May 11, 2018

In leak, Mueller’s legal team has shown journalists the art of asking questions for insight

At a Poynter seminar this week, a Pulitzer-winning journalist told her charges that the Mueller-Trump tussle for information has placed key techniques before all reporters and editors. They are valuable enough to share with all.

Robert Mueller’s legal team knows how to ask questions in a way to glean intent and insight, says Jacqui Banaszynski, who has taught best practices of news thinking for decades in the newsroom or university. Most of the 40-some questions for Trump on interference in the 2016 elections, leaked to New York Times, began with “What” or “How.” Those entry points are less judgmental than “Why,” she told students — and more valuable than the “Where” and “When” questions that Mueller already knows.

Importantly, each question generally asks only a single thing, Banaszynski says, giving the respondent less room to wiggle out of one part of a multi-pronged query.

In annotating the questions, the Times’ Matt Apuzzo noticed the questions were both direct and open-ended. Here’s an example of a question (in bold) and the context from Apuzzo and Michael S. Schmidt:

Notice the Mueller query is not even the classic double-barreled question of Watergate: What did the president know and when did he know it?

Banaszynski says a version of Mueller’s legalistic precision in questioning has been taught to hundreds of journalists by ESPN’s interviewing coach, John Sawatsky, an investigative journalist and professor who has honed questioning for decades.

A Sawatsky profile from 2000 boiled down a key part of the technique to this: “Avoid making a statement during an interview. Avoid asking a question a source can answer with yes or no. Sound conversational, but never engage in conversation.”

Banaszynski emphasizes listening closely to the interviewee and going from there with fresh questions if surprises emerge. “The more you demonstrate you are truly listening, the more you will establish trust,” she writes in a checklist.

That said, don’t be a sucker. “Always ask,” Banaszynski concludes, “how do you know?”

#MeToo scandal hits Pulitzer Prize board: Junot Diaz steps down as chair

Novelist Junot Díaz, the chairman of the Pulitzer Prize Board, has relinquished his title and the organization is conducting an independent review of allegations of misconduct against him.


Díaz, a professor of creative writing at MIT and the author of the Pulitzer-winning “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” had been elected incoming chairman in April.

The board, in a statement, said Díaz welcomed the review and would cooperate fully. Although he has stepped away as chairman, he will remain on the board. Eugene Robinson, the board’s immediate past chairman, will assume the role on an interim basis.

Several women have come forward against Díaz following the publication last month in the New Yorker of his essay, “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma,” in which he said he was raped when he was 8 years old.

In a vague statement through his literary agent, Díaz said he took responsibility for his past. “I am listening to and learning from women’s stories in this essential and overdue cultural movement. We must continue to teach all men about consent and boundaries.”

MIT also is looking into the allegations of misconduct, and the Cambridge Public Library canceled an event on Tuesday that was to have featured Díaz.

Quick hits

BYE BYE, JOURNALISTS: Medium, which sold itself to news organizations as an ally, is shuttering a feature that allowed 21 publishers to collect revenue from paid memberships. They have three weeks before it’s gone, Nieman Lab’s Shan Wang reported. “It’d be nice to have more of a heads up,” Chris Faraone, of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, told Wang. “Could we have a better metaphor for the way Silicon Valley considers local journalism?”

UNIONIZED: The staff at the news site Talking Points Memo.

LESSONS FROM ANOTHER SCANDAL: When a young reporter asked John Edwards about an alleged affair with a campaign worker in 2007, he denied it and the media rolled with his denials. Of course, the next year it was revealed he had had an affair, got her pregnant and paid her hush money. The reporter who asked that question, Raelyn Johnson of ABC News, is now an executive producer at MSNBC and told Vanity Fair’s Peter Hamby that she couldn’t believe the media didn’t go after Edwards harder. She also had this warning about the current scandals swirling around the president: “Once people start speaking and people get subpoenas, s— gets real. … When there is smoke, there is fire,” she said. “I don’t care whether that smoke is a mistress or the National Enquirer or a stripper named Stormy. It’s still gonna burn.”

TELL US, (MORE): A journalism journal from the ‘70s named (MORE) has plenty of parallels to today’s turbulent media tides. Meant as a means to reform the media, “The founders of (MORE) saw the mainstream American press as stagnant, conservative, and unwilling to examine themselves at a time when the country was convulsing with social movements and the public was losing confidence in institutions,” writes Kevin Lerner for CJR. The story of the review’s founding features a who’s who of journalism, and is filled with anecdotes that will resonate with today’s readers.

EVICTION-HAPPY HANNITY: Fox News’ Sean Hannity has been aggressively collecting rent from working-class tenants in his real estate empire. He moved to evict tenants more than 270 times in 2017, many of them just two weeks late on rent, the Washington Post reported.

SPOTIFY DISTANCES ITSELF FROM HATE: The music streaming service  announced a new hate content and hateful conduct policy to separate itself from artists such as R. Kelly who use Spotify, Venture Beat reported. The move follows a campaign by Time’s Up to boycott music from Kelly following numerous allegations of abuses against women.

PODCAST PARADE: Several news companies announced new podcasts today. BuzzFeed is launching The News, a weekly Saturday podcast aimed at a smart audience with context from BuzzFeed News reporters. The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson launched a tech podcast, “Crazy/Genius,” that premiered with the theme “Is Facebook really fixable?” and a debate between author Tim Wu (“The Attention Merchants”), who argued it isn’t, and Alexios Mantzarlis, of Poynter’s International Fact Checking Network, who says that Facebook can be a force for good, but faces structural hurdles.

Followup: Duke president apologizes for his VP’s rap attack, barista firings

Saying Duke is not where it needs to be, President Vincent Price apologized for the strong words of a university vice president who found a rap song playing at a campus coffeehouse offensive. That action, as we reported Wednesday, led to the firings of two baristas. The firings, broken by the alt-weekly Indy Week, brought national attention on the North Carolina campus from activists and the rapper who sang the objectionable song.

The coffeehouse has offered the two their jobs back. One said no; the other hasn’t decided.

In a campus email, Duke’s Price included the incident among multiple racially charged incidents in recent weeks, Indy Week reported.

“When we learn a racial slur has been scrawled on a dorm door, a social media posting has used abhorrent language, anti-Semitic posters have been distributed in Durham, or workers on our campus have been treated unfairly, we feel angry, discouraged, and disappointed. Duke should be a place where these things don’t happen,” he wrote. “Something has to change.” 

What we’re reading

WHAT IS CONSENT?: The New York Times’ Gender Initiative teamed up with its Modern Love crew to create a compelling, brutally frank interactive called “45 stories of sex and consent on campus.” In their own words, college students describe how they grappled with awkward sexual encounters that were in a gray zone between affirmative consent and seemingly outright assault. Here’s one of the stories, short and sweet:

WHEN CHILDREN BECOME SCARCE: Demographers say the number of children under 18 will peak in four decades — and then decline. Some northern European countries are embracing robotics as a way to survive with fewer workers. Korea and Japan are considering emulating America’s historically more open immigration policy to sustain themselves. And the U.S. has record low reproduction rates right now, writes Steve LeVine of Axios.


UNVARNISHED: Asked about her run for Congress, Katie Hill says: “I think how often I feel like an asshole is one of the biggest surprises.” That’s from a half-hour VICE News special on the California Democrat — and what it’s like running in your early 30s for Congress. What you see is what you get, says Hill, one of five candidates running for two spots in a June primary. Still, the show made waves, writes the L.A. Times’ Javier Panzar.


POLICE CHOKING: At another Waffle House, another attack, on a black prom-goer by a police officer. The North Carolina officer grabbed Anthony Wall by the neck and then slammed him on the floor, as a bystander recorded it. Wall, 22, said “I was trying to breathe.” He had attended the prom with his sister, 16. He was charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. The incident follows another one in a Waffle House restaurant, this one in Alabama, when a young  African-American woman was slammed to the ground by police after a dispute. The daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. called for customers to stay away from Waffle House restaurants until attacks on black customers end.


HIDDEN COMMANDS: It sounds like a cheesy scary movie. You’re listening to music or a podcast on Alexa or just hanging with Siri and then — they get instructions. Add to your owner’s shopping list. Could the next step be “access your owner’s bank account?” The NYT’s Craig S. Smith examines the secret messages your “assistant” gets.

A handmade rosary from the church across the street from the Houston Astros’ stadium (Marie D. De Jesus/Houston Chronicle)

PRAY BALL: It takes 59 large beads or stones, 210 tiny connecting beads, a crucifix and a medal with the image of Mary to create each rosary. Making and selling tens of thousands of dollars worth of rosaries has helped a 149-year-old Catholic church in Texas make key restorations. The secret to success: Location. The church sits across the street from the home of the Houston Astros, and fans, some looking for an edge, became big purchasers as the team buoyed a hurricane-stricken city last year to win the World Series. By the Houston Chronicle’s Mónica Rhor.

HELPING MOMS AND KIDS: Home nursing visits have proven to help some of America’s most vulnerable. They are a cost-efficient bet on our future. Why aren’t we doing more of it? asks Jackie Mader of the Hechinger Report.

What we’re seeing

John Tlumacki/Boston Globe

600,000 BLOOMS, 5 ACRES: A Dutch farmer marries a New Englander and does in Rhode Island what his father and brother do back home. Welcome to the Wicked Tulip Flower Farm. Story by the Boston Globe’s Cristela Guerra.

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