How Soledad O’Brien prepared for that contentious John Sununu interview

It has been one month since CNN’s Soledad O’Brien spent just under four minutes interviewing Mitt Romney adviser and former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu.

Paul Ryan had just emerged as the vice presidential nominee. And O’Brien and her "Starting Point" team were prepared to compare Ryan’s proposed Medicare changes to plans floated by both Romney and President Barack Obama.

What followed was four minutes of great journalism, a demonstration of the kind of interview skills that more journalists are going to have to master. Over and over O’Brien corrects Sununu’s characterizations of Obama’s Medicare plan. She draws on independent analysis of the numbers from two outside sources, as well as CNN’s own independent scrutiny. While Sununu yells and condescends, O’Brien sticks to her guns, smiles and tells Sununu that he is wrong.

Since then the video has gone viral and is being used as an example of what the public should expect from journalists. People now approach O’Brien in the grocery store to talk about it, she said. We got her on the phone this week and asked her how she did it.

She was modest and pointed to her team, including producer Miguel Susana, executive producer Shannon High, senior broadcast producer Maral Usefi and segment producer Daniel Donahue. The five of them have covered the debate about what will happen to healthcare in America, whoever is elected.

With their help, O’Brien said she goes into every interview on the topic prepared to discuss the details of at least five or six different points a source is likely to reference. The key, she said, is to be as knowledgeable as the source or more knowledgeable. To that end, her team pored over Congressional Budget Office reports, independent analysis from, and their own research.

After the interview aired, a viewer tweeted that O’Brien clearly understood the mathematical difference between diminishment (which would be a reduction in services) and diminishment over time (which would be a reduction in the rate of growth).

“Everybody thinks I did that because of that show, ‘The Newsroom,’ which I’ve watched 20 minutes of,” she said. “But I’ve been doing that exact same thing. That’s how you do a great interview in long form. You have to prepared, so that when your moment arrives, when you are pushing someone, you have the information right there in your head. You don’t have to stop and refer to your notes.”

On top of being over-prepared, it takes confidence, she said, to stand your ground forcefully when you know you are right.

O’Brien did just that, challenging Sununu’s statement that Obama’s plan cuts Medicare services by $711 million dollars (he meant billion dollars). In fact, according to the CBO, the Obama plan cuts the “expected rate of growth,” not the current services. And when Sununu claims that Obama has stolen that money from the elderly, she calls him on it.

When Sununu tells her to read pages 13 and 14 of the CBO report, she replies, “I can tell you what it says,” and proceeds to do just that.

Sununu actually scolds her, saying, “Soledad, stop this!” To which she replies, “I’m telling you what (sic) tells you. I’m telling you what the CBO tells you. I’m telling you what CNN’s independent analysis does.” He goes on to suggest she put an Obama bumper sticker on her forehead.

O’Brien said her experience as a mom came in handy. “Having four children is good training when people are getting hysterical,” she said. “Anybody’s who’s had a small child knows this. You slow it down, your keep your voice calm, you repeat yourself. I don’t get sucked into other people’s hysteria, whether they are throwing a tantrum at home or having a meltdown at work.”

In addition to her preparation and confidence, O’Brien manages to correct Sununu almost every time he distorts the numbers, sometimes speaking over him. It’s a lesson for journalists everywhere in how to take responsibility for what sources say. If you give someone a microphone, you still have a duty to ensure your audience takes away accurate facts. Correcting him once, if he’s going to repeat the erroneous claim a dozen times, won’t get the job done.

Although fact-checking as a movement is derided by some as an activity all reporters should be doing, derided by others as one-sided and by others as not going far enough, when a journalist nails it, the public responds.

And O’Brien demonstrates that getting to the truth takes a different skill set now that there are so many channels and platforms for politicians to reach voters directly. In the past it may have been enough to state the facts once and assume the audience heard you. Now you have to do it again and again and again.

That’s why O’Brien followed up the next day, with this report, that documented the repetitive and distorted language used by Romney’s camp and further set the record straight.

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    Kelly McBride

    Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute since 2002 and is now its vice president.


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