?”

“Sir, you’ve talked all around the country about the poisonous partisan atmosphere here in Washington. I wonder why do you think that is? And do you personally bear any responsibility in having contributed to this atmosphere?”

“Yes, sir. I’d just like to ask, simply, what’s your view of the economy right now? First-quarter growth came in weaker than expected, there have been worries about inflation and lower spending by consumers. Are these basically just bumps in the road, in your opinion, or are they reasons for some real concern and could they affect your agenda on Social Security?”

Regular readers will recognize that I’ve climbed up on a hobbyhorse again, namely, the crying need for reporters to focus on the questions we ask. It’s one I keep riding in hopes that reporters will get an important message: too many of us, even those at the top of their game, pose questions in ways that sabotage our best efforts to gather information.

If I seem to be picking on the White House press corps, it is because — unlike most journalists – their work is out there for all of us to see on television and then review more carefully in transcript form.

And once again, they presented a dispiriting litany of self-defeating questions, the usual suspects that represent a kind of interviewing recidivism identified by John Sawatsky, a Canadian journalist and interviewing specialist who now works as ESPN’s interviewing coach. Among the repeat offenders in the lineup of questions posed to President Bush:

1. Closed-ended. The ones that invite an unequivocal response. Useful and often necessary to confirm information or get someone on the record — “Do you still beat your copy editor?” — they are less valuable when you’re after an expansive yet targeted response. They often sound tough, but these allegedly hardball questions are softball throws that interviewees, especially one armed with talking points they’re intent on delivering, can slam out of the park. To many listeners, they also sound biased, since implicit in a closed-ended question is the premise that it draws on a limited set of responses.

2. Double-barreled. The question of choice for the reporter who knows he or she has one crack at a subject and fires away with two, three, and sometimes even more questions at a time. Understandable in prime time, but ineffective nonetheless. They give the subject a choice of which one to answer.

“Your top military officer, General Richard Myers, says the Iraqi insurgency is as strong now as it was a year ago. Why is that the case?” one reporter asked the president, posing the kind of open-ended question that those Missourians favored last fall, ones that encourage answers brimming with information, knowledge, opinion, and the occasional soundbite that seems to cry out for the quote marks that should be places of honor in stories. But in the reflex that made the President’s last press conference a nightmare of missed opportunities, the reporter couldn’t stop there. ”And why haven’t you been more successful in limiting the violence?”

It’s the interview as a multiple choice test, like this example from near the end of the press conference.

“Mr. President, under the law, how would you justify the practice of renditioning, where U.S. agents who brought terror suspects abroad, taking them to a third country for interrogation? And would you stand for it if foreign agents did that to an American here?”

“That’s a hypothetical, Mark,” the President said, choosing to respond to the second question first.
The 275-word answer that followed was long on rhetoric — “We expect the countries where we send somebody to, not to torture, as well” — and short on specifics. “We’re going to do everything we can to protect us. And we’ve got guidelines. We’ve got law.”

3. Statements masquerading as questions. One looks in vain for the question mark at the end of these as the questioner front-loads with information. Consider this preface from a White House reporter the other day, “It was four years ago when you first met with Russian President Vladimir Putin.” Whew, wouldn’t want to confuse him with Ras Putin, the Soviet rapper, I guess.

The result of such poorly-considered and undisciplined exchanges is the interviewing dodgeball that dominates many encounters between journalists and public officials, and, I’m convinced, makes interviews with members of the public equally as unproductive. They frustrate the reporters posing the questions, but more important, they also cheat the citizenry of the opportunity to hear answers to questions we all share.

Before I climb off my faithful steed (I think of it as “Sawatsky,” who’s carried me into and out of so many interviews) let me try one more time to persuade you that we can do better and it only takes three simple steps.

Preparation. If reporters spent as much time working on their questions as the President and his staffers did working on the answers, they’d discover it’s not hard to turn a closed-ended question into an open-ended one, or unload a barrel.

Commitment. If reporters stuck to those carefully designed questions, resisting the understandable  impulse to ad lib, front-load or pile on, subjects would have fewer exit ramps available to zoom away from uncomfortable topics.

Courage. If reporters displayed the guts that it takes to ask a really tough question, the hardballs of “How” and “Why” and “What,” those that require someone to share what’s on — and in — their minds, we’d all be better served.

I can dream, can’t I?

Related articles:

  • When Yes or No Won’t Do
  • Transforming Questions
  • The Power of Good Questions
  • Keys to Improving Your Interviewing Skills
  • Tools of the Trade: Questions
  • Interviewing Bibliography
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